This all-American stretch of Hawaii has had its share of identity crises. But paradise is still paradise.
© Noe Dewitt Houses below Diamond Head, with Waikiki in the distance.
| Credit: © Noe Dewitt

Often when I am deskbound at the office I do what millions of others routinely do: Google my escape. I do this not by scanning for more books I won’t read or by taking up the kind offers made by Internet services eager to improve the quality of my lovemaking or reunite me with dear pals of ancient childhood whose very existence I had somehow forgotten. What I do is log onto a Webcam. This one is set above a stretch of sand in Waikiki, Hawaii, and if I click in at the right time, the sun will have just risen over the blank Pacific and swept the shadows (and the meth heads) from beneath the royal palms that form an arcade at Kuhio Beach. The day’s earliest surfers will be knee-paddling toward rows of coved whitecaps and then abruptly flattening themselves to their boards as they thrust their shoulders through the first sets of waves, toward breaks known as Pops or Paradise or Canoes.

It is easy enough at such times to will myself across an ocean and conjure the physical pleasure of shedding shirt and shoes in the mild morning air, then padding past the platform displaying the neolithic wizard stones of Kapaemahu, the same ones transported to Waikiki, in some mystifying fashion, from a distant place in Oahu a long while back and put to religious use until some hapless clod in 1940 rolled them into the foundation of his new bowling alley.

As my projection propels me along the sidewalk, I pass the godlike statue of the lei-garlanded Olympic swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku, and then the more baleful one of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, an adopted son of a royal household once jailed by U.S. colonials for the treason of claiming his family’s hereditary right to the monarchy, who nevertheless later willed this beachfront to the City of Honolulu.

The Waikiki we know was not Prince Kuhio’s creation entirely. But it did come about as a result of his final bequest, a legacy that, in its modest way, altered Hawaiian history by setting in play the making of Waikiki as the prototype of a tropical island paradise. The prince belongs, then, to a line of visionaries who saw and understood the exceptional qualities of this crescent of sand and clear water, bounded at the time by a swamp on one side and, on another, an ancient royal coconut grove.

Like Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London and Mark Twain and most every journalistic tourist who has ever made landfall in Hawaii (and like the Marquesas Islanders said to have paddled here an eon ago in colossal canoes), I come to Waikiki in some sense to find myself. Back in cold Manhattan, I had begun to feel like a puppet, a head and a pair of industrious hands attached to a keyboard, the whole manipulated by some unseen and not altogether benign intelligence.

Now, as I walk along Kuhio Beach toward the jutting olivine mass of Diamond Head, some ineluctable process begins to take over, a feeling of being reanimated, as if by Geppetto’s breath. A surfer greets me with the all-purpose shaka, middle three fingers curled, thumb and pinkie extended, hand rotated at the wrist. I return the greeting without thinking, as though that is how I always say hello.

Back in 1916 a writer from the mainland struck out at the clichés that tended to describe Hawaii in the era before World War II, a period when the islands were still largely defined by popular South Seas fiction, with its stock characters and hack motifs. Say Hawaii, Katharine Fullerton Gerould sniffed, and most people think of “sugar, surf-riding, volcanoes, leis, missionaries, and poi.” Or of copra traders, whalers, tractable natives, and, as the writer Victoria Nelson once pointed out, “beautiful half-breed females who always died young.”

Not much has changed since those days, complained Wai Ahquin, a salesman at Bob’s Ukulele, a small shop in the renovated Royal Hawaiian Center, which neighbors a new “entertainment plaza” called Waikiki Beach Walk. Bob’s sells one product mainly, the evocative and characteristically Hawaiian four-string guitar. There are ukes of ribbon-grained koa that cost hundreds and soprano ukes of mahogany that go for $90 and touristy ones of laminated wood for 50 bucks. That a market exists for ukuleles would be surprising were not the theme music piped into Waikiki’s streets the plaintive voice of Israel Kamakawiwoole, the singer and man-mountain whose unearthly falsetto and ukulele playing have become an even stronger part of Hawaii’s aural texture since he died in 1997. There is hardly anywhere one can go in Waikiki without hearing Iz’s version of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” transformed from a song about an imaginary neverland into one about neverland as home.

“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.”

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.

My ambition might be no stronger than to spend the day swimming off the reef-protected beach at the Kahala Hotel. Like the Halekulani, this 1964 colossus benefits from having about it a whiff of archaism. It was here, at what was then a Hilton and known as the Kahollywood, that Richard Burton and Liz Taylor hid out from the paparazzi in a private cabana. And it is here that I hide out from obligations and, more important, my phone.

So absolute is one’s sense of remove at the Kahala that when I bumped into a German acquaintance on the beach I found my small talk veering from international gossip to the more compelling news that unexpected swells had risen on the North Shore and that Ted’s Bakery, in Sunset Beach, was serving chocolate haupia pie.

Sometimes when on trips to Oahu, where my father had business, he and my mother took a suite at the Kahala. The business had a surfing motif and he traveled often to Hawaii, and yet, for complicated reasons, I was a grown man before I ever set foot on the islands. I also avoided surfing, then as now unimpressed by the manufactured profundities cranked out by the surf press, the sport’s permanent roster of self-enchanted seeker-loners, but most of all by its laid-back ethos, which, as I learned first-hand, is a crock.

So it made no particular sense when, on a morning marked for me by an impressive hangover, I found myself hauling a longboard into the waves at Gray’s Beach, a break right by the Halekulani, trailing behind the former pro surfer Hans Hedemann. A barrel-chested man who operates surf schools at various points around Oahu’s north and south shores, Hedemann had developed an idea that he might teach me to master stand-up paddle-surfing, one of those newly appreciated ancient sports enjoying a revival.

“It’s like walking on water,” a friend had said reverently of a sport that involves standing on a surfboard and guiding oneself through the water with the aid of a long-handled paddle.

If water-walking was not exactly the effect desired or achieved, I did find it simple enough to stay upright. From what I could tell through the remnant haze of the previous night’s hilarity, it was also kind of fun.

Paddling us past an inshore reef, Hedemann told me how to stand and then to stroke. I followed his instructions and successfully completed a few back-and-forth circuits and then announced that I was ready to quit and get breakfast, preferably something greasy to wash down with a Niagara of Kona coffee.

“Want to surf?” Hedemann said, ignoring me. We had reached the beach and angled our paddles against a seawall. Then somehow we were back in the water and heading toward some waves, him on his small board, me on a thing roughly the size of a Buick.

As it happened, I had spent the previous day with big-time North Shore surfers who regularly attack what the father of one rider, Jamie O’Brien, termed “waves of consequence.” He was referring to the 60-foot monsters at Mavericks, in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, a break whose fearsome reputation became still more terrible to me when the surfer Kealii Mamala remarked that “Mavericks is one of the sharkiest places on earth.”

There were no sharks that day in Waikiki and certainly no waves of consequence. Or if there were, I never saw them, owing to the fact that, without my glasses, I had trouble sighting anything less prominent than the Royal Hawaiian hotel, which is pink and 16 stories tall.

Still, surfing turned out to be surprisingly easy, in the way that skiing is if you never leave the bunny hill. I paddled out, waited for the surge of a baby wave, and then launched myself into a half-crouch stance, trying to remember how people who really know how to do this look. While I was busy honing my imitation, a real wave came along and, gently and naturally, pushed me to shore. I had become a wave glider, somehow.

Later I went to Hedemann, fishing for approval and a way to explain this entirely unexpected success, only to find that he had turned into Gary Cooper.

“It’s just a feeling kind of thing,” he said in a laconic tone allowing for no elaboration. In my mellowed state, this seemed fine to me, the Occam’s razor reply.

Why should the most obvious answer not be the correct one?And why is this always most obvious in places half a world away from home?

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

When to Go

Waikiki has beautiful weather year-round, but fall and spring have the mildest temperatures.

Getting There

Many domestic and international carriers fly into Honolulu International Airport. Flight time from Los Angeles: 5 1/2 hours.

Where to Stay

Embassy Suites Waikiki Beach Walk

GREAT VALUE This 369-room all-suite property is on the southern end of the Beach Walk. 201 Beachwalk St.; 800/362-2779;; doubles from $269.

Halekulani Hotel

2199 Kalia Rd.; 800/367-2343;; doubles from $445.

Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa

GREAT VALUE Twenty-two acres of beach, hotel, shops, and restaurants. 2005 Kalia Rd.; 808/949-4321;; doubles from $229.

Kahala Hotel & Resort

The classic’s “soft redo”—new beds, linens, and more—will be finished this month. 5000 Kahala Ave.; 800/367-2525;; doubles from $395.

Moana Surfrider

This retooled Sheraton, now a Westin resort, has opened Waikiki’s first ocean-front spa. 2365 Kalakaua Ave.; 800/782-9488;; doubles from $430.

Outrigger Reef

GREAT VALUE A $110 million overhaul will be completed in early 2009. 2169 Kalia Rd.; 800/688-7444 or 808/923-3111;; doubles from $289.

Royal Hawaiian

The 1927 land-mark will reopen next year with new spa suites and private pool cabanas. 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; 800/325-3589;; doubles from $560.

Where to Eat & Drink

House Without a Key

Halekulani Hotel, 2199 Kalia Rd.; 808/923-2311.


Waikiki Parc Hotel, 2233 Helumoa Rd.; 808/237-6999; dinner for two $180.

Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar

Waikiki Beach Marriott, 2552 Kalakaua Ave.; 808/931-6286; dinner for two $75.

Ted’s Bakery

59-024 Kamehameha Hwy., Sunset Beach; 808/638-8207.

Where to Shop

Bob’s Ukulele Shop

2201 Kalakaua Ave.; 808/922-4292.

Waikiki Beach Walk

What To Do

Bishop Museum

1525 Bernice St.; 808/847-3511;

Honolulu Academy of the Arts

900 S. Beretania St.; 808/532-8700;

Honolulu Zoo

151 Kapahulu Ave.; 808/971-7171;

Iolani Palace

364 S. King St.; 808/522-0822;

Kapiolani Park

3840 Paki Ave.; 808/971-2525;

Kuhio Beach Webcam (for PC users only).

Shangri La

Tours available Wed.–Sat.; reservations required. 866/385-3849;; $25 (children must be at least 12).