WATG Travel by Design: Hawaii Edition

Since its genesis, WATG has pioneered hospitality, tourism and destination design. 2020 marks our 75th anniversary and as we enter a milestone year, our now 500 world-traveling professionals spend day-in and day-out designing landmark urban and leisure destinations across the world. To commemorate our experiences, we are sharing our travel insights through the introduction of a new monthly column penned by our jetsetting designers, dubbed the “WATG Travel by Design”.

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Waikiki Galleria Tower

Image: Waikiki Galleria Tower, known locally as the Old Bank of Hawaii, designed by Pete Wimberly

WATG Travel by Design: Hawaii Edition

As we launch a new monthly travel column to coincide with our 75th anniversary, it would only make sense to start with Hawaii the birthplace of our firm. Selling a trip to Hawaii is never difficult. Its aloha spirit, picturesque landscape, warm waters, and luxury resorts make it the quintessential vacation destination. We hope to guide you and help you discover the undiscovered.

At a Glance: 

If you peel back the postcard image of tiki cups, rainbows, hula girls and floral leis, you’ll find a multi-faceted city with a dynamic urban core full of contemporary art galleries, a palm-tree-to-table dining scene and hidden architectural gems.

The eight islands are home to treasures unlike any other on earth. Some travelers are seeking pristine shorelines or rainforests, while others search for volcanoes and lava fields. Some are looking for art, food and culture. Others activity and adventure. WATG’s Honolulu office is often asked what island is the best and what each has to offer. Here’s the short of it: if you want beaches and hiking head to Kauai. Dining, surfing and sightseeing? Oahu. Hidden waterfalls and natural wonders? Maui. Each island is different and Hawaii has it all.

If you want beaches and hiking head to Kauai. Dining, surfing and sightseeing? Oahu. Hidden waterfalls and natural wonders? Maui. Each island is different and Hawaii has it all.

Image: The Royal Hawaiian, designed by Pete Wimberly

Where to Stay

Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach: This home away from home recently underwent a $125 million renovation by WATG, along with a rebrand. If you’re lucky enough to be a guest of this Hawaiian mainstay, be sure to spend time at the rooftop pool.

The Kahala Hotel and Resort: Designed by Case Study architect Edward Killingsworth, the Kahala Hotel and Resort is tucked into an affluent seaside Honolulu neighborhood away from Waikiki Beach, and remains the epitome of a discrete island luxury retreat for famously discerning guests among them Frank Sinatra, the Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth II, Angelina Jolie, and eight Presidents. 

The Royal Hawaiian: The iconic ‘Pink Palace of the Pacific’ is the pioneering essence of WATG’s expertise in resort and hotel design. This landmark hotel reopened in February 1947 following a careful renovation and upgrade by WATG, making this property an international destination of unparalleled romance and luxury that has attracted everyone from the Rockefellers to the Beatles, as well as heads of state and Hollywood luminaries such as Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Dean Martin. Guests love the complimentary banana bread, complete with a recipe to take home. 

Hawaiian Poke Bowl

Image: Poke, by Chie Gondo on Flickr

Where to Eat

Your food adventure in Hawaii starts as soon as you land. One of our favorite spots to sample local Hawaiian staples are just a stone’s throw away from the airport. Visit Nico’s Pier 38, which offers some of the island’s freshest fish and poke. Designed to showcase Hawaii’s fishing industry, the market was started by two local fishermen and French-born chef/owner, Nico Chaize. 

After a poke bowl at Nico’s, swing into Kamehameha Bakery for a little dessert. Their poi (taro)-glazed donuts and haupia (coconut pudding) baked-goods are not to be missed! It is amazing to see how something so simple can be so good. Insider tip: get there as early as you can, or they might be gone. Another local favorite is UBAE which won Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Hawaii’s Best of 2019, try their ube, or sweet purple yam cheesecake. 

Insider tip: get to Kamehameha Bakery as early as you can, or their poi (taro)-glazed donuts might be gone.

Don’t skip Chinatown. The gritty culturally significant neighborhood is a must. While you’re there, we’d recommend The Daley Burger with its grass-fed beef burgers from Kunoa Cattle Company. Complete with stainless steel counters, a soft-serve machine, glass ketchup bottles, a letter-board menu, and photos of celebrities eating burgers interspersed with historic shots of Chinatown you’ll immediately see the Hawaii community come alive. Maguro Brothers Hawaii also sits at the top of our list; its sparkling clean stall in the back row of Chinatown’s Kekaulike Market serves poke, sashimi, and great ramen. The must-orders are the spicy ahi tuna bowl and the Maguro donburi auction fish laid over nori, ginger and rice. Need something to satisfy your sweet tooth? Head to Wing Ice Cream Parlor, known as ‘Chinatown’s Ice Cream Master’. Unusual flavors delight and some of our favorites include their brie and pear, Vietnamese coffee and a crowd favorite: Cheezus (cheese ice cream with, you guessed it, Cheez-Its). Just trust us on this one.

Acai Bowl

Image: Acai bowl, by Ella Olsson on Flickr

Would you like to sample some of the best sushi on earth? Bring your wallet as it doesn’t come cheap. Mitch’s Sushi and Fish Market is consistently ranked by Hawaii’s locals as our favorite sushi spot. You’d never find it on your own, but that’s what makes it so special. Insider tip: if you’d like a drink with your meal you’ll need to bring your own, but they’ll kindly give you a bucket to keep it cold. 

Insider tip: if you’d like a drink with your meal at Mitch’s Sushi and Fish Market, you’ll need to bring your own, but they’ll kindly give you a bucket to keep it cold. 

In our book there is really only one tiki bar to hit: La Mariana Sailing Club. This hidden gem is a great, original Martin Denny-style tiki lounge and restaurant from the 1950s, and nothing has changed since then. It is one of the few remaining original examples of this style if not the last. More of a brew lover? You can’t go wrong with Aloha Beer Co. or Honolulu Beerworks great local breweries just steps away from some of Hawaii’s best street murals in the district of Kakaako.

Some of our other favorite spots include: Da Cove Health Bar & Cafe for their acai bowls, Diamond Head Market & Grill for a beach picnic (they’re known for their massive blueberry or banana cream cheese scones), Romy’s Kahuku Shrimp Hut, Duk Kee Chinese, Juicy Brew, and Bean About Town.

Image: Pete Wimberly’s former home, in Manoa Valley

Design and Architecture

These isolated islands, bathed in sunlight, have a design sensibility and aesthetic all of their own. This sort of tropical modernism is everywhere in Hawaii from stellar bank and government buildings, palaces, relics, hotels, residential hideaways in the hills and beachfront bungalows architecture buffs enter a mid-century modernist time capsule. Here are our favorite buildings: 

Waikiki Galleria Tower, also known by locals as the Old Bank of Hawaii building, was constructed in 1966 by George ‘Pete’ Wimberly WATG’s swashbuckling founder. A fusion of Polynesian architecture and postmodernism, the building features an iconic glass office tower in the International Style complete with a lattice structure reminiscent of Hawaiian or tropical motifs. WATG’s informed designed with exterior inset windows protects from direct sunlight and provides a catwalk for easy cleaning, which make it both beautiful and practical. 

Charlot House

Image: The Charlot House, designed by Pete Wimberly, photographed by Darren Bradley and sourced from the Jean Charlot Foundation. Copyright © The Jean Charlot Estate.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa campus expanded dramatically during the post-war boom years, leaving behind a legacy of mid-century modern construction by noted architects like Vladimir Ossipoff, I.M. Pei and Alfred Preis, among others. To put it mildly, this campus is a spectacular tropical oasis of modernist treasures where one could spend hours wandering the grounds and still not see everything. We recommend making a stop at Bachman Hall by architect Vladimir Ossipoff, to check out its mid-century lobby interior which features the 1953 mural ‘Commencement’ by artist Jean Charlot.

On the topic of Jean Charlot, his former private residence the Charlot House is an underrated architectural gem that can be found at 4956 Kahala Avenue, Honolulu HI 96816. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (via Historic Hawai’i Foundation), “the split-level, ranch-style home was built in 1958 for the Paris-born artist, muralist and scholar, who shared it with his wife, Zohmah, and four children until his death in 1979”. Years ago, Charlot’s children gave the home to the University of Hawaii, where he taught during the 1950s and ‘60s. The residence was a true collaboration between Charlot and George ‘Pete’ Wimberly (founder of WATG)

Other modernist highlights include the Board of Water Supply by Hart Wood, Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building by Frank Haines, and Vladimir Ossipoff’s IBM Building and Thurston Memorial Chapel. Valley of the Temples, a WATG project, and Pete Wimberly’s home are some of our favorites. Can you blame us?

Mori, Art + Flea

Image: MORI by Art+Flea, sourced from Ward Village

Where to Shop

MORI by Art+Flea is a unique retail space in Honolulu that highlights talented local artists and designers, and features global brands in addition to designer labels of Hawaii. Here you can find a carefully curated selection of artfully made products showcasing local talents. The shop hosts pop-ups, album releases, workshops and monthly events. Check the calendar before you stop by. 

In the spirit of supporting local artists, also be sure to check out HiSAM Museum Gallery Shop x MORI by Art + Flea. It was established as a gallery venue ‘For Hawaii Artists by Hawaii Artists’ inside the prestigious Hawaii State Art Museum. Dynamic shop partners Mori by Art + Flea provide carefully curated gift items all made by local artists and designers. With Mori as ‘Hawaii’s Gathering Place For Creatives’, their exclusive assortment of offerings provides the perfect complement to beautiful original artwork created by an amazing community of artists from across Hawaii. 

Sugarcane Shop a cozy storefront tucked in Honolulu’s Kaimuki neighborhood features a selection of locally made housewares, bath and body items, jewelry, accessories, books, keiki (baby or child) crafts, stationery and more.

Image: Farmers’ Markets in Hawaii, by Mike McCune on Flickr

What to Do

Centered around a week-long event in Hawaii, POW! WOW! Hawaii has grown into a global network of artists and organizes gallery shows, lecture series, schools for art and music, mural projects, a large creative space named Lana Lane Studios, concerts, and live art installations across the globe. The central event takes place during Valentine’s Day week in February in the Kakaako district of Honolulu, and brings over a hundred international and local artists together to create murals and other forms of art. The festival is expanding to cities and countries such as Taiwan, Long Beach, Israel, Singapore, Jamaica, Washington D.C., Guam, New Zealand, Germany and more. If you’re not in town for the central event, be sure to stroll around Coral and Auahi Streets to see some of the murals from the previous year.

Insider tip: if you’re not in town during POW! WOW! Hawaii be sure to stroll around Coral and Auahi Streets to see some of the murals from the previous year. 

A visit to Hawaii wouldn’t be complete without enjoying mother nature’s finest, and the multitude of micro-climates within the islands mean we can grow almost anything – fruits, nuts, vegetables, spices and, of course, coffee. Our landscape architecture team recommend tasting citrus fruit in January when they’re at their peak. If you’re on Maui, head over to Kula Country Farms for their strawberries. Also, at peak season in January, there are taro, chili peppers, ginger, apple, bananas and, you guessed it, pineapples. On Oahu we recommend KCC Farmers’ Market – home to the island’s most expansive selection of produce, along with Kailua Town Farmers’ Market located in one of Oahu’s most charming neighborhoods and open every Sunday morning from 8am12pm. We also advise you take a stroll through our favorite gardens – Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden and The Byodo-In Temple (about 15 minutes away from one another by car). And located just five miles from Waikiki, the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawaii is nestled amongst 193-acres of tropical rainforest, where over 5,000 taxa of tropical and subtropical plants can be found along with hiking trails that take from 450-feet above sea level to nearly 1,900-feet.

Image: Iolani Palace, by Rodney Topor on Flickr

We suggest you also take the time to visit Iolani Palace a recognized national landmark, and ‘the only official state residence of royalty in the United States,’ according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Commissioned by King Kalakaua, Iolani Palace was the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani serving as ‘a symbol of promise’ for the Kingdom of Hawaii until a provisional U.S. government overthrew the monarchy in 1893. Known for its European architectural styles and rich interior, the Palace is one of the most recognizable and majestic buildings in Hawaii. Meticulously restored to its former grandeur, Iolani Palace plays an integral part in narrating Hawaii’s complex history and culture.

While architecture, art and design can draw the most avid design lover, what gives Hawaii its magic is certainly its gorgeous landscape and lush environment. Some of our favorite views can be found on Kauai at Waimea Canyon at Kalalau Lookout, The Secret Beacha short walk that only takes about 20 minutes before you reach a beautiful shoreline, in addition to the iconic and mountainous beauty of the Napali Coast. Back on Oahu, some of our favorite trails are Kuliouou Ridge Trail (3–4 hours), Lanikai Pillbox Trail (1–2 hours), Waimano Falls and Pools (1–2 hours), Makapuu Lighthouse Trail (1 hour), in addition to the popular, but worthwhile Diamond Head Trail (1–2 hours).

Image: ‘Surf Riding in Waikiki’, by Tropic~7 on Flickr

Where to Surf

Since our beginning, surfing has been synonymous with WATG. Rumor has it that it was commonplace for our designers, including Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo, to take midday surf breaks to clear their minds before meeting their next clients, or creating their next masterpiece. Our WATG surfers of today were stoked that we asked them for their recommendations, but graciously declined to comment (the worst enemy of a secret spot is word of mouth).

WATG Travel by Design Guide: Hawaii Edition brought to you by Tiffany Lee, Michael Brown, Bernice Fielding, Myrto Barbaris, Kevin Cherek, Brandon Large and Tuan Tran