Play it as it Leis
Mai tai one on, dig into a pupu platter, and don't forget to say 'aloha.' Guy Trebay makes a case for Honolulu
The reasons not to visit Honolulu are pretty close to the ones that make it irresistible. Nobody (well, just 70 percent of all visitors to Hawaii) ever goes there. Although not one of the largest cities in the United States, Honolulu is beset with the kind of urban problems a few coconut palms can't obscure. It's an overdeveloped, honky-tonk town that just happens to be farther from a continental landmass than any other city of its size in the world. It's also a robustly kitschy place, whose air is not so much scented by fragrant island breezes as it is slicked by a top note of Hawaiian Tropic SPF 2.
Travel snobs hate the place. They slag the crowds wandering Kalakaua Avenue in cheap shirts from Hilo Hattie. They bypass the faded hotels (of Matson cruise line vintage), now effectively turned into Asian wedding factories. They deride the charter-jet shoppers who descend from Narita to scour the luxury stores packed along Kalakaua Avenue. They complain about the traffic, the theft, the paucity of decent restaurants, the sun-bleached vagrants who resemble human photo negatives, and the fact that beach boys no longer rake the sand outside the Royal Hawaiian hotel. In general they spend just enough time on Oahu to do some business and then hop jets to other islands, not always in the Hawaiian chain.
All the same, tourism is reportedly up in Oahu, domestic travelers taking up some of the slack from Japanese tourists, whose tastes in travel have apparently shifted west to Europe. But the island feels unshiny, vaguely second-rate. The biggest tourist attraction (after the USS Arizona) is still the Polynesian Cultural Center, where many of the staff members are not Polynesians at all, but young Mormons (the village is Mormon-run) working off their college bills at the adjacent university. A lot of blather is heard about creating new attractions on Oahu: water parks, ever bigger and more surreally viridescent golf courses, new eco-fantasias.
But the obvious, if unremarked, irony in all this was once captured in another context by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who pointed out the invigorating effects of putting old structures to new uses. It seems weird that Jacobs's ethos of reexamination and reuse has made few inroads in Honolulu, where the social and cultural armature of Old Hawaii is ignored in favor of the bogus, and not even the deliriously fun fakery of bad luaus and painted wahines in coconut-shell bras.
I love all that stuff, the ubiquitous rump-shaking floor shows, the lava drinks, the pupu platters, the hyperactive fire dancers twirling their flaming batons. And I don't see any particular harm, either, in Harry and Martha getting plastered on watered-down cocktails at a discount hukilau. What disturbs me, however, is how few visitors to Oahu realize that there is another Hawaii hidden in plain sight.
The place I am thinking of seamlessly fuses kitsch with customs that have existed immemorially. It's a Hawaii of serious surfing and also the retail flotsam of surfer culture; of ancient hula and head-bobbing hula dolls; of superb-but-pricey Pacific fusion cuisine and the starchy, stomach-filling, truly pancultural local staple known as "plate lunch."
A fine example of the proximity of the ridiculous to the sublime can be found at the International Marketplace, a cheesy bazaar started in the 1950's by Donn Beach as an adjunct to his Don the Beachcomber restaurant. For decades, the International Marketplace has magnetized tourists to its alfresco welter of lava rock, thatch, and bamboo. There you can purchase T-shirts with muscular torsos printed on them, as well as polyurethaned driftwood clocks and cheap wood tikis imported from Indonesia.
On my last visit to Oahu, I encountered a sailor bargaining for tiki with a wizened Samoan vendor.
"What does this mean?" the sailor inquired of the sunbaked ancient, who had a plumeria tucked behind one ear.
"Good luck," she said listlessly. "Love, prosperity, whatever."
"Sure. That too."
A few miles away from the International Marketplace stands another tiki, an authentic Polynesian monolith unceremoniously erected on the lawn of the Bishop Museum. This lava-rock sculpture has the sort of mana that could trigger a Geiger counter; local devotees regularly propitiate it with food and leis.
Yet my guess is that few visitors to Hawaii know it exists, or care. This is the reality alluded to by a wall text inside the museum that explains how "the arrival of Westerners produced powerful currents of change, leading to the cosmopolitan mix of modern Hawaii." Elements of tradition persist as a major force within contemporary society, the label goes on to understate the case, and "modern Hawaiians continue to draw inspirations from na hana a ka poe kahiko—the works of the people of old."
An example of this truth has been demonstrated for 38 years by Auntie Kealoha Kalama. Uncasing her ukulele in the cavernous Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum, Kalama sings for whatever tourists have ventured this far off the beaten track. Together with dancer Val Malei Crabbe, she demonstrates the songs of old Hawaii and the hula kahiko (ancient hula) on a platform set before a reconstructed bark-walled house. Her warbling soprano carries through the rafters of the Victorian-era museum, where war clubs are displayed alongside a dinner service once owned by a Hawaiian princess. Kalama introduces Crabbe by saying, "The skirt she wears is ti. That's not like the tea you drink." She adds: "It's a real island skirt. And everything else on her is also real." Ba-dum-bump.
With her lacquered coiffure and varnished patter, Kalama might seem like some marooned showbiz relic. In fact, she is a revered kumu hula, or hula master. Just as important, she is a performer who embodies an idea of Hawaii, the phantasmal "Isle of Content" described in a 1920's tourist brochure I came across. Much has changed in Oahu over the past 80 years, yet much of the essential past remains eerily intact. For six decades the Kodak Hula Show dancers have been spelling out ALOHA in giant letters in Kapiolani Park. Hardly anyone takes note of this nutty tradition, which nearly ended when Kodak dropped its funding last year. The show is not merely weird and delightful and free, but probably the only place where you can experience, alongside the hula dancers, the gorgeous voices of the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club, whose median age is approximately 75.
These women are the real item. When they sing about aloha it's not the bowdlerized tourist concept. It's a word whose philosophical context is rooted in communitarian needs. As near as you will come to a literal translation of the word aloha is "the joyful sharing of breath." And, while the history of post-contact Hawaii provides all the proof anyone would need of the many ways aloha has been betrayed, outsiders are not solely to blame. Plenty of Hawaiians have thrown themselves into selling out aloha, banalizing the concept until it is as drained of meaning as a shop clerk's "Have a nice day."
Yet the odd thing is that aloha persists, as a reflex twined through all sorts of daily interactions. You'll find aloha among the members of the super-genial staff at Cindy's Lei & Flower Shoppe, one of the first places I stop when I get into town. There I choose from among strands of fragrant pikake or tuberose or ginger, or else the tiny native blossoms that go into the making of "cigar leis."
You'll find aloha on Waikiki Beach, where outriggers still run tourists across the waves as they did in Duke Kahanamoku's day, and surfing lessons are still available, even if they cost a bit more than they did eight decades ago when one session was $1.50 (plus 50 cents for the board) and the instructor might have been one of Kahanamoku's brothers. You'll find a variant of it at Kincaid's, a sixties-style seaside restaurant where the ambient music runs to Rosemary Clooney and the hot pupu platter ($16.95 for crab, egg rolls, teriyaki tenderloin) is the culinary version of an archaeological discovery. You'll also encounter a form of aloha at the much-admired Halekulani hotel in Waikiki, where an old-time trio, the Islanders, play slack key guitar and sing twenties tunes beneath a century-old kiawe tree.
The Halekulani is my own preferred spot for watching the Waikiki sunsets, a wonderful cornball ritual no one should become so jaded as to disdain. As cumulus clouds redden over Diamond Head, tourist catamarans sail up to the Halekulani seawall, pull their rudders, and shrug onto the beach. A waitress arrives with a tray of Chi Chis—pineapple, coconut, and vodka, an orchid in each. Lines of breakers lace the darkening surface of the ocean, and the sun sets pink over a tableful of happy blue-haired ladies.
Royal Hawaiian 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; 800/782-9488 or 808/923-7311, fax 808/981-7840; doubles from $345.
Halekulani 2199 Kalia Rd.; 800/323-7500 or 808/923-2311, fax 808/926-8004; doubles from $325.
International Marketplace 2330 Kalakaua Ave.; 808/971-2080. Pick up five T-shirts for $20.
Cindy's Lei & Flower Shoppe 1034 Maunakea St.; 808/536-6538. Leis start at $2 but can go for as much as $45.
Bishop Museum 1525 Bernice St.; 808/847-3511. Auntie Kealoha Kalama sings twice a day, usually at 11 and 2.
Kodak Hula Show 2805 Monsarrat Ave.; 808/527-5418; shows Tuesday—Thursday 10 a.m.
Kincaid's 1050 Ala Moana Blvd.; 808/591-2005; dinner for two $80.