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The Hawaiian Paradise of Waikiki

© Noe Dewitt Houses below Diamond Head, with Waikiki in the distance.

Photo: Noe Dewitt

“You know, people come all the way across the ocean to Hawaii and most of the time they don’t even know where they are,” Ahquin said. Sometimes when people utter the word aloha, he said, “it hurts my ear.”

The complex communal concept implied by the term has come to mean everything and anything here, and nothing at all. “For Hawaiian people, aloha is not just a tourist slogan you can buy and sell,” Ahquin said. “We’re still living it.”

This may be. But real aloha is not always easy to find in Waikiki, whose transformation from a resort of the Hawaiian princely castes to something better suited to mainland appetites began long ago. Not for decades have people even been able to agree on a unified idea of what Waikiki is, or should be.

The public face of Waikiki is the oceanfront proscenium of grand tourist hotels, a mid-Pacific version of Potemkin Village that hides a less fanciful place crammed with ordinary people and the messy props and stage furniture of real life.

Life in those streets “was dark,” said a friend who grew up in Waikiki. “Dark in all sorts of ways.” The place of her girlhood was complex and tacky, a warren of funky lanes off the main drag, Kalakaua Avenue, packed with budget hotels, dive bars, tattoo parlors, hookers, and low-cost housing where the lanais were decorated not with rattan chaises and potted philodendron but rusted Schwinns, scabbed surfboards, cheap webbed beach chairs, and anything else that wouldn’t fit indoors.

Although I loved that older, loamier Waikiki, I recognize that my affection for the louche and rundown runs counter to most people’s tastes. It is certainly at odds with the ambitions of those who promote the tourism that currently accounts for a quarter of all Hawaiian state revenue.

Plenty of charmingly funky elements remain, and plenty of dangerous ones too. But the expansion and civic cleanups of the past few years have made for fewer holes-in-the-wall selling the carbohydrate bombs known as plate lunch, and stands offering shave ice from crank-handled Hatsuyuki shavers, flavored with coconut syrup or lilikoi or the sourball tartness of li hing mui.

The most recent and most ambitious such expansion was the Waikiki Beach Walk project, which in the 1990’s committed $585 million in public and private funds to transform eight acres of dive bars and budget hotels within an elbow of land framed by Lewers Street, Fort DeRussy Park, and Kalakaua Avenue.

To design for and build on the patchwork of real estate that became the walk took years. Construction was finished not long before I made my recent visit, and the result, said another friend who grew up in Honolulu, was to make Waikiki look like Denver but with better beach access.

My view was less harsh. True, the Beach Walk was as conceptually seamless as most malls—92,000 square feet of retailing fantasy anchored by four new or renovated hotels. Sure, its aesthetic phoniness could launch many a pretentious grad school paper on scripted, facsimile spaces. But I liked its update on Hawaiiana, its landscaped islands of fan palms, its meandering pathways, the crossed tiki torches lighting the way to the 40 new retail stores and 6 new restaurants.

Markedly unlike most of the luxury-goods outposts around it, the Waikiki Beach Walk seemed less like an unwholesome chunk of Rodeo Drive grafted onto Oahu than a more restrained, mercantile version of the North Shore’s Polynesian Cultural Center. There, the Michener-esque South Pacific fantasia has been packaged as a pan-Polynesian day-trip destination, replete with fire-eaters, hula maidens, tattooed Maori, and an all-you-can-eat luau, where the pig you are served has likely been pit-roasted by a missionary working for the Church of Latter Day Saints, which owns the place.

Ultimately I found that the Waikiki Beach Walk summoned up something of the aura of the resort in the bygone days, when the Lurline still docked near the Aloha Tower, carrying well-heeled San Franciscans and Angelenos to a place that—before the territory was annexed as a state in 1959—was still a manicured Pacific playground whose greeters hung orchid leis around your neck upon arrival and whose aloha was not yet part of a hoary script.

And after all, that was part of why the Waikiki Beach Walk was built. What was the goal if not to recapture the remaining scraps of the aloha spirit—even if only in facsimile—and with them to reverse the losses felt by an industry badly hit by shifting consumer tastes; the airline fuel hikes that had forced the closing of the major inter-island carrier, Aloha, the week I arrived; and the perception that, as one hotelier said, “Our product is not competing well globally, and that is something we’ve never had to deal with before.”

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