The first time I went to Hawaii, I think I was there about three minutes before I decided I would come back to it again and again, budget be damned. Part of what I love about the place is how widely varied your experience can be: one day I was on the Big Island, hiking to an active volcano to see it erupt by night; the next, I was on a $50 flight island-hopping to Oahu so I could visit the ranch where they filmed scenes from Jurassic Park.
But as much as I want to adventure in Hawaii, I want to spend as much time as humanly possible at the beach. The water there is the bluest I’ve ever seen. The ocean breezes are warm and sweet. The sand (unless you’re on a lava-filled black sand beach) is so soft that it almost feels silky. And in the distance, if you’re watching closely enough, you’ll likely spot dolphins, or even whales.
That’s part of what was so appealing about ‘Alohilani Resort in Honolulu. It’s a busy hotel in the heart of Waikiki Beach, right in the middle of all the action. But it also has some remarkably serene features to it, like the biggest aquarium in all of Hawaii—which also happens to be a cocktail bar.
On one level, O Bar is just like any other lobby bar in any other fancy hotel. There are cozy couches and chairs arranged in smaller sitting areas, designed to make you feel as though you and your party are the only people there, even though the space is actually quite large. On another level—well, two, actually—it’s totally unique. The centerpiece of O Bar is a two-story oceanarium, filled with 280,000 gallons of saltwater and native fish from Hawaiian reefs. The tank, the hotel says, is bigger than anything at the nearby Waikiki Aquarium, which is the largest aquarium in the state.
I spent a peaceful evening there in March (it may have only been about two months ago, but in Hawaii time vs. not-in-Hawaii time, it feels like an eternity has passed since then), just a couple of days after Hawaii dropped its mask mandate, the last state in the U.S. to do so. I sat there, listening to a man perform killer covers of songs by Aaliyah and Bruno Mars, sipping one of O Bar’s signature Mai Tais (made with white rum, amaretto, guava, orange curacao and lime). I had thought I’d read the book I brought with me, but I didn’t touch it: I was transfixed by the music, by the atmosphere, by the hundreds upon hundreds of colorful fish swimming around just beyond where I was sitting.
In the morning, O Bar is a coffee shop, and in the afternoon, just a place to sit and rest while you’re waiting for your room or before you head out to the next thing. But if you’re there at the right time, you can see something really special: there are feedings at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every day, when divers go into the tank and feed the fish. It’s the best time to see the oceanarium, not just because you get the best view of the sea life in the tank, but because the divers also interact with whoever is watching them, doing their best to put on a little show for onlookers.
My first night at ‘Alohilani, I slept with the balcony doors wide open. On the 17th floor, I was high enough up from the Waikiki strip that I couldn’t hear any crowds or car noise, but I could sit out on the balcony and watch the sun rise over Diamond Head and see all the surfers sitting on their boards in the water, hoping to catch a wave.
The next morning, I woke up to pouring rain that lasted all day. I got takeout from the pool bar upstairs (in better weather there’s a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the beach, another moment of serenity where you can just float in the pool and stare out at the water and the sky). I brought lunch back down to the O Bar. What better way to spend a rainy Hawaii afternoon than sitting in front of an oceanarium, fish swimming in that enormous tank, watching the ocean’s mysteries unfold in front of me? If I can’t be on the beach, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Julie Tremaine is an award-winning food and travel writer who’s road tripping—and tasting—her way across the country. Her work appears in outlets like Vulture, Travel + Leisure, CNN Travel and Glamour, and she’s the Disneyland editor for SFGATE, covering California theme parks. Read her work at Travel-Sip-Repeat.com.