Off the Waikiki resort strip, you’ll discover the cultural and historical attractions of Hawaii’s biggest city.
It is 1926, and I’m sipping coffee in a wicker chaise on a lanai overlooking Diamond Head and the Pacific Ocean. As exotic birds flit in and out of the hibiscus trees in the garden, I bask in my good fortune at having such grand lodging in old Honolulu. Then suddenly my reverie is broken . . . by a pink poodle that jumps on my lap.
OK, it is not 1926. Only 80 years off. To see Diamond Head, I have to peer past the resorts of Waikiki. There’s no mistaking the hum of traffic along nearby H-1. Yet I still feel lucky, sharing a light breakfast with Tutu, a poodle dyed pink by the teenage daughter of the manager at the Manoa Valley Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast that transports you back in time.
I have been to Honolulu many times for vacations and conventions. But like a man who loves a woman he doesn’t really know, I have often cursed myself for not making an effort to explore the attractions beyond the beach. Waikiki has so much to offer—weather, warmth, surf, cuisine, mai tais, shopping, luaus—that the rich history, culture, topography, and literature of Honolulu get lost. The guy yawning on the fringe of the hula show? That was me.
This time around I decided to avoid Waikiki altogether and follow the rainbow around it, from the harbor to Diamond Head. The Manoa Valley Inn, on a hill near the University of Hawaii, seemed the perfect starting point.
I had come armed with the usual guidebooks, but at the campus bookstore I found something even more useful: A Hawaiian Reader, a paperback anthology edited by two University of Hawaii English professors. The writings enriched my exploration of the sprawling city and led me to many of its cultural and historical attractions.
One of the first pieces in the book, "With Vancouver at Kealakekua Bay," was written in 1793 by Thomas Manby, master’s mate to the explorer George Vancouver. It’s all about a three-week visit with King Kamehameha I, "robed in a beautiful cloak of yellow feathers that reached from his shoulders to his feet."
If you’d like to see this kind of royal finery today, you’ll find it at the Bishop Museum. Established in 1889 by merchant Charles Reed Bishop in honor of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the museum is the largest single repository of Hawaiian artifacts and royal family heirlooms in the world.
There are feather-topped staffs called kahili, an assortment of Princess Pauahi’s belongings, and this winter, during the Na Hulu Alii: Royal Feathers exhibit, a collection of exquisite sashes, cloaks, and helmets fashioned from millions of feathers. (Many of the museum’s royal treasures, including Kamehameha’s cloak, aren’t currently on display because the Hawaiian Hall, the main gallery, is closed for renovations through spring 2008.)
There are also crafts demonstrations, hula performances, garden tours, a science adventure center in which you can watch lava melt and control deep-sea submersibles, and a planetarium that reveals the unique nature of the Hawaiian sky.
Jack London is most often associated with adventures in the Arctic, but he knew Hawaii as well as any writer, and in "Chun Ah Chun," loosely based on fact, he tells the story of a Chinese merchant who marries off one of his daughters, "a refined and cultured girl who was one thirty-second Polynesian, one-sixteenth Italian, one-sixteenth Portuguese, eleven thirty-seconds English and Yankee, and one-half Chinese."
The proportions are roughly the same in Honolulu’s Chinatown, a vibrant downtown enclave where Thais, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Vietnamese all feel at home. This is one of the things that the locals do best—weave together threads from around the world and produce something uniquely their own.
I explored the area on a walking tour led by Sybil, a tiny dynamo who recounted many stories about the neighborhood but also offered culinary advice, personal history (she once sold furniture to the largest hotels in Hawaii), and tales of the bubonic plague at the dawn of the 20th century. She led our group of three down Hotel Street, a former red-light district that’s been cleaned up; along the River Street Pedestrian Mall guarded by a bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China’s first president; over to the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, where she joshed with the Shinto priest; across to the Kuan Yin Temple, where she punctuated every loving description of the Buddhist faith with "crazy"; past the lei shops on Maunakea Street; around the magnificent art deco Hawaii Theatre Center; and through the fishmonger’s stalls at the Oahu Market Place.
Next to Chinatown, some dozen skyscrapers make up Honolulu’s business district. The most iconic of them all, Aloha Tower, remained the tallest building in Hawaii decades after it was built in 1926. Even on a bright, sunny day, you can squint and imagine the throngs of sailors coming up from the harbor around Aloha Tower for a night of revelry.
If you don’t actually make it to Honolulu, you still have to read "His Oceanic Majesty’s Goldfish," a delightful autobiographical tale by Austin Strong, who, as a young boy, tried to steal one of King Kalakaua’s goldfish—with the sympathetic king’s help: "Away we flew, the king with his arm about me, trying vainly to comfort me as I saw my fish growing weaker and weaker."
King Kalakaua built the Iolani Palace, the only official royal residence on U.S. soil, in 1882, and as beautiful as it is, it’s also a heartbreaker. Upon his death in 1891 he was succeeded by his sister, Lili‘uokalani, who, among other accomplishments, wrote the Hawaiian anthem, "Aloha Oe." Because she was determined to strengthen the political power of natives, she was overthrown by the "committee of safety," led by Sanford B. Dole of the Hawaii judiciary and aided by the U.S. government. Tried in her own throne room, Lili‘uokalani was imprisoned in an upstairs bedroom of the palace. There you can see the quilt she worked on, day after day, for eight months.
Even though "Lunch at Honolulu," a short story by J.P. Marquand, is less about food and more about the human condition, it still made me hungry—"There’s nothing better than good mullet"—and curious about Hawaiian cuisine. And that, in turn, led me to a discovery that thrilled my inner glutton and alarmed my inner cardiologist.
It’s called the loco moco, and it’s actually breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Honolulu. Offered at most diners and lunchrooms, the loco moco supposedly originated at a long defunct restaurant in Hilo on the Big Island and spread by gustatory trade winds to Honolulu. Mine came from Sam Choy’s, not far from Aloha Tower and Chinatown. There are variations, some even gourmet, but basically a loco moco is built like this: a bed of rice, a large hamburger patty, sautéed onions, two fried eggs, and a ladleful of homemade gravy. Sounds disgusting but tastes great—certainly a lot better than that other distinctly Hawaiian dish, poi.
One drawback of the loco moco is that it curbs your appetite for other local grinds (island lingo for eats). But once your stomach starts growling again, you might want to wander over to the Side Street Inn, near the Ala Moana shopping center. It looks like a sports bar, but it’s actually where local chefs stop after work for pesto-crusted ahi, fried pork chops, and ribs slathered in lilikoi sauce.
If there were a king of travel writers, it would be Mark Twain, who spent four prefame months in Hawaii in 1866, writing for Sacramento’s Weekly Union. One of his pieces was "Equestrian Excursion to Diamond Head": "The place was so steep that at times [the horse] stood straight up on his tiptoes and clung by his forward toenails, with his back to the Pacific Ocean and his nose close to the moon."
Some 140 years later, Diamond Head has lost none of its magnetism. But you don’t really want to climb the 0.8 miles and 279 steps to the top within two hours either way of noon. And it’s not so much the heat as the humanity. The trail gets crowded, and you’d be surprised at how ill-prepared some people are. Flip-flops aren’t a good idea. On my way up, I passed a 3-year-old girl who kept saying, "Mommy, this is not fun." She was still saying it on my way down. I also found myself in lockstep with a group of male college students who were fixated on the Kansas City Chiefs. "This is Diamond Head, guys," I told them. "Can’t you talk about baseball?" As for the view, well, it’s spectacular, but Diamond Head does lend new meaning to the term checkout line.
Better to get off the beaten track. Better to explore the Foster Botanical Garden, to let William Conrad, star of the 1970s hit TV series Cannon, be your guide through the Hawaii Maritime Center, and to visit Pearl Harbor in the early morning when you can stand in quiet on the platform of the USS Arizona Memorial.
Better to drive through the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in the Punchbowl crater and then up Round Top Drive, to marvel in the modern architecture of the state capitol, and finally to stroll through the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
In one of the galleries at the academy, there is an 1875 oil painting by Eiler Andreas Christoffer Jorgensen called "View of Honolulu from Punchbowl." It shows Waikiki Beach as nothing but a tidal basin, and beyond Diamond Head, there is a single tall-masted schooner. The tourists had yet to arrive.
Photography courtesy of Cristo Vlahos/Wikipedia
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.