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True Hawaii

"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.

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