Since my first trip to Waikiki Beach in 1977, I have traveled throughout the Hawaiian Islands. And I have loved each one. But I also love Waikiki.
Not the hordes of tourists, of course, nor the luxury shopping malls that have taken over Kalākaua Avenue and earned it the nickname Vegas on the Beach. What I love are the remains of a different Waikiki, a beautiful tropical paradise that inspired songs, movies, dreams and romance. When I come here, with some time and patience, I can still find that Waikiki.
It has become fashionable lately to dismiss Waikiki as a tourist resort and not the “real” Hawaii. When I posted photos of a beautiful sunset and waves crashing on Waikiki Beach on social media last March, I received vehement comments like, “Get out of there and see the real Hawaii!”
And: “This is where ought be …”
And: “Ugh. “Waikiki.”
But Waikiki is no less the real Hawaii than any other place, said T. Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer for the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “From the beginning, Waikiki has been a very special place that captured the hearts and souls of many,” he said. “The earth is the earth, and it will always have a certain energy and life force, no matter what we put into it.”
According to Gionson, in 2019 before the pandemic, Hawaii had 10.4 million annual arrivals, the highest number in its history. This year's numbers are around 92 percent of that figure, or about 10 million arrivals. The pressure of so many visitors on local neighborhoods led the Hawaii Tourism Authority to ask how they can do tourism better and reinvest economic resources into communities and resources. With an emphasis on local culture, traditions and products, the Mālama Hawaii campaign, which began in 2021, invites travelers to learn how Hawaiians care for their home.
Once home to royalty, Waikiki was an agricultural center, rich with taro fields and rice paddies, and eventually became a coastal neighborhood for local families. The Māhele, a land distribution scheme that changed the islands' communal system of land ownership to a private one in 1848, brought in Western land magnates and the beginning of tourism with hotels built for wealthy tourists.
With the opening of the luxurious Moana Surfrider in 1901, Waikiki's reputation as a popular tourist destination began. Promoters advertised many of the things that are still synonymous with Waikiki today: lū'aus, lush necklaces, and beach boys who taught water sports. Wealthy businessmen watched the crowds pour out of their boats onto Waikiki Beach after a six-and-a-half-day voyage from San Francisco and saw an opportunity to turn these wetlands into a tourist mecca. The Waikiki Reclamation Project drained and dredged the Ala Wai Canal and surrounding fish ponds, taro fields, rice farms, and banana and coconut plantations, then filled them with material on which to build hundreds of acres of new hotels. and luxury houses.
The old Waikiki disappeared, again, and a new Waikiki of luxury hotels and tiki bars emerged. Movies like “Blue Hawaii” starring Elvis Presley and singers like Don Ho brought Hawaii into our living rooms. This was the Waikiki I arrived at on a friendly United Airlines ship, one of the 3 million tourists who visited in 1977. As my friends and I disembarked from our flight, flight attendants in flowery uniforms served us mai tais and crusted chicken. of macadamia, The women placed plumeria necklaces around our necks and welcomed us with that magic word: “Aloha.”
Since we couldn't afford a beachfront hotel, we stayed at the Miramar, four blocks from the ocean. But we didn't care: we were in Waikiki. We bought tatami mats and Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion at the ABC store and happily walked across the street, through a hotel lobby, and onto the beach. There was Diamond Head, surfers and the Pacific Ocean, everything we hoped for.
When we weren't sunbathing, we wandered around the International Marketplace, the open-air market that Don the Beachcomber, the father of tiki culture, opened in 1956, the year we were born. Surrounding the 60-foot-tall banyan tree in the center were kiosks selling everything tropical and Hawaiian. Jane paid $10 for the chance to find an oyster with a pearl inside it. I bought my mother a hand-woven straw skirt. I don't know why I thought a middle-aged accountant in West Warwick, Rhode Island, would want a straw skirt. Except he would take her to Hawaii, a place she would never visit, 5,000 miles away from her.
At night, we ate teriyaki sirloins at Chuck's Cellar and drank overly sweet mai tais at beach bars. In the morning, we ordered unlimited pancakes at Wailana Coffee House, tucked the tatami mats under our arms, and started all over again.
The Miramar Hotel, Chuck's Cellar and Wailana Coffee House are no more. The International Market was completely demolished in 2013 and reopened three years later, leaving only the name and the banyan tree. Today, instead of vines and hanging pedestrian bridges, the International Marketplace is a three-story shopping center with a Burberry store and a Christian Louboutin.
In many ways, what happened with the International Market represents what happened to create this newer Waikiki. With an influx of international tourists in the 1990s came luxury retail stores along with more hotels. San Francisco's well-known Gump's department store, which opened on the corner of Kalākaua Avenue and Lewers Street in 1929, was converted into a Louis Vuitton store in 1992. Thirteen years later, the buildings were demolished or repurposed to create Luxury Row with stores like Chanel and Gucci.
When I asked island-born chef and restaurateur Ed Kenney where I could find old Waikiki, his first response was that, sadly, Waikiki was all but lost. He then gave me recommendations on where to find it.
One way to get there is to walk through a different shopping center, passing Wolfgang Puck Steakhouse and the word Aloha surrounded by lights, until you see a flash of pink between the trees. Follow that pink through a wrought-iron gate to an oasis of grass and trees and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, called the Pink Palace of the Pacific when it opened in 1927. Immediately, the crowds and noise disappear. Minutes after checking in, you'll be under a pink and white striped beach umbrella, with your toes in white sand. Stroll to the bar for a mai tai, commissioned as a special cocktail for this very hotel and created by Victor Bergeron in 1953, and it's like stepping back in time.
At sunset, I like to go to House Without a Key restaurant for a pretty pink Table 97 cocktail while the Kapalama Trio sings softly under a 135-year-old kiawe tree and the sky turns pink and lavender. The cocktail is named after Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn's favorite table when they honeymooned here in 1940, and the restaurant is named after the 1925 novel, “The House Without a Key,” by Earl Derr Biggers, which It was the first in a mystery series. with a fictional Honolulu detective named Charlie Chan. An original copy is displayed at the entrance.
It's also worth braving the crowds and taking a stroll along Kalākaua Avenue, passing some of the remains of Waikiki's important ancient architecture. Although most of the iconic buildings were torn down, a surprising number of hidden gems remain with lattice railings and tropical-themed building decorations. Start at the Waikiki Galleria tower at 2222 Kalākaua Avenue, built in 1966 by architect George Wimbleyand, then continue around the corner and walk 10 minutes to see the breadfruit design on the wrought iron railings at Kaiulani Court Apartments at 209 Kaiulani Ave. .
Nearby apartment buildings along Lau'ula Street have railings with surfboards, banana leaves and candles, as well as lava rock walls and cantilevered terraces. It's even worth a visit to the new International Market to see that old banyan tree and a replica of Don the Beachcomber's office with old photographs, menus and advertisements in a treehouse above.
Skip the lines at the Cheesecake Factory and take a short Uber ride to the Highway Inn, open since 1947, for some lau lau and kalua pig with cabbage and a side of salted raw onion that costs 25 cents. Or try the Side Street Inn for fried rice, garlic fried chicken, and crispy ribs. Or have lunch on an iconic plate of loco moco, rice, and macaroni salad at the Rainbow Drive-in, open since 1961 and affectionately called Rainbows by locals.
Except for happy hour at Moana Surfrider's piano bar, where they make real, strong cocktails like martinis and Manhattans, skip the Blue Hawaii and sugary mai tais at the hotel bars. Instead, walk down Saratoga Road, past the tattoo parlor and Eggs and Things (serving eggs with Portuguese sausage or pork chops since 1974) to Arnold's Beach Bar, a small bar that's not actually on the beach, but It's full of regulars, like A Waikiki Regards. If you're lucky, Brie Brundige will be behind the bar making Arnold's famous mai tais ($10 here versus $21 or more at hotels) and sharing the recipe.
One morning, I got up early, had a Kona coffee and a delicious mango muffin at the Honolulu Café, and sat on the beach in Waikiki. It was quiet and, except for some surfers in the water and a mother and daughter building sand castles, I was alone. The sky was pale pink. The palm trees swayed in the breeze. Diamond Head looked at me sitting there. I was smiling, happy in Waikiki. It's still there, if you look hard enough.
Ann Hood's most recent book is “Fly Girl,” a memoir about her years as a TWA flight attendant.
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