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Shopping in Waikiki

September 12, 2008 By: Donna Marino Wilkins Travel Agent

This Hawaiian island is the new Fifth Avenue

From the multimillion-dollar expansion of Ala Moana Center to the spiffy revamp of the former Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center to the new Beachwalk area, Waikiki’s retail scene is undergoing a renaissance— not only attracting more of the world’s top designers but showcasing homegrown talents as well.

ala moana center

The Ala Moana Center at dusk

Open-Air Spending

Waikiki’s Ala Moana Center has the distinction of being the largest open-air mall in the country, with 290 stores representing 100 national brands, 40 retailers found only in Hawaii and one of the largest collections of luxury goods retailers in the world. Take a stroll along the breezy, glossy pathways of Ala Moana and the best of the world's designers come within tantalizing view. There are the luscious bags of Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta, the perfectly cut lines of Emporio Armani and Prada, the glistening baubles at Cartier. It's like NYC’s Fifth Avenue, L.A.’s Rodeo Drive and Tokyo’s Ginza District rolled into one. Enter their hushed environs and note the mainly exchange-rate-happy tourists who eagerly snatch up these exclusive wares. Ah…but part of the experience at Ala Moana for those of us in a dollar-dependent economy is feeling the warm tropical breezes as you stare, kid-in-a-candy-store-like, at the stunning designs hung like artwork behind crystal-clear display windows. Luckily, the likes of Chanel and Bvlgari share the neighborhood here with more moderate mall staples such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic and Barnes & Noble. For shopaholics, the Waikiki Trolly runs two shopping shuttles that run from various points within Waikiki and include stops here (an all-day pass is $27 per adult/$13 per child ages four to 11).

Agent Advice

"I have clients who won't go away if they don't have quality shopping around them," says Janine Fabrizi, manager of 23-year-old KPT Travel, Hicksville, NY, which caters to high-end travelers who find much more to appreciate in Waikiki than in years past. "Now you have so many of the [brand] names…Whenever you have that kind of a retail market, it does attract a different clientele."

Many other factors—impressive hotel renovations, added nightlife and dining options and a poor exchange rate that has deflected travel from Europe to stateside destinations—have combined to spur sales to Hawaii, says Fabrizi. And Waikiki has definitely benefited. "You can relax in the morning on the beach, then spend three or four hours just strolling and window-shopping," she says. "Who doesn't love to do that?"

The center is big enough to employ its own director of tourism, hold live events and host 70 dining venues (including Pearl, one of the hottest new nightspots). As if Ala Moana wasn't big enough, it recently completed its largest expansion in almost 10 years. A 300,000-square-foot retail wing opened this past spring, featuring 17 new shops, including national and international brands entering the islands for the first time. One of the key newcomers is a three-story Nordstrom department store, which opened earlier this year and sent a flurry of excitement among local shopping aficionados. The beautiful new store offers a casual dining venue that's received praise from local critics as well.

Other national retailers that entered Hawaii for the first time in this expansion include the furniture retailer Design Within Reach, casual apparel chain J. Crew, handbag and accessories designer Vera Bradley and children’s wear retailer Janie & Jack, among others. Local retailers are also expanding their presence here— made-in-Hawaii apparel chain Blue Hawaii Lifestyle and Hawaiian heirloom jeweler Philip Rickard opened outlets in the new wing.

But it's mostly about national and international brands here. Gazing about the pristine mall, it's obvious the center is a true international shopping destination. Even as other malls and retail centers in the mainland U.S. struggle for tenants, Ala Moana claims $1 billion dollars a year in sales. And it's not just at this mall where Hawaii is bucking the trend— throughout Waikiki, new retail space is attracting tenants eager for the attention and sales of a global destination. And tourists are benefiting as the city becomes a more exciting shopping destination. Even publishers are taking note: Zagat Survey is planning its first-ever guidebook for the Hawaiian Islands, which will prominently feature shopping in Waikiki.

A Royal Affair

Those who haven't been to the heart of Waikiki lately are in for a surprise. In the last decade, Honolulu has spent $80 million refurbishing Waikiki’s streets, sidewalks and parks. This, along with reinvestment in the retail arena in the past two years, has brought a striking change and much-needed vitality to this world-famous city.

The three-block-long (and recently renamed) Royal Hawaiian Center shines anew on the main thoroughfare of Kalakaua after a two year, $115 million dollar revitalization completed in June. The new open design is refreshing and welcoming, and includes pedestrian-friendly walkways, a grove of coconut palm trees and gardens. The refurbishment (the first since the center opened in 1979) has rejuvenated the heart of tourist central, restoring its vibrancy and enticing many locals back.

The center doubled the number of its tenants, now housing 110 shops and dining venues, as well as a signature showroom. Free cultural classes (ukulele, hula or Hawaiian quilting) attract visitors who aren't in the mood to open their wallets. It has added the largest concentration of flagship stores in Waikiki: seven for All Mankind, bebe, Bvlgari, Cartier, FENDI, Ferrari, Hermès, Juicy Couture, kate spade, Marciano, LeSportsac, Rolex Kaimana Kea, Salvatore Ferragamo and Tourneau, among others. Some brands, such as LeSportsac, that were here before the renovation, have completely revamped their retail spaces. Others, such as kate spade, have entered for the first time. Expected soon are local branches of the Alohawear retailer Hilo Hattie, local surf and swimshop Honolua Surf Company, the Haleiwa-based surf gear retailer Xcel Hawaii and the local instrument-maker Bob's Ukulele.

The pièce de résistance, however, may be the just-opened 750-seat, fourth-floor Waikiki Nei Theater that houses a state-of-the-art Polynesian show. The first big-scale venue to open in Waikiki in recent memory, it showcases a production exploring Hawaiian history and culture with a lot of flash and dance—i.e., you can expect performers to "surf" on stage and "ride waves" into the crowd. After the nightly show, the room transforms into a nightclub with high-tech videos.

According to Hawaii's retail experts, many of the world's leading brands are drawn to this avenue as much for presence as for sales. It's the epicenter of a world-class destination that attracts 7 million tourists each year from around the world. At something like $30 per square foot, it's one of the most expensive areas to set up shop in Waikiki, but brand names are willing to pay to be on one of the top four or five retail streets in the world. The success here of veterans like Tiffany and Chanel, doesn’t hurt, either.

diamond head waikiki hawaii

Visitors can alternate shopping with beach time on Waikiki; here, Diamond Head can be seen

Beachwalk Boom

Further polishing Hawaii's image, of course, is the splashy redevelopment of Lewers Street, known as the Waikiki Beachwalk. New restaurants, nightlife venues and shops have opened on this once-desolate, eight-acre stretch not far from the Halekulani and the Outrigger Reef (Outrigger Enterprises sunk more than $500 million into the overhaul).

You'll find little boutiques here, many offering locally made Hawaiian products. One of the most uniquely Hawaiian is Mana Hawaii— an eclectic shop filled with the authentic creations of local Hawaiian artists— from apparel and jewelry to gift items and crafts and fine art. The store has a mission to carry only goods truly made on the islands (it has a branch at Ward Warehouse called Na Mea Hawaii as well). Head to the Kuloko Arts gallery featuring Hawaiian artwork, and Under the Koa Tree for crafts, woodwork and arts, for more locally produced products. Hawaiian chains at Beachwalk include island-wear brands Hawaiian Moon and Blue Ginger, the Honolulu Cookie Company, the Hawaiian Quilt Collection and Honolua Surf Company.

All of this retail renovation and expansion has spurred other Waikiki locations to put dollars into their venues, such as the DFS Galleria and the outdoor International Marketplace on Kalakaua. Meanwhile, the major renovations of several hotels—including Sheraton's Royal Hawaiian, Moana Surfrider and Princess Kaiulani and several Outrigger properties—will undoubtedly influence retail space and shopping opportunities in the near future. And the opening of the Trump International hotel will add at least 6,500 square feet of dining and retail space when it opens across nearby Fort DeRussy Park in 2009.

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