Category Archives: Hawaii

The Aloha of Hawaii, part two … The iconic Duke, father of modern-day surfing

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The Lifeguard Tower at Waimanalo Beach

As we sample the many glorious beaches dotted around the island one can’t help but notice the ever-present lifeguard towers of O’ahu. Their distinctive character and unique surroundings add a certain charm to the stretch of ocean they serve. There are just over forty lifeguard posts on the island, each visibly numbered and equipped with jet ski, ATV, truck, and of course a retinue of trained, competent lifeguards. From the Windward and Leeward Coasts, to the famed North Shore and the string of the towers along Waikiki beach, it strikes me how vital the Ocean Safety Operations is to locals and tourists alike.

Our afternoon sojourn to the stunning Waimanalo Beach on the Windward coast is peaceful and serene, guards watching over a few body boarders playing in the surf. Tower 6A perches amongst a verdant and tenacious creeper that carpets the sand, light violet flowers adding pops of colour. The elements create a unique vignette in which the small, functional tower resembles a small house in a postage stamp garden. With 227 miles of coastline to oversee, the job of the lifeguards is to anticipate and ward off accidents, especially from those not taking the power of the waves as seriously as they should.

On another day we tour the island, reaching the renowned Waimea Bay on the North Shore. The beach has a long-standing tradition of surfing for native Hawaiians and now attracts big wave surfers from around the world, eager to ride waves that can exceed 40 plus. It’s a breezy, moody afternoon and as the waves crash wildly onto the steeply shelving beach, most of us are content to sit safely on the sand, taking in the scenery and marvelling at the power of the ocean.

An announcement blares from the tower… “hazardous conditions, people are a little too nonchalant out there, beware of the dangerous shore break which can lead to head, neck and back injuries.” The guard then implores, “You should only be out in the water if you have years of experience on this beach or with these conditions.” Only a few retreat to the shoreline.

Another lifeguard jumps on an ATV, riding to the far end of the beach where he reprimands a father for bringing his two young sons too close to the surf. Back at the tower, the guard steadies his binoculars, slowly sweeping his gaze across the outer waves. I had been told that thousands a year are rescued, that, ‘it’s a dangerous job in paradise for not a particularly great salary’.

As on all beaches, a surfboard labelled ‘rescue’ in red letters is ready for action. It seems like an obvious method of rescue, yet it’s modern-day use traces back to the man who all Hawaiians revere, the father of modern-day surfing, Duke Kahanamoku.

Back on the Waikiki beach that pays homage to him, fresh leis invariably adorn the arms of Duke’s Kahanamoku’s statue. As surfers ride the waves and beachgoers soak up the sun just behind him, it’s easy to speculate that without Duke’s contribution to surfing, none of us might be enjoying the delights of Waikiki today.

As the graceful tufts of palms shadowing ‘Duke’ sway in the breeze, few, perhaps, of those who pass his statue understand just how compelling the story of surfing is, from the Beach Boys, to the journey of Hawaii’s iconic waterman.

In Hawaiian culture, a waterman is an honorific, a proud distinction for someone who is fully in tune with the trade winds, the tides and the ocean. A waterman knows how to paddle, surf, sail, and swim. Not only was this title bestowed upon this beloved son, of pure Hawaiian ancestry, but Duke would become a five-time Olympic champion, the father of modern-day surfing, a Hollywood actor, a sheriff, a nightclub owner, and most of all, an esteemed lifelong ambassador of Hawaii.

Born on the island in 1890, Duke’s family moved to the Diamond Head area of Waikiki during his childhood. His mother’s family owned a plot of land amongst the rice and taro paddies. Julia was the daughter of a high chief from Kuai, and married Duke Halapu Kahanamoku from Maui. For the eight children, the Waikiki beaches were their playground.

Duke became a masterful swimmer and surfer, fashioning his own surfboards from enormous planks of Koa wood that could easily weigh 125 pounds. Lugging the boards was cross-training in itself, but this had long been a way of life for Hawaiians. In 1777, a surgeon aboard James Cook’s ship, The Resolution, journaled of native Hawaiians surfing and the ease in which they did so. By 1847, missionary H. Bingham deemed it a ‘heathen sport’ primarily as it encouraged the intermingling of the sexes, not least as they were barely clad! The missionary also opined ‘that surfing diverted Hawaiians from honest labour’ and spoke disparagingly of surfing as the ‘pastime of chattering savages.’ By 1900, with the arrival of more and more missionaries and settlers, as well as laws and social standards discouraging Hawaiian cultural practices, the noble and traditional art of surfing was in a sad decline.

In 1900, when Duke was ten years old, Hawaii unwillingly became a colony of the United States. Eight years later in a reaction to the whites-only Outrigger Canoe Club, Duke and two others formed their own club, mostly comprised of full or partial Hawaiian-blooded locals. Ostensibly for swimming, the club evolved to include surfing, canoeing and kanikapil… the impromptu style of local music, ideally performed on the beach. The Hui Nalu (Club of the Waves) was based at the Moana Hotel and became a hotspot in Waikiki. In 1915 when some of the members started beach concession businesses, they contributed to the unlikely beginnings of the renowned Waikiki Beach Boys.

Visitors were mesmerised by the prowess and talents of the Boys on the water. By the late 1920’s, they became constant companions, tour guides and friends to the well-paying visitors. Lessons were given in swimming, surfing, canoe wave riding. Musical evenings rounded out the local experience. And even as the Beach Boys earned good money, they had the pleasure of being in the water and proudly sharing the heritage of their island. Duke Kahanamoku would go on to exemplify what Beach Boys even today emulate… the Ambassador of Aloha.

When the US Mainland held an outdoor swim meet in Hawaii in 1911, Duke easily set two World Records in the 50 and 100 meters. Yet when the results reached head office back in New York, the records were rejected… “it’s only Hawaii, so far away, no oversight,” etc, etc. Hawaiians reacted to the snub, and likely to the racism, by rallying to pay for Duke’s passage to the mainland to compete for a spot on the Olympic Team. Few people had been to Hawaii, nor could find it on the map, and Duke appeared as an anomaly… an Islander with a powerful physique and technique, bestowed with grace in the water, with humour and good sportsmanship. Duke was selected for the US Swim team and the story thereafter only burnished the legend. Gold and silver medals in Stockholm, 1912. Two golds in Antwerp, 1920. Silver in Paris, 1924; his brother Sam won the bronze!

Duke’s fame opened many doors in the US and around the world as he promoted surfing. At this time, home was California where he became an active member of the LA Athletic Club, mingled with movie stars, eventually becoming an actor himself. Signing with Paramount Pictures, Duke would have roles in some twenty movies, invariably relegated to playing ethnic parts. Teaching and spreading the art of surfing remained a constant in his life and in 1925 when a fishing boat capsized in Corona Del Mar, California, respect for the Olympian increased even more dramatically. Through 25 foot waves, Duke bravely paddled out to the drowning victims, rescuing three at a time on his surf board. That day, eight people owed their life to Duke’s bravery and when the rescue made the headlines in big city newspapers, his fame as a national hero was truly cemented. The ‘rescue’ surfboards we see on the beaches of Hawaii today, are just one of his legacies.

After failing to make the Olympic team for LA in 1932, Hawaii tugs at his heart and Duke returns to O’ahu. He still travels and is feted around the world, yet once he’s returned to his roots he questions ‘what’s next?’ In 1934 Duke is elected Sheriff of Honolulu which he serves for twenty-six years and while doing so, the world discovers tropical paradise on the islands and the ‘famous sheriff of Honolulu’ finds the time to play host and entertain the rich and famous. Meeting Duke was a must!

In 1940 Duke married the love of his life, Cleveland born Nadine Alexander. The ballroom dance instructor had noticed the Hawaiian legend in magazines and once established on the island and teaching dance at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, she reported that her first meeting with Duke was love at first sight!

I can only imagine the delight when at age 71, Duke starts yet another career as owner of Duke Kahanamoku’s Club in 1961. The clubs impressive entertainment lineup, eventually including the legendary Don Ho, made it the hippest place to be seen.

Tiny paper umbrellas completed the mai tais. Crisp whites or florals, complimented by a lei, was the sartorial choice for all. And hula dancers performed to hapa-haole songs under the glow of tiki torches. Stars like Judy Garland popped in to perform. Sammy Davis Junior or Tom Jones could be seen in the audience, and watching from his peacock chair was Duke himself greeting friends and posing for photos. The golden age of tourism in Waikiki was underway and the Duke Kahanamoku Club was at the heart of it all.

Through the years, Duke stayed very much connected with surfing and when it became the sexy image of Hawaii’s tourist boom, stars like Elvis, Rita Hayworth and Gidget helped popularize the islands. Shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum PI followed. When Duke passed away in 1968, even with all the varied facets of his life, his life was celebrated by a massive Beach Boy funeral on Waikiki. Paying the deepest respect to Duke Kahanamoku’s love for the sea, his ashes were cast into the ocean from an outrigger canoe. His legacy as the touchstone of ancient Hawaii to the modern era of surfing, as a racial pioneer and Olympian, as Hawaii’s most beloved son was celebrated and honoured.

As I researched this piece, I came across an episode of ‘This is Your Life’. Duke is perhaps in his 70’s and being honoured for his life’s work. Each mystery guest places a lei around his neck as they enter the stage, then a handshake, a hug. Three of the men that he had rescued are there, they thank Duke for their life which he accepts humbly. He is charming, and warm taking it all gently in his stride. A few of the surviving Beach Boys pay their respects, as do his siblings, proudly reminiscing, then filling the stage with harmonious songs of Hawaii. Then Nadine enters the stage, pretty and graceful in a floral dress and a bespoke lei. She’s dainty beside her strong, imposing Duke, layers of leis around his neck now almost obscuring his still-handsome face. Nadine’s wrist jangles as shy places her hand over his. She isn’t shy in admitting that it’s his Olympic medals dangling on her wrist. Their love radiates through the black and white screen and I can only imagine what a time these two had at their Club – the darlings of Waikiki, dancing the night away.

Duke’s life makes you smile… a life well lived, a proud Hawaiian legacy, a poster boy for these islands that I came to adore. If you stroll past Duke on the way to the beach, give him my fondest regards!

The Aloha of Hawaii… feeling Waikiki, part one

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After two years of travel-put-on-hold, where would that first trip take me? Now as I stand on top of Diamond Head, the volcanic cone on the island of O Ľahu, a sense of elation washes over me. Waikiki unfurls along the leeward side against the dazzling blues of the Pacific Ocean, a seemingly endless strip of fine white sand, gangly palm trees and grand hotels. The lush greens of Cook pines, eucalyptus, acacia, and banyan sprawl up the gentle mountains beyond. It’s our first trip to Hawaii and that fact seems to complement this inaugural post pandemic travel. The vista before me is breathtakingly beautiful, the temperature is a perfect 28 C, and throughout the next few weeks, a wide smile and that feeling of aloha are a constant.

Aloha is more than a greeting on the Hawaiian islands. It has a deep cultural and spiritual significance for locals and time and time again, a conversation will conclude with a warm smile and an ‘aloha’. It’s an expression of respect, of love for the land and the ocean, it’s a state of mind. Bumper stickers might even encourage one to ‘Drive with Aloha’. Yet I sense that in the deep roots of the expression is also an intrinsic way of preservation, of how Hawaiians feel regarding their native land, perhaps a reaction to how it was inhabited by missionaries and plantation owners, then eventually appropriated and absorbed by the United States.

After a long Canadian winter of monochrome whites, the palette of Waikiki bursts with vibrant hues and is suffused with history. The name of this iconic district of Honolulu, the capital city of the islands, means ‘spouting fresh water’. Today it’s difficult to imagine how entirely different this now tourist enclave looked less than 150 years ago. Wetlands, fishponds and taro fields were fed from mountain streams rendering it one of O’ahu’s most fertile farming areas. In 1795, Chief Kamehameha successfully united the Hawaiian Islands and his descendants later brought the royal court to Waikiki. In the 19th century, Queen Kapi’olani had two properties here. Her favourite, a modest home on the waterfront, was a haven for her poetry writing and work preserving the ancient forms of the hula dance. Missionaries who arrived on O’ahu in 1820 would condemn these ‘heathen displays’; as they did the ancient art of surfing… more of this in Part Two.

By the 1880’s, well-to-do citizens began building ocean-front cottages but things changed dramatically when Waikiki’s first luxury hotel, The Moana, opened its doors in 1901. Built on the land of a former royal compound, the stage was set for Waikiki’s ineluctable new chapter. The opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the ’20’s to serve ocean liner passengers sealed that fate.

As I curl my toes in the white sands of Kahanamoku Beach, then splash in the rolling waves, airplanes soar and bank or descend into Honolulu airport, about thirty minutes by car. We come to follow their directions and know if they’re heading to the nearby island of Maui (as we will in a week’s time), to Hawaii, the ‘Big Island’, or whether they are ferrying visitors back to mainland USA, to Canada, or perhaps west to Australia or Japan. Long before attracting tourists, this archipelago – a string of 137 volcanic islands spanning a mere 1500 miles – was reached by voyaging Polynesians.

The first visit by Polynesians in about 300 AD was likely accidental, the second wave around 1000 from the Tahitian islands almost certainly wasn’t. Navigating more than 2400 miles of open ocean by the sun and stars in double-hulled canoes, the settlers brought their beliefs, social structure, plants and animals. The locals were likely absorbed, cultures and genetic lines then entwined. Ancient Hawaii was a highly stratified society run by ali’i or chiefs who gained their right to rule by a human pantheon of demigods. Culture was based on everyone playing their part through work and ritual, maintaining the well-being of the community through enriching traditions of music, dance, sport and the concept of aloha.

Present day O’ahu is a mix of cultures and heritage with tolerance for different ethnicities and religions. Yet I see glimpses of how native Hawaiians struggle with the colonial past and as with so many indigenous peoples, the slow appropriation of their lands. I speak with Hawaiians who mention how difficult it is for them survive the high cost of living, often needing to work two or three jobs. Or perhaps having no choice but to leave their island for the mainland. On O’ahu, I feel the presence, the struggles and the pride of the local heritage.

Here, the value of ‘ohana’, family and friends, is still very important. Yes, you do wear Hawaiian shirts to work and maybe rush barefoot to the beach at lunchtime, surfboard perched on head. Absolutely, the food is a fusion of local, Japanese, Polynesian, Filipino and of course the ‘mainland’ staples. And most days, after enjoying the beach, exploring the streets and gazing at sunsets, at some point we’ve stumbled upon the strains of the traditional ukulele from hometown musicians. This melodic, ubiquitous four-string member of the lute family cradles one in the embrace of Hawaii just as beautifully as the rhythmic beat of the ocean waves. A melodic backdrop for newcomers to the island like us, its strains must surely channel pure nostalgia in islanders, fond memories of simpler times.

After dinner one evening, we chance upon The Gallery on Kalakaua Avenue, just along from the historic Moana Outrigger Hotel and high-end boutiques. The spacious cafe and art gallery is abuzz with sun-kissed surfers and night-cappers. A ‘too big for the stage’ band delights the crowd with a fusion of musical genres, but it seems that the local melodies accompanied by the ukulele draw the most applause. Versions of this scene play out over the weeks and I cherish this glimpse into the island’s heritage – listen to John Cruz’s, Island Style and you’ll hear what I mean.

Back outside and along from The Gallery, we meet Clayton. Set up under a colourful umbrella, an artistic sign announces that he’s an army veteran who has lost his job due to the pandemic. We are the only ones to pause and savour his evocative songs. In a melange of English and Hawaiian, Clayton sings of ‘old Hawaii’. He laments his situation, but is hopeful for the future. He is especially eager about preserving the folk tunes of an island that he loves. I offer that I hope there is room for the younger generation of bands of which we’ve just heard, but also respect for more traditional performers like himself. Still, there’s another sad and alarming point that Clayton makes. Although he now has a place to live after losing his home, homelessness in the Honolulu area is clear and present. As a visitor I feel particularly helpless and can only share some food or give a few dollars perhaps. I have no reference points as to how many came for the warmth and lifestyle but for whom it didn’t work out. I do know that against the backdrop of millions of tourists each year and perpetually sunny skies, it’s particularly heartbreaking to see.

The white sands and gentle waves of Waikiki have attracted visitors – some come and go, some find a way to stay – since it became a jet set destination in the late ’50’s. Steamship travel preceded this, but the emergence of affordable air travel would forever change the landscape of these islands as tourism grew exponentially in the 50’s and 60’s.

Hoping to glimpse vestiges of that era when Polynesian culture and playful hospitality was very much part of the enticement for visitors, I had purposely booked a ‘vintage’ hotel just blocks from the beach. The moment we walked through the music filled bamboo-adorned entrance, I knew White Sands was going to be that delightful nod to the heyday of the Jet Age that I was hoping for.

White Sands Hotel was built in 1957 by local architect Edwin Bauer. Framed by tall kukui and coconut trees, the guest rooms were designed around the pool courtyard that becomes a gathering focal point. A recent renovation and re-imagination, transports you sublimely into the past. It is all a veritable vintage oasis, from the Heyday Bar with its playful swing seats and flickering tiki torches, to the oversized orange-fringed umbrellas. Nods to White Sands original days are also in the rooms with vibrant patterns, mid-century furniture, and at reception with landline telephones and a record player that might just serenade you with a Don Ho tune. And just as Bauer would have envisioned, we meet plenty of travellers and locals around the poolside and bar throughout our stay. We all agree… it’s a snapshot of Hawaii that we hoped it to be.

As many of Bauer’s buildings from the 50’s and 60’s have been demolished to make way for high-rise hotels, it’s even more special that White Sands and a few others still remain. Over a prolific twenty-five years or so, Bauer designed and built office and apartment buildings, as well as classic two-story walk up hotels.

I become slightly obsessed with his work along with the early mid-century modern architecture in general and we roam the city by foot in search of the Waikiki of the 50’s and 60’s. Buildings from this period are simple and utilitarian yet, for their time, cutting edge, their designs embracing the tropical climate and celebrating Hawaiiana heritage. Tall palms sway and silhouette against the backdrop of mid-rise apartments. Retro signage announces on walls of black and brown basaltic lava. The ‘tropical hat’ of a hipped roof sheds the rain and protects from the sun.

The scenes transport me back to the tropical places that I’ve lived; their use of sun protecting matchstick blinds, louvered screens, lush hibiscus and bougainvillea filled landscaping. Specific to Hawaii is the version of the balcony, porch or veranda, the lanai. Connecting the inside with the out, the beloved and functional lanai embraces yet also protects from the elements as it acts as an extension of the room or home.

On our last day in Waikiki, I track down two more of Bauer hotels that have survived the march of time. The Breakers Hotel isn’t far from one of his most beloved apartment/hotel buildings, The Kalia, and when I peek into the courtyard at The Breakers I see the signature local lava rock, bespoke wood for ventilation and an oasis of verdant green shading the central pool. Bauer’s iconic Hawaiiana Hotel is right next door, though it’s been rebranded as The Pagoda. As with White Sands, I can easily imagine arriving at these hotels in the 60’s, at once in tropical paradise, a welcoming lei dangling fragrantly on my shoulders, mai tai in hand!

A new generation of architects is revitalizing interest in Edwin Bauer and his significant contribution to Waikiki’s architectural portfolio. Late one afternoon as indeed I am sipping a cocktail poolside at White Sands, I read a little more about the architect who migrated here from San Francisco. After a prolific career, Bauer disappeared at the age of 78. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he was last seen stepping off a bus, never to return to his Waikiki apartment. Despite a massive search and rewards offered, his four adult children had no choice but to declare him legally deceased.

As palms sway above and water splashes up to me from fellow travellers in the pool, I gaze out to long-stemmed bird of paradises nestled below our lanai. Cocooned in this tucked-away oasis, I’m confident that Bauer’s vision lives on in beautiful Waikiki.

To be continued…

Poolside at White Sands