Often when I am deskbound at the office I do what millions of others routinely do: Google my escape. I do this not by scanning for more books I won’t read or by taking up the kind offers made by Internet services eager to improve the quality of my lovemaking or reunite me with dear pals of ancient childhood whose very existence I had somehow forgotten. What I do is log onto a Webcam. This one is set above a stretch of sand in Waikiki, Hawaii, and if I click in at the right time, the sun will have just risen over the blank Pacific and swept the shadows (and the meth heads) from beneath the royal palms that form an arcade at Kuhio Beach. The day’s earliest surfers will be knee-paddling toward rows of coved whitecaps and then abruptly flattening themselves to their boards as they thrust their shoulders through the first sets of waves, toward breaks known as Pops or Paradise or Canoes.
It is easy enough at such times to will myself across an ocean and conjure the physical pleasure of shedding shirt and shoes in the mild morning air, then padding past the platform displaying the neolithic wizard stones of Kapaemahu, the same ones transported to Waikiki, in some mystifying fashion, from a distant place in Oahu a long while back and put to religious use until some hapless clod in 1940 rolled them into the foundation of his new bowling alley.
As my projection propels me along the sidewalk, I pass the godlike statue of the lei-garlanded Olympic swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku, and then the more baleful one of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, an adopted son of a royal household once jailed by U.S. colonials for the treason of claiming his family’s hereditary right to the monarchy, who nevertheless later willed this beachfront to the City of Honolulu.
The Waikiki we know was not Prince Kuhio’s creation entirely. But it did come about as a result of his final bequest, a legacy that, in its modest way, altered Hawaiian history by setting in play the making of Waikiki as the prototype of a tropical island paradise. The prince belongs, then, to a line of visionaries who saw and understood the exceptional qualities of this crescent of sand and clear water, bounded at the time by a swamp on one side and, on another, an ancient royal coconut grove.
Like Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London and Mark Twain and most every journalistic tourist who has ever made landfall in Hawaii (and like the Marquesas Islanders said to have paddled here an eon ago in colossal canoes), I come to Waikiki in some sense to find myself. Back in cold Manhattan, I had begun to feel like a puppet, a head and a pair of industrious hands attached to a keyboard, the whole manipulated by some unseen and not altogether benign intelligence.
Now, as I walk along Kuhio Beach toward the jutting olivine mass of Diamond Head, some ineluctable process begins to take over, a feeling of being reanimated, as if by Geppetto’s breath. A surfer greets me with the all-purpose shaka, middle three fingers curled, thumb and pinkie extended, hand rotated at the wrist. I return the greeting without thinking, as though that is how I always say hello.
Back in 1916 a writer from the mainland struck out at the clichés that tended to describe Hawaii in the era before World War II, a period when the islands were still largely defined by popular South Seas fiction, with its stock characters and hack motifs. Say Hawaii, Katharine Fullerton Gerould sniffed, and most people think of “sugar, surf-riding, volcanoes, leis, missionaries, and poi.” Or of copra traders, whalers, tractable natives, and, as the writer Victoria Nelson once pointed out, “beautiful half-breed females who always died young.”
Not much has changed since those days, complained Wai Ahquin, a salesman at Bob’s Ukulele, a small shop in the renovated Royal Hawaiian Center, which neighbors a new “entertainment plaza” called Waikiki Beach Walk. Bob’s sells one product mainly, the evocative and characteristically Hawaiian four-string guitar. There are ukes of ribbon-grained koa that cost hundreds and soprano ukes of mahogany that go for $90 and touristy ones of laminated wood for 50 bucks. That a market exists for ukuleles would be surprising were not the theme music piped into Waikiki’s streets the plaintive voice of Israel Kamakawiwoole, the singer and man-mountain whose unearthly falsetto and ukulele playing have become an even stronger part of Hawaii’s aural texture since he died in 1997. There is hardly anywhere one can go in Waikiki without hearing Iz’s version of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” transformed from a song about an imaginary neverland into one about neverland as home.