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.
Related: Maui Travel Guide
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.
One of my favorite walks in Honolulu is in Maunawili, just over the Pali Highway from Honolulu. Turn onto Auloa Road from the highway and follow it to the end, where there is a marker indicating the beginning of the easy three-mile round-trip to Maunawili Falls. Wearing a bathing suit under my shorts, I enter the forest, passing abandoned plantations of coffee, sweet mountain apple, and guava. Eating from the trees as I go, I make my way to the foot of sacred Olomana Mountain through fragrant copses of yellow ginger. It may be muddy on the path, and it is necessary to ford Maunawili Stream a number of times. No dangerous creatures lurk in the damp undergrowth, thick with ferns and vines, but the forest is full of birds, who, with no natural enemies, build their nests on the ground. It is forbidden to pick the red lehua flower, sacred to the fire goddess Pele, as she will cause it to rain. At the bottom of the falls is a dark pool where I swim, mindful to ask the blessing of the lizard god Mo'o, who is said to live in its depths.
In the mid 19th century, King Kamehameha IV's wife, Queen Emma, built Hanaiakamalama (2913 Pali Hwy.; 808/595-3167) as a summer palace, in Nuuanu Valley off the Pali road. My mother would take us to Queen Emma's palace once a week for a picnic in the garden, with thermoses of Oahu Country Club iced tea, guava chiffon cake from Dee-Lite Bakery (1930 Dillingham Blvd., Kalihi; 808/847-5396), and warm manapua (Chinese buns filled with char siu pork) from the local grocery store. A fine example of a Greek Revival mansion, Hanaiakamalama seems poignant now, perhaps because the queen's son, Prince Albert, heir to the kingdom and named after the prince consort of England, died there. His koa cradle, dusted every morning, still stands alongside his parents' bed. The palace is a romantic reminder of the doomed Hawaiian monarchy.
Whenever I am in Honolulu, I visit Alii Antiques I & II (21 Maluniu St.; 808/261-1705) in Kailua. There are very few artifacts of Hawaiian sculpture left in the world, in part because the missionaries encouraged the Hawaiians to destroy their wooden gods. Those dissenters who refused to repudiate the spirits often buried the images, but they have long since disintegrated. The store, named for the Hawaiian word for chief or royalty, has 20th-century artifacts too: wooden bowls and trays, etched-glass platters and cocktail shakers from the thirties, long-sleeved silk aloha shirts, lauhala hats, and particularly good koa and lehua carved-wood lamps. And I always make sure to stop at Lai Fong (1118 Nuuanu St., Honolulu; 808/537-3497; call for appointment), an old curio shop in Chinatown. The store has been there for 70 years. There are delicate pineapple cuff links of carved ivory, old jewelry from the now-closed Ming's store in town and Gump's in San Francisco, and silk dresses from twenties Shanghai.
The Big Island
In the past, it was customary for families to keep several houses—beach shacks and mountain cabins, really—on the different islands. Some summers, my family went to Hanalei on the island of Kauai to a big wooden house on the beach. There was a screened porch on the second floor, where we children and our innumerable guests slept, with a row of 10 single beds, 10 little rickety bedside tables, and 10 lamps. There were 10 hooks on the walls for our few clothes. It was like the room Snow White shared with the Seven Dwarfs. We were in the water all day. We bathed in the outdoor shower. Sometimes when it was very hot we went to a cabin in the mountains of Kokee, in Kauai. Sometimes to a lovely white house on the beach at Punaluu on the north shore of Oahu. Sometimes to a beach house in Kona, on the Big Island.
A few hours from Kona, after driving through the cowboy enclave of Waimea, is the small town of Hilo, which has maintained its provincial languor longer than most. It resembles, in the main street that faces Hilo Bay, a turn-of-the-20th-century town, complete with one- and two-story wooden buildings. All that is missing is a hitching post. Although a mall has been built less than 10 minutes away, the storefronts of Hilo retain their irresistible appeal.
There's a shop on Hilo's main street called Hana Hou (164 Kamehameha Ave.; 808/935-4555)—Hawaiian for "one more time." It is owned by the inventive Michele Zane-Faridi, who sells black South Sea pearls, vintage aloha shirts, sarongs and muumuus, and ivory and shell jewelry. She creates her own women's fashions based on designs of the forties and fifties. She also has a collection of the small-brimmed, round hats called Kona hats, an essential part of our wardrobe until the late sixties. Once you have decked yourself in a vintage dress or an aloha shirt, head down the highway to Richardson Ocean Park. The black-sand beach is planted with coconut palms. The path to the ocean winds past ancient ﬁsh ponds, cut into the lava rock, that once held the king's mullet and shrimp. The snorkeling around the edges of the bay is among the best on the island.
I go to Molokai when I need solitude. I go to Molokai to hunt deer. And I go to Molokai (as I have for the past 40 years) when I long for the old ways. The island, once called the Forbidden Isle because of the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the north coast, is little visited to this day. With a population of 7,000 people, most of them native Hawaiian, the slender strip of land, running 40 miles from west to east, remains a secret place. There is one good hotel, the Lodge and Beach Village at Molokai Ranch [Editor's note: Molokai Ranch has closed since the publication of this article.], with 22 rooms in the lodge and 40 "tentalows" on the broad flank of the hill overlooking the dry western half of the island. Local people and old-timers, or kamaainas, prefer the east end of Molokai with its valleys, waterfalls, and rain forests. Pretty cottages on the ocean may be rented from a kamaaina landowner, Kip Dunbar, at Dunbar Beachfront Cottages (Mile 19, Hwy. 450 E., Kaunakakai; 800/673-0520 or 808/558-8362; www.molokai-beachfront-cottages.com; cottages from $170, three-night minimum). There is a good natural-foods store, fittingly called the Outpost (70 Makaena Place; 808/553-3377), and a grocery in the town of Kaunakakai. The liquor store has guava chiffon cakes from Dee-Lite Bakery ﬂown in several times a week.
One of the most beautiful beaches in all of Hawaii is at Halawa, at the far eastern end of the island. Drive past the ﬁsh ponds (designated national landmarks) that skirt the coast like a ruffled green velvet gown, past the deep mountain valleys, past the surfing spot called Rock Point, and through the verdant pastureland of Puu O Hoku Ranch to the valley of Halawa. Two high waterfalls mark the far end of the valley, flowing into a slender river that winds its way to the ocean. We used to ride our horses into the valley, and "swim" them in the cold river. You may hike through the valley to the falls, climbing past the temple platforms, called heiau, and ancient house sites and taro patches. During the summer months, my brothers and I would travel by outrigger canoe to the north coast of Molokai, inaccessible by land and inaccessible altogether in the high seas of winter, to camp on the beaches where in ancient times fishing villages once flourished. Sometimes we found artifacts—bone ﬁshhooks and stone poi pounders—that we then hid, lest they be taken from us and given to the Bishop Museum. My brother once found a cache of small stone disks called ulumaika, used in a game similar to bowls, and secreted them so well that he could not remember their hiding place. He looked for them each summer, but never found them. You can arrange for a local boy named Junior Dudoit (808/558-8937) to take you to the isolated north coast. Perhaps you will find my brother's treasure.
Although the island of Niihau, 17 miles off the west coast of Kauai, remains the property of the Robinson family and closed to outsiders, it is possible for experienced divers to make day trips to explore underwater caverns, dense with black coral trees. The journey across the channel takes about two hours and can be rough. Bubbles Below Scuba Charters (808/332-7333; $260 per person; summer only) cautions divers that they will share "water space with resident sharks." Niihau Helicopters (877/441-3500; half-day excursions $325 per person) also makes trips to the island for the safer pastimes of sunbathing, staring at monk seals, collecting tiny Niihau shells, and snorkeling.