Published: April 2009
By Guy Trebay
Searching for the Hawaii that his parents knew, <b>Guy Trebay</b> finds his ideal on the Big Island, where there's sea and sky for everyone and where the present is enriched by a reverence for the past
When I was a teenager in the 1960's, my father had a business in Hawaii. The stuff he manufactured sold the idea of a place that did not exist to people who did not seem to know the difference or care. The products had a Hawaiian theme that was largely of my dad's invention, a confabulation of images from movies and surfer culture and the Jack London stories he used to fill his head and dreams with during an odd and often lonely boyhood in New York.
For some time my father did pretty well with this business, or well enough for my mother and him to make frequent visits to the islands, which then, as now, seemed very far away. There are photographs from those trips that show two handsome and startlingly young people, one too much aware of the camera and one with a distracted expression that inevitably seems focused beyond the lens. My father wears a smart, conservative jacket and tie, and my mother a shift from Liberty and a lustrous braid that was an affectation of the time. She, in particular, appears very tan, and her hair falls over one shoulder. There is usually a flower, a plumeria blossom, tucked behind her left ear.
The reasons none of my siblings or I ever accompanied our parents on those journeys are obscure to me now. I cannot or prefer not to remember why we were left in the care of the ill-equipped people my parents employed. I do know that Hawaii was a place that was theirs alone and I know, too, from the photographs, that these were the happiest times of their lives. This, at any rate, is the story I have chosen to believe, since not long after the pictures were taken, the happiness I read into them became something far different. Possibly it was her fate my mother appears to be looking for in the photographs. Perhaps the object of her gaze was events that she could sense approaching, but could not yet foresee.
Less than a decade from the time I am describing, my father's business would be lost, my mother dead, and myself a man who would go on to spend much of his adulthood wondering how everything had gone so rapidly and entirely wrong. I would pursue the answer to this riddle in many strange places and countries and also for years in a quiet room where another man listened wordlessly as I asked the same questions steadfastly and often until I began to see the pursuit as a form of meditative exercise.
During those years I also came to understand that, although the wreckage of life rarely has a satisfying explanation, there is a real place called Hawaii and its coordinates are fixed. That many divergent realities can lay claim to any given territory I have also come to comprehend. Yet at the moment I am indulging a Hawaiian reality my parents would surely have recognized and loved, as I have come to do.i am sitting at the edge of the ocean with my feet in the white sand at a surreally luxurious Big Island resort sculpted from a pahoehoe lava plain. I am watching the sun go down over the Pacific with a Hollywood flourish that lights the horizon magenta and pink. A man named Kevin Kealoha is crooning in an unearthly falsetto. The song he is singing is called "My Little Grass Shack." All that is lacking to complete this cliché is a drink with a parasol.
"My Little Grass Shack" is a famous island novelty, of course: an aural postcard from that era when Matson liners put in at the port of Honolulu and "hula girls" greeted passengers from the Lurline with orchid leis. To call the song silly and banal is to overstate the case a bit, and also to miss its value to me.
In the postcard of Hawaii, one island tends to blur into another until the disparate physical, cultural, and spiritual ecologies of the place dissolve. I have spent a great deal of time in the state, for both psychic and occupational reasons. And unlike a certain American lady of letters, who once expressed her distaste for the linguistic meanings of "gentle hula hands," I am persuaded of what the culture can yield to anyone who troubles to look beyond the beach boys raking the sand outside one's luxury hotel.
Over the years, I have hiked the cool upland flanks of Haleakala Crater and driven the tortured switchbacks of the Hana Highway on Maui. I have done time on Oahu, the one island squarely located in the 21st century—Dior bags, homeless people, and all. I have holed up for extended periods on Kauai, where it never fails to surprise me how seamlessly one can ease away from clock time and into a rhythm that makes it natural to spend days traipsing through abandoned cane fields on red-dirt tracks patterned with squashed frogs and stained with the juice of Kokee plums.
Of the major Hawaiian islands, the Big Island is the one my parents visited least often. And yet it is the one that consistently draws me back, and for reasons that are none too mysterious. What always surprises me about the Big Island is how much of it is unspoiled, not yet disfigured by developers and architects and their inevitable misapprehensions of place and blunders of scale. There is much that would be recognizable to the people my parents were in the 1960's, and also to a German traveler of 150 years ago who was already sounding a warning that has since become a ritual complaint.
In 1852, this traveler bemoaned the effects of outside contact on Hawaii: along with bowling, ships had imported to the islands live theater and even a circus. Tightrope walkers were the least of what Hawaiians had to fear from the people who had already brought the rat, the mosquito, and syphilis as house gifts. If there was reason back then to worry that the people of Hawaii would never excavate themselves from under the cultural detritus being cast on their shores by uninvited strangers, there certainly is now.
But there is also the sense that the vaguely missionary concerns of the professional hand-wringers are no longer warranted, Hawaiians themselves having taken their own problems in hand. True, the claims put forth lately by civic boosters of a Hawaiian renaissance are predicated mainly on the introduction of Hawaiian language programs at local universities and belied by counts showing that pure-blooded Hawaiians number fewer than 5,000. (In 1876, 90 percent of the islands' population of 55,000 was Hawaiian or partly Hawaiian.) And not enough has been done to stanch the state's hemorrhage of biological diversity. Nearly half the 114 species that became extinct in the first two decades of the federal Endangered Species Act were native to Hawaii.
Still, there are signs that optimism is not entirely out of place—among them, the fact that some towns on the Big Island continue to fit Mark Twain's characterization of Kailua as "the sleepiest, quietest, Sundayest looking place you can imagine." Kailua itself may not be too Sunday-looking anymore, its honky-tonk atmosphere cranked up whenever a luxury liner puts in. "I don't care if I sit or stand or walk or fall down with it, I want me a mai tai," one cruise ship escapee was heard to say on my recent visit, as he and some pals lurched past the 19th-century coral-rock Hulihee Palace.
Inside the palace, Auntie Nona Wong, a docent with an implacable expression and white hair arranged in a sugarloaf coiffure, explained to a visitor that the mahogany four-posters, koa calabashes, and feathered staffs of nobility, or kahilis, were all original to the place, left by the estate of the Anglophile aristocrat David Kalakaua, widely known as the Merrie Monarch. From the palace lanai, it was easy enough to catch wind of another form of merriment, as a DJ called out the winners of a Big Booty contest at a nearby hotel facing Kailua Bay.
I had stopped into town to buy writing pads, and headed out the minute my errand was done. Soon I found myself in snoozy Kapaau in northern Kohala, sheltering from a midday cloudburst beneath the branches of a monkeypod tree. A short while after that, I drove on to Pololu, where the road ends abruptly outside a former mule skinner's house overlooking the remote Hamakua coastline, and then started down a trail, through a series of valleys, that cuts in rocky switchbacks and ends on the black-sand beach where the ocean and Waipio Valley converge.
The view from the trailhead is of vertiginous green cliffs, called palis, and from the beach below, of limitless ocean and the notch where the shoreline connects to the valley's spooky interior. At no point was I more than 55 miles from the international airport at Kona, the place where Hollywood types park when they fly in on their Gulfstream jets.
This scrap of mileage trivia is offered to lend some scale to the grandiose claims often made for the largest of the Hawaiian islands, a 4,000-square-mile hunk of rock at the southernmost end of the chain. The Big Island is indeed big, but not so much so that a day is required to circumnavigate it. Hawaii is the youngest of the state's islands and still growing, as locals like to point out. Land formed from the incessant hysterics of the island's active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, extends more deeply into the sea each year. People like to say of the Big Island that you could fit all the other islands of the state into it, and still have room to spare, mentioning less often that a mere 10 percent of the state's overall population lives there.
Until just a decade ago, the Big Island consistently lost inhabitants as its agricultural industries dwindled and, in some cases, went belly-up. But just as macadamia nuts took over from coffee and coffee from sugar, so speculative real estate has become the money crop. Over the past two years, people have been buying up huge swaths of land, helping themselves to prices that seem to a mainlander like bargains even though housing costs have escalated crazily in less than a year. Investors including Charles Schwab have slowly revealed their plans to develop the mauka, or mountain-facing, side of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway in Kona, one of America's great scenic roadways. Yet the island remains wide-open, hundreds of thousands of acres still actively worked as ranchland and preserved in parks and resistant to any incursion, so long as the volcano goddess is in lively form.
From the window of the inter-island terminal at the Honolulu airport, I sat waiting for my puddle jumper and watching as a cloud bank settled gray on the ground. The cloud got stranded by a downdraft and then slipped free to roll and drift in the sky. In its wake came a mist and one of the double rainbows that, as Mark Twain observed, are as common in Hawaii as potholes.
I decided to consider the rainbows an augury, an emblem of my own temporary release, not from anything so clichéd as my quotidian concerns, but from a guilty sense that I have too readily permitted certain needful elements of my life to fall into desuetude. Living in New York requires plenty of sacrifices; mostly, the city honors the debt. But lately I have started to question my own willingness to relinquish access to big slabs of open sky and the notion that the smells I daily encounter will not axiomatically be urine or diesel fumes. Is it a sign that mental rot has begun its inexorable creep, I wondered, to concede a certain fondness for the scent of jasmine carried on a breeze?It probably is. So what?
The last thing it interests me to do here is sentimentalize the islands, with their grim employment levels, troubled educational system, crystal meth problems, and the various other features of a ripe underbelly that Hollywood and the Hawaiian writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka have exploited to equally vivid effect. Hawaii is the island that gave hospitality to both Captain Cook and Kevin Costner, who lived at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel while he made Waterworld. One of the two was clubbed to death for his sins against the island; alas, in my opinion, they got the wrong man.
It seems fairly obvious to me now that my affection for Hawaii was bequeathed to me by my parents, albeit in a roundabout way. It has also become clear over many trips and years that once I stopped looking in Hawaii for a past that never existed, I could start to take note of my own moments there, and days. I could liberate myself from the burden of psychic archaeology to mark instead the simple meaning of graffiti spelled out in white-coral rock on hummocks of black lava all along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. KALANI LOVES LEILANI, they read, or ALOHA REDLANDS, or the sprightly DO ME. Of the many legacies carried to Hawaii by the Asian laborers imported to work the sugar fields, one was Buddhism. And any Buddhist can tell you that building those greetings stone by stone is a fundamentally prayerful act.
Hawaii may be one of the few remaining American places infused with the simple holiness of things done by hand. The human touch is felt there in all sorts of uncomplicated ways. Wilson's by the Sea is a dinky storefront in downtown Hilo. Its proprietor, Ley son Sakai, is a young beauty with aquamarine eyes who grinds and packs shaved-ice cones herself. They are sold in sizes regular, small, and keiki, Hawaiian for "child." Ms. Sakai fills the paper cones with crystals of perfect snowy texture before tamping large domes on the top. Then she drizzles the result with sweet syrup: rainbow-colored for the tourists, and for locals lilikoi or li hing mui.
"I make the syrup," said Ms. Sakai, who packages her own preserved plums and ginger and mango slices, as well as dried lemon peel, by hand. She dusts the snacks with powdered li hing mui, a puckeringly astringent Asian spice whose aroma is suggestive of footwear ripened in the tropical sun. "This used to be the candy during plantation times," Ms. Sakai said.
Li hing mui is not the only extant reminder of those days. The last sugar plantation on the Hamakua coast closed as recently as 1994, and many of the storefronts in Hilo survived both the sugar bust and the tsunamis that twice inundated the city during the 20th century. Many of the flat-front frame buildings that seem like sets for western movies are marked with the proud dates of their construction. Some, like the Art Deco sugar board building, are just as legibly fixed in time by their anachronistic style.
The storefronts are holdouts and so, too, are some of Hilo's citizens. The wizened sisters in Sugawara Lauhala & Gift Shop on Kalakaua Street have operated this establishment for 42 years. They still sell the same goods—hats and baskets and ladylike clutches woven from pandanus leaves, a craft they picked up from locals during the Second World War.
"We were five sisters, first-generation Japanese-Americans," June Sugawara told me one afternoon as the town thronged with athletes who'd arrived to participate in the 11th Biennial Vaa Races, outrigger canoe races then under way in Hilo Bay. "During the war we used to send all our weavings to Honolulu. We opened this shop later, to sell things ourselves."
The decision to take up an old Hawaiian craft was a matter of happenstance, said Ms. Sugawara. "People wove lauhala just to keep busy, because they had begun planting coffee and coffee takes a long time to grow," she explained. "You have to do something with the time."
Or else you do not. I accomplish less, and more satisfyingly, on Hawaii than any place else I know. I drive around. I wander, always with the certainty that serendipity will provide something along the way. I pull over whenever I encounter roadside card tables set up with displays of homegrown produce and honor boxes. I buy sweet white pineapples, orchids, and home-roasted macadamia nuts. I pick up star fruit and anthurium and papaya and kiawe honey and am stopped short of buying some gleaming chunks of line-caught ahi by the realization that the fish won't do much for the scent of my hotel room.
That the room is spectacularly located at a Kona-Kohala coast resort is, naturally enough, quite appealing. And there are those who would find it perverse that I opt to forgo the Four Seasons Hualalai's fabled pampering in favor of rattling around in my rental car. Perhaps, I remind myself, it makes sybaritic sense to indulge in the spa's lomilomi massages or bob in the reef-protected swimming enclosure where two sea turtles come each day to hang out. But to do that would be to skip the long hike to the green-sand beach at Ka Lae, not convincingly green, although indisputably the southernmost point of land in the United States. And it would be to miss out on the black beach in Pololu, where one morning I sat by the ocean, alone—or so I thought until a cowboy clattered out over the lava rocks on horseback, leading a burro with two full panniers of what I assumed was marijuana strapped on its back.
One humid afternoon in Hilo, I stopped to observe the vaa races. A statuesque Maori queen was there to watch the contestants paddle in boats substantially the same as those that transported the first Polynesians here. I wandered around the bayfront park, packed with athletes lazing on lauhala mats and snoozing beneath their upturned outriggers. That this scene resembled a picture by Paul Gauguin somehow thrilled me. Suddenly I felt a rush of sympathy for the reprobate genius, and a will to defend him from the scholars who have lately recast him as a horny, colonialist pig.
"So many representations of Hawaii are not accurate," Sig Zane told me one afternoon in his store in downtown Hilo. Zane and his wife, Nalani Kanakaole, a kumu hula, or hula master, are well-known on the Big Island. He is celebrated for the handsome aloha clothing he designs using stylized depictions of indigenous plants. She is revered and not a little feared as a spiritual leader whose line to the volcano goddess, Madame Pele, is considered to be direct.
"When we started the business, so many things were dying out," said Mr. Zane, referring to the late 1970's. "Aloha clothes used images of plants that don't even grow on Hawaii. Aloha culture was generally bogus. And nobody went about things with any of the old understandings." And what, I inquired, were those understandings, exactly?"If you were going to make a lei, you had to have the best leaves, the best flowers, the best petals," he replied. "This showed the most respect for the recipient and for yourself. It showed your seriousness in what you were doing. And it showed that you understood the Hawaiian way."
Casual visitors to Hawaii can hardly be expected to grasp "all the depth of the place, especially when they are force-fed something shallow," Mr. Zane conceded. That is why his wife and her family—Nalani Kanakaole's mother, the revered hula teacher Edith Kanakaole, is widely credited with reviving that dance on the islands—encourage their students "to go deeper and deeper into the culture," so it will not die. "I don't know about a renaissance, but the bar has already been lifted many, many times," Mr. Zane, whose own forebears came from China to Hawaii on a writ of indenture, said merrily. "People are only beginning to understand that you are missing an important point if you don't see how much richer your life will be when you pay attention to your ancestors." At the time, I recorded Mr. Zane's sentiments automatically and without much attention to their meaning. It was only later, at home, that his words brought back abruptly the image of my parents on a lanai at the Outrigger Club in Honolulu, my father in his natty sports coat, my mother in her print dress with a scented flower behind one ear. Specifically, this occurred as I typed Mr. Zane's observation that "none of us is the first person in Hawaii or anywhere, really. Each of us just happens to be here now, standing at the front of a long line."
GUY TREBAY is a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
A low-rise property with a spectacular beachside setting carved into lava fields.
DOUBLES FROM $540
800/332-3442 OR 808/325-8000 www.fourseasons.com
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
A stylish temple to modern luxury on the Kohala coast.
DOUBLES FROM $385
800/367-2323 OR 808/885-6622; www.maunalani.com
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
The granddaddy of island resorts, built by Laurance S. Rockefeller and decorated
with his private art collection.
DOUBLES FROM $360
866/774-6236 OR 808/882-7222; www.maunakeabeachhotel.com
WHERE TO EAT
Opened last year by a pair of New York art dealers, Kaikodo serves innovative takes on plantation cooking and excellent sushi.
DINNER FOR TWO $80
60 KEAWE ST., HILO; 808/961-2558
A local favorite for steaks and fish in the upland ranch country.
DINNER FOR TWO $50
OPELO PLAZA, 65-1227A OPELO RD., KAMUELA; 808/885-6325
Chef Peter Merriman emphasizes fresh produce in dishes like Kailua pig and wok-charred ahi.
DINNER FOR TWO $60
OPELO PLAZA, 65-1227 OPELO RD., KAMUELA; 808/885-6822; www.merrimanshawaii.com
Nanbu Courtyard Café
This unassuming lunch spot in the quiet town of Kapaau has homemade soups and sandwiches.
LUNCH FOR TWO $20
54-3885 AKONI PULE HWY., KAPAAU 808/889-5546
WHERE TO SHOP
Sugawara Lauhala & Gift Shop
Woven pandanus-leaf items in a World War II-era store.
59 KALAKAUA ST., HILO; 808/935-8071
Wilson's by the Bay
Homemade plantation-era candies and shaved ice.
224 KAMEHAMEHA AVE., HILO; 808/969-9191
Sig Zane Designs
The best aloha shirts and board shorts in the islands.
122 KAMEHAMEHA AVE., HILO; 808/935-7077
Kohala Book Shop
Superbly stocked used-book store, deep in Hawaiiana.
54-3885 AKONI PULE HWY., KAPAAU; 808/889-6400; www.kohalabooks.com
Akatsuka Orchid Gardens
More than 3,000 varieties of plants. You can have a good orchid shipped for less than $50.
MILE MARKER 221/2, HWY. 11, VOLCANO; 808/967-8234
WHAT TO DO
Former residence of Hawaiian royalty, now a museum.
75-5718 ALII DR., KAILUA-KONA 808/329-1877; www.huliheepalace.org
Pacific Tsunami Museum
Permanent exhibits on the big waves in the Pacific Basin.
130 KAMEHAMEHA AVE., HILO; 808/935-0926
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The place to see volcanoes in action.
Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site
The heiau, or temple, is strictly for those who enjoy old rock piles, but Park Service employees can tell you about events you'd never hear of at the hotels.