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(–title from Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78”)

Before I left for what would be my third trip to O’ahu, I read Susanna Moore’s book (one part historical summary, one part memoir) about the islands, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. Moore’s chapters about her own experience growing up in Hawai’i in the decades after World War II were full of vivid imagery of the islands and its people as well as potent scenes of childhood that often sounded familiar. I imagined my own Tybee Island plus the addition of proud, Polynesian locals—a tropical paradise, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Bali Hai meets the back-river… Unfortunately when I got to O’ahu I realized that things had changed drastically over the past fifty years…

My boyfriend and I stayed at the Park Shore Hotel at the end of the main strip of Kalakaua Avenue. Our room’s balcony had views of Malama Bay, Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and Queen Kapiolani Regional Park. In the mornings when we sat on our balcony with our backs to the rest of Waikiki, we could see the flamingos over at the Honolulu Zoo and hear the monk seals barking at the aquarium. The beach across the street from our hotel had about a tenth of the population of the more popular beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki’s center, and it made the place seem almost peaceful. If we had spent all of our days sunning on that beach or snorkeling in the immediate waters of the bay (of which we did plenty), and had neither curiosity, nor the need to eat, we may never have discovered the proper tourist catastrophe that is Waikiki Beach.

{Scott snorkeling}

{Scott’s snorkeling pictures}

{the Waikiki Aquarium}

{my favorites were the giant clams!}

At first, walking along Kalakaua or Kuhio Avenues is simultaneously overwhelming and disappointing. My own understanding of “the myth of Hawai’i”, inspired mostly by historical accounts of Hawai’i or 50’s and 60’s films that take place there, set me up for my disappointment. Reading Moore’s book and the first three chapters of Michener’s Hawaii didn’t help either.

Being among the people of Waikiki is the equivalent of sinking your arm into a barrel of cast-off, carnival prizes. A single block will invariably contain a combination of beefy American and glittering Japanese tourists, raggedy locals, and the ever-present homeless. At night this assortment is additionally peppered with over-eager street-performers, six-foot-tall prostitutes, and peddlers of hemp jewelry, woven palm-leaf hats and baskets, painting prints, and plumeria leis. It is not so far a stretch to consider Waikiki a modern-day Tortuga—something only the presence of a handful of five-star hotels attempt to defy. The final product is at first abrasive and appalling, but once you are willing to accept it for what it is, the experience becomes vastly amusing and even a little charming—you know, in a seedy kind of way…

{I love Scott’s double-exposure night-time shots of palm trees and the ocean}

{amazing octopus bracelet in a jewelry shop on the first floor of the Outrigger Hotel}

For dinner our first night, my boyfriend and I went to the famous Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant on the first floor of the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel. (It’s extremely touristy, but the low-lighting atmosphere helps alleviate the feeling of being too much in a crowd). We had been there the year before—I had ordered the Crab and Macadamia Nut Wontons, which were surprisingly bland, and my boyfriend had had the Kona Style Grilled Filet (which the kitchen had some trouble getting to be medium-rare…), while the salad bar had been mostly edible but uninteresting. The reason we even went back this time was to have some of what the restaurant is truly, and rightfully, famous for: the Kimo’s Original Hula Pie—a reason in itself to go to Duke’s when you’re in Hawai’i.  (I particularly got a kick out of the caption beneath the listing of the “hula pie” on the menu: “This is what the sailors swam ashore for in Lahaina”.)

The rest of the week we had some trouble finding good restaurants, and were so unlucky as to have absolutely zero good experiences with any truly “Hawaiian”-inspired dishes. The tourist industry has thoroughly corrupted. We did however find a decent Italian place and a great Vietnamese place. The Italian place made a fine risotto and had a small but good wine selection, and the Vietnamese place was one of the best I’ve ever been to outside of Vietnam. I’m sure there has to be some great restaurants in and around Honolulu; I suppose we just guessed wrong during the week we were there…

{the best meal we had in Waikiki: at Pho Old Saigon}

On our second-to-last day we drove around the east and north coasts of the island, taking a combination of back-roads and highways until we got to Kamehameha Highway which took us along the coast up around to the North Shore. This drive put all the contradictions of the island into sharp focus. One minute we’re driving past white, sandy beaches and water so blue and clear I can see sea turtles bobbing in the surf, and the next we’re passing village communities made up of trailers and tin-roofed shanties surrounding by weed-choked, chain-link fencing. Fragrant forests full of tall, silver-barked trees give way to ancient, rolling lava-fields hemmed in by jagged cliff-faces, and around the bend is a row of hedge-hidden, multi-million dollar mansions lining some beach long out of sight. The villages all had Hawaiian names, the gated communities did not. And in my mind, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78″—a lament for the land and its people (“…and saw highways on their sacred grounds…”)—played over and over again…

On the North Shore we passed through another very touristy, but less overwhelming and rather cute area called Haleiwa—this did remind me a little bit of Tybee. There we stopped at a restaurant called Haleiwa Joe’s for late afternoon macadamia nut ice-cream sundaes and a Keoki coffee (coffee with Kahlua, dark creme de cacao and brandy). Apparently Haleiwa is a popular surfer’s destination and “cultural hub” of the North Shore. I glimpsed a lot of interesting- and cute-looking shops and restaurants that I’d like to explore. I think if we go back to O’ahu—though I’d much rather explore the other islands—we’d try to stay in Haleiwa instead of near Honolulu.

{ordering ice cream and coffee at Haleiwa Joe’s}

In her book, Susanna Moore makes an observation about the nature of even the 1960’s Hawaiian tourist that was the beginning of the bastardization of Hawaiian culture that the tourist industry on O’ahu is today:

I sometimes worried about the tourists. I did not understand why they had come so far, excluded as they were from the secret and mythical world that I knew, and I was made anxious by the ease with which they were satisfied—a boat ride around Pearl Harbor to look at the sunken warships and the Kodak Hula Show with dancers in cellophane skirts seemed to suffice. It was the first time that I was to be confused by the difference between what people were willing to accept and what more there was for the taking.” (126)

I have to believe there is more to Hawaiian culture and tourism than raggedy, stoned surfers and Germaine’s Luau. Since trips to Hawai’i seem to have become an annual tradition for my boyfriend and me, I am determined to do a more in-depth exploration of my country’s 50th state and its rich Polynesian heritage during my trips from now-on, likely leaving Waikiki alone.

*   *   *

Links to sites or addresses for places and things mentioned in this article, as well as other things I did or recommend to do on O’ahu…

I Myself Have Seen It, Susanna Moore—you can probably skip the first 120 pages though; also her bibliography is a good place to find extra reading on Hawai’i—I especially want to check out Jack London’s Tales of Hawai’i and David W. Forbe’s Encounters with Paradise

Hawaii, James A. Michener—epic, sometimes slow, but always great novel—classic Michener…

Park Shore Hotel—3-star hotel, reasonable prices and excellent location… you know, if you insist on staying in Waikiki…

Diamond Head

Honolulu Zoo

Waikiki Aquarium—pretty cool to visit before or after snorkeling in the Hawaiian waters and seeing the wildlife first-hand—my favorites are the giant clams…

Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant and Bar, Waikiki—tourist hot-spot, popular night-spot–go for the hula pie!

Bene Pesce—2310 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2288—enjoyable Italian food in a calm, bistro-style restaurant…

Pho Old Saigon—2270 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2668—delicious and authentic Vietnamese food…

88 Tees—2168 Kalakaua Avenue; 808.922.8832—Vintage shop with fun, cheap to moderately priced clothing at a huge variety…

Muse by Rimo—2310 Kuhio Avenue Suite #127; 808.926.9777—Cute, bohemian boutique store…

Haleiwa—popular surf town on the North Shore…

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole—iconic Hawaiian musician…

Haleiwa Joe’s—restaurant on the North Shore…

Dole Plantation

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban; all editing done by Kelly.]

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Road Trip: Cape Town to Cape Point

Western Cape, South Africa

March 2011

[See the complete album here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

 

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