Hawaii: Pow! Kaka'ako packs a punch

By Heather McCracken

Away from the famous surf breaks and beaches, Heather McCracken discovers Hawaii's vibrant shopping, art, culture, and food scene.

A street artist at work in Kaka'ako. Photo / Heather McCracken
A street artist at work in Kaka'ako. Photo / Heather McCracken

If you're walking the streets of a new city and on every block someone's attacking a wall with a spray can, it's usually a sign you've strayed into the wrong part of town.

In Honolulu's Kaka'ako district, it's a sign you've stumbled into Pow! Wow! Hawai'i - an annual street art festival.

Kaka'ako is off the usual tourist trail - on this island, Oahu, visitors cluster around Waikiki and the famous surf breaks on the North Shore. But the art festival is not the only reason visitors are coming to this former industrial area. It's undergoing a dramatic renewal, with mechanic shops and caryards being replaced with cafes, trendy design stores, bars, and artists' studios. It even has the island's first microbrewery.

For now, on many streets, you'll still feel a bit like you've stumbled into the back blocks of Henderson. Luckily, what's left of the street art from previous Pow! Wow! festivals indicates you're in the right place. If there's a street mural nearby, you're okay.

Pow! Wow! takes place in February, when artists from around the world create more than 50 murals over a week-long period. Some are temporary, and others permanent pieces of public art - so no matter when you visit, there's plenty of work on show, and you can pick up a map to help you find them.

But part of the fun of Kaka'ako is finding the things that aren't on the map - like the cute design store tucked behind an unassuming garage door, and the botanical store where you can build your own quirky terrarium (if only you could bring it home).

When you're tired of wandering the streets looking at artwork, pop into Honolulu Beerworks for a cold brew. It's all about beer - up to 12 styles are brewed on site and available on tap. Opened in an old warehouse, it still has a rustic, semi-industrial feel, with a view through from the bar to the brewing tanks.

Brewer Geoff Seideman is likely to be behind the bar to explain his latest batches - they will change regularly. I tried the Piamahi'i, a "farmers' beer" with citrus, honey, and hints of fresh ginger.

The Pow! Wow! festival wraps every year with the monthly Honolulu Night Market - a street party that stretches for two city blocks, with live music, street food, skateboarding, art, and stalls. It's the biggest night market of the year - but the food and shopping carry on in slightly less crowded style every third Saturday of the month.

The markets regularly draw 10,000 people - most of them local - with the food vendors, retailers and entertainment changing every month. It's a great place to support local designers and artists, and buy souvenirs you know were actually made in Hawaii.

The shopping in Oahu is hard to beat, from the glitzy stores of Waikiki, with all the US high street brands plus high-end design outlets, to the Ala Moana mall - the largest outdoor shopping mall in the US. Venture around the back streets of Waikiki too, and you'll find outlet shops that offer top brands at knock-down prices.

But for a more unique experience, wander through Chinatown's boutiques.

Chinatown makes up just a few blocks of downtown Honolulu, but you can easily spend a day happily ambling around the shops, galleries and cafes - and a night hopping between bars. It's one of the best places to eat and drink, so worth spending the time working up an appetite.

Hawaii may have a laid-back, island lifestyle, but in Honolulu the traffic is rubbish: avoid driving if you can. The good news is you can easily bike around most areas - Holoholo Bicycles offer day hires, and tours through the downtown district, including Chinatown. You'll get a good insider's guide to all the top spots, historic sites, where to catch a glimpse of filming for Hawaii Five-0, and the best places to eat.

There's a huge range of cuisines - not limited to Asian food - and the great thing about eateries in this part of town is they cater more for Hawaiian tastes, rather than mainland visitors.

So you'll find a blend of the island's multicultural influences, with a focus on fresh seafood and local produce.

If you make it to the wee hours, see the night out at Manifest, a hip cafe in the daytime and a cocktail bar at night.

Bartender Justin Park can make you an excellent mai tai, but for a better island flavour, ask for a lilikoi mule. With lilikoi - the Hawaiian word for passionfruit - vodka, bitters and ginger beer, it's the ultimate tropical cocktail.

And it's all the more enjoyable when all you have to do tomorrow is lie on a beach.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Hawaii several times a week.

Further information: See gohawaii.com/nz and DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Hawaii.

Heather McCracken travelled to Hawaii courtesy of Air New Zealand and the Oahu Visitors Bureau, and stayed at Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach.

- NZ Herald

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