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Play it as it Leis

The reasons not to visit Honolulu are pretty close to the ones that make it irresistible. Nobody (well, just 70 percent of all visitors to Hawaii) ever goes there. Although not one of the largest cities in the United States, Honolulu is beset with the kind of urban problems a few coconut palms can't obscure. It's an overdeveloped, honky-tonk town that just happens to be farther from a continental landmass than any other city of its size in the world. It's also a robustly kitschy place, whose air is not so much scented by fragrant island breezes as it is slicked by a top note of Hawaiian Tropic SPF 2.

Travel snobs hate the place. They slag the crowds wandering Kalakaua Avenue in cheap shirts from Hilo Hattie. They bypass the faded hotels (of Matson cruise line vintage), now effectively turned into Asian wedding factories. They deride the charter-jet shoppers who descend from Narita to scour the luxury stores packed along Kalakaua Avenue. They complain about the traffic, the theft, the paucity of decent restaurants, the sun-bleached vagrants who resemble human photo negatives, and the fact that beach boys no longer rake the sand outside the Royal Hawaiian hotel. In general they spend just enough time on Oahu to do some business and then hop jets to other islands, not always in the Hawaiian chain.

All the same, tourism is reportedly up in Oahu, domestic travelers taking up some of the slack from Japanese tourists, whose tastes in travel have apparently shifted west to Europe. But the island feels unshiny, vaguely second-rate. The biggest tourist attraction (after the USS Arizona) is still the Polynesian Cultural Center, where many of the staff members are not Polynesians at all, but young Mormons (the village is Mormon-run) working off their college bills at the adjacent university. A lot of blather is heard about creating new attractions on Oahu: water parks, ever bigger and more surreally viridescent golf courses, new eco-fantasias.

But the obvious, if unremarked, irony in all this was once captured in another context by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who pointed out the invigorating effects of putting old structures to new uses. It seems weird that Jacobs's ethos of reexamination and reuse has made few inroads in Honolulu, where the social and cultural armature of Old Hawaii is ignored in favor of the bogus, and not even the deliriously fun fakery of bad luaus and painted wahines in coconut-shell bras.

I love all that stuff, the ubiquitous rump-shaking floor shows, the lava drinks, the pupu platters, the hyperactive fire dancers twirling their flaming batons. And I don't see any particular harm, either, in Harry and Martha getting plastered on watered-down cocktails at a discount hukilau. What disturbs me, however, is how few visitors to Oahu realize that there is another Hawaii hidden in plain sight.

The place I am thinking of seamlessly fuses kitsch with customs that have existed immemorially. It's a Hawaii of serious surfing and also the retail flotsam of surfer culture; of ancient hula and head-bobbing hula dolls; of superb-but-pricey Pacific fusion cuisine and the starchy, stomach-filling, truly pancultural local staple known as "plate lunch."

A fine example of the proximity of the ridiculous to the sublime can be found at the International Marketplace, a cheesy bazaar started in the 1950's by Donn Beach as an adjunct to his Don the Beachcomber restaurant. For decades, the International Marketplace has magnetized tourists to its alfresco welter of lava rock, thatch, and bamboo. There you can purchase T-shirts with muscular torsos printed on them, as well as polyurethaned driftwood clocks and cheap wood tikis imported from Indonesia.

On my last visit to Oahu, I encountered a sailor bargaining for tiki with a wizened Samoan vendor.

"What does this mean?" the sailor inquired of the sunbaked ancient, who had a plumeria tucked behind one ear.

"Good luck," she said listlessly. "Love, prosperity, whatever."

"Sex?"

"Sure. That too."

A few miles away from the International Marketplace stands another tiki, an authentic Polynesian monolith unceremoniously erected on the lawn of the Bishop Museum. This lava-rock sculpture has the sort of mana that could trigger a Geiger counter; local devotees regularly propitiate it with food and leis.

Yet my guess is that few visitors to Hawaii know it exists, or care. This is the reality alluded to by a wall text inside the museum that explains how "the arrival of Westerners produced powerful currents of change, leading to the cosmopolitan mix of modern Hawaii." Elements of tradition persist as a major force within contemporary society, the label goes on to understate the case, and "modern Hawaiians continue to draw inspirations from na hana a ka poe kahiko—the works of the people of old."

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