When you fly to Hawaii, you are probably not expecting much in the way of sophisticated drinks - the Mai Tai, sure, sweetened from its original 1940s formula by adding plenty of pineapple juice to the rum, and that drip coffee United States hotels serve by the bucketful - but good coffee and cocktails? No way.
However, you would be wrong. In recent years, Honolulu's drinking scene has gone from strength to strength. Here are five places to sip quality in the Hawaiian capital.
Gorilla in the Cafe
This cutely named cafe tucked into a Waikiki office building is easily the best coffee outlet in this tourist zone. Working behind an apple-green espresso machine beneath industrial lightbulbs, its baristas serve 100 per cent Hawaiian coffee. The barista tells me he knows what a long black is, and serves up a creditable approximation. It is excellent.
When Liverpool-born barman Christian Self came to Honolulu, he spotted a bar opportunity in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Kaka'ako. ''This place was a strip club at one point, then a sports bar, maybe a gambling den. Now it's all about craft food and drinks,'' he says of Bevy. The ever-changing cocktail list includes gems such as the Ciderhouse Rule, made with ginger-flavoured liqueur, brandy, lemon, cider and chocolate bitters. Refreshing.
Opening this month, this Kaka'ako bar houses the only craft brewery on the island of Oahu. ''It's reminiscent of what you see in Portland or San Diego,'' says owner Geoff Seideman. Within a corrugated-iron shed, it has a great no-nonsense vibe. I happily join Seideman in an advance tasting of the brewery's Pia Mahi'ai beer, an ale with a Hawaiian flair and an unmistakable hint of ginger.
This super-smooth cafe-bar is the star of Honolulu's revitalised Chinatown, transformed from a seedy red-light district to a hip neighbourhood of narrow streets and small bars. A former adult-movie cinema stripped back to the bare bricks, this large venue has fairy lights above timber tables, vibrant art on the walls and a fine cocktail list. ''It's always summer here in Hawaii,'' says barman Justin, as he makes me a Lilikoi Mule, a mix of vodka, passionfruit liqueur, bitters and ginger beer.
Forget the oversweet pre-mixed tourist Mai Tai. This bar within the Sheraton Waikiki will make from scratch the original 1944 recipe invented by Trader Vic. Barman Joe, who moved to Honolulu from the Philippines as a kid, happily mixes me this off-menu drink. The only juice in it is lime, although a wedge of pineapple does duty as a garnish. It is a drink worth seeking out, for the original Mai Tai tastes like a real cocktail, not alcoholic fruit juice. What a revelation.
Within the slick, contemporary hotel the Modern, this bar at the north end of Waikiki is not easy to spot during the day. Step into the lobby and you will see a large bookcase at one end, filled with books and framed art. Come opening time, however, the bookcase swings open to allow access. The drinks menu maintains this sense of playfulness with its literary-themed cocktails, including Wuthering Heights (rum and orange curacao rind liqueur), Dante's Inferno (gin, amaro and sweet vermouth), and War & Peace (whisky, lemon and fresh mint).
Across the road from the Modern, this place is the polar opposite in design. Its 1969 interior is a mock-nautical delight of timber beams, weathered timber panelling and cheesy maritime decor. I pull up a wooden chair to the bar, rest my elbows on its cushioned edge and order the Guy Tai. Devised by long-time barman Guy Maynard, it is his personal twist on the classic Hawaiian cocktail, involving Bacardi Gold and Myer's rums. It goes well with the view of the boat harbour and the Pacific straight ahead.
Musician Randy Wong guides me to my final bar, on a shopping strip in the residential neighbourhood of Kaimuki. This is well off the tourist trail, a big open space with a mezzanine beneath a metal roof, full of locals having a quiet drink on a Thursday night. The emphasis here is on fresh ingredients and craft cocktails, not to mention some quirky presentation. Wong's order, the Forget About It, is a distinctive green blend of Thai basil, agave, ginger syrup, lemon juice and gin served in a teacup. Cheers!
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism and the Oahu Visitors Bureau.
FLY Hawaiian Airlines flies to Honolulu .
- FFX Aus