Being a travel writer has gotten a tad challenging. Health concerns aside, destinations open and close with little or no warning, making plans a guessing game. Even vaxxed and boosted, traveling to international destinations runs the risk of getting caught in quarantine.
Fortunately, you can get away, far away, without leaving the U.S., thanks to Hawaii. My photo assistant and I decided on Oahu and pitched Out Traveler a piece on Waikiki’s vibrant LGBTQ+ nightlife.
We booked a week in December, reached out to a bunch of people in the local community, and counted the days. There was flooding in Honolulu about 10 days before our arrival, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.
We didn’t know it, but something more insidious was quietly throwing off our plans. On December 3, there was an unusual COVID cluster traced to gay clubs in Waikiki. Within a week, contact tracing revealed 27 people had contracted the just-emerging Omicron variant. One by one, LGBTQ+ clubs closed. Some had shuttered the day before our arrival.
“We did it voluntarily,” explains Robbie Baldwin, owner of Scarlet Honolulu (above), a seven-year-old venue that features a stage, dance floor, and multi-level VIP seating. “Back in 2020 the Hawaiian government here was much stricter and kept us closed. …we helped write the laws to get the clubs back opened. Part of that means if we know we have an outbreak, we know to close.”
David Barker was one of the men sickened by the outbreak. He’s also a managing partner of Bacchus Waikiki, a neighborhood pub catering to the queer community.
“No one saw this coming,” Barker says. “We’re just making the playbook as we go along.”
Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar (below) was one of those which chose to remain open. According to owner Danny Chang (pictured, middle), it all came down to numbers. During the outbreak, none of his patrons had gotten sick and his staffing remained intact. The place was hopping the night we visited, albeit with each packed table separated by clear acrylic panels. While the club is known for its fab karaoke, only one room was available, and only one singer allowed in at a time.
“We monitor this situation constantly,” says Chang. “It’s in all our interests, all of the clubs, the staff, the patrons. None of us wants to close again, but we all want to stay open safely.”
As of this writing, all three clubs are fully reopened and, for the most part, require the same health protocols. All staff members are vaccinated, and all patrons must show proof of vaccination to get in. Masks are also required except when you are actively drinking (and most everyone is actively drinking). We hear other LGBTQ+ venues are open now as well, including In Between Waikiki, Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand, and Chiko’s Tavern.
Although it was a bummer to arrive in Honolulu only to find the LGBTQ+ venues we planned to visit were closed, we still had plenty to do, even at night, although it wasn’t always expressly queer.
Knowing the over-hyped Polynesian Cultural Center Luau happens to be owned and operated by the anti-LGBTQ+ Mormon Church, we instead opted for Experience Nutridge, an outdoor dinner theater type Luau, not very far from Waikiki Beach. Nutridge offers great food, super friendly people, and a full bar. Don’t miss the Haka dance, in addition to learning what real Hula dancing is all about.
We also enjoyed a sunset sail with some local LGBTQ+ community members. There are dozens of companies that offer everything from catamarans to sailboats, to Polynesian-styled canoes. Rain can dampen an evening on the water, so book with the forecast in mind.
A brilliant way to start your Friday night is with the 7:45 p.m. Waikiki fireworks located at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The show lasts only about 10 minutes but is well worth breaking for.
Nightlife aside, there is no lack of safe things to do on Oahu, especially since so much is outdoors. Check out these hidden gems: snorkeling at Electric Beach, authentic shaved Hawaiian Ice at Dan’s Maile Shave Ice, and the tour at the KōHana Rum Distillery.
October is Pride month in Honolulu and after skipping the past two years the Oahu queer community promises to get lit in 2022 — barring any last-minute surprises.
This piece initially ran in the Spring 2022 issue of Out Traveler print edition.