The annual list of Hawaii’s Best for Oahu is out. It has two lessons, one obvious and the other less so.

Obviously, Hawaii’s list (by the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper) is different from anywhere else. Although I’m sure newspapers do these lists in all areas, most do not have a category for best lei shop. Also, the list of food awards is as long as all the other categories put together. There is a “best” award for: American, Chinese, Filipino, Greek, Hawaiian, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese Food. In addition to the types of food, there are categories for specific items, like: bento, fried rice, frozen yogurt, hamburger, Loco Moco, manapua, pancakes, plate lunch, poke and even Spam musubi. You might find some of those items on mainland lists but at least half are unique to Hawaii.

The category of “Spam musubi” illustrates the less obvious lesson. The first place winner is…. 7-Eleven Stores. It beat out Hawaiian food chain L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and Tanioka’s Seafoods & Catering. Now, the first Spam musubi I ever ate was at a 7-Eleven but I have to tell you, the difference between one block of rice topped with Spam and another is pretty slim. I could be wrong, but I’m betting it’s the price that makes this a local favorite. So, that’s fair – why spend more? But visitors may be looking for a different experience than locals – that is the less obvious lesson. I think many people on a Hawaii Vacation would like to find something unique, something different than they have back home. But what happens when you ask locals the best place to buy women’s clothing? They list where THEY go: Macys, Ross and Nordstrom, not some quirky local boutique (although there are many). The men’s clothing favorites are similar: Macys, Sears and Nordstrom. I TRIED to take people to Sears to buy Aloha Wear because there is a variety of sizes and it’s pretty inexpensive. My visitors did not want to show up back home with souvenires from a mainland department store, no matter how different the Hawaii locations are or how good the price is. They want a story to tell about where they found it and who they bought it from. So, realize that locals may not have the best advice for your Hawaii vacation because they are living in the islands, not visiting them. I’m not saying not to consult locals, but realize the difference in perspective.

One place on the list is a local favorite that would probably surprise visitors to Hawaii. It took top awards for best Happy Hour/Pupu Bar, Live Music and Outdoor Bar — and it’s located in a Honolulu shopping center not far from Waikiki. The Mai Tai Bar is on the 4th floor of Ala Moana Center. We went several times during the day to enjoy the ocean breezes that blow right through the bar. It’s a great place to relax after shopping or while waiting for a bus. During the day, many people appear to be tourists. But it is a completely different place after dark. It is PACKED, especially for local live music. And the people are almost all locals. It is a young crowd, although they are welcoming (if amused) when we drop in. The last time we caught some excellent local reggae, and attracted some attention from the bar patrons younger than our children. They were happy we liked “their” music. I smiled, remembering the Bob Marley cassette tapes I had LONG before they were born. This is a local favorite that is also a unique Hawaii experience and accessible to those visiting Oahu on a Hawaii vacation.


  1. I know exactly how you feel, very often I am the oldest person in the crowd, but appreciate it when young people let me be part of the scene, but I always feel out of place. Shoot I am old enough to remember Bob Marley 8 track tapes LOL  The Mai Tai bar at the Ala Moana should not be confused with Mai Tai bar at the Royal Hawaiian. Shoot I am old enough to remember 8 track tapes LOL

    Great post Cindy, mahalo nui!!

  2. Awesome post Cindy, thanks!  I still can't believe 7-11 won for best spam musubi…hate to say it but they are pretty nasty there after they've sat under the heat lamps for hours. They do have really good manapua though 🙂

  3. Wow Cindy, that is so true what you mean about asking locals for places to shop and eat!  Living and visiting a place are totally separate.  I've been to the Mai Tai Bar many times when my fiancee was singing there and it is definitely a great hangout.

  4. Oh yes, the two Mai Tai bars is VERY confusing! I kept thinking I was mixing up the name at first. Be sure to ask for details if you're meeting someone 🙂 (I also remember 8 track tapes – when they were NEW.)

  5. Our view of what's a great place is definitely not always going to match up with what mainstream is looking at or wants but it is a true look into how we see our home.  Still stuck on 7-11 win and definitely agree with Tara.  I'm not a big fan of any spam musubi that I didn't make myself.

  6. E Aloha Awakea 'o Cindy,
    Great topic! I agree with you and Lin that the best place is in one's perspective but after having the pleasure to take thousands of visitors through Oahu as a tour guide for E NOA, Discover, PolyAd, and Tommy's Tours, one thing was very common as you mentioned. They all want to know where the locals go, and where do we go? Where they don't want to go! They prefer, however, those "Holes in the Walls" that make Hawaii unique. Once upon a time, one of those places was L&L, not anymore! By the way, I never eat at the Ke'eaumoku Wal-mart L&L but I favor the one in Captain Cook, Hawaii. For some reason, their food tastes better and it's cheaper. And 7-11 SPAM? I gotta admit, I like their thick cut version and the only one better is the kind you make at home, of course. 
    But places like Ward Warehouse has very unique shops (to tourists) including Na Mea Hawaii which offers mostly locally made products, reference materials, and classes. Patrick Ching has his Hawaiian Art Gallery out in 'Nalo which was a favorite stop of mine to make on a tour. I would go over to the grocery store next door and buy some Kulolo (brought in from Kauai) and share it with my guests, they loved to hear how it was made and to taste what Hawaiians like to eat. Another favorite stop was the Waimanalo Town Center. There's a store that sells locally favored dry snacks & seeds, ukulele's, souvenirs, etc. They made a killing every time I brought my guests. Next door was Dave's Ice Cream and for my hungry clients, I took them to the plate lunch place, there too, to show them what Lau Lau, Kalua Pig, and other local favorites were. On Sundays, there's a booth on the side of the road across from Turtle Bay Resort where Nana serves BBQ Pork sticks for only a dollar along with a variety of fruits and veggies from her farm. I tell you, my Circle Island Tours were the unofficial "Food Tour" of Hawaii. Of course, it helps to get them excited when at the start of the tour you warn them to never trust a skinny tour guide.
    Like you said, they favor places unknown to them.  
    By the way, I once had a Peter Tosh 8-track cassette. Today, I have a few original LP's and 45's that were pressed in Jamaica and UK during the late 60's and 70's, great collectors items! That was the time for Reggae and Rock Steady. 

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