When you first step out of the airport - day or night - that familiar blast of scented heat hits you. It's good to be back in the tropics. But in Hawaii you never forget that you're on American soil. There are three kinds of Froot Loops at the breakfast buffet. Most of the tourists are from the mainland, eating enormous quantities of food. And tipping. Even the omelette guy is slipped a couple of bucks for doing what he's paid to do.
Here in Honolulu you do two things. We Kiwis can go to the South Pacific for sun, relaxation and glorious beaches but if you want those and weapons-grade shopping, you come here. Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and other eye-wateringly upmarket emporia wink and sparkle from their prime positions on Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue, or you can turn away from paradise altogether and hole up in the nearby Ala Moana Centre for a few hours. It's the biggest mall in Hawaii and the largest open-air shopping air centre in the world, with more than 300 shops and services - from Dairy Queen to Jimmy Choo. (You should see my purple patent platforms from Macy's; they're an architectural marvel.)
The shopping frenzy is possibly worse than usual because it's Christmas time. But even the most dedicated shoptart will eventually have to admit that Honolulu has another drawcard - the fabulous grown-ups' playground called Waikiki, home of mai tais and surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku and not far from the birthplace of Barack Obama (if you don't believe Donald Trump). It's the Aston Martin DB5 of beaches, its 24-carat sweep of white sand and palm trees stretching expensively from the Ala Wai Canal to Diamond Head. Rookie surfers and paddleboarders compete for space with swimmers in the water and there's a complex system of give-way rules to prevent people from being decked.
Despite living near a west coast beach, I've never surfed but there's no time like the present. On Waikiki, surfing is what dudes do when they're not sleeping or on their way to the shore with their longboards strapped hazardously to their bikes.
I want to be like Aaron, a local guy who has been surfing since he was 5 and spends his days teaching bunnies like me. I practise the standing-up manoeuvres on the beach then off we go, with me having to master what can take years in one salty hour. We paddle out to where wee waves are breaking, Aaron turns me around and I'm away - paddling like fury then, in four wobbly moves, upright and staring straight ahead, my arms out, like a wet scarecrow in a rash vest.
Out I go again and again, sometimes losing my balance and ending up in the water before I'm up, but more often riding those suckers right to the shallows. And all this has been captured by another guy who's paid to snap these priceless moments and sell your experience back to you on a CD that's ready to pick up by the time you've dried yourself.
Right, that's surfing ticked off.
A few days later, I go out on a catamaran where the mai tais are five bucks and the friendly patter flows just as fast. One guy steers and the other one pours the drinks and hoists the sails. At a shade under an hour, it's a drive- through entertainment and yet I can't think of a better way to spend 60 minutes than sitting at the bow of a yacht on a perfect day slurping cocktails, getting soaked and laughing my head off.
From out here, Waikiki is a jagged forest of high rises, with two graceful exceptions. The salmon pink Royal Hawaiian, built in 1927, is a mere six storeys at its highest point but the Art Deco beauty is visible from just about anywhere on the beach. In Waikiki, old is the new new and she was completely renovated in 2008 to bring her back to her glory days. Facelifts and radical surgery are nothing special out here.
IF THE "Pink Palace" is Waikiki's favourite daughter, the white, ethereal Moana Surfrider nearby is its First Lady. The Moana was built in 1901 and was the first tourist hotel in Waikiki, but three buildings make up the Surfrider today. I am lucky enough to stay in the Banyan Wing, part of the original structure, with its pillars, arches, porte cochere and extra wide corridors to accommodate the enormous steamer trunks that elegant people once travelled with.
In any of the modern resorts you can get bigger rooms and bathrooms and views of the ocean where you may not have to crank your neck around to see it, but the Surfrider just feels special. I can look out at the enormous banyan tree that has pride of place in the hotel's courtyard by the sea. Over 100 years old, she is just a teenager and we are asked to tell her she is beautiful whenever we pass.
All the big hotels are frothy with Christmas displays: Some are decorated to within an inch of their lives, which looks incongruous in the tropics. Enormous Christmas trees drip with fake snow and downtown is a riot of fairy lights depicting Santa Clauses, elves, sleighs and bewildered reindeer.
But the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani has pushed the boat - and every other thing imaginable - out.
Executive chef Ralph Bauer has transformed the lobby into a Global Christmas Village, using the medium of gingerbread. The massive display attracts many camera- toting Hansels and Gretels, but Bauer hasn't stopped at one edible house: He and his team spent about 960 hours putting it together, using 90 sheets of gingerbread, 947 litres of icing and 90 kilograms of chocolate. There's the Eiffel Tower, a Swiss chalet, London's Tower Bridge, a German castle, a Japanese pagoda, the Washington Monument, Honolulu's Iolani Palace, tinkling carousels that go round, skiers negotiating a tiny slope, cable cars, a miniature circus and a train that circumnavigates the "village". It's the whole, mad, sweet world. Welcome to Waikiki.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Honolulu three times a week from Auckland with connections available from Air New Zealand's 26 domestic ports. Fares start from $582 for seat one-way with seat + bag, the works and works deluxe options available across economy, premium economy (where available) and business class cabins. Visit airnewzealand.co.nz for more details.
Rooms at the Moana Surfrider start at $347 per night for City View accommodation.
Waikiki Beach Services offer surfing and paddleboard lessons, outrigger canoe and catamaran rides. A private, one-hour surfing lesson is $120. Cruises on the Maita'i Catamaran start at $34 per person for one hour.
- The Dominion Post