LGBTQ+ locals share their favorite spots off the beaten path.
Hawaiian culture has always had a deep appreciation of the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Ancient islanders understood that people were made up of both male and female qualities and didn’t assign a gender binary to anyone. The Hawaiian language doesn’t even have gender pronouns like “he” or “she,” and, in the past, same-sex (Aikane) relationships between High Chiefs and talented men were not just common but revered.
When Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii in the late 18th century, he wrote detailed journal entries about the Aikane and the Mahu, or transgender members of the community. In Polynesian culture, Mahu embodies the ideal of spiritual duality and is viewed as a special and revered third sex. Mahu were also traditionally the keepers of local history and genealogy, giving them a sacred place in the community.
All of this changed in 1820 when Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii to impose their strict evangelical views on what they saw as the hell-bound islanders. Mahu culture went underground, and Aikane ceased to exist. Two hundred years later, Indigenous Hawaiian people are shining a light on the island’s LGBTQ+ friendly past, and “the rainbow state” is increasingly becoming a hot spot for LGBTQ+ travel, buoyed by the islands’ two annual pride events.
While there aren’t as many queer-specific spaces in Hawaii as in, say, West Hollywood, many of the state’s businesses are queer-friendly, and more are popping up every day. Here, we talked to a number of out and proud Hawaiians about their favorite LGBTQ+ friendly beaches, hotels, restaurants, and stores on the island.
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“A very specific historical marker for queer people—or for all Kanaka Maoli or for Mahu—is Kapaemahu, the four stones situated on Waikiki Beach. One of the reasons that I joined the board [of the Hawaii LGBT Legacy Foundation] is to initiate more programming based around Kanaka world points of view. The pride parade passes these four stones, and a lot of people—mostly visitors—don’t know the significance of Kapaemahu,” explains Sami Akuna, an artist, and entertainer who sometimes performs as drag queen Cocoa Chandelier.
“Four Mahu healers came from Tahiti, and they landed and departed from that spot. Kanaka Maoli wanted to give great significance to that event, so they placed these four stones in Waikiki right at the water’s edge. These stones were brought down from Kaimuki, and it was at that time quite a feat to bring these stones down. It would have been five or 10 miles away. These stones represent those four healers, who were indeed Mahu. Sometimes they say they were wizards, but they were all definitely Mahu, which means they were two-spirited. We’re trying to create something based around Kapaemahu so that visitors that come for Pride have a better understanding of the multiple cultures here in Hawaii and how maybe we don’t always identify as queer or as gay or as a lesbian. We have a specific word in the Hawaiian language [Mahu] that was just always part of the normal framework of society; it wasn’t created, it was just simple—there’s man, woman, and Mahu.”
Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar
“When I first started Wang Chung’s 13 years ago, I didn’t even think it would be a gay bar. It was originally in this tiny little studio apartment because I used to manage properties in Waikiki. One of our buildings was converted to commercial use, and we couldn’t rent out the backspace because it was completely hidden,” remembers Dan Chang, the owner of Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar.
“I just thought, ‘maybe I can open a business and just flip it’ because you hear about all these people opening businesses and selling them. So, I ended up opening this Japanese-themed karaoke bar, and I thought I would get a lot of Japanese customers, but I found out that when Japanese people come to America, they don’t go out and drink. They are not like Westerners, who want to check out what the bar culture is like. Drinking is a pretty big part of the culture in Japan, but when they go to America, they don’t go to bars. But, ironically, because a lot of the bartenders were LGBT, it started becoming more of an LGBT-friendly establishment. Then the hotel concierges started coming like it was their secret place. It took a long time before we could break even, but karaoke is really a big pastime here in Hawaii. So now we’re a locally inspired karaoke bar.”
“Scarlet has created a space for itself as not only the largest LGBTQIA+ nightclub in Hawaii but as now the largest and most popular nightclub in general, which is amazing,” says Randy Soriano, the co-chair of Honolulu Pride 2022. “I think the fact that it has crossed that boundary means that it has created a safe space for us to intermingle with the general population, and that’s amazing. I just want to have a safe space for everyone.”
Purvé Donut Stop
“They have crazy combinations and flavors, including a lot of Hawaiian flavors,” describes Dan Paul, a.k.a. drag queen Candi Shell. “Their logo is this giant unicorn with a rainbow mane, and it’s indicative of the doughnuts. There are a lot of Fruity Pebbles covered donuts and things like that. It’s very rainbow-licious.”
WHERE: Scratch Kitchen
“Scratch is a restaurant that also does monthly drag shows, and the food is amazing,” says G Dolce, a drag entertainer, and professional makeup artist. “I’ve been going there for years, and they’ve always been very, very gay friendly. They make local food mixed with Asian influences; it’s very trendy.”
“The people at Wallflour are very open; they always call me Cocoa. They do a little pop-up at ‘ili’ili Cash and Carry on Monday mornings, and then on Saturdays, they’re situated at the Kaka’ako Farmer’s Market,” says Sami Akuna. “They make several types of flan that are great, and they use a lot of local products. Right now, they’re doing a mango sticky rice flan that’s very delicious. The other one that I like is their matcha green tea flan. They also started making financiers, which are these little tiny cakes. They just started making a flatbread that tastes like ratatouille, and then they have other little donuts that I like to get.”
Kaimana Beach Hotel
“Kaimana Beach Hotel is in Waikiki and was just remodeled. It’s next to a really popular gay-friendly beach, Kaimana Beach, so it’s almost like a package deal. You have this amazing beach that Monk Seals frequent all the time. It’s secluded because it’s in this little area with a seawall, so it’s super safe. There are no waves, just super calm water,” says Randy Soriano. “The hotel has this amazing restaurant called Hau Tree Lanai, and they do an amazing brunch. They also support a lot of LGBTQIA+ events. If you want to have brunch by the ocean, I would totally recommend that, and then you can just take your beach chair to Kaimana right after and have an amazing beach experience off the beaten path.”
“There’s a pretty big Okinawan community here in Honolulu. Okinawa is kind of like the Japanese equivalent of Hawaii. It’s in the tropical region,” explains Dan Chang. “Sunrise is this little hole in the wall right outside of Waikiki. It’s run by a husband and wife, and it’s so charming. I love their Seafood Dynamite, Pig’s Feet Soup, and Goya Champuru. My favorite memory of Sunrise Restaurant was when I went with friends who are Tahitian and Hawaiian musicians. Chef Kazu-san played the san-sho, a three-string Okinawan guitar, and he was singing. Then our friends were like, “let’s play some music for them,” and they got up and danced the Hula, and it was kind of this cultural exchange.”
2 Rende Vuu
“2 Rende Vuu is a funny little sports/karaoke bar in the industrial district,” says Dan Paul. “It’s very out of the way, but there’s a weekly drag show there. I performed there a few weeks ago, and it was really fun. A very surprising crowd developed throughout the night, and I would do it again.”
“I like to mention the Iolani Palace because of its historical significance, but a lot of people in our queer community also do programming with them,” says Sami Akuna. “Kumu Hina, myself, and some of Hawaii’s other theater makers are often involved with their live reenactments of the 1893 takeover when Queen Liliʻuokalani was ousted from the palace. I think the Iolani Palace is a great place not only for Kanaka Hawaiian people but also for anyone interested in Hawaiian culture.”
Hula’s Bar & Lei Stand
“Hula’s is a mainstay for tourists and locals alike,” explains Randy Soriano. “I think it will always be the iconic place for people when they come to Waikiki. If I had to choose someplace where I would tell travelers to go if they wanted the quintessential Waikiki gay experience, I’d definitely say Hula’s.”
“Ethel’s Grill is another tiny hole in the wall. It’s in an industrial zone in Honolulu, so its hours are from 6 am to 2 pm. It caters more to the working-class workers in that area; it’s kind of a destination you have to drive to,” says Dan Chang. “There are maybe only four or five tables, and the food is just so homey and delicious. There’s so much flavor, and you can order single-sized portions or double-sized, which is a lot of food. They love Sumo wrestlers, too. It just has a lot of charm.”
Thrills Ice Cream
“There’s a really cute ice cream shop called Thrills,” says Dan Paul. “There’s a lot of Instagrammable moments inside the store like they have this giant flower wall set up with a neon sign. There’s usually a line out the door. You get these very elaborate ice cream cones with sprinkles and Pocky sticking out.”
Mokuleia Beach Park
“I definitely would say check out the North Shore; there are tons of beaches out there. There’s one that’s unofficially gay-friendly called Mokuleia Beach Park. We go there when we want to go and have a nice country experience and take a cooler full of beer and just hang out at the beach,” says Randy Soriano. “It’s away from the tourists and away from the large crowds of Waikiki. Mokuleia Beach is an amazing place to go to, and you’ll totally get that North Shore experience.”
Tali’s Bagels & Schmear
“Tali’s Bagels is owned by these two adorable lesbians that said, “Hey, there are no New York bagels in Hawaii.” Hawaii isn’t a bagel place at all, so they did something a little different, which is these tiny little mini bagels,” says Dan Chang. “They boil the bagels and bake them and do everything from scratch. I love that they’re bringing a part of their Jewish culture here. They also make their own homemade schmears using local flavors. So, you can get ube cream cheese or lomi lox schmear. It’s tricky because they’re only at the Farmers Markets, so you have to plan ahead and know when to go.”
MAC Pro at the Ala Moana Center
“I work in the largest outdoor mall in the world, which is also the third biggest mall in the world. It’s a massive, massive mall. I am so lucky to work in a MAC store that also caters to movie shoots and stuff like that,” describes G Dolce. “We actually have a fundraiser that we throw for the Honolulu HIV and AIDS Foundation, and I feel like the place where I work is definitely very LGBT-driven. I think everyone on staff is LGBT. I definitely would recommend checking out the Ala Moana Mall. We have everything that any gay person would want to look for when traveling.”
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.