Published: May 2009
By Lynn Yaeger
Never mind the beach. Rare Japanese antiques, $35,000 collector jeans, and hula-girl kitsch make Honolulu a shopper's dream come true.
Behold—markandeya!—this is the realm of art. It is the atrium of heaven," reads the inscription on the window of the Robyn Buntin of Honolulu shop, the premier Asian antiques gallery on Oahu. It's my first day in Hawaii, and unlike those travelers who shed their clothes and jump into the water the minute they're off the plane, I'm here to hit the shops, not the surf. Though the sun is beating down deliciously, I make a beeline to Buntin's world-class store. "I don't mean to brag," he says, smiling, "but we have museum-quality works here—it's a museum where you can touch."
In truth, Honolulu itself strikes me a bit like a museum where you can touch—a combination of verdant botanical garden, high-end designer exhibition, and riotous kitsch display.
I am basing these observations on my walk the previous night on Waikiki's main drag, Kalakaua Avenue (who needs to sleep after a 15-hour flight?), during which I noticed that Fendi is just off Don Ho Street, Cartier is within shouting distance of a Sunglass Hut, and Prada resides next to 88 Tees. This joyful jumble of high and low, pricey and cheap, bespeaks a democratic island spirit as uniquely Hawaiian as plumeria leis and hula-girl lamps.
Buntin doesn't handle hula lamps. His shop is a dazzling place—even if it is adjacent to Paradise Optical. After a mere 24 hours, I've learned that Honolulu's nondescript strip malls and office buildings can in fact contain sophisticated shops. Buntin's boutique offers 14th-century armored statues ($250,000) and a collection of tiny ivory and fruitwood netsuke (Japanese miniatures, originally used as obi toggles). "The best netsuke combine beautiful form and functionality, like a Rolex watch," says the Hawaiian shirt-clad proprietor, who came here 35 years ago after studying art in Berkeley. Buntin gazes fondly at a 19th-century miniature Noh mask, and then leads me to a 1922 Japanese oil portrait of a woman in a checked Art Deco kimono that has fallen artfully, if saucily, open. "This is my favorite!" he says. "She's called a moga—a modern girl!" I love this modern girl, but she doesn't come cheap—Buntin has tagged her at $26,000.
I leave her in Butin's hands and head for the mall. Oahu's largest, the 200-plus-store Ala Moana Center, has virtually every upscale brand—Chanel, Burberry, Valentino, Versace—but, paradoxically, this gets me a bit down; must everything, even if it's gorgeous, be the same the world over?Then I step off the escalator on Ala Moana's third floor and realize that this is the only mall I've ever been to that offers open-air vistas of the pale green Pacific.
In front of a shop called the Hawaiian Quilt Collection, a blue-eyed sandpiper is dancing; when it swoops into the store, the salesman laughs and gently ushers it out. I ask him to show me his best quilt, and he points to a spectacular black-and-white number, a huge cotton coverlet that takes at least a thousand hours to create and contains upwards of a million stitches. The pattern replicates a silver sword plant, which grows only in Maui. "It doesn't have spikes or thorns, and it blooms once every two decades, but when it does, the flowers are extremely beautiful," he says.
On my way out of Ala Moana I fall for that most prosaic of souvenirs, hula-girl salt and pepper shakers, from Martin & MacArthur, whose specialty is furniture made from koa, a native wood. (Though the shop's motto is Traditional Hawaiian Living, when I get back to New York, I notice the shakers are stamped TAIWAN.) I grab the trolley back to my hotel, the achingly elegant Halekulani, but after five minutes on my lanai, overlooking the Pacific, the siren song of Kalakaua Avenue calls me—the rows of lit torches, the delectably cheesy Mickey Mouse candles at the International Market, and, most of all, the jewelry at Philip Rickard in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center.
This particular jewelry is just my thing, since it's based on a 19th-century design—the island's interpretation of Queen Victoria's enameled mourning ornaments, a style that survived here even as it vanished in the rest of the world. I'm sure I'll buy something; the custom orders take a few days so I have to make up my mind in a hurry. I shift rapidly from a classic yellow-gold ring enameled with the words ALOHA OE to a pink-gold extravaganza that you're supposed to personalize with the Hawaiian version of your name. Mine would be Lina but I opt for my nickname (okay, it's Baby) instead. I settle on white enamel and meander down Kalakaua, past the Sportsac store with the special hula girl-printed purses. There's no end to the strange treats: on the second floor of a building across from Louis Vuitton, Taylor's Vintage caters to an all-Japanese clientele (the saleswoman barely speaks English) that has a penchant for wildly expensive denim. Jeans bear $550 price tags; work jackets, enshrined in clear plastic bags, go for $1,600. I ask what the dearest item is and I'm shown a pair of 1890's jeans—museum-quality, but you can touch them!—for $35,000.
The next day, I'm up early. I stick a toe in the sand (so I can tell people at home that I went to the beach) and head for Gentry Pacific Design Center, Honolulu's answer to the D&D Building in Manhattan. The shops here draw mostly professionals, but the public is more than welcome. At Pacific Orient Traders, Richard Krajchir says that almost everything he carries is from China and that it has all been fully restored. "We try to keep the integrity but every so often we add a little tweak of fashion," he confesses, showing off a 19th-century Chinese trunk that has been painted a fetching if unlikely shade of apple green. Around the corner at Baik Designs, the furniture comes from Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma. "My dad was a surfer; he traveled to Indonesia in the seventies," the handsome Chad Tseu tells me; this wave-chasing gave way to a more settled antiques business. The day I visit, a Javanese ceremonial bed, big enough for a family of 10 and more than a century old, is getting the lion's share of attention. High above our heads a Balinese birdcage dangles, so brightly painted it reminds me of a circus wagon.
I notice my trip is settling into a pattern: serious antiques in the morning, frivolous malls in the afternoon. I take a cab to the Aloha Tower, a 1926 landmark that was once a beacon to travelers and is still charming, even if the Aloha Tower Marketplace has been built beside it. Still, this mall sits on the harbor and is home to the Hawaiian Ukulele Co., where I am taken with an instrument that has been painted with a pink and yellow island sunset. "I think it has got to be the happiest instrument in the world!" says owner Cal Nelson. For a fleeting moment, I consider joining the throng of aloha-shirt-and muumuu-clad tourists who gather at the Aloha Tower Marketplace for free uke lessons. Then I remember my mission and ask Cal to point me in the direction of Maunakea Street, where there's a cluster of rather raffish antiques stores.
Can I walk?I ask him, sick at this point of taxis and trolleys (I may be the only nondriver in the history of travel writing). And, miracle of miracles, he says it's just a few blocks away. So I stroll over, and I'm virtually the only one on the sidewalk—Honolulu is, much like the mainland, car country. My reward for this brief exercise is the musty, cluttered Aloha Antiques & Collectibles, a multi-dealer collective in a 1912 building. I pause to consider a print of a waterfall with a lurid color scheme straight out of Maxfield Parrish and then proceed up Maunakea, which turns into one of Chinatown's main streets, full of tiny lei shops hardly bigger than stalls, where local women sit stringing colorful flowers. At the corner of North Hotel Street there's a reminder of rougher days: a crumbling neon sign that says, HUBBA HUBBA LIVE NUDE SHOW. (In its prime, Hotel Street was not home to places like the Halekulani.)
I have saved the illustrious Garakuta-Do for my last full day in Honolulu. The place is vast: there are entire rooms of mid-century kimonos and vintage silk obis. Wataru Harada, the owner, has been in business for 20 years and is visibly proud of his vintage Japanese goods. "I send so many antique tansu chests to the mainland," he says; it's no surprise, since they start at an inviting $500. I am drawn to the smaller items—mother-of-pearl combs, lacquered sake carriers—which is not to say I can't also see the beauty in a huge, circa-1850 step-shaped chest from Kyoto ($7,800).
I could linger here for hours, but Baby is waiting. As I exit the mall after picking up my ring, I catch a glimpse of a vast, rosy mirage winking through the trees. It's the 1927 Royal Hawaiian hotel, the pink palace, as it's known. I slide Baby onto my finger and walk over, but before I even hit the lobby I discover Newt, a hotel shop that looks as if it has been around since the 1920's. In the window there's something called a Dorothy Lamour sarong; inside are what seem like hundreds of panama hats. It turns out that the place opened less than two decades ago, but the effect is deliberate.
"You're meant to think that," says the salesman. A sign on the counter states, "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low prices is forgotten," a useful reminder for all dedicated shoppers, though I'm not sure it's sufficient to persuade me to spring for Newt's chapeau de résistance, a straw panama so intricate, it took six months to weave and costs $7,500.
Something about the shop—the old-fashioned hats, the wood paneling, the gleaming pink hotel just outside—makes me blurt out that I wish I could have seen Honolulu in the twenties. "Oh, just take what's still here!" my new friend says, gazing out at the lush gardens. "The sea! The air! The people!"
LYNN YAEGER is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
Robyn Buntin of Honolulu
848 S. BERETANIA ST.; 808/523-5913; www.robynbuntin.com
Hawaiian Quilt Collection
ALA MOANA CENTER, NO. 3259; 808/946-2233; www.hawaiian-quilts.com
Martin & MacArthur
ALA MOANA CENTER, NO. 2011; 808/941-0074; www.martinandmacarthur.com
Philip Rickard Honolulu
2301 KALAKAUA AVE., SUITE C306; 808/924-7972; www.philiprickardhonolulu.com
2113 KALAKAUA AVE.; 808/926-2222
Pacific Orient Traders
GENTRY PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER 560 N. NIMITZ HWY., SUITE 106; 808/531-3774; www.pacificorienttraders.com
GENTRY PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER 560 N. NIMITZ HWY., SUITE 108B; 808/524-2290; www.baikdesigns.com
Hawaiian Ukulele Co.
1 ALOHA TOWER DR., SPACE 197; 808/536-3228
Aloha Antiques & Collectibles
930 MAUNAKEA ST.; 808/536-1828
1833 KALAKAUA AVE., SUITE 100; 808/955-2099
Newt at the Royal
ROYAL HAWAIIAN, 2259 KALAKAUA AVE.; 808/922-0062; www.newtattheroyal.com