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If you haven't visited lately, Oahu's new vibe may surprise you

By George Hobica, Airfarewatchdog.com (MCT)

8:55 AM EDT, August 20, 2012

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I'll state right away that Hawaii is one of my favorite places. I'm pretty much over the Caribbean, and although the Maldives and Fiji have beautiful beaches, getting there is expensive and time-consuming. So when it comes time for balmy weather, surf, sand, and relaxation, it's the Hawaiian Islands.

I'm often asked by first-timers which island(s) one should visit. I say visit them all. They're all uniquely beautiful. If you're flying all that way, you might as well make the most of it, especially if it's your first visit. I love the Big Island with its varied ecosystems; peaceful Lanai (recently purchased by software billionaire Larry Ellison and home to two outstanding Four Seasons Resorts, the Lodge at Koele and Manele Bay); gorgeous Kauai, with some of the best hiking in the islands; and Maui, especially the idyllic town of Hana.

But on my recent visit I confined myself to Oahu.

Some Hawaii repeat visitors advise to shun Oahu, where Honolulu is located, because it's a bit too bustling and "urban." But if you haven't visited Honolulu lately, you might be in for a surprise.

Sure, some things never change, such as the iconic Halekulani Resort. (Well, that's not exactly true: Oahu's best hotel has undergone a massive renovation and looks better than ever). As is true about all of Honolulu's top hotels, the Halekulani is all about relaxation. I had one of the best massages in my life at the spa, and I can't think of anything more relaxing than sipping a Mai Tai at the House Without a Key, listening to the sounds of Wayne Shishido and his Sunset Serenaders as waves lap against the shore. But you don't have to spend a lot to sleep comfortably. I also stayed at the budget-minded, centrally-located Holiday Inn Beachcomber, and was perfectly happy there as well, and was also impressed by glam and stylish Modern Hotel (originally developed by hotelier Ian Schrager but now under new management). Another fairly new entrant, the Trump Hotel Waikiki, is winning rave reviews over at TripAdvisor.com. (( http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotels-g60982-Honolulu(underscore)Oahu(underscore)Hawaii-Hotels.html )

On my recent June week-long stay I also visited, but did not stay at, Aulani, the new Disney resort on Oahu. It's worth the trip even if only to admire the magical architecture, grounds, pools, and beachfront, and to sip a cocktail (they'll validate parking if you have a drink or meal - otherwise it's quite expensive, as are the room rates. Book well in advance because the resort is often sold out).

Tourism is Hawaii's No. 1 industry, and two of the most popular tourist activities are (no surprise) shopping and eating. But here's news: the land of the lunch plate special has come a long way in the last decade. There are now several hip, locally-sourced restaurants serving up surprisingly ambitious and tasty cuisine. Among the newer places popular with locals in the know: Whole Ox Deli for breakfast and lunch; Prima (primahawaii.com), a new Italian in Kailua (worth the drive for menu items that won't remind you of anything you've had before); Town, where the menu changes daily based on local ingredient availability; Salt Kitchen and Tasting Bar, with its small but perfectly executed menu; and Side Street Inn, with two locations now, both serving deliciously fresh poke and insanely yummy spicy fried chicken among other temptations.

Shopping has also taken a turn for the better on Oahu. When I first visited decades ago, Honolulu the retail experience was pretty much confined to mundane malls and the ubiquitous ABC convenience stores. No longer. There's been an explosion of luxury boutiques along Kalakaua Avenue, worthy of the Las Vegas Strip or Madison Avenue. And the famous Ala Moana Shopping Center now houses over 260 stores, everything from the everyday (Macy's and Old Navy) to the upscale (Hermes, Prada, Gucci).

But Oahu isn't all sleeping, eating, and shopping. The newly-renovated and expanded USS Arizona Memorial/ WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument is, for many visitors, the highlight of their visit (be sure to make advance reservations). And I highly recommend spending a day driving around the entire island, stopping at various beaches and sites along the way, such as the Halona Blowhole and Halona Beach Cove, where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr cavorted in "From Here to Eternity." But don't jump in the water here. Instead, head to Bellows Field Beach Park in Waimanalo, arguably Oahu's best beach. (Used by for military training during the week, it's available to the public on weekends; if it's closed when you visit, head for Lanikai Beach in Kailua).

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IF YOU GO:

Getting there: Airfares to Hawaii fluctuate throughout the year, and we often see inexplicably low fare wars. This is especially true when, say, Delta, lowers fares from United's hubs by 50 percent or more, even for peak season travel. Then United returns the "favor" by slashing fares from Delta's hubs. And then US Airways and American jump in. So if you live near a major hub airport (Dallas, Houston, Newark, Denver, etc.) or can get to one cheaply you may be in luck. We saw that happen once already this year and several times last year. And with Hawaiian Airlines' new nonstop service from New York JFK to Honolulu, additional new seasonal service from Alaska Airlines, plus five new routes from Allegiant Airlines launching in mid-November, fares should be kept in check.

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George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.