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The Hawaiian Paradise of Waikiki

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

Photo: Noe Dewitt

For years before the new development, you had to pass through a weather-beaten strip of motels and fast-food restaurants to reach the Halekulani, a justifiably fabled hotel that stood in chastely monied anonymity in the midst of, and yet separate from, the urban muddle all around. Now that Lewers Street is shined up, the Halekulani seems similarly refreshed.

It is not that anything notable has changed. The cool open lobbies are the same as ever and so are the gardens and so is the aura of deep calm broken only by the sound of the surf by the pool and beachside restaurant, where the novelist Susanna Moore was a greeter when she was a girl.

A snapshot taken from my room’s lanai at any point over the decades would show the same result: Diamond Head’s shadowed prow, serried rows of whitecaps, surfers practicing the sport known to early Hawaiians as wave sliding.

True, one would have to Photoshop the multistory hotels out of the picture and mentally elide the abundant problems not visible through a lens. It’s logical enough that the urban blights like theft and meth addiction and gay bashing that periodically beset contemporary Hawaii tend to concentrate in one of the few places in the islands where liberal social mores and also wealth are openly on display.

Friends who live above the city in the cool heights of Tantalus tend to be snooty about the beach at Waikiki. They talk about it in the disdainful tone Upper East Siders reserve for the Jersey Shore. Yet even they confess to being lured by the surf breaks at a place known as In Between, or by the honky-tonk karaoke nightlife, or by the great sushi served at a nondescript joint in the Waikiki Beach Marriott arcade.

Those who are members of the Outrigger Canoe Club, or have friends who are, like to talk about how pleasantly anachronistic it feels to idle on the lanai sipping iced tea with pineapple slices and watch the beach boys in front of the Royal Hawaiian rake the sand. But that can hardly be more pleasant than sitting at the Halekulani and becoming pleasantly looped on one of the stealthy mai tais turned out by the bartender at the open-air beachfront bar and restaurant called House Without a Key.

Every night there, shaded by an ancient kiawe tree, a trio plays bass and slack-key guitar and sings Hawaiian tunes that have been performed for decades in this place. It had never occurred to me to ask how the institution came by its curious name, and so I was surprised to learn from the hotel’s chief operating officer, Peter Shaindlin, that before House Without a Key was a bar and restaurant it was a Charlie Chan mystery.

Who in the world has actually read this period piece by the comically named Earl Derr Biggers?No one has. Yet that is no reason to miss out on a charming literary curiosity whose ethnic stereotypes are by now so creaky they’re more amusing than offensive, and whose so-called mystery is not half as interesting as the book’s depiction of the evolution of Hawaii from an island chain populated chiefly by Hawaiians and the descendants of white Christian missionaries to a place where the most incredible chromatic dispersion greets one at every turn.

“The bulk of the island population, as everyone knows, is Japanese—some 90,000 as against 24,000 Hawaiians and an equal number of all Caucasians,” Gerould, herself no slouch in the racism department (she saved her worst for descriptions of Hawaii’s few Slavs and the “scum” of the Levantine), wrote in 1916.

As for the rest, Gerould continues, a census of that time noted the medley of nationalities imported to the islands as plantation workers—Chinese and Filipinos and Portuguese and “a few thousand each of Porto Ricans, Spanish and all others.’’ World War II, Vietnam, and the period that followed brought new waves of arrivals, among them the family of a biracial candidate for the U.S. presidency.

One result of a century of race blending is the parade of beauty visible any day along Kalakaua Avenue. In Waikiki I love to wake early, slip on a T-shirt, shorts, and some flip-flops and, walking idly and in no particular direction, fall into the flow.

Sometimes I end up at Diamond Head. Sometimes I get no farther than Kapiolani Park. I have spent entire mornings on the undulating walkways of the Honolulu Zoo, pausing to inspect a massive immobile tortoise taking a dust bath, then gawping at the unlikely spectacle of an ambulating landmass, which turns out to be a black rhinoceros.

Sometimes I book a cab from Waikiki to the Honolulu Academy of the Arts or the Bishop Museum. The Bishop is a kind of heaven for me, not least because among its 77,089 collected ethnological objects is a densely grained longboard carved from a plank of wiliwili and worn from years of use by Abner Paki, whose daughter Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop bequeathed the land that became the multimillion-dollar trust underwriting the museum, the celebrated Kamehameha School, and much else that contributes to the preservation of Hawaiian-ness, the most fragile of the state’s many contested and endangered aspects.

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