In the fifties, when I was a girl at the Punahou School, the population of the capital, Honolulu, was 300,000 people. There were not a great number of tourists; those that did come arrived on a glamorous ship called the Lurline which took five days to cross the Pacific from San Francisco. When I was a child, I had never seen an artichoke, did not wear shoes, did not leave the islands. But all that has changed. It has become clear with the passage of time that my generation was the last to witness a Hawaii that was still part of the 19th century. It was romantic, nostalgic, exclusive, closed. We did not live in the modern world. My school friends and I were taught to waltz to music written for the late queen. Dressed in white, we were given archery lessons in Kapiolani Park at the foot of Diamond Head. We went to tea at La Pietra, built as a replica of a villa in Florence. The little archery range stands unchanged from my childhood tournaments; small, green, tucked into the side of the extinct volcano where human sacrifices were performed. La Pietra, however, is now a school for girls.
The population of Honolulu is expected to reach 1 million people in the next 10 years. With this modern discovery of the islands has come sophistication. What has remained mostly the same are the small shops and cafés that represent the 19th-century emigration of generations of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese men and women brought to the islands to work in the cane and pineapple fields, and on cattle ranches. What has come to constitute an island aesthetic, whether of food or manners or decorative art, is the imposition of these particular cultures on the traditions of Polynesia—the state of Hawaii is considered the most racially diverse in the United States. The unlikely combination of these disparate elements results in a culture that is both American and exotic, Yankee and Asian. I go home several times a year—and it's all still there. As with most things, you need to know where to look.
I was taught to surf by a beachboy named Rabbit Kekai at the Outrigger Canoe Club. I was desperately in love with him, despite the fact that he was 40 years my senior. I was never a competitive surfer, but one of my brothers became a big-wave rider. During the winter, the beaches of the north shore of Oahu are crowded with locals and visitors who have come to compete in the surfing championships. Last December, during my winter visit, the competition was held at Waimea Bay for the first time in years (rules require that waves be at least 20 feet high). The event is named after the late Eddie Aikau, a fearless waterman who disappeared at sea. He has given Hawaii the vernacular expression "Eddie would go." I once had a T-shirt made for my surfer brother (now a lawyer) that read eddie never went, but he was offended by the irreverence and refused to wear it. One of the best hamburgers on the island is at a roadside café in Haleiwa called Kua Aina (66-160 Kamehameha Hwy.; 808/637-6067; lunch for two $15). Not far from Waimea Bay, it is always filled with surfers, some carrying their boards.
There were very few good restaurants in Honolulu when my brothers and I were children, and certainly none out of town. Before Honolulu became cosmopolitan—sometime in the late seventies—we ate at neighborhood cafés, lunch stands, and bakeries. Kailua, on the other side of the mountain range known as the Koolau, remains much the same small town as it was in my childhood, except that there are now restaurants like the Italian Baci (30 Aulike St.; 808/262-7555; dinner for two $60).
After a visit to the splendid Bishop Museum in Honolulu—where the unusually wide and sometimes eccentric selection of exhibitions includes a native koa-wood canoe, embroidered pineapple-ﬁber shirts from the Philippines, a 50-foot-long model of a sperm whale, and a state-of-the-art erupting volcano—I always stop at Mitsu-Ken (1223 N. School St.; 808/848-5573; lunch for two $20) to eat mouth-watering garlic chicken and beef teriyaki at the counter. Their specialty is a version of that most sublime of Hawaiian plate-breakfasts, the loco moco: rice, a fried egg, and Spam. They would be disappointed by your lack of refinement, but you may ask them to hold the Spam.
I have never made the trip from the airport into Honolulu without stopping at Leonard's Bakery (933 Kapahulu Ave.; 808/737-5591) near Waikiki, arriving at my final destination with a face covered in sugar. Leonard's sells malasadas—a Portuguese doughnut hole made of potato flour that is rolled in sugar and served hot from the oven. Lines of customers patiently wait for the freshest batch. It's considered very elegant to give a large pink box of malasadas as a gift. Leonard's also sells the Portuguese sweet bread known as pão doce. Liliha Bakery & Coffee Shop (515 N. Kuakini St.; 808/531-1651) in Kalihi is the home of that delicious coconut-cream pastry, the Coco Puff. It is open around the clock. In my girlhood, this was a favorite stop at the end of a long night, and it has not diminished in popularity. The only difference is that shoes are now required. Customers traditionally hover quietly behind one of the occupied stools, waiting their turn, yet, as this is a coffee shop in Paradise, there is no urgent need to finish your spicy Portuguese sausage and coconut milk shake.
The chicest restaurant in Honolulu is Duc's Bistro (1118 Maunakea St.; 808/531-6325; dinner for two $60), owned by a worldly Vietnamese émigré and his wife. It's in the revivified Chinatown, a neighborhood once forbidden to good girls, as it was a mysterious place of brothels, opium dens, and tattoo parlors. On Thursday nights, the regulars gather at Duc's to see the entertainer Mihana, who sings and plays the guitar. She's the daughter of a legend, Auntie Irmgard, who played at weddings and parties when I was a girl. Even today, it's not uncommon for a woman patron with flowers in her hair to request an old hula so she can dance.