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 Oʻahu, 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…