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Aloha, Honolulu

Beyond the mai tais and the tiki torches, Andrew McCarthy finds a true-blue–and truly global–American city.

From National Geographic Traveler (Dec 2013/Jan 2014)

From National Geographic Traveler (Dec 2013/Jan 2014)

By Andrew McCarthy

Above the freeway, beyond the suburban houses crawling up the slopes of the Ko’olau Mountains, through a strand of Cook Island pines, past a taro patch and a grove of pungent eucalyptus, beside breadfruit and mountain apple trees, long stemmed bird-of-paradise blossom under giant guava trees. Hanging roots of a banyan tree drip down from above. A regal looking rooster struts across my path, squawking once, disappearing into the undergrowth. The trail switches back, climbing. The sun fights through dense canopy of kukui and koa, splattering light. Suddenly the vista on the ridge opens—I’m jolted by the appearance of Honolulu below. The tall towers of the city reflect hard midday light just a few miles—a thousand miles—away. Then I’m back in Waikiki, walking into the Prada boutique to try on a $2,500 suit I will never buy; then I’m floating on my back in the placid, turquoise Pacific—all within the span of thirty minutes. Try doing that in Manhattan, or for that matter, in Miami, or Seattle. Or Denver, or Chicago.

I read recently that three separate studies had proclaimed Honolulu, “The most livable city in the United States.” This news shocked me. I had kept a home on Maui for nearly a decade back in the late 80’s and early 90’s; I always passed through the Hawaiian state capital as quickly as I could—a blemish on the face of paradise, was my uninformed opinion. But perhaps I missed something in my outer-islander snobbery. So I’ve returned to the island of O’ahu, to Honolulu.

The obvious place to begin is where most visitors end-up—Waikiki. Nearly 8 million tourists a year come to Hawaii, the majority of them vacation on O’ahu, and nearly all of those stay in (and rarely leave!) this less than four square mile strip. Once a swampy bog, the name Waikiki conjures images of Hula dancers in grass skirts shimmying before packaged tours of sunburned mainlanders. The last time I was in Waikiki nearly twenty years ago, the place felt dingy, on its way to being played out—nothing much had changed since Elvis was in town. The Waikiki I find today is still swarming with visitors, but it feels more global in appeal, street life is more vital, the shops more upscale; where there was once faded glory, I find a buzz.

“Honolulu is driven by change, not nostalgia. The last ten years or so has seen a lot of improvements,” Randy Rarick tells me. With white hair and blue eyes, Randy is one of professional surfing’s elder statesmen; he’s been riding the waves off O’ahu for more than fifty years. “And I learned how to do it right there.” He points to the small break just off Waikiki beach. “A lot of people bag on Waikiki, but it is what it is, it’s a resort town. And as a resort town, I’d say it’s the nicest one on the planet. It’s got good surf, a beautiful beach, great shopping, restaurants; it’s clean, safe, and plenty of Aloha. It is the economic driver of Honolulu, of O’ahu, of all Hawaii—without tourism, we’re a backwater.”

Walking down Waikiki’s main drag, Kakalaua, at night, I experience that giddy awe akin to the sensation on arrival in Las Vegas—the sheer improbability of it all. And then as with Vegas, that excitement is followed by a nearly imperceptible shift that occurs at an untraceable moment when an invisible line is crossed and I’m consumed with sudden urgency to get the hell out.

“I know locals who haven’t been to Waikiki in twenty years,” Randy tells me. “Waikiki is not set up for locals, it’s set up for tourists. But this town is not all Mai-Tai’s and tiki torches.”

Amidst all this intense vacationing going on in Waikiki, it is easy to forget that the rest of Honolulu is a working city, with just under a million residents in the county. Six mornings a week, on the docks beside the cargo containers, hoists, and cranes, the fish auction is in full swing before the sun has softened the sky over Diamond Head. In a refrigerated warehouse on Pier 38, far from the posh marinas that take visitors out on those sunset cruises, up to a hundred thousand pounds per day of swordfish, opah, mahi-mahi and more, are laid out and sold, one fish at a time, to the highest bidder. Jake Maileoi has been auctioning fish every day, save Sundays, for ten years. He’s a squat Honolulu native with an open face and the easy manner I’ve encountered in so many Hawaiians over the years. “Honolulu is a great place to live. I don’t have to wake-up on the plantation; I can go to McDonald’s for breakfast,” he laughs. Jake looks over the usual rag-tag assembly of a dozen or so buyers who will in turn sell their wares as far away as New York and beyond. “Some inspect the fish real well, others just need to get fish,” Jake shrugs.

The buyers share an offhanded familial intimacy and surround Jake while he inches his way down a line of ice splattered ahi incanting the classic auctioneer’s lightning-fast rhythmic banter, 5.80–70-60-50–40–30… the flick of a buyer’s finger sends the price back up, 40-50-60… there’s an imperceptible shoulder twitch, …70-80…90 then a grunt from another buyer, and the deal is done. Each fish takes only seconds to sell. Today’s catch is just over fifty thousand pounds. “It’s kind of slow,” Jake tells me as a row of huge, round, orange-tailed opah are lined up. “The Captains say they can’t find the fish, they’re staying out longer and longer.”

He moves to stand over a 252-pound ahi that is about to fetch over $3,000.

“Looks tasty,” I say.

Jake eyes me from under his wool cap. “I wouldn’t know, I don’t eat fish.”

Around the time the action is beginning to slow down on the pier, things are kicking into gear at the scruffy shops and markets that lurk nearby amid the shadow-casting skyscrapers of Downtown. Like all of Honolulu, the streets of Chinatown are a crush of different cultures— Korean, Filipino, Samoan, Japanese, as well as Chinese. “There are so many different lifestyles here,” Roy Yamaguchi tells me. Born in Japan, Roy came to Honolulu in the mid 80’s and became one of Hawaii’s star chefs, with three restaurants on O’ahu (and thirty across the country). He helped lead the charge that transformed Hawaii’s food scene from sauce heavy French fare to the signature lighter Pacific cuisine that now presides, and helped Honolulu become a foodies town reflective of its people. “Food influences culture, culture influences food. That’s why I’ll still go into Chinatown to buy certain things I need for the restaurants. It’s a small island but Honolulu’s a big town. We have all the normal big city problems; it’s not like we’re immune, but here, for some reason there is a balance, people find peace. At the end of the day, everyone co-exists, everyone fits in and finds their niche.”

Roy’s assertion is made real to me just a short while later. In a cluttered parking lot outside the Honolulu institution, Leonard’s Bakery, three large Hawaiian men sit in the bed of a small white pick-up truck. The one in the center softly strums a ukulele—not for anyone’s entertainment other than that of himself and his companions. An older Japanese couple sit beside me on a bench a few feet away, listening and eating malsadas—Portuguese donuts. A white surfer dude strolling into the bakery calls out a compliment about the music, a huge Samoan waiting in a battered car beside the truck rolls down his window and taps his fingers on the dashboard.

Stalwarts like Leonard’s Bakery or the Side Street Café have anchored Honolulu neighborhoods for decades, but further west in a once underused area of old warehouses between Downtown and Waikiki, the district of Kaka’ako is being reinvented. Condos are rising. Pop-up markets, shops, and restaurants like Taste, which features a rotating menu of chefs, are the domain of Honolulu’s young, multi-cultural entrepreneurs. “This is without a doubt the most exciting neighborhood for me in town right now,” Dara Lum, a Honolulu native of Chinese and Thai heritage, tells me as we mingle in a thronging night-market along Auahi Street. “I love to come down here. It’s very current.”

And then there’s the ocean. It is impossible to overstate the impact Honolulu’s dominant feature has on its inhabitants. Early every morning while paddling my kayak beyond the surf break, the towers of Honolulu lurk in the predawn. On the beach I see a group of locals gathering for a daybreak swim, a little further on, another dozen folks assemble for a paddleboard convoy. From first light until blackness, surfers bob, wait, then race down the face of curling waves. Workers steal a dip at lunch break. Later one afternoon, sitting at a red light in heavy traffic along Ala Moana Boulevard, I look to my left; the shimmering Pacific only a few feet away. A parking spot beside me opens; I click my blinker and swing the wheel. Then I’m striding across twenty yards of powdery sand, past an impossibly beautiful Hawaiian woman barely wearing a day-glow orange bikini while she showers off, and I slip into the cool water—just three minutes earlier I was stuck in traffic. Is it supposed to be this easy to escape life’s daily struggle?

Along with taking full advantage of its star attraction, Honolulu, like virtually all of Hawaii, trades on its cultural legacy—from fire-eating Luau’s to tourist paddles aboard outrigger canoes. Some of these displays can be respectful, some cringe inducing – sometimes simultaneously. But among the most authentic and enduring symbols of Hawaii’s mighty past stands on eleven acres in the center of town. The Iolani Palace was commissioned by the highly educated, well-traveled King Kalahaua in 1882, in an effort to symbolize enlightened rule and to swell national pride. Crafted in the American Florentine style at the staggering cost of $340,000 (and almost bankrupting the kingdom), it had electricity and telephones before the White House and Buckingham Palace, as well as indoor plumbing. The restored building today is elegant, tasteful, and restrained in design. The only Royal Palace on U.S. soil, it was home to the ruler of a recognized sovereign nation when U.S. forces invaded in 1893. King Kalahaua’s sister and successor, Queen Lili’uokalani, was quickly deposed and put under house arrest, as the United States annexed the free nation of Hawaii.

Just a few blocks from where the King once entertained world leaders, and held extravagant Balls with all-night dancing, the beat still goes on, but to a very different drummer. After sundown, Downtown Honolulu jumps. Up a flight, past the packed cement-floor dance area, a hip pau hana (Hawaiian pidgin for “after work”) crowd sips cocktails under the stars at 39 Hotel. Next door at Bar 35, bare shouldered gals sitting on outdoor couches under red lights and swaying bamboo shout over blaring rock n’ roll into the ears of Hawaii’s version of hipster dudes. Around the corner and up a flight of rickety steps, Dragon has a jazz-fusion trio serenading the mellow crowd. And Honolulu’s oldest bar, Smith Union’s Smitty’s is a cheery dive that’s still packing them in after eighty years. People wander easily from one bar to the next. “Waikiki kicked out a lot of the bars several years ago, and we ended up here,” the bouncer outside the easy vibe and full dance floor of Manifest tells me. “I think they want us to come back now.” In none of these haunts—nor in most places I travel in Honolulu outside Waikiki—do I see a tourist. It is almost as if two separate towns exist.

Hawaii is often glibly labeled a Paradise. And Paradise, by its very nature, is free from complications. Consequently, Honolulu could never claim such a title—but perhaps it is something better than a mere Paradise. One of the reasons I left Maui, and Hawaii, was that I felt it lacked a certain cultural relevance beyond the “escapist” mentality and beach-boy lifestyle. Despite all of Hawaii’s stunning physical grandeur, I craved more contemporary cultural vitality than I found on the islands. Cities, by their very nature, are filled with a certain chaos, with the friction of too many people in too little space. But in that crucible, among the enforced intermingling of so many —or perhaps because of it—life and ideas are often forged and brought beyond where they might have been taken in a softer, more unchallenging environment. And in Honolulu I find a big city’s energy co-mingling—sometimes uneasily—with many of the trappings of a Paradise. It’s a town awash in contradictions.

It is plagued by insufferable traffic, and boasts an embarrassment of postcard ready beaches. It’s a transient Mecca teeming with fierce local pride. Parking is impossible; surfing is de rigueur. It has sprawling, well-used parks, shaded by ancient banyan and monkey pod trees, beside new steel and glass high-rise towers, and incessant construction. Bar’s like Duke’s, on the surf at Waikiki hum with singles and pink skinned visitors, while a stroll away, Home Bar & Grill is strictly local, with kickboxing blaring on the TV and fresh sushi served over the bar. And as in all of Hawaii, daily life in Honolulu operates with a lightly simmering undercurrent of racism co-existing with a bounteous spirit of Aloha.

And it is that spirit of Aloha—that active cultivation of a strong welcome, of a live-and-let-live attitude, of respect and compassion, sharing, of connection to nature and its source— that may ultimately save Honolulu and set it apart from other cities.

“There are better beaches in other places,” George Kam tells me. “We have the worst traffic, steep hotel prices, too much cement, but there is a higher pull here.” George is an O’ahu native and holds the well-deserved title, Ambassador of Aloha, for the surf company, Quicksilver. “But here your soul can connect to the source, to the power, the Mana—it’s all about that connection. And the water, man, get out on the water. It’s where you’ll feel it most. Everything else comes and goes, but that one ocean connects us all. As long as that host value of Aloha is present; that’s what makes Honolulu not only so livable, but a daily spa treatment for your soul.” George roars with laughter at his own island eloquence.

It’s easy to be to be cynical about the exploitation of Hawaii’s soulful qualities, but George’s words ring true to my own experience. All these years and visits later, it is that intangible sensation, more than the sheer physical magnificence of the islands, that brings me – and so many others – back, again and again. That feeling of connection emerges not only atop awe inspiring volcanic ridges or gazing at fiery sunsets, but in the simplest, most commonplace experiences.

Late in the day, far from any beach or trendy boutique, sitting outside a neighborhood takeaway joint, at a picnic table edging the parking lot, eating freshly caught ahi and locally grown salad with a plastic fork from a Styrofoam container, it begins to rain. The rain is light, and warm. None of the locals at the half-dozen other tables move for cover, or seem to notice the rain. Their chatting continues, the kids race back forth to the take-out window for shave ice. A breeze moves the rain softly over my skin. The food is fresh, the nearby traffic is moving freely, for once. Between the buildings, a rainbow forms over Diamond Head, bisected by the telephone wires. I finish my meal, not sure exactly when it was that the rain stopped. One of the little kids drops his shave ice and let’s out a howl of mock agony, his fists shaking at the heavens. Everyone turns, we all laugh. Why is it that I don’t live here?

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