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Two Tickets to Paradise

by Ron CoganNovember 29, 2021
Rocker Eddie Money’s 1978 hit song, ‘Two Tickets to Paradise,” was playing in my head as I worked on logistics for our almost-post-pandemic travels. Hawaii was on our mind, as it has been during many trips there over the years.

Like all of us over the long course of lockdowns and varying degrees of COVID 19-related restrictions, my wife Sheree and I were yearning for the day we could travel somewhere…anywhere…that seemed safe, made sense, and transported us at least briefly beyond the everyday concerns of the pandemic that had literally stopped us all in our tracks.

Visiting Hawaii when we did, as the pandemic was loosening its hold on life, was like vacationing during a sort of pandemic ‘shoulder season’ – the traditionally less crowded, less hectic months before and after the masses head to the most desired vacation destinations. While the Governor of Hawaii is now welcoming visitors back as the recent COVID 19 surge has passed in the islands, and things are much more ‘normal’ (read that ‘crowded’) with Hawaii once again a top destination, it was eerily quiet during our before-the-surge visit.

Traveling to Hawaii was no small logistics challenge, though that has eased now with changing visitor requirements . As we viewed our options before deciding on Hawaii, other favorite destinations like Italy seemed better left for another day once things are more sorted out. Australia was off the table since its borders were, and still are, closed to international visitors, though that country has just announced it is again allowing entry to international students and foreign workers. We've done road trips through the Pacific Northwest but were looking for something different. So what about Hawaii? That’s been a work in progress and travel there initially required a 14 day quarantine since March 2020, then a shortened 10 days of mandatory quarantine starting in December 2020 for travel to all of the Hawaiian Islands.

This policy relaxed late last year with the option for a quarantine exemption through the State of Hawaii’s Safe Travels portal, at https://travel.hawaii.gov. A video on the site presents an overview of the program and lists the steps to be completed, including the need for a negative COVID 19 test for non-vaccinated visitors traveling to Oahu. A recent change now grants a quarantine exemption for fully-vaccinated visitors who register with the Safe Travels portal, upload vaccination cards, and then have their vaccination cards confirmed during airport check-in. Other islands have had additional requirements, and the state’s rules continue to evolve, so it’s best to reference the latest requirements and restrictions at the State of Hawaii’s online COVID 19 portal, at https://hawaiicovid19.com/travel/getting-to-hawaii.

REQUIREMENTS FOR HAWAII TRAVEL: Hawaii’s quarantine exemption process is clear but not entirely free from angst, though vaccinated travelers will find it easier than the non-vaccinated. For those who have not been vaccinated, timing is essential since a negative NAAT or PCR COVID 19 test is required from a Hawaii-approved lab. These labs are listed on the Safe Travels portal. After registering for an account through the portal and providing your travel information, including flight and hotel reservation numbers, your negative COVID 19 test can be uploaded and instantly verified.

This test must be done no more than 72 hours prior to your flight to Hawaii. Naturally, there’s a realistic concern that everything go well and the testing lab e-mails a negative test result to you in time. For those with connecting flights, the timeline is based on the final non-stop flight segment you take to Hawaii, not your originating airport.

Though we are now fully vaccinated, our trip took place before Hawaii’s ‘vaccine passport’ option was in place. We knew that a number of testing options were available, including relatively new availability for testing on-site at some larger international airports, but decided to take our test at a local urgent care since they work with a Hawaii-approved lab partner. We timed it so the test was taken within the required 72 hour window, doing so on a walk-in basis, though other testing providers may offer appointments. We arrived, filled out the paperwork, and were called in for the Hawaii-approved nasal swab test. Then the anticipation began. We were pleasantly surprised when we received e-mails about 18 hours later with our negative results, quicker than promised. Then we uploaded the test PDFs to our accounts on the Safe Travels portal.

Once you’re within 24 hours of your flight, you need to log-in to the portal and answer a short health questionnaire. A QR code is issued immediately after the questionnaire is submitted, whether you're requesting exemption with a test or vaccination. This QR code allows screeners access to your Safe Travels quarantine exemption status during airport check-in. While you can access this QR code by logging in any time, Safe Travels recommends that you also make a printout of the QR code and carry it with you. Those seeking a quarantine exemption must bring their vaccine card with them. Since this trip involved an exemption with a COVID 19 test, we brought the PDF of our test results with us just to be safe.

FLIGHT CHECK-IN: We flew Alaska Airlines direct from San Jose, California, to Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. At check-in in San Jose, we provided our tickets and then logged into the Safe Travels portal on our phones to show our QR codes. During check-in, status on our Safe Travels accounts was changed from Not Screened and Not Exempt to Screened and Exempt. This same process follows now for those who apply for a quarantine exemption with their uploaded vaccine card, with the physical vaccine card confirmed by the airline. With confirmation complete, Alaska Airlines issued Safe Travels wristbands that allowed breezing through the airport upon arrival in Oahu. Those without wristbands must endure long lines as their exempt status is manually confirmed once they arrive in Hawaii.

After check-in, we logged into our Safe Travels accounts on our phones to confirm the change to Exempt was made. A new QR code reflecting this change was shown. You will need to log-in and show this updated QR Code when checking in to your hotel to confirm exemption from quarantine.

(THEN) UNCROWDED WAIKIKI: This is a lot of work to go through for any trip. However, the yearning to experience this tropical paradise after a seemingly endless time of pandemic restrictions was compelling enough to make it worthwhile. Plus, we knew that once travel began in earnest later, the relatively uncrowded and reasonably priced Hawaii we wished to visit would likely experience rising costs and a crush of visitors. Following our 5 1/2 hour flight from San Jose to Honolulu, the promised benefit of wearing a Safe Travels wristband was immediately evident. Those without one went right at the entry sign for a long line and manual processing, while we went left and, with a quick flash of our wristbands at a check point, continued toward baggage claim. It was that simple.

We had arranged to be met with a ride and lei greeting because, after all, that’s really how you should arrive on the islands and it’s not that costly. It’s also a good plan because rental cars have been very expensive everywhere, including Hawaii, due to tight availability. We even found Uber prices to be higher than normal due to increased demand. The best bargain for travel needs, surprisingly, was an old-school cab since their costs are regulated. If you do want to rent, then you might consider going electric with a Tesla Model S, 3, X, or Y rented from WDT Luxury Tesla Rental Hawaii, though these can't be rented at the airport. The 14 Teslas in this company's growing fleet are currently renting from $125 to $350 per day, with the top-of-the-line Model S Plaid going for $849 daily. Speaking of Teslas, while strolling the main part of Waikiki be sure to head over to the Tesla showroom on Kalakaua Avenue to appreciate some electric car eye candy there.

Over the years, our go-to hotel has always been the Hilton Hawaiian Village, a 22 acre resort located on a wide stretch of Waikiki Beach that’s much less crowded than the stretch of beach adjacent to Waikiki’s main hotels and shopping area. We’ve found the walk from HHV to the main bustle of Waikiki to be easy and enjoyable, with half the walk along the beach. This time, however, we started our vacation with two nights at the Moana Surfrider, a stately and historic hotel located in the heart of Waikiki Beach. We’ve been wanting to experience this hotel for some time and finally took the opportunity. We weren’t disappointed. The Moana Surfrider, like many hotels in Hawaii, closed down for months to weather the dearth of tourists and the unknowns of the early months of the pandemic. And like others, they have strived to reopen in ways that allow accommodating guests in true Hawaiian style.

We found check-in an easy process, with the only additional step involving confirmation of our quarantine exempt status through the Safe Travels QR code on our phones. The lobby, the rooms, the restaurants and bar, and overall experience were just as we had hoped. The Surfrider’s manager was even on hand in the lobby to welcome guests to Hawaii and the hotel, an unexpected touch.

At night, we were able to enjoy live music and drinks at the hotel’s iconic Beach Bar with its exceptional surf-and-sand view, and Vintage 1901, the hotel’s stately piano bar. There’s the Beachhouse fine dining restaurant if you’re so inclined, or you can order dinner from a more limited menu at Vintage 1901, as we did. We enjoyed breakfast at the hotel’s Verandah at the Beachhouse and pineapple smoothies at the Surfrider Café. While we didn’t get to enjoy Sunday afternoon tea at the Verandah because it was fully booked, we have done this high tea before and highly recommend it.

One of our favorite things in years past has been to stop by the Moana Surfrider just to spend some time on the rocking chairs that line its front porch, and just people-watch. This Moana Surfrider’s location in the heart of Waikiki Beach makes everything easily accessible. While restaurants and shops are capacity controlled due to COVID 19 restrictions, there were plenty of them ready and waiting to serve visitors.

We knew ahead of time that reduced capacity meant quite a few restaurants would be fully booked on many nights, so we made reservations in advance through the Open Table app, including the popular Hard Rock Honolulu. Some, like the always-in-demand Duke’s Waikiki beach bar and restaurant, had no reservations open for breakfast, lunch, or dinner during our stay. However, Duke’s sets aside half of its tables for walk-ins, so we gave it a try and lunch for the two of us involved just a 15 minute wait.

Waikiki Beach is often a very crowded place. While there were tourists strolling along its main street, Kalakaua Avenue, and a reasonable amount of traffic, we found it less crowded than on previous visits when sidewalks were packed. Some popular eateries that are often impossible for walk-ins, like the Cheesecake Factory, had unusually short lines and presented no obstacles to enjoying a fun meal. By the time you’re reading this, though, the greater numbers of travelers now heading to Hawaii likely mean a much busier environment with the usual wait times.

After several days at the Moana Surfrider, we moved on to our usual Hawaiian digs, the Hilton Hawaiian Village. We’ve always enjoyed this resort because it offers so much on-site – an array of casual and fine-dining restaurants, a pizzeria, New York deli, and Starbucks, along with gift shops and two ABC Stores for picking up everything from sandwiches, drinks, and snacks to sundries, rafts, and beach supplies. Complimentary morning activities are offered like hula lessons, lei making, yoga, and tai chi.

This was the intended ‘down time’ of our trip, so four days were spent on lounge chairs under an umbrella on the resort’s uncrowded stretch of Waikiki Beach. Drinks and food are nearby at the Hau Tree Bar and Tropics Bar & Grill. Daily walks took us to the bustle of activities along Kalakaua Avenue and the main part of Waikiki Beach, a pleasant 25 minute stroll. A fascinating trip to the Honolulu Museum of Art was also on order to view its collection of Asian, Hawaiian, European, and American art.

Hilton Hawaiian Village closed down for eight months during the pandemic and reopened in November 2020. During our stay, we found that while it did offer many of the features and amenities we’ve come to appreciate in the past, the pandemic’s impact meant it was still getting up to speed. The nightly live entertainment we’ve always enjoyed on stage at the expansive outdoor Tapa bar, and in the more intimate setting of Tropics Bar & Grill, was absent. The popular Tapa Bar itself we closed. In fact, except for the Waikiki Starlight Luau held on the resort’s Great Lawn adjacent to the Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, there was no live entertainment at all on the property during our visit. The last we checked, the resort was planning to start live entertainment again shortly.

Like many hotels on the islands, daily rhythms at Hilton Hawaiian Village have been affected by capacity limits, so restaurant reservations are a good idea, either booked on-site or through Open Table. Hilton Hawaiian Village is billed as the largest ocean resort in the Pacific, so it’s understandable why it’s taking time to fully emerge from the challenges of the pandemic. This is a very popular Waikiki destination and we expect it to be bustling as usual the next time we return.

IMPORTANT REMINDERS: Hawaii's new vaccine passport system now provides a much simpler way to get a quarantine exemption. We didn't have that option at the time of our visit so a COVID 19 test with specific timing requirements was required. This same testing requirement is still in place for unvaccinated visitors today. We expect that the vast majority of those heading to Hawaii have not had issues with a test exemption. That said, we also know of a few who did not receive test results in time and had to cancel their vacation plans. There is no accommodation for taking a test once you’ve landed in Hawaii. You’re either exempt before flying there through a negative test or confirmed vaccination card, or you’re subject to the mandatory quarantine. So you focus. Understand the requirements explained through Safe Travels. And you plan your test timing carefully, since in this case timing is everything.

This article could have been titled, ‘Four Tickets to Paradise,’ but our friends John and Cathy who were to join us never made it. They had to cancel their trip just hours before their scheduled flight, though they did all the right things through Safe Travels Hawaii and timed their COVID 19 tests appropriately . One of their PCR test results came back quickly, but the other was delayed and eventually came back inconclusive. It was expected that a quick follow-up NAAT COVID 19 test would come in time, but the negative test result wasn’t received until just before their scheduled flight, after all was cancelled. That was a disappointing sign of the times, so it was just the two of us this time.

As a final thought, Hawaii is absolutely worth the effort even amid all the extra steps you have to take right now to get there. Being on the islands, especially after all the months of lockdowns and restrictions, is spectacular even amid its reawakening and we enjoyed our experiences there immensely. You will enjoy the Aloha, too!