Downtown is a glut of highrises, their balconies and picture windows competing for a view of the huge harbor—glorious on this warm, sunny February day. Fishing boats, freighters, cruiseships and tugboats 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 10th-floor observation deck of the Aloha Tower, located on Pier 9 in Honolulu Harbor. 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 harbor.
John and Evelyn Fisher of Honolulu are also on the deck, pointing out city landmarks to a visiting friend. We join them in looking out at the Capitol District, Chinatown, the Punchbowl crater, Pearl Harbor and Waikiki.
We love Waikiki. The iconic crescent beach, framed by Diamond Head promontory and lined with myriad shops, restaurants and nightclubs, make it 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. I’d read articles lauding the city for its multicultural diversity, innovative new restaurants, emerging neighborhoods, and live-and-let-live vibe. Honolulu appears on lists of top U.S. cities.
Clearly, there is 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 hotdog to gourmet status. On and around Auahi Street, we marvel at dozens of large, extravagant murals painted on warehouses.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” says a bicyclist who stops to admire a chiaroscuro of a face covering a wall, created by chipping bits of concrete from white masonry.
Farther along, we come across Na Mea Hawaii (Things of Place), a gallery and art studios 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; 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 bedframes 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 tradeoffs to living here, like high rent, she says, “but the people make up for a lot.”
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, over a thousand years 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 and Planetarium.
The Bishop is housed in an immense stone Victorian building in the city’s northern suburbs. The Pacific Hall features the Polynesian migrations. The core of the museum, however, is the Hawaiian Hall. Its three polished-wood tiers display ancient artifacts of Native Hawaiian culture.
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, “it’s very special.”
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 native 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.”
Just about 21 percent of Hawaii’s 1.4 million people claim native Hawaiian heritage, while Asians make up 37 percent and Caucasians 23 percent. In fact, most people here are of mixed ethnicity, like 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 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 U.S. control.
Nearby is the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site. The oldest house, from 1821, is a two-story New England frame house displaying artifacts 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, and, today, seed corn. Nearly 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is brought from the mainland.
Noguchi recommends Glen and I visit Chinatown, a gritty downtown district that is reinventing itself as a destination for art-lovers, foodies and club-goers. We drive there late one weekday.
Chinatown grew up in the late nineteenth 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, associated with 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. Wood, exposed brick, mahogany-stained cement floor and Japanese pop art on the walls lend the room a cool, contemporary ambience.
We order the intensely flavorful 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 steeping in a rich broth.
We leave the restaurant at dusk. Darkness comes quickly at this latitude. With the old markets and shops shuttered and our footsteps echoing on the near-empty sidewalks, we head back to our hotel.
On our next-to-last afternoon in Honolulu, we return to Kakaako to stroll the Kewalo Basin wharf. We chat with a man at a counter selling deep-sea fishing trips.
“We’ve got a boat coming in with a 400-pound marlin,” he tells us. We watch two sea turtles chasing each other in the water as he banters with a nearby boat owner. “Wait and see, it’ll weigh in at 250.”
“Maybe 280,” comes the reply.
When the boat docks, the crew secures a chain around the marlin’s tail and hauls up an astonishingly large fish at least ten feet long. The man at the scale calls out, “Four-oh-five!”
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 5:30 a.m. and in 20 minutes are standing outside a refrigerated warehouse on Pier 38. Brooks Takenaka, general manager of United Fishing Agency, leads us in. Big-eye tuna, mahimahi, swordfish, snapper and more, many weighing well over 100 pounds, wait 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, and 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 U.S,” Takenaka says. Most fish sold here is consumed in the islands, he says, adding that Hawaii’s fishery operates within sustainable limits and under stringent regulation.
“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 U.S. national military cemetery, on the city’s outskirts. We drive down to a shady lane in a vast lawn, where flat markers denoted 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-medalist 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 just where he is.
Lodging Shoreline Hotel Waikiki, from $179, www.shorelinehotelwaikiki.com, Vive Hotel Waikiki, from $153, www.vivehotelwaikiki.com
Dining Highway Inn, Kakaako, combo plates $14-16; www.myhighwayinn.com; Tommy Bahama, Waikiki, entrees $24-44, www.tommybahama.com; Lucky Belly, Chinatown, ramen bowls $9-14, www.luckybelly.com
Nightlife Renowned jazz and blues entertainers and Hawaiian favorites at the Blue Note, Waikiki, www.bluenotehawaii.com
Sightseeing Honolulu Fish Auction, www.hawaii-seafood.org; tickets $25/$20