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The Rejuvenation of Hawaii's Waikiki Beach

A reenchanted Waikiki beckons travelers back to the famous beach where Hawaiian tourism began.

Waikiki Beach aerial shot, picture
Photo credit
Photo: aines / Shutterstock
Photo caption
A long sweep of Waikiki Beach points the way to Diamond Head.

I was 13 years old when I last visited Kapiolani Park in Waikiki—a day seared in my memory because my mother had stood outside the public rest room yelling, "Are you all right?" to my younger brother. Repeatedly. I pretended not to know her. Sure, the park was riddled with trash, and sure, the seedy characters we'd seen lurking beneath the banyan trees were perhaps waiting in the bathrooms to snatch up my younger sibling. But did she have to be so embarrassing?

"This place has really gone downhill," Mom said between yells, referring to the halcyon days b.c. (before children) when she and my father had come to the tidy little park to picnic and swim. Yeah, whatever, I thought, rolling my eyes. To me, it was perfectly cool: The lifeguards were totally hunky, the International Market Place sold awesome puka shell anklets, and you could eat cherry shaved ice every single day. Waikiki was paradise.

Seventeen years later, I am grateful that someone with more vision than your average teenager recognized that this paradise was actually lost and stepped in to turn it around. The battle to regain Waikiki's soul—sold in the 1970s for the dubious reward of nonstop tourist arrivals, a haphazard high-rise jungle, and a sea of tiki tchotchke emporiums—has been a hard-fought one. But, as I stand beneath the banyans of Kapiolani Park once again, it seems that the tide is turning. Rather than litter and lurkers, a sweep of food stands greets me, signifying that Brunch at Kapiolani Park, Waikiki's new monthly festival, is under way. The smell of macadamia nut-crusted French toast wafts toward me as I join a crowd of locals and visitors eager to sample everything from pork ribs to poha berry bread pudding, all prepared by Waikiki's dapper executive chefs. Old friends exchange greetings as Hawaii's 166-year-old institution, the Royal Hawaiian Band, plays island melodies from the park's new Victorian bandstand. Families sprawl near the landscaped lily ponds; boys use the public bathrooms in peace.

Some people would call these changes rejuvenation; others, restoration. Reenchantment was the term preferred by George Kanahele, the late Hawaiian cultural expert, scholar, and author who in 1993 unfurled an ambitious 143-point plan for luring the magic back to Oahu's southern shore. Impassioned yet pragmatic, the proposal centered on the revival of Waikiki's two greatest assets—its natural beauty and the Hawaiian culture—both of which had been sorely trampled in the decades-long development frenzy that had turned Waikiki into Big City, Anywhere, U.S.A. Kanahele's vision of a graceful, pedestrian-friendly town steeped in rich Hawaiian heritage captured the minds of local leaders, among them Honolulu mayor Jeremy Harris. Since 1997, with Harris's staunch backing, a multimillion-dollar reenchantment effort has been in high gear.

As I walk down Kalakaua Avenue in the afternoon, coconut palms rustle above me, whispering softly of Waikiki's renewal. Dozens of these trees, along with red ginger, flowering hau, and fragrant plumeria, have been planted here, replacing a noisy lane of traffic. Along this narrow oasis, known as Kuhio Beach Park, sand-dusted children splash in rock waterfalls while honeymooners monopolize the ocean-view benches; at each intersection I am greeted by baskets of riotous flowers hanging from newly installed Victorian streetlamps—one of many little touches designed to return a sense of dignity to an area frequented by Queen Liliuokalani, the last of Hawaii's reigning monarchs.

Five years ago, only a handful of visitors would have realized their sandals were flip-flopping in the footsteps of royalty. Today, thanks to the new Waikiki Historic Trail, you can hardly toss a lei without hitting the bronze likeness of a monarch or a sculpted surfboard emblazoned with historic photos and local lore. These surfboards and a series of plaques mark the trail's two-mile course. The journey takes visitors back to the era when Waikiki was a swampy network of taro patches and fishponds; to the days when Robert Louis Stevenson penned verse beneath the hau tree at Sans Souci Beach; and to the reign of beachboy Duke Kahanamoku, winner of five Olympic swimming medals and the father of international surfing.

By the time I tear myself away from these history lessons, the sun is bathing the beach in amber—the opening strain of one of Waikiki's heartstring-plucking sunsets. As if these kaleidoscopic displays weren't entertainment enough, the city has infused the evening beach scene with free torch-lighting ceremonies and hula shows, where dark-eyed dancers from local schools perform the shake, rattle, and hip roll of their ancestors. Once or twice a month, the Sunset on the Beach festival draws thousands to this spot for live bands, ethnic foods, and the thrill of watching everything from American Graffiti to Shrek on a gigantic 30-foot-high screen that rises up against the dramatic backdrop of Diamond Head. "We have residents of neighbor islands flying into Oahu for the weekends," says Mayor Harris of the event's success—a major coup for Oahu after years of losing popularity contests to such less-developed destinations as Kauai and the Big Island.

As the city's confidence in Waikiki has soared, so has that of private business owners, with jackhammers banging out the rhythm of reinvestment across the Waikiki peninsula. Along Kalakaua Avenue, upscale retailers such as Tiffany and Chanel have opened new stores, catering to the same sophisticated jet-setters who are checking in at the recently opened W Honolulu Diamond Head—a sleek boutique hotel that hosts Wonder Lounge, the hottest party on the island, in its Diamond Head Grill Restaurant on Friday nights. Even Hawaii's long-standing properties have ponied up some $400 million for face-lifts and expansions, including the opening of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa's new Kalia Tower, which added 453 deluxe rooms to Waikiki's register, as well as a preventive health center and the Mandara Spa, purveyor of the sinfully decadent chocolate-macadamia nut scrub.

As the home of the Bishop Museum annex, the Kalia Tower also provides a promising example of how commercial ventures are supporting the restoration of Waikiki's Hawaiian heritage. Designed to offer hotel visitors a convenient taste of the venerable Honolulu history museum, the annex's treasures include a bolt of sea urchin-print kapa (bark cloth), a Hawaiian chieftain's colorful feather cape, and a shark's tooth-studded club that presumably belonged to an early warrior who just wasn't feeling the aloha. Programs in everything from celestial navigation to pidgin English are offered by an enthusiastic staff—one so excited about introducing visitors to ancient traditions that I find myself holding an ohe hano ihu (Hawaiian nose flute) at the end of my tour. "Try it," my guide prods, smiling. As one reedy note trills out of my nostril, I can almost hear my too-cool 13-year-old self protesting. Hush, I tell her, delighted.

While the Hilton Hawaiian Village offers new adventures in Hawaiian heritage, two other hotels, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider and the Royal Hawaiian, provide a living link to Waikiki's glamorous past—the first half of the 20th century, when Waikiki was the place to be for everyone from Clark Gable and Amelia Earhart to Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. Opened in 1901, the colonial Moana recalls Waikiki's golden age, when guests arrived by Matson steamship and danced the night away in ballrooms; even today, visitors walk through hallways that were built extrawide to accommodate hoopskirts. Just up the beach, the Royal Hawaiian (affectionately known as "the Pink Palace of the Pacific") is a vision of Spanish architecture, inspired by the Rudolph Valentino films of the era. When it opened in 1927, the hotel employed a staff of 300, including 20 bellboys, 10 elevator operators, and eight Chinese lobby boys dressed in native costumes.

Although this rich history can be discovered on hour-long tours, an evening visit to the Moana's Banyan Court may be the best way to summon the ambience of yesteryear. As I gaze out at the dark, secretive ocean, the waiter brings the Moana's classic mai tai—a balancing act involving a pineapple wedge, a maraschino cherry, a sugarcane stalk, an orchid bloom, and a paper umbrella. I think of the young GIs who enjoyed a final drink and slow dance on this very veranda before shipping out to the Pacific theater. Starlight filters down through the banyan leaves and the air grows thick with nostalgia and ghosts. I can almost hear the voice of emcee Webley Edwards, who from 1935 to 1972 broadcast his famous Hawaii Calls radio program from beneath the banyan, bringing the exotic, carefree sounds of island life into living rooms across the mainland. In an almost sadistic stroke of marketing genius, Edwards ended each show by announcing the local air and water temperature, both of which hovered, even in winter, around 74 degrees. Before long, all warm-blooded Americans dreamed of packing their bags and setting sail for Waikiki, the most famous beach in the world.

It is this beach—that sinuous strip of sand running from the mouth of the Ala Wai Canal to the foot of Diamond Head—that remains the connective tissue between Waikiki's past and present incarnations. As I thread my way through a maze of umbrellas, sand castles, and bronze bodies, it seems that some things have hardly changed since the days when Bing Crosby crooned "Sweet Leilani" here in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding. Yes, the surfboards and swimsuits have shrunk and the high-rise forest has grown, but folks still come here for the same reasons as always: to soak up the tropical sunshine, to splash around in the surf, and to engage in that unique Waikiki tradition—the outrigger canoe ride. Five bucks buys you two exhilarating rides at the aptly named Canoes surf, where half the fun of rocketing into shore is "bowling for surfers"—that is, watching panic-stricken novices scramble for safety as your 700-pound canoe barrels down on them from atop the wave.

Inexplicably, my aversion to becoming a human bowling pin is outweighed by my desire to catch a wave where Duke Kahanamoku once surfed. I set off down the beach to find Dukie Kuahulu, the king of the beachboys. Leathery as a baseball mitt, Dukie has been teaching tourists how to ride the break at Canoes for over 50 years, honing his instruction to the essentials: "Lie down! Paddle harder! Stand up! Feet apart! Try it again!" Just as I am beginning to feel like the Private Benjamin of the sea, with Dukie as my hard-nosed drill sergeant, I catch the surge of surf beneath my board and rise to my feet, racing gloriously toward the shore with an armada of fellow amateurs. When I paddle back to Dukie, his craggy face is lit up with an unexpected smile, the joy of seeing someone catch her first wave no less diminished the ten thousandth time around.

On my final day in Waikiki, I am sitting on the outdoor patio of the House Without A Key at the Halekulani hotel, snacking on pupus (appetizers) and watching a former Miss Hawaii perform a languid hula, when a slight storm whips up. As only occurs in tropical destinations, the crowd decides to wait it out, tiny raindrops glistening off the cocktail glasses and the silver of the band's slide guitar. Then it happens: A rainbow breaks through the clouds and arcs across the sky, skimming the tops of the high-rises before plunging bodily into the Pacific. Heads turn and mouths open. We'd all seen this sight before, but like Dukie watching a surfer blossom, I gaze at it with irrepressible glee.

And therein lies the secret to Waikiki's timeless appeal, which is not in the novel or undiscovered, but in something so familiar yet so dazzling that we are helpless not to wonder at the sight of it. What makes the new Waikiki worth visiting is what made the old Waikiki worth visiting: the lullaby of surf beneath your window at midnight; the sizzle of mahimahi on a beachside grill; the scent of plumeria and coconut wafting on the trade winds; the endless layers of aquamarine and coral that stretch out below Diamond Head; the first beach umbrella of the morning unfolding like an enormous striped flower. And, oh yes, the hunky lifeguards, the awesome puka shell anklets, and the chance to eat cherry shaved ice on a daily basis. It looks like paradise, reenchanted and reinvigorated, is back.

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