Friday, August 8, 2008

The Aloha State

To Turn and Face the Breath of Life

I will always have a special place in my heart for Hawaii. Many moons back I migrated with a new family to Honolulu to work on the planning of its (then) new Police Headquarters. It came at a very remarkable time in our life, we had just started our family and had just moved from Alaska.

Maybe my love of the place was partly the result of the wonderful affection shown to us by the locals (perhaps it was just because they love babies, and we had one at the time - our daughter was just a few months old). Perhaps it was because we were coming from mostly winter to mostly summer. Perhaps it was enjoying playful geckos in our Christmas tree, or maybe just coming to appreciate the Hawaiian way of looking at life. I'm not sure. But Hawaii came at a perfect time for us.

During the year and a half we lived and worked in Hawaii, we toured nearly every island and came to appreciate and love them all.

• Oahu
First, Oahu the gathering place. So aptly named. Oahu is the island everyone likes to badmouth because it has military, industry, highrises, and most of the population of the state. But it also serves as the gateway to most visitors arriving from either east or west, it is the seat of government, commerce, culture, and higher education.

I know Oahu is crowded and the hotel ghetto of Waikiki is nerve wracking, nonetheless, no visit to Hawaii can be considered complete without a stop in Oahu. Here's why:  

Our very soul as a nation was galvanized at Pearl Harbor. Much like a visit to the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, any visit to the Arizona Memorial is guaranteed to choke up even the most jaded among us.

Then there is its museums. Oahu's museums are the best. Period. The finest is arguably is the Bishop Museum. It somehow captures the soul of Hawaii. Next is Bertram Goodhue's wonderful Honolulu Academy of Arts. A true gem of architecture, it has amazing collections including an enviable impressionist collection. The Academy is located at the top of Thomas Square with those huge banyon trees.

Honolulu has a great arboretum, world class shopping, and some of the best restaurants in the United States. My favorites were Woodlands for exquisite Chinese dumplings, and Yanagi for sushi. The Kaimuki neighborhood had delightful local's only neighborhood restaurants (our favorite was Kimchee 2 for Kalbi!). 

For a weekend brunch on the beach reserve a spot at the Kahala Hotel (take money!) 

For wonderful Hawaiian food go straight to Ono on Kapahulu and join the line. They close early, serve everything on mismatched melmac, and they only take cash.

I came to love a daily dose of sticky rice. And I don't think I'll ever get over Chinese lunches at Patti's or Lappert's phenomenally rich ice cream. To this day all someone has to do to get me hungry is say "plate lunch" or talk about waffles with mac nuts and coconut syrup. Also don't forget to try some mochi and make the drive to North Shore and Matsumoto's General Store for amazing shave ice.

Do plan a snorkel trip to Hanauma Bay Beach Park. Sneak a few frozen peas in and feed the clown fish.

I admit the whole time I lived there I somehow missed the Polynesian Cultural Center which many (including my mom!) rated as one of the highlights of their trip to Oahu. Personally, some quiet reflection at the punchbowl (the meticulously maintained National Cemetary of the Pacific) puts the price of democracy that my parents generation paid for me in perspective.

Sadly, the streamlined moderne deco architectural icons from the 40's through the 50's all seem to be disappearing one by one as Honolulu reshapes itself ever higher and more dense. But do take time to take a docent tour of Iolani Palace, the beautiful YWCA - by Julia Morgan (architect of Hearst's Castle at San Simean), Honolulu Hale (City Hall), and Hawaii's beautiful State Capital with its emotion charged abstracted sculpture of Father Damien (who came healthy to serve Molokai's lepers only to contract the disease and become disfigured - as conveyed by the sculpture).

• Maui
Maui is the spoiled child of Hawaii. It has great beaches, rain forests, breathtaking Haleakala crater, wineries, paniolos (cowboys), superb golf, world class resorts and the lovely cities of Hana and Lahaina.

My suggestion is always to get out of bed, rent a bicycle, go upcountry, and see the sun rise at Haleakala. Then pedal down stopping for breakfast along the way. One of the bike shops used to just haul you up and then you were on your own all day. I prefer that to the organized "ride in a straight line" tours.

• The Big Island
Hawaii is indeed big. It is also very diverse. It has the stunning black sand beaches of the Kona coast. It has delightful coffee, active volcanoes, working cattle ranches, the most beautiful golf courses in the world, more world class resorts (along a coastline that arguably should never have been developed), and in my opinion, the most Hawaiian of all cities Hilo.

• Kauai
Hawaii's garden Island can be rainy, and it can be windy, but it is always beautiful. This is the island with the rugged coastline (think helicopter tours), more wonderful resorts, and golf. Kauai defines "lush" and "verdant". In fact, Kauai is where Jurassic Park was filmed.

• Molokai
Unfairly stuck with the reputation for its leper colony at Kalaupapa, Molokai is the true hidden gem of Hawaii. It is where you go when you truly want to bag the hype and relax Hawaiian style. It still has pristine coral reefs worth snorkeling to. 

So there you go.......
It is no wonder Hawaiians consistently live longer than the rest of the US. They get it. They put life in balance. They go to the beach.

Hawaii was summarized perfectly for me by the (then) Chief of Police's executive secretary when I asked her the true meaning of "Aloha". She smiled and said "oh thats easy it means - to turn and face the breath of life". What a dazzling answer. It sums up Hawaii perfectly.

She also gave me the best piece of advice I got the whole time I was there.  She told me to pack away all of my beloved starched white shirts and ties. She advised that I go buy lots of high quality Hawaiian made Aloha shirts. I went to the wonderful Liberty House department store at Ala Moana (now Macys) and started buying Hawaiian shirts. The shirts I bought almost 25 years ago, still wear like iron. They have allowed me to celebrate Aloha Friday wherever I've lived since. Today, the best shirts seem to be those by Tori Richard and Reyn Spooner. Sadly, you have to really look around to find the ones still made in Hawaii.

Hawaii simply can't be absorbed on a single one or two week trip. It is best experienced on multiple vacations. Pick an island or two on each trip. Take your time. Enjoy our truly magical 50th state.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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