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Food, Culture And How To Go Beyond The Tourist Trail In Honolulu, Hawaii

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mixed poke bowl
sunset beach
Sunset Beach. Photo courtesy of Malia Yoshioka.

Looking to travel to Honolulu, Hawaii? Local travel and food writer Malia Yoshioka of Shoyu Sugar dishes on food trends, how Honolulu compares to the other Hawaiian islands and how to experience the destination like a local.

1. Please tell us a bit about your experience living in Honolulu, Hawaii. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences have you had thus far?

I was born on Maui and lived there until college, when I moved as far away as I could in order to experience a different culture – all the way to New York City.

When I moved back to Maui, I couldn’t get the pace of the city out of my head. So I ended up moving to Honolulu which is a great compromise.

There are more than a million people living here so there’s a lot of diversity, art, culture and — my favorite — food! We have all the comforts of “city life” combined with the perk of being only minutes away from swimming in the ocean or hiking up in the lush mountains. It’s truly the best of both worlds.

2. What’s one attraction or experience in Honolulu you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?

That’s tough because I think with the internet you are more and more able to find “off the beaten path” experiences these days.

Since Hawaii is known for great seafood, I always recommend that people get up early to head down to the Honolulu Fish Auction.

It starts very early, but it’s really cool to watch chefs from all the restaurants around town bidding on the catch of the day. You could literally follow a fish from the dock to your plate of sashimi that evening. It doesn’t get fresher than that.

3. For those wanting to experience local Honolulu culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?

People in Honolulu are super active because we have great weather year-round. If you want to do what the locals do, get out into the water by trying surfing, canoe paddling, or standup paddle boarding.

Or get out into the mountains for a hike or trail run.

Farmers markets are also a great place to run into locals, although they’re getting quite touristy now, too.

Malia skydiving over Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Malia Yoshioka.

4. No trip to Honolulu would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, what would you recommend they try and where should they have it?

You have to try poke — cubes of raw fish seasoned with soy sauce, limu (seaweed), inamona (kukui nut), maybe a little sesame oil or dried chili pepper.

You can find it all over, but I love the poke counter at Nico’s at Pier 38, which is right next to the fish auction, so you know it’s super fresh.

Sample as many types of poke as you like — some variations are made with octopus, shrimp or even smoked beef or fish — then pick your top three to go on a bowl of rice for less than $10. Such a deal.

5. Moving from Maui to Honolulu, what was one of the biggest adjustments you had to make?

We don’t have freeways on Maui, so learning to merge into and out of freeway traffic was nerve-wrecking for me when I first moved here and I avoided it at all costs.

I also wasn’t used to being aware of lane signs — back home we rarely had more than two lanes and we always knew where we were going anyway. Directions were something like “drive on the main road until you see Kim’s cousin’s house on the left, then take the next right before Komoda store.”

Also, on Maui, you don’t worry about parking because everyone has plenty of room in their driveways or on the street. So I have really bad luck with getting towed for being parked in the wrong place or not reading the right street signs when I first moved here. But I’m much better now!

mixed poke bowl
Mixed poke bowl. Photo courtesy of photoskate.

6. How does Honolulu differ from the other Hawaiian islands?

The City & County of Honolulu takes up the entire island of Oahu, and our population here is much larger than the other islands.

Oahu really is the big city compared to the slower pace on some of the other islands, and we’ve got highrises and freeways like any other metropolis.

Geographically it’s towards the northwestern end of the state so the volcanoes that formed Oahu have been dormant much longer than the younger, larger islands to the southeast. Hawai’i island, also known as the Big Island, for example, is much larger and is growing every day thanks to the active lava flows that add to the land as they make their way to the ocean.

By the way, Oahu and Big Island are both popular for solo travel in Hawaii too.

7. What’s one must-pack item for those traveling to Honolulu?

Sunscreen, please! I always feel so bad when I see people in Waikiki with horrible red sunburn. Ouch!

8. What’s one local food trend happening on Honolulu people may not know about?

Farm to table has been a movement here for a while now and has brought awareness around some amazing local produce, but there is a real emphasis lately on whole animal butchery, as well.

Cows aren’t made entirely of filet mignon and pigs are more than just bacon. So many chefs are working with local farms to really make use of the whole animal, whether its in charcuterie programs (Salt or Town in Kaimuki), pig head or shank meals served family style (The Pig & the Lady in Chinatown) or farm dinner collaborations (B&D Butchery with Shinsato Farms).

It’s pretty exciting if you’ve got an adventurous palate and it means less waste and more thoughtful consumption of the food grown and raised locally.

Aerial views of Waikiki and Honolulu. Photo courtesy of Eric Tessmer.

9. What’s one lesser-known attraction in Honolulu you’d recommend to travelers and why?

I’d really just suggest that people get out of the main tourist areas — the further you get from Waikiki or your resort or hotel, the more interaction you get with people and things that aren’t manufactured to present a certain image of Hawaii for you.

You can see the real, the gritty, the not as polished side of life here. It’s expensive to live in Hawaii, so we face some very real social problems; however, people generally know that it takes rain to make rainbows.

“Lucky you live Hawaii” is a very common philosophy for dealing with the high cost of living yet still keeping focused on the positive.

10. One of the great parts about traveling is interacting with locals. Since moving from Maui to Honolulu, what has been one of your most memorable local encounters?

I guess I’m pretty “local” even here on Oahu, but I’ve traveled quite a bit outside of the islands, too.

I’m always fascinated by the way people live in other parts of the world — we’re all so similar in many ways, but in the differences you always find something to learn.

I also love getting a taste of a place through sharing a meal with a local family or new friends.

One of my most memorable travel experiences was a recent trip to Ireland where we bonded with our BnB owner over a plate of local cheese and spreads that she’d made, washed down with a great bottle of Italian wine. Food — and the love of food — is such a common denominator.

We were able to talk about our respective homes and ask questions of each other. I always strive to bring a little of our Aloha Spirit with me whenever I travel abroad.

And coming home always reminds me of how much I love Hawaii and just how beautiful these islands are.

malia shave ice

About Malia Yoshioka

Malia Yoshioka is a freelance food and travel writer based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Born and raised on the island of Maui, she has traveled to more than 22 countries in search of the stories to be told through the common language of cooking and sharing a meal. You can frequently find her out for a run around Diamond Head, shopping for produce at the farmers market or on a road trip up to the North Shore for a plate of Giovanni’s original shrimp scampi. Follow her tasty adventures at

Jessie Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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1 Comment

  1. I think that I am in love with Hawaii! There isn’t a more stunning and beautiful place on Earth! This is definitely the next destination that I am moving to! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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