Nightlife in Hawaii begins at sunset, when all eyes turn westward to see how the day will end. Sunset viewers always seem to bond in the mutual enjoyment of a natural spectacle.
Enjoy hula dancing and a torch-lighting ceremony on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 6:30 to 7:30pm (6–7pm Nov–Jan), as the sun casts its golden glow on the beach at the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound, close to Duke Kahanamoku’s statue (Ulunui and Kalakaua sts.). This is a thoroughly delightful free offering of hula and music by some of the Hawaii’s finest performers. Start off early with a picnic basket and walk along the ocean-side path fronting Queen’s Beach near the Waikiki Aquarium. (You can park along Kapiolani Park or near the zoo.) There are few more pleasing spots in Waikiki than the benches at water’s edge at this Diamond Head end of Kalakaua Avenue. It’s a short walk to where the seawall and daring boogie boarders attract hordes of spectators. To check the schedule, go to www.waikikiimprovement.com/waikiki-calendar-of-events/kuhio-beach-hula-show and click Events.
The Bar Scene
On the Beach—Waikiki’s beachfront bars offer many possibilities, from the Mai Tai Bar (808/923-7311) at the Royal Hawaiian a few feet from the sand, to the Beach Bar (808/921-4600) under the banyan tree at the Moana Surfrider, to the unfailingly enchanting House Without a Key (808/923-2311) at the Halekulani where a lovely hula dancer sways to the riffs of Hawaiian steel-pedal guitar with the sunset and ocean glowing behind her—a romantic, evocative, nostalgic scene. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that the Halekulani happens to make the best mai tais in the world.) The Halekulani has the after-dinner hours covered, too, with light jazz by local artists in the Lewers Lounge from 9pm to 2am nightly (see “Live Blues, R&B, Jazz & Pop” section for more).
Another great bar for watching the sun sink into the Pacific is Duke’s Waikiki (www.dukeswaikiki.com; 808/922-2268) in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort. The outside Barefoot Bar is perfect for sipping a tropical drink, watching the waves and sunset, and listening to music. It can get crowded, so get here early. Hawaii sunset music is usually from 4 to 6pm daily, with live entertainment nightly from 9:30pm to midnight.
Downtown/Chinatown—First Fridays, which originally started as an art gallery walk on the first Friday of the month, has now evolved into a club and bar crawl that can sometimes turn Chinatown into a frat party on the streets. Go on a non–First Friday weekend for a mellower scene. The activity is concentrated on Hotel Street, on the block between Smith and Nuunau. That’s where you’ll find Tchin Tchin! and Manifest, 32 N. Hotel St., with a great selection of whiskey and gin. The bartenders here are happy to whip up complex whiskey drinks or simple, classic cocktails. After 10pm, DJs and live music make the laidback bar more clubby. Across the street is Bar 35, 35 N. Hotel St. (808/537-3535), whose claim to fame is its 110 beers available, plus wine, cocktails, and even pizza. You must be 21 to enter (strictly enforced).
Hanks Cafe, around the corner on Nuʻunau Avenue between Hotel and King streets (http://hankscafehawaii.com; 808/526-1410), is a tiny, kitschy, friendly pub with live music nightly, open-mic nights, and special events that attract great talent and a supportive crowd. On some nights, the music spills out into the streets and it’s so packed you have to press your nose against the window to see what you’re missing. Upstairs at the Dragon Upstairs, there’s more live music Tuesday through Sunday nights (http://thedragonupstairs.com; 808/526-1411). At the makai end of Nuunau, toward the pier, Murphy’s Bar and Grill ★ is a popular downtown alehouse and media haunt.
Get Down with ARTafterDARK
On the last Friday of every month (except Nov–Dec), the place to be after the sun goes down is ARTafterDARK, a pau hana (after-work) mixer in the Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St. (www.artafterdark.org; 808/532-8700), that brings residents and visitors together around a theme combining art with food, music, and dancing. In addition to the exhibits in the gallery, ARTafterDARK features visual and live performances. Previous themes have ranged from “Plant Rice”—with rice and sake tastings, rice dishes, Asian beers, live Asian fusion music, and a tour of the "Art of Rice" exhibit—to “'80s Night,” “Turkish Delights,” “Cool Nights, Hot Jazz and Blues,” and “Havana Heat.” The entrance fee is $10. The party gets going around 6 and lasts till 9pm. The crowd ranges from 20s to 50s, and the dress is everything from jeans and T-shirts to cocktail-party attire.
Oahu has several key spots for Hawaiian music. House Without a Key (see “The Bar Scene”) is one of my favorite places to listen to Hawaiian music, both for the quality and the ambience.
Kana ka pila means to make music, so it makes sense then that the Kana Ka Pila Grille (808/924-4994) at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach has one of the city’s best Hawaiian-music lineups, including slack key guitarists Cyril Pahinui (son of famed guitarist Gabby Pahinui).
The Willows, 901 Hausten St. (www.willowshawaii.com; 808/952-9200) was once the garden home of Emma McGuire Hausten and her family in the 1920s. Its tropical setting, full of lush greenery, waterfalls and ponds, and restaurant is now where generations gather for graduation parties, birthdays, and weddings. Every Thursday, it hosts Pakele Live, a two-hour concert featuring island entertainers.
Every year, halau (hula schools) and Hawaiian musicians from around the state gather for Ola Ka Ha, to honor Iolani Palace through song and dance. It’s a free event; find this year’s date at www.olakaha.com.
Live Blues, R&B, Jazz and Pop
Blue Note Hawaii, inside the Outrigger Waikiki, 2335 Kalakaua Ave. (www.bluenotehawaii.com; 808/777-4890), from the owner of the Blue Note jazz club in New York City, is the state’s newest venue for jazz, blues, and favorite local entertainers. It has a great, old-school jazzy vibe, and the restaurant offers hearty plates like a hamburger and braised short rib. Past performers have included Dee Dee Bridgewater and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.
Tops in taste and ambience is the perennially alluring Lewers Lounge in the Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Rd. (www.halekulani.com; 808/923-2311). Comfy intimate seating around the pillars makes this a great spot for contemporary jazz nightly from 8:30pm to midnight.
Outside Waikiki, the Veranda, at the Kahala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave. (www.kahalaresort.com; 808/739-8888), is a popular spot for the over-40 crowd, with nightly jazz music and a dance floor.
Off the beaten path (yes, that’s a strip club in the neighborhood), you’ll find the intimate bar and club Jazz Minds (www.honolulujazzclub.com; 808/945-0800) dedicated to jazz and jazz-fusion.
Check www.honolulujazzscene.com for daily listings.
Showroom Acts & Revues
Te Moana Nui, at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, is a theatrical journey of fire dancing, special effects, illusions, hula, and dances from Hawaii and the South Pacific. Shows are Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday (dinner show starts at $105 adults, $79 children 5–12; cocktail show $60 adults).
Also worth experiencing, even if you don’t spend the day at the Polynesian Cultural Center, is Ha: Breath of Life.
The Performing Arts
“Aloha shirt to Armani” is how I describe the night scene in Honolulu—mostly casual, but with ample opportunity to part with your flip-flops and dress up.
Audiences have grooved to the beat of the Hawaii International Jazz Festival, the American Repertory Dance Company, barbershop quartets, and John Kaimikaua’s halau—all at the Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St., Downtown (www.hawaiitheatre.com; 808/528-0506). The theater is basking in its renaissance as a leading multipurpose center for the performing arts. The neoclassical Beaux-Arts landmark features a dome from 1922, 1,400 plush seats, a hydraulically elevated organ, breathtaking murals, and gilt galore.
In 2011, a new symphony orchestra was reborn from the disbanded century-old Honolulu Symphony Orchestra: Hawaii Symphony (http://hawaiisymphonyorchestra.org; 808/593-2468). Meanwhile, the Hawaii Opera Theatre (www.hawaiiopera.org; 808/596-7372 or 800/836-7372), celebrating more than 50 seasons, still draws fans to the Neal S. Blaisdell Center (www.blaisdellcenter.com; 808/591-2211), as does Ballet Hawaii (www.ballethawaii.org). Contemporary performances by Iona (www.iona360.com), a strikingly creative group whose dance evolved out of Butoh (a contemporary dance form that originated in Japan), are worth tracking down if you love the a vant-garde.