Since its midcentury transition from agriculture to a tourism-focused economy, Hawai‘i has attracted a steady stream of the sun-starved and stressed-out. For even the most food-obsessed, part of an ideal Hawai‘i vacation probably involves a hotel, a beach, and some hardcore lounging. But dining-wise, not all hotels are created equal. Luckily, no matter which island you choose, there’s at least one hotel where you’ll be as well-fed as you are blissed out.
Oʻahu attracts the highest number of visitors, and its biggest city, Honolulu, is as urban as any mainland metropolis and includes a sector in Waikīkī where aging hotels have been reborn as chic destinations. Hawai‘i Island is an agricultural breadbasket, with resorts tucked along the coast. Maui feels like three islands: the peaceful farm country of Hāna, the fevered tourism along Kā‘anapali, and the quiet sophistication of Wailea. Known as the Garden Isle, Kaua‘i is a tale of two shores — the north, with its jungle landscape, and the far drier south, which has a desert feel. The island with the quirkiest history, Lānaʻi is owned almost entirely by tech billionaire Larry Ellison and, outside of its posh resorts, evokes the old Hawai‘i of the 1950s. Here are the best options on each of the major islands. —Ann Herold
Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club
The postcard-y “Wish You Were Here” scrawled across the bottom of the pool sets the tone for this 1959 Waikīkī hotel that’s been transformed into a modernist gem. Acclaimed local chef Ed Kenney opened his first hotel venture here, Mahina & Sun’s, where the textiles are vintage but everything from the lamps to the wallpaper to the artwork is by contemporary Hawaiian artists. Greatest hits from Kenney’s other restaurants, like the grilled he‘e (octopus) at Mud Hen Water and the Kuahiwi Ranch burger at Town, are on the menu, while the new dish not to miss is the Mahina Family Feast, composed of fried or grilled ‘ōpakapaka (red snapper), Kualoa Ranch oysters, roasted root vegetables, pohole (fern) salad, and hapa rice. Fittingly, a portrait of Kenney’s mother, an acclaimed hula dancer, hangs in the entry. —AH
412 Lewers Street, Honolulu | (808) 923-8882 | surfjack.com
After a $60 million renovation, the former 1960s-era Aqua Waikiki Wave hotel now features a clean Eero Saarinen-esque aesthetic, including in its Hideout restaurant. With the creative décor, like the stylish hula doll collection and the terrazzo-inspired counter, comes the cooking of Bryan Byard, a New Mexico native who toyed with a career as a pro skateboarder and hip-hop DJ early in life (his vinyl collection tops a thousand) and rolled into the kitchen instead.
The restaurant focuses on neo-Pacific Rim cuisine (think tempura shrimp with cilantro slaw and macadamia nuts) and also offers room service, poolside snacks, and packed picnic baskets to go. Byard smokes his own meats, including the kālua pork that goes into the eggs Benedict at breakfast and sits atop the flatbreads and inside egg rolls at lunch and dinner. Anyone from the Southwest can’t live without the taco, and Byard’s is a wonton poke version. Call it Pacific Rim by way of Albuquerque. —AH
2299 Kūhiō Avenue, Honolulu | (808) 628-3060 | laylowwaikiki.com
The Kahala Hotel & Resort
For those seeking a more secluded getaway, this resort offers a classic luxury experience and top-notch dining, with options ranging from the formal Hoku’s and Veranda to the alfresco Seaside Grill and Plumeria Beach House, just steps from the sand. The staff at this peaceful enclave below Diamond Head joke that the fish you’re eating at the resort’s destination restaurant, Hoku’s, might have been caught by chef de cuisine Eric Oto, an avid fisherman. Otherwise Hoku’s features European dishes with a Hawaiian twist, such as the foie gras served with a macadamia nut crumble and the adobo-braised osso buco.
The bar program is generating buzz thanks to beverage artist-in-residence Julie Reiner, who’s returned home after spending more than a decade educating New Yorkers on the flavors of Hawai‘i. At Veranda, the resort’s happy hour spot with a contemporary décor and ocean views, she devises cocktails to pair with the pūpūs. Don’t miss the Kahalasadas, a riff on the traditional Portuguese doughnut that are rolled in li hing mui sprinkles, made from the dried plum that’s sweet, sour, and salty all in one. —AH
5000 Kāhala Avenue, Honolulu | (808) 739-8854 | kahalaresort.com
Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu
The former Wyndham property has been glamorously tweaked and expanded and is now home to the Holoholo Grill, the latest venture from Oʻahu’s Sam Choy, who cut his teeth helping his father stage ginormous lū‘aus. On the outdoor patio overlooking the ocean, diners can partake of Choy’s signature poke, guava-glazed ribs, or wagyu burger.
The resort is also a hop away from the Shops at Kukui‘ula, where the Living Foods gourmet market offers laudable pastries. An outpost of Dolphins, the north shore’s popular café and fish market, sits alongside restaurants from Hawaiian culinary veterans Peter Merriman and Roy Yamaguchi. At happy hour, check out the margaritas at Kukui‘ula’s Tortilla Republic, an outlet of the L.A.-based Mexican restaurant. Or you can stop for a scoop of guava sorbet at Lappert’s, the island’s iconic ice cream maker, to enjoy on a bench by a fragrant plumeria bush. —AH
2641 Po‘ipū Road, Kōloa | (808) 240-6600 | koloalandingresort.com
The Fairmont Kea Lani
There’s a Moorish look to this Wailea-area hotel, presided over by beloved chef Tylun Pang, who went sustainable long before it was fashionable. For the resort’s fine-dining restaurant, Kō, Pang sources from 16 Maui farms with slogans like “grown here not flown here,” and his beef comes from a 20,000-acre consortium of six upcountry ranches.
The Kō menu ranges all over Hawai‘i’s immigrant map, from China to Japan to Korea to the Philippines, for what Pang calls plantation cuisine, after the era when workers from these and other countries arrived to labor in Hawai‘i’s pineapple and sugarcane fields. At poolside Ama Bar & Grill, sunbathers can experience such traditional Hawaiian dishes as the plate lunch of kālua pork, rice, and macaroni salad. The Caffè Ciao Bakery + Market houses the Just Juice by Kō bar, which uses local fruits. And at the super-contemporary Luana, mixologist Aaron Alcala-Mosley and staff celebrate pau hana (happy hour) with complimentary classes in cocktail mixing a couple of nights a week. —AH
4100 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea | (808) 875-4100 | fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui
Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort
The design of this Hyatt property pulls off a nifty trick: It manages to convey both luxurious space and intimate coziness. The entrance is sweeping drama, a walkway that leads to a soaring lobby whose windows look over the terraced landscape and the ocean beyond. But the rooms (all 290 of them!) are arranged to feel cloistered and private; weary travelers will want to simply cocoon on-site. This is where the four dining options come in handy.
A beachside bar offers the expected, easy-going mix of burgers and other sandwiches, tacos, and salads. The lounge gets wacky-fancy with local icons: loco moco is reborn as poutine, malassadas come with espresso pot de crème. An outpost restaurant for Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto serves pan-Asian riffs like 10-hour pork belly with congee, uni carbonara, and tuna pizza with anchovy aioli. The best of the lot (and among the finest restaurants on Maui): Ka‘ana Kitchen, whose airy, open dining room mirrors the lobby’s grandeur and whose chef, Maui-born Isaac Bancaco, works closely with local farmers and fishermen. He calls forth a subtle sense of place in dishes like daily-caught Maui fish with ginger soubise and hearts of palm. —Bill Addison
3550 Wailea Alanui Drive, Maui | (808) 573-1234 | maui.andaz.hyatt.com
Four Seasons Resort Lanai
All of the restaurants at this posh resort, which owner Larry Ellison spent $450 million to upgrade, have views of Hulopo‘e Bay, a marine sanctuary that’s among the island’s prettiest sights. In addition to a Nobu outpost, there’s a steakhouse, One Forty, that offers such local fare as venison (read more about the island’s deer in a profile of Lānaʻi chef Jimi Lasquete) at dinner. For breakfast, One Forty stages a global tour (congee, dim sum, tamago, kimchi, miso soup), along with Hawai‘i’s loco moco that’s been stylized with a furikake rice cake and Gouda cheese. Never fear, there’s the requisite hamburger patty and gravy in the dish as well.
At Kope, the gourmet coffee stand inside the Sports Bar & Grill, you can grab a cup of Hawaiian-grown joe for a walk to the beach and, hopefully, a glimpse of the spinner dolphins that congregate there. Or snack on a salad at the uber-organic Malibu Farm cafe by the pool. —AH
Lānaʻi City | (800) 321-4666 | fourseasons.com/lanai
Four Seasons Hualalai
On Hawai‘i Island, outstanding dining options are surprisingly few and far between, but guests of the island’s quintessential high-end property, Four Seasons Hualalai, can enjoy indulgent, upscale meals at its Beach Tree Bar & Grill. Sea breezes infuse candlelit meals with extra romance, and the Italian comfort fare doesn’t feel too heavy given a hefty reliance on island ingredients like Kona kampachi, Hāmākua mushrooms, and local heirloom carrots. Some 75 percent of the menu comes from Hawai‘i Island farmers and fishermen.
The off-the-menu, order-in-advance creamy paella swims with a perfect ratio of more clams, fish, and shrimp than rice, and the gnocchi with tender wild boar ragu is an ideal alternative to lū‘au preparations of pua‘a (pig). —Meghan Miner Murray
72-100 Kaupulehu Drive, Kailua-Kona | (808) 325-8000 | fourseasons.com/hualalai
Lava Lava Beach Club
While most seating at Beach Tree spans sanitary decking, all caution goes out the window at toes-in-the-sand Lava Lava Beach Club. Guests of this boutique property — comprised of modern surfer-chic cabanas — are spared the “Disneyland effect” prevalent at other Waikoloa resorts and have easy access to some of the island’s best versions of tropical pub fare. Local brews, huge piles of beer-battered Maui onion rings with tangy guava sauce, burgers with Portuguese sausage, and coconut shrimp are all within easy stumbling distance of your bed or surfboard. —MMM
69-1081 Ku'uali'i Place, Waikoloa Village | (808) 769-5282 | lavalavabeachclub.com
Ann Herold, a James Beard Award-winning journalist, is based in Los Angeles and a frequent visitor to Hawaii with her Honolulu-born husband.
Meghan Miner Murray is a freelance travel and science writer working from a Kona coffee farm.
Bill Addison is Eater’s restuarant editor.