There’s much more to the Hawaiian capital than its famous beach. Travel reporter Janie Allen has the lowdown on the spots you can't miss.
Downtown is a glut of high-rises, their balconies and picture windows competing for a view of the huge harbour—glorious on this warm, sunny February day. Fishing boats, freighters and cruise ships wait at numerous piers. Flights are coming and going at the airport to the west. I’m reminded of Hong Kong, a workaday city going about its business. Yet, one of the world’s most famous beaches is just a 15-minute drive away.
My husband, Glen, and I are on the tenth-floor observation deck of the Aloha Tower, located on Pier 9 in Honolulu Harbour. The art deco tower was once the tallest building in Honolulu; the large A-L-O-H-A letters at the top greeted visitors arriving by steamship in an earlier era. Nowadays, the Aloha Tower is eclipsed by downtown skyscrapers but still offers incredible 360-degree views of city and harbour.
We look out at Waikiki. The iconic beach—framed by Diamond Head promontory and lined with myriad shops, restaurants and nightclubs—is the go-to resort for more than five million visitors a year.
But as delightful as Waikiki is, it’s just one district of Honolulu. The city is lauded for its multicultural diversity, innovative new restaurants, emerging neighbourhoods and live-and-let-live vibe. Honolulu appears on lists of top US cities.
Clearly, there’s more to this place than its famous beach resort. Glen and I want to know more. So for a week, we put away our swim towels, turn our backs on the beach and head off.
We'd heard the buzz about the up-and-coming Kakaako (“ka-ka-ah-ko”) district between Waikiki and downtown. The city is redeveloping this light-industrial area, and has set aside some warehouses and garages for the arts and for entrepreneurs. We drive there early one morning.
The family-owned Highway Inn, known for its traditional Hawaiian food, isn’t yet open for breakfast so we take a walk in the quiet back streets. On Coral Street, we pass Hank’s Haute Dogs, a little eatery that elevates the humble hot dog to gourmet status. On and around Auahi Street, we marvel at dozens of large, extravagant murals.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” says a cyclist who stops to admire a chiaroscuro of a face covering a wall, elegantly created by chipping bits of concrete from white masonry.
"Hawaiian hospitality is linked to ohana—their sense of family"
Farther along, we come across Na Mea Hawaii, a gallery and art studio in a converted garage. It’s a beehive of activity. Maile Meyer, a slight, energetic woman in her late 50s, shows us around. She created it “to encourage art with a native aesthetic and perspective”, she tells us. An artist is mixing paint for a seascape, while upstairs, another is planning a new exhibition.
Next door, artist Bill Reardon is welding a stair rail. He removes his helmet to reveal startlingly blue eyes and a big smile. He likes to create “found metal” sculpture, he says. “Have you ever noticed how many discarded bed frames there are?” We hadn’t until then...
Back at the now-open Highway Inn, painted wood panels and exposed pipes create a bright urban vibe. We sit at the counter and order pancakes topped with a haupia (coconut) sauce and chat with front-of-house manager Christina Martin, 47. She recently moved to Honolulu from the mainland. There are trade-offs to living here, such as high rent, she says, “but the people make up for it.”
Hawaiians’s hospitality is linked to ohana—their sense of family, she explains. “Ohana extends to friends. Once they take you in, you’re part of the family.”
Perhaps here, more than elsewhere, the more family you have—real or not—the better. The Hawaiian archipelago of eight islands is one of the most remote and isolated places on earth; 2,400 miles from California.
Even other South Pacific Islands are distant. For a long time, no one could understand how, a millennium ago, Hawaii’s first settlers crossed more than 2,000 miles of ocean without navigation equipment. Their methods of navigating by the stars and patterns of nature were not well understood until the 1970s. The Bishop Museum Planetarium in Honolulu played a role in recovering the lost art of Pacific navigation, called “way-finding,” says Mike Shanahan, director of visitor experience.
When I ask Shanahan about the most precious item in the museum, he excitedly tells me that for many years it was the feather cloak of Kamehameha the Great, Hawaii’s first king, who united the Islands in 1810. But now, he adds, the museum is in the process of receiving from Te Papa Museum in New Zealand the feather cloak of King Kalaniopuu, Kamehameha’s uncle, who presented it to British explorer James Cook in 1779.
“It has been missing from Hawaii for more than 200 years,” he says.
Culture educator Iasona Ellinwood takes me to see Kamahameha’s full-length cloak, on display in a glass case. The yellow feathers were plucked from some 60,000 mamo birds. The extinct mamo was mostly black. “It had just six to eight yellow feathers,” he says.
An expert guide to Hawaii’s history and culture, Ellinwood has a master’s degree in Hawaiian language. “Are you native Hawaiian?” I ask.
No, he says. His birth name is Jason. “One of my Hawaiian language teachers called me Iasona and it stuck.”
Around 21 per cent of Hawaii’s 1.4 million people claim native Hawaiian heritage, while Asians make up 37 per cent and Caucasians 23 per cent. In fact, most people here are of mixed ethnicity, such as the shopkeeper I met earlier who told me his father was Japanese and his mother Filipina, then added, “but we’re all Hawaiians.”
“Live here long enough and we’ll call you Hawaiian too,” said another friendly local.
The Downtown Capitol District is pleasantly walkable, with tree-lined streets and small parks. The state executive offices are here, as well as the Iolani Palace, built in 1882 by the last king of Hawaii, David Kalakaua. The kingdom was overthrown just 11 years later in a plot by sugar plantation owners to bring the islands under US control.
Nearby is the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site. The oldest house, from 1821, is a two-storey New England frame displaying artefacts of missionary life. The first missionaries created a 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet and printed a Bible as thick as it was wide on a hand- operated press—replicas are on display.
We explore the shady grounds where The Mission Social Hall and Café serves Hawaiian comfort foods—marlin sandwiches and luau stew with pork shoulder. Owner Mark Noguchi, 41, is one of a group of chefs who support traditional food sources. Farmland in Hawaii was long ago given over to commercial crops such as pineapples and coffee. Nearly 90 per cent of Hawaii’s food is brought from the mainland.
Noguchi recommends that Glen and I pay a visit to Chinatown, a gritty downtown district that’s reinventing itself as a must-see destination for art-lovers, foodies and club-goers. We decide to drive down there late one weekday.
“There are still places I wouldn’t walk late at night, but things are changing”
Chinatown grew up in the late 19th century to serve Chinese plantation workers. Decades later it became known for prostitution and the drug trade. For a few years in the 1990s, a Chinatown revival flourished, thanks to a new generation of chefs who developed Hawaiian regional cuisine, also called Asian Fusion. Today Chinatown is gentrifying. Art galleries, upscale restaurants and bars are starting to move in.
“There are still places I wouldn’t walk late at night, but things are changing,” Noguchi had told us.
Lucky Belly restaurant, located on Hotel Street, which was once famous for its brothels, is one of the most popular new eateries. We get there just as it opens for dinner and are seated near the large windows.
We order the intensely flavourful oxtail dumplings and the “Belly Bowl”. The ramen-noodle speciality arrives in a king-sized dish with generous portions of pork belly, bacon and sausage steeped in a rich broth.
Darkness comes quickly at this latitude, so we leave the restaurant at dusk. With the old markets and shops shuttered and our footsteps echoing on the near empty pavements, we head back to our hotel.
On our next-to-last afternoon in Honolulu, we watch a 180kg marlin come in on a boat at Kewalo Basin Wharf, while crew happily banter with each other.
The marlin may well have ended up on the block at the Honolulu Fish Auction the next morning. Tours are offered a few times a month. We leave Waikiki at 5.30am and in 20 minutes are standing outside a refrigerated warehouse on Pier 38.
Brooks Takenaka, general manager of United Fishing Agency, leads us in. There are big-eye tuna, mahimahi, swordfish, snapper and more—many weighing at least 50kg—all waiting on iced-down pallets.
Wholesale buyers huddle around the auctioneer, who fires off numbers as bidding starts on a tuna at his feet. Seconds later it’s over. The auctioneer jots a note and drops it on the fish, as the group shuffles to the next one.
About 100,000 pounds of open ocean fish are sold this way six days a week. “It’s the only fresh- tuna auction of its kind in the US,” Takenaka says. Most fish sold here is consumed in the islands, he says, adding that Hawaii’s fishery operates within sustainable limits and under many stringent regulations.
“Do you eat much fish?” I ask him.
“Almost every day,” he replies, with a smile.
On our last afternoon, the trade wind that had been with us all week disappears and temperatures rise. Seeking respite, we head to the Punchbowl Crater, site of a US national military cemetery, on the city’s outskirts. We drive down to a shady lane in a vast lawn, where flat markers denote graves. A worker asks if we need help finding one. No, we’re just enjoying the peace and quiet, we tell him. It’s true, the city sounds have disappeared; we hear only birdsong and distant mowers.
After a stop at a viewing platform on the crater rim that overlooks the city, we make it back to Waikiki by sunset. At Kuhio Beach Park, we join the throng gathered for a hula show. Lilting melodies, swaying hips and the performers’ joy charm us. The sun is setting in an orange-streaked sky, silhouetting a bronze of Duke Kahanamoku. An Olympic gold-medallist swimmer in 1912 and 1920, he introduced surfing to much of the world, and is a Hawaiian hero. In his later years— he died in 1968—Duke was Honolulu’s first “Ambassador of Aloha”. “Aloha means love,” a plaque about him says, “the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality.”
“Come, get to know my city,” he may as well be saying, his back to the ocean and his arms outstretched to encompass all of Honolulu. In a recent article, a writer opined that the city consider turning Duke’s statue around so that he looks out at his beloved ocean.
I think he’s fine where he is.
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