as spring turned into summer, Una and I visited Hawaiʻi. Una had never been there before. I, on the other hand, have always enjoyed telling people that I’d only ever been there in utero, when my pregnant mother and father visited in the 1970s. I don’t know how far along in her pregnancy my mother was and it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps telling me that she’d been pregnant with me was her PG way of saying that I was conceived there. If that’s the case, it would fit in with my narrative of nomadism that officially began when we moved to Kentucky about a week or so after I was born in Iowa.
Before our trip, I thought about my childhood homes in Kentucky, and later, Missouri, trying to remember what artifacts of my parents’ Hawaiʻian trip I may’ve grown up around. I remembered a fierce wooden tiki mask in the living room — perhaps a souvenir. There was also a framed picture of a waterfall but I don’t know where that photo was taken. I know, too, that my mother had been to Hawaiʻi before because one of my aunts had a copy of a local newspaper whose journalists had deemed a family trip taken there by their family newsworthy. I remembered, too, that my mother was a James A. Michener fan and had a copy of his novel, Hawaii, in the library. There was also a coffee table book, Hawaiian Yesterdays: Historical Photographs, on the, well, coffee table. I even remember her telling us about King Kameamea and Queen Liliulukalini, whose mellifluous names I practiced saying to myself.
As Una’s and my vacation approached, I imagined what our experience would be like. The Hawaiʻian brand is strong. I figured we’d exit the plane and a beautiful woman in a grass skirt would place a lei around our necks. We’d probably eat poi at a luau while musceled men twirled fire. We’d inevitably stand on the edge of a lava-spewing volcano whilst “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was strummed on a ukulele — except that none of that happened. Instead we watched a lot of episodes of Forensic Files in our hotel room, ate lots of pizza, and discovered the challenges and joys of getting around two islands without a car.
HISTORY OF HAWAIʻI
Owing to its isolation, for most of its existence, Hawaiʻi was a place without people. Roughly 30 million years ago, the chain of volcanic islands were formed by a fixed hot spot ejecting magma up through the sea floor as the Pacifc Plate slowly moved across it. Among other s, the three tallest mountains on earth were formed in the process: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Haleakalā — also the 11th, 12th, and 13th tallest peaks in the solar system.
Not only were there now humans back then, during the the Oligocene, but apes and gibbons hadn’t even yet diverged on the evolutionary tree. For 30 or so million years, then, Hawaiʻi was home to all kinds of plants, bacteria, and fungi but limited to animals that could fly there (e.g. bats, birds, insects, and spiders) and ones that could swim (e.g. crab, fish, seals, shrimp, turtles).
Humans most likely finally discovered Hawaiʻi sometime between 300 and 600 CE — but possibly as early as 124 or as late as 1266. Regardless of when exactly the Polynesian pioneers arrived, they and their ancestors had by then fanned out from their homeland in Taiwan to colonized a vast oceanic territory that stretched from Madagascar to Rapa Nui and included most of Micronesia, Polynesia, as well as parts of Southeast Asia and Melanesia. There is even some evidence that they were in contact with the Chumash of California and the Mapuche of Chile. Oh, and they likely visited (but didn’t colonize) Antarctica.
The Polynesian settlers cleared forests and introduced, in their place, bananas, breadfruit, coconuts, plantains, sugarcane, taro, yams and about 180 other species of crops. Native species of eagles, crows, owls, and flightless moa-nalos went extinct soon after and the Polynesians introduced chickens, dogs, and pigs as sources of meat. Around 1200, a Tahitian priest named Pā‘ao is said to have established lasting order on the Hawaiʻians by establishing class hierarchy and a strict code of laws called kapu. The aliʻi, a hereditary line of nobles, presided over the Hawaiʻians for centuries.
All that began to change when, in 1778, Captain James Cook arrived in Kauaʻi on his third voyage of exploration undertaken on behalf of the British Empire. After a short stay in Hawaiʻi, he and his crew set sail in search of the Northwest Passage. He returned to Hawaiʻi the following year. After Hawaiʻians took one of Cook’s longboats, apparently without Cook’s permission, Cook abducted Hawaiʻi, ruler of the island of Hawaiʻi. A confrontation ensued in which an attendant named Nuaa stabbed Cook to death.
The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was established in 1795 by the House of Kalākaua with the assumption of King David Kalākaua. In 1835, William Northey Hooper established the first sugarcane plantation. Sugar soon became the republic’s primary export. and wealthy plantation owners came to exert considerable power and pressure on the republic to submit to their wishes, which included American rule. In 1887, the United States navy established an outpost at Pearl Harbor. Shortly afterward, a group of mostly non-Hawaiʻians launched the Rebellion of 1887 and the rioters drafted their own constitution. More coup attempts followed, supported by the US military, which ended with the fall of the House of Kalakaua in 1893. The Republic of Hawaii, a puppet regime, was established in 1894 and Hawaiʻi was annexed by the US in 1898.
The empires of America and Japan were both conquering nations in the Pacific when things came to a head in 1941. The US embargoed oil from coming into Japan, in order to grind their economy to a halt. Japan responded, in December 1941, by attacking American military outposts in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaiʻi. The US and Japan went to war. Martial law was established and remained in effect until 1945, when World War II ended. Hawaii was made the 50th state in 1959. Despite its image as an isolated part of the planet, Hawaiʻi is located near the geographic center of the Greater United States.
Although Japan’s attempted military invasion of Hawaiʻi was thwarted at Midway Atoll, today Hawaiʻi’s character is heavily influenced by the Japanese. Japanese Americans comprise the archipelago’s largest ethnicity and Japanese tourists make up the plurality of foreign visitors. In fact, Hawaiʻi often feels more strongly reminiscent of Japan or places historically occupied by the Empire of Japan (e.g. Korea, Ryukyu, and Taiwan) than it does any part of the mainland that I’ve ever visited.
GEOGRAPHY OF HAWAIʻI
Looking at a map, it’s difficult to get a sense of Hawaiʻi’s size. It calls to mind the Moon illusion, in which the Moon looks huge when near the horizon and small when far from it. Hawaiʻi is often described as the most remote inhabited place on earth but in reality, that distinction belongs to Tristan Da Cunha, in the South Atlantic. Hawaiʻi’s closest neighbors, however (Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Kalama Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Wake Island), are all too small to provide much sense of scale. Larger landmasses are all much further away. The Aleutian Islands (Unangam Tanaa), are about 2,700 kilometers to the north. The California Channel Islands, Kamchatka, and Japan, are all about 3,500 kilometers away.
Hawaiʻi’s combined land mass is 28,311 km2, making it a bit smaller than Jamaica and a bit larger than Kosovo — but those comparisons are not particularly helpful to me as I’ve never been to either. The fact that Hawaiʻi is a bit smaller than Maryland and a bit bigger than Massachusetts gives me a slightly better perspective, even I’ve never been to either of those states, just because I’m more familiar with the scale of the Lower 48. It’s no doubt worth acknowledging that Hawaiʻi isn’t a combined land mass but rather an archipelago of 137 islands stretching 2,400 kilometers of ocean from Hawai’i (aka “the Big Island”) and Kure Atoll. The distance between islands varies considerably too. Maui is just fourteen kilometers from its closest neighbor, Lānaʻi. Holoikauaua, on the other hand, is 462 kilometers from its closes neighbor, Kauō. The reason I was so concerned about Hawaiʻi’s geography was because I had been told beforehand that it was almost impossible to get around without an car and yet there were no cars to be rented because the rental services had sold off their fleets during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GETTING AROUND HAWAIʻI
Connectivity can shorten distances but there is only one inter-island ferry in operation today, connecting Lānaʻi and Maui. There are four inter-island air carriers. TheBus (O‘ahu), Hele-On Bus (Hawaiʻi), the Kauaʻi Bus, and Maui Bus provide regular mass transit service on their respective islands. The Honolulu Rail Transit system is currently still under construction. I had read online that it was scheduled to open in 2021. Given the state of the pandemic and my familiarity with transit estimates, I figure it will probably actually enter service in early 2023.
I generally avoid renting cars when on vacation unless I’m driving to a place or the road trip itself is the whole point. In this case, though, I was willing to rent a U-Haul but even moving trucks weren’t available. The buses, however, were much better than I’d expected — especially on Oʻahu and we only resorted to a ride-hail service once, after we landed in Līhuʻe. If I ever return to Hawaiʻi, I will most likely try to rent a car on any island but Oʻahu, where driving and storing a car seems like a headache no one, especially a traveler, needs. I would also suggest that using a two-ton metal box on wheels to do perform every task is to the spirit of those Hawaiʻians who nimbly spread across the globe with nothing but wind, muscle, skill, and wisdom. We’ll see if this argument catches on and Hawaiʻians ditch their beloved megacars and raised pick-ups en masse in favor of more sustainable transit.
Getting around by bus on O‘ahu was a breeze albeit one that carried with it minor bits of confusion. When we stepped off the plane, we easily found our way to the bus stop where we struck up a conversation with a visitor from Seattle as we waited for the 20 Line. Soon we were joined by a couple, also from Seattle. We put our heads together and decided which bus to board but the driver gave us the Japanese crossed-arms gesture and explained that we all wanted the next bus. She was right, and so began a pattern of not always boarding the bus when we thought we would, but always being aided in doing so. It’s also worth noting that we usually waited on average about four minutes buses and there was considerable overlap with bus routes, giving us multiple options of how to get around. On the other hand, for reasons unclear to me, arrival estimates on Google Maps were often wildly off, sometimes telling us that a bus wouldn’t arrive for another 48 minutes only to have it show up in two.
Using The Bus, in O‘ahu, we were easily able to get to and from beaches in Lanikai, Kailua, and Makapu’u. We also traveled to and through the neighborhoods of ʻĀina Haina, Ala Moana, the Arts District, the Capitol District, Downtown Honolulu, Hawaiʻi Kai, Kaimukī, Kakaʻako, Kalihi-Pālama, Kalihi Hai, Kapiolani, Kuli’ou’ou, Niu Valley, Nuʻuanu, Waiʻalae and Kāhala, and of course, Waikīkī, where our hotel was. We also once mistakenly got off in Kalama Valley, which provided us with an excuse to experience walking in the suburbs.
Although Guam is further west and American Samoa further south, Honolulu is both the westernmost and southernmost city in the US. Somewhat strangely, though, Honolulu is not actually a municipality. Like all Hawaiʻian cities and towns, it’s technically an “unincorporated census-designated-place.” It is a city, nonetheless, by most measures — as in a place with a substantial number of people and buildings and all of that. In fact, although small by city standards, Honolulu is the second-most populated Polynesian city after Auckland (Tāmaki Makaurau). Home to about 350,000, Honolulu manages to feel both big and small — depending, in large part, on where one is going or how tall the hotel, how long it takes to get there… or how hot the weather. Still, I don’t think it’s within me to seriously describe any place smaller than Anaheim, Wichita, or Omaha as “big.”
Nevertheless, if memory serves correctly, I think that both of my friends who live in Hawaii with whom I consulted beforehand described Honolulu as both “big” and “noisy.” At least one said that it was touristy. The other said that it was “just like any other city” — although I don’t honestly know what that means. Even when two cities seem like one another in some ways, I’m always focused on their differences. Honolulu was no exception — sometimes reminding me of Long Beach or Manila, but more often seeming unlike anywhere else.
There were, of course, the tourists, but as much as one wants to avoid them, one also has to accept when one is one. Most tourists, though, cluster in tight flocks near familiar chains found in their respective hometowns. When they seek out adventure, they tend to do so in organized groups with organized activities, like zip-lining over some place it might be more rewarding to walk through. In places, like Paris, where there are many landmarks at which to take selfies, they’re harder to avoid. In places like New Orleans, Las Vegas, or Honolulu, it turns out, they tend to primarily attach themselves to small areas, often just a few blocks of a particular street. In Honolulu, they seem fixated on Kalakaua and Kūhiō avenues in Waikīkī and even the smaller streets between them often feel far from the crowds. Venture to Honolulu neighborhoods other than Waikīkī, Ala Moana, or Kakaʻako and you might not see any tourists at all.
Honolulu certainly didn’t strike me as especially noisy, either — although, I suppose, I was awoken by the crow of a feral rooster on more than one occasion. It’s also hard not to remark at the uniqueness of an American city of its size where 55% of residents are Asian American and the white minority comprise only 17%. Roughly 52% of Honoluluans cannot speak English fluently. The most spoken language is Tagalog, followed by Ilocano. Signs were, in many cases, both in English and Japanese and only occasionally Hawaiʻian and then mainly for restrooms and accompanied by clearly genedered silhouettes.. There don’t seem to be many enclaves in Honolulu but it is home to a small but bustling Chinatown where Yue seemed to be the lingua franca.
The indigenous language of Hawaiʻi is Hawaiʻian, although today it is endangered. Leading up to our visit, I learned a little Hawaiʻian on Duolingo. I didn’t expect to hear a lot of Hawaiʻian spoken as only about .1% (~24,000) of Hawaiʻians speak the language today. In all honestly, I think they only Hawaiʻian words I heard spoken were “aloha” and “mahalo.” I would’ve liked to have practiced speaking it but one doesn’t want to be like one of those “influencers,” who fish for compliments from and then post the (hopefully) stunned reactions of locals on their social media platforms in the soul-sucking quest for virality. I would also no sooner insist on speaking Italian with my next door neighbor, based on their ancestral origins, than I would try to push a language on Hawaiʻians more likely to understand Korean or Vietnamese than Hawaiʻian.
The erasure of Hawaiʻian, too, is worth considering. Hawaiʻian isn’t endangered simply because Hawaiʻians turned their back on their culture or got lazy. Not only was Hawaiʻian not historically taught in schools — it was actually forbidden and students were punished for speaking it. Adults were imprisoned for speaking Hawaiʻian in public spaces. As a result, Hawaiʻian Pidgin, (ʻōlelo paʻi ʻai – “pounding-taro language”) came to be more widely understood and is today spoken by roughly 600,000 Hawaiʻians. The creole language is influenced not just by Hawaiʻian and English but, to differing degrees, Portuguese, Cantonese, Japanese, Ilocano, Okinawan, Korean, and Puerto Rican Spanish. To my ears, there is definitely a Hawaiʻian English dialect, distinct from other American dialects, though… and I’ve never in my life been addressed by so many as “my dear.”
MUSIC OF HAWAIʻI
The music of Hawaiʻi includes an array of traditional and popular styles that often reflect Hawaii’s unique history and mix of cultures — and yet, the words “Hawaiʻian music,” probably evoke thoughts of bouncy ukuleles and lilting steel guitars. Of course, there’s naturally much more to Hawaiʻian music than that and I spent of lot of time making a playlist and listening to it whilst in Hawaiʻi.
Hawaiʻian folk music includes several varieties of mele (chanting) and hula, the famed music meant for a highly ritualized type of dance. I assumed, from movies, that experiencing it would be inevitable but it was not the case. Himeni are the hymns introduced by 19th century Protestant missionaries popular throughout much of the Pacific and we did hear some being sung by a group of worshipers gathered outside of a church. In the 1830s, Mexican vaqueros were brought in to teach cattle wrangling and brought with them the guitar. The Madeirans introduced the cavaquinho (which spawned the ukelele) and, in the 1860s, steel strings and slack key tuning. The lap steel guitar originated in Hawaiʻi around 1885, when it was popularized by Joseph Kekuku on Oah’u. After Puerto Rico’s sugar industry was devastated by hurricanes in 1899, Puerto Ricans relocated to Hawaiʻi and introduced chachi chachi.
Hawaiʻian music began to meld into American popular music in the 1910s. A Broadway show called Bird of Paradise introduced Hawaiʻian music to many Americans in 1912 and the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco followed in 1915 and helped its popularity grow. Hapa haole, essentially Hawaiʻian music that’s sung in English and intended for white audiences, blew up in 1916. Tin Pan Alley obliged the demand for Hawaiʻian songs by publishing a large supply of hapa haole music. One such act was Honolulu’s Dick McIntire and his Harmony Hawaiians, who recorded Hawaiʻian songs with Bing Crosby in 1936.
The steel guitar gained a foothold in American pop music, becoming especially important in Blues, Western Swing, and Honky-Tonk Country. Pioneer lap steel players of the era included Dick McIntire, Frank Ferera, Sam Ku West, Sol K. Bright Sr., and Tau Moe. When electrification was introduced in the 1930s, the lap steel added fuel to the craze for Hawaiʻian music and musicians throughout the US formed Hawaiʻian combos in the 1930s and 1940s.
Around the time Hawaiʻi was made a state, singers like Andy Williams, Annette Funicello, Elvis, and Hawaiʻi native, Don Ho (né Donald Tai Loy Ho) made Hawaiʻia-tinged easy listening around and in the years after Hawaiʻi was made a state. The same period also bore a lot of exotica by the likes of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Hawaiʻi native Arthur Lyman, whose “islandy” music showcased the capabilities of Hi-Fi Stereo systems and filled tiki rooms and bars with a melodious cacophony of bongos, vibraphones, and animal noises.
Los Angeles sunshine pop band, The Association, had a connection to Hawaiʻi. The band’s Jules Alexander (then serving in the Navy) and Terry Kirkman (then a salesman) met in Hawaiʻi before forming their band in California. In 1978, a Chinese-Japanese-Irish singer from Honolulu, Yvonne Elliman, had a massive disco hit with “If I Can’t Have You” from Saturday Night Fever. In the 1980s, Jawaiian (Hawaiʻian reggae, essentially), became popular in Hawaiʻi but — without intending any disrespect — even superstars of the genre like Simplisity are all but wholly unknown on the mainland. One of my favorite bands when I was in high school was Poi Dog Pondering and, around 1994 or ’95, I saw them perform live in a banquet room at the student union.
ARCHITECTURE OF HONOLULU
Hawaiʻi has a unique architectural history. Hawaiʻians traditionally constructed distinct residential buildings reflective of the hierarchy, from simple shacks for slaves and outcasts, to elaborate palaces for the aliʻi. Christian missionaries preferred both plain clapboard churches or ornate gothic churches. Kamehameha V and Kalākaua promoted Hawaiʻian Renaissance architecture, exemplified by ʻIolani Palace, built in 1882. The Hawaiʻian Romanesque style was distinct for its use of dark basaltic boulders. Beaux-Arts and Art Deco were common in the early decades of the 20th century. Modest examples of Late Deco and Moderne proved common in the Kapiolani neighborhood — one of my favorites.
Although not especially large, Honolulu does feel more urban than some larger cities, I suspect due in part to the architecture and the association of high-rises with cities. Waikiki, with its beige hotels and familiar chains, looks more than a little like Long Beach. Other areas, whether dominated by warehouses or homes, had subtle but distinct East Asian vibe. Something to do with the slope of the tiled roofs and the shapes of windows reminded me of places featured in the Shochiku films of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema. There was also Hawaiʻian plantation architecture. Much of Honolulu has a mid-century vibe, with its preponderance of breeze blocks, glass blocks, and lava rock walls. Many of the apartments are two-story motel-style buildings with external entrances and breezeways. For those, unadorned cinder blocks seem to have been the most popular construction material. Internationalist, New Formalist, and Brutalist examples can be found in Downtown Honolulu.
HAWAIʻI IN FILM
Before I tried to watch some Hawaiʻian films and I thought about the television series and films set and/or filmed in Hawaiʻi I’d already seen. Considering how popular the image of Hawaiʻi as a paradise is, I was surprised I hadn’t seen more of Hawaiʻi on the screen.
When I was very young, I sometimes used to watch Hawaii Five-O and then stomp around in the garage wearing hand-me-down dress shoes in an effort to emulate the sounds of that series’ many foot chases. When my mom went on an archaeology expedition in South Dakota, I watched as many episodes of Gilligan’s Island as I could, which was apparently filmed in part in O‘ahu and Kauaʻi. Another partly-filmed-in-Hawaiʻi show my sister and I watched when our mother wasn’t around was Fantasy Island and I saw exactly one episode of Magnum P.I. (a Halloween one). I watched the first episode of Lost and wasn’t interested in watching any more. I don’t think that I ever saw an episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter (but I did watch Chris Elliot‘s Skink the Bounty Hunter). I was an avid viewer of the first couple of seasons of the revived Hawaii Five-0. I tried to find episodes of Hawaiian Eye, a series that began airing in 1959, the year of Hawaiian statehood (but was filmed entirely in Warner Brothers studios in Burbank). Without a doubt, however, my favorite series filmed and set in Hawaiʻi was Decker Port of Call: Hawaii.
I’d seen a few films set in or filmed in Hawaiʻi. I saw Six Days Seven Nights (1998) and remember squirming a lot but not much else — except that the DVD was commonly given away for free with the purchase of a DVD player. When it was released on DVD, I watched Blue Crush (2002) through a haze of either hydrocodone/paracetamol or diazepam. I don’t remember much of it either — but I remember enjoying it. I also enjoyed Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008). A few years ago I watched Lilo & Stitch (2002) and I liked The Descendants (2011). Right before the trip I watched 50 First Dates (2004) and, to be honest, I had a hard time finishing it. I really enjoyed Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), though, which was also filmed in part in Hawaiʻi. I also watched my first Elvis movie, Blue Hawaii (1961), which had good songs, clothes, and scenery and made me wish that I could acquire a wardrobe of camp shirts and chinos before our trip. The last film I watched was the documentary, The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific, from 1983, which followed Pius “Mau” Piailug‘s trip from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi in the Hōkūle‘a, a traditional double-hulled Hawaiʻian voyaging canoe.
TREES AND PLANTS
One of the things I was struck by in Honolulu was the preponderance of plants I’m more used to seeing growing potted indoors rather than in lawns and curtilages. Everywhere, it seemed, there were bromeliads, crotons, pothos, and ti plants. More often than not, rising above them were banyans, coconut palms, monkey pod trees, and spathodea. Until I started reading about them, I rather naively assumed that they must all be native to Hawaiʻi. It was a silly error, though, with most no more native to Hawaiʻi than the bottle brushes, eucalyptuses, golden rain trees, jacarandas, and iconic palm “trees” are to Southern California. Bromeliads are native to the tropics of the Americas, crotons to Southeast Asia, ti plants to some Pacific Islands — but not Hawaiʻi. I’m guessing that the Hawaiʻian pothos is native to Hawaiʻi but even that might not be the case. In Los Angeles we have many a great many California pepper trees — native, despite their name, to the Peruvian Andes. Banyans were introduced by missionaries in 1873. Coconuts were brought by Polynesian settlers. The monkey pod tree was declared Hawaiʻi’s state tree in 1959 but is native to Latin America. Spathodea were seeded by airplane and are now recognized as invasive.
Thankfully, it’s increasingly common knowledge that introduced species — even when adapted to similar climates — are never as compatible as natives. Everyone is familiar with picky eaters like eucalyptus-noshing koalas and bamboo-gorging pandas but there also all sorts of picky “eaters” across all kingdoms of life — and the complex network of interactions is sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” In 2014, over the objections of Honolulu’s mayor, the City Council voted unanimously to stop planting introduced species in favor of natives, where feasible. The mayor stated “Imagine how Honolulu would look without these stunning trees for tourists and residents to enjoy,” as if tourists like myself would cancel our vacations were to to suddenly find the non-native bushes and trees replaced with kamani, kou, lonomea, loulu palms, manele, or ‘ohi’a lehuas. Perhaps someone could develop a site along the lines of Walkscore, called Greenscore, or something, to assign ratings based on the prevalence of native plant species in a neighborhood’s urban tree canopy, bioswales, green roofs, and greenways.
The animals I saw included a similar mix of endemic, native, introduced, and invasive. I was also struck by the birds I didn’t see . In Southern California, seabirds include cormorants, pelicans, and most of all, seagulls. I suppose all are too dependent on the coast, however, and thus apparently never undertook the long voyage to this islands. In their place there are albatrosses, boobies, ducks, geese, noddies, petrels, and terns. Nēnēs, a relative of the Canada Goose, are the state bird but unlike the state tree are not just native but endemic. I saw a few, pretty, yellow-green Hawaiʻi ʻamakihi on a couple of occasions. Most of the common birds seen away from the shore were deliberately introduced, however, which means that in many cases we can pinpoint, sometimes precisely, when they arrived. Rock doves (pigeons) were introduced in 1796, house finches before the 1870s, the common myna in 1866, sparrows in the 1870s, zebra doves in 1922, the red-crested cardinal around 1930, chestnut munia in 1959, and cattle egrets also in 1959. The feral chickens, especially prevalent in Kauaʻi, are descended from those brought by Polynesian settlers and domestic ones freed from captivity during hurricanes in 1982 and ’92. One characteristic shared by nearly all birds, it seems, is a lack of fear of predators, mostly limited to humans.
There are no land amphibians, mammals, or reptiles native to Hawaiʻi. Cane toads, now prevalent, were introduced in 1932. Green anoles were brought in the 1950s. During a hike I caught a glimpse of an Indian mongoose, first introduced in 1883. Not surprisingly, there were also pet cats and dogs and after an evening meal at Growler Hawaii, we found respite at the Hawaii Cat Cafe.
There was assuredly much more native life hidden in the teeming jungles and vast scrub-lands that cover the islands’ striking mountains but we barely had time to explore them, even though, shrouded in clouds and lined with silver waterfalls visible from far away, I know that I wanted to. It was far easier to get to the beach, though, and in the tide pools and off the coast we spied fish that I had no hope of identifying. In placid tide pools, though, we saw crabs and blennies. On one occasion we spied surprisingly large green sea turtles bobbing up and down with apparent ease in tumultuous waters.
CUISINE OF HAWAIʻI
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I’d make of Hawaiʻian cuisine. I knew that the Polynesian colonizers had introduced some familar foods (and unfamililar — I don’t believe I’ve ever had breadfruit). I remember the name “pū-pū platter” amusing me when I was young and purple poi appealed to me to for its color and tactile qualities. I’ve heard of plate lunch and have had shave ice but I sought neither. A couple of friends insisted I eat pineapple Dole whip but figured I’d probably more enjoy a fresh pineapple cut into chunks than soft-serve. In recent years, poke conquered the palate of the food fadsters but it, like spam musubi, it doesn’t offer much to vegetarians such as myself.
So instead of eating Hawaiʻian food, I found myself eating pizza — although never “Hawaiian pizza,” which was actually invented by a Greek in Canada in 1962. I’m no purist, mind you, and I’m happy to eat pineapple on pizza. We also had Japanese, Korean, and Thai. I did have mushroom sliders on taro buns and was inspired to make my own. We also had taro donuts at a Holey Grail food truck. Therr were memorable but very different vegan meals at Olena Cafe and Tane Vegan Izakaya. On Una’s birthday, I made Filipino spaghetti with mango ice cream and Chantilly cake for dessert, because that’s the type of cake that was apparently popular based on its placement in the supermarket. In Chinatown’s Maunakea Marketplace I picked up a mangosteen and a Malay Apple before grabbing a (sauceless) mushroom cheung fun at Chi Kong Look Fun Factory.
When it came to drinking, I tried to go local when possible. One of my goals was to visit Islander Sake Brewery, but their hours of availability never matched up with ours. On the other hand, I had several opportunities to try Maui Blanc Pineapple Wine but inevitably opted for pineapple-less wine, sake, or beer. I did sample several beers, though, including brews from Maui Brewing Company, Waikiki Brewing Company, Kona Brewing Company, and my favorite, Ola Brew.
The second and final leg of our vacation was to Kauaʻi, nicknamed “the garden isle.” It’s the second-oldest of the main islands after privately owned Niʻihau, also known as the “forbidden isle,” because off limits to all except its owners, the (not Swiss) family Robinson. I was immediately struck by the differences between O‘ahu and Kauaʻi. The ground was as red as Missouri clay. Some of the weather differences might have been down to chance, but, it never rained in the five days that we were in O‘ahu but it rained, I think, every day at some point during our five days in Kaua’i. Sometimes the rain was so hard that it was impossible to sleep through — not that I mind being awoken in the middle of the night nor at any time by a downpour. Kauaʻi seemed much more lush than O‘ahu, which often reminded me of semi-arid Southern California. In Kaua’i, the mountains seemed more forested and less shrubby. Waterfalls appeared suddenly and then vanish once emptied of their contents. We saw a double rainbow, straddling a golf course.
Kauaʻi is, with an area of 1,456.4 km2, it is the fourth-largest of the Hawaiʻian islands. It’s also the fourth most visited. Our ride-hail driver picked us up at the airport in Līhuʻe proved to be a well-traveled woman of half-Native Hawaiʻian/half-Native American heritage who was saving up for a trip to Congo. I asked for and she offered her unbiased views of the islands and their inhabitants — all of which she stressed she had love for. Kauaʻi, where she was born, was naturally the best — as were its people. Maui, she said, was commercial and great, she said with apparent disdain, for people who like chains and resorts. It’s official nickname is “the valley isle” but it’s also known as “the Playground of the Wealthy.” She also assured us that people on “the big island” are widely recognized by other Hawaiʻians to be “different” — something she attributed to the pālākiō or “vog.” I had only just learned this portmanteau of “volcanic fog” the previous day and had, at the time, assumed that it was a typo.
I didn’t disagree with our guide but I feel compelled to offer to the reader the counter opinions of my two aforementioned friends with whom I consulted before our trip. My friend, Aimee, who lives in Maui, seems to love it and has an Instagram account that mostly includes images of beaches and herself and her daughter enjoying them. My friend and Little Saigon-exploring companion, Quynh,, spoke glowingly of “the big island” and suggested that the Native Hawaiʻian culture is more pronounced there. In speaking to her, too, she seemed as sharp and insightful as ever and I detected no signs vog-induced mental deterioration. None of the three women offered opinions about either Lānaʻi (“the pineapple isle”) or Molokaʻi (“the friendly isle”).
Una and I stayed in Princeville, a master-planned community of mostly cookie-cutter homes and condos. About 500 families live there. We stayed in a condominium where, aside from a decent pizza place called Hideaways Pizza Pub, the nearest businesses and bus stop were a thirty minute walk away, along a golf course. There were, misleadingly, signs for restaurants that had closed eight and fourteen years earlier — something they’ll get around to updating someday. A grocery store-anchored shopping center, Princeville Center, turned out to the community hub but was a thirty minute walk from our digs. Princeville feels suburban except that there’s no city for it to be a suburb of. Walkscore assigns it a walkscore of just 17 out of 100. A bicycle would’ve been extremely helpful and yet there was apparently nowhere from which to rent one in Princeville. Despite there not being that much to recommend about the place, specifically, there were, in every part of it, breathtaking views of the mountains and oceans and the constant presence of nēnēs outside of our room was unexpectedly comforting. After a few days, I found myself trying to recognize individual geese based on the designations written on their leg bands.
Even though getting around Kauaʻi without a car was something of a time consuming struggle that sometimes involved carrying wet paper grocery bags on long treks, behind every acre of manicured golf course there was inevitably dense, fragrant jungles to be enjoyed, pretty waterfalls and, at the bottom, usually stunning beaches. One of the most striking was Queen’s Bath, a large tide pool formed by a sinkhole surrounded by igneous rocks that was previously better known as Keanalele. There was another site known as “Queen’s Bath” on the island of Hawaiʻi that, historically, only the island’s royalty were permitted to enter. In 1987, however, it was buried by lava flow and the tide pool at Keanalele took the Queen’s Bath title. A sign warned us that, at latest count, 28 visitors had drowned there, mostly after having been snatched from the shore by sneaker waves.
We began and ended our stay in Kauaʻi in Līhuʻe, which is where the airport is. The name is Hawaiʻi for “cold chill” but both times we were there it was hot and muggy. We had no time to explore it but, with only about 6,000 residents, it’s still the second largest town on the island and for that reason alone I wish we’d had more time to.
We took the Kauaʻi Bus to and spent a good part of another day in Kapaʻa, which is home to roughly 10,700 people, making it the island’s most populous place. The name, “Kapaʻa,” is Hawaiʻian for “solid.” According to the census, roughly one third of the population is Asian and yet, along the main street, where the tourists (more “huppie” than those found in Waikiki) were focused, it seemed like the overwhelming majority those in the service and retail industries were decidedly white. My favorite was as a family betrayed by their dialect as hailing from the Deep South. A boy, sipping a soda, stated in genuine amazement, “You don’t drink a cola like this everyday,” to which his mother affirmed, rather matter-of-factly, “no you do not.” We stopped at Java Kai on our ride-hail driver’s recommendation and it was, perhaps, the only great cup of coffee I had in Hawaiʻi. Later we re-hydrated with coconut water at Kauai Juice Co.
The beaches, although pretty, were littered with cigarette butts people sleeping under trees or, when away, engaged in apparent conversation with the voices in their heads. As we walked toward our bus stop, we watched a group of very young, very dark-skinned children swimming in an estuary — apparently much more comfortable with swimming in murky water or sun exposure than me. Meanwhile, their parents gathered under shelters, shaded from the sun, and grilling lunch.
Our favorite town in Kauaʻi was Hanalei. We checked the Kauaʻi Bus schedule and it looked like one would be arriving shortly. A couple, though, told us that the bus they’d been waiting for for the past hour hadn’t shown. A bus driver going the opposite direction kindly hopped out, sauntered across the road, and told us that — regardless of what the printed schedule said — the shuttle wouldn’t be there for another hour — so we grabbed lunch at Orchid Thai. Since Una’s order of pad see ew in Honolulu had turned out to be too-spicy-for-her pad kee mao, we ordered pad see ew again. I was wondering about the availability of ingredients in such a small place and the version we were served was made with salty soy sauce, fairly thin noodles, and bok choy instead of sweet soy sauce, wide noodles, and gai lan we were used to. It still hit the spot, though, and went especially well with my tall boy of beer from Kona Island Brewing.
After lunch, we immediately boarded the bus and headed to Hanalei. Hanalei is located near the mouth of the Hanalei River. Hanalei is very small, an estimated population of 254 in 2017. Depending on the source, Hanalei means “lei making,” “crescent bay,” or “lei valley,” all of which sort of make sense. Many of the residents are descendants of Portuguese, Filipino, and Japanese rice farmers. It’s where Dr. Jacoby, on Twin Peaks, was from — and where The Descendants was filmed. It also was the backdrop for the 1958 musical, South Pacific, which I haven’t seen. It was not, I learned, the home of Puff, the Magic Dragon, who was said to hail from a land called “Honah Lee.”
A landslide that occurred in March reduced traffic on the road to one lane for part of the way, which only barely slowed our commute down a winding road through the jungle and past taro paddies. About eight minutes after boarding, were were there. The town seems to be cradled by mountains. As we swam in the ocean, a cool rain fell. When it came time to return to Princeville, we were told by a shirtless man strumming a guitar that regardless of what the bus schedule said, the bus wouldn’t come for another hour so we picked up food from Federico’s Fresh Mex and waited for the bus over fried artichokes and a couple of pints of Modelo at the unpretentious Hanalei Gourmet Sure enough, the bus came when our benefactor suggested it would. On the way down, the bus was free. On the way back, it was $2. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, just confused. Just have the fare money handy (don’t expect change) and if they tell you its free, spend that money on a beverage.
As much of a live saver as the bus was for us, on our last day we decided not to take our chances with the Kauaʻi Bus and scheduled transportation with North Shore Cab. I’d met Janice at the airport when we’d first arrived and I remembered her speaking the Boston English. I can’t remember the name of the woman who picked us up but she was also incredibly Bostonian. Being a cab, it was way more expensive than the bus but airports, I figure, are a headache enough and the last thing you need when heading to the airport is stress. I was so glad we booked a cab (not on the day of, obviously) and our driver was a real character, too boot. She said, among other things, that she was headed back to Boston in ten days and was worried about gaining back the four pounds she’d lost in Hawaiʻi due to the relative scarcity of M&Ms. I told her that I’ve wanted, for several years, to visit Boston and she told me that I’d love it because,unlike so much of Hawaiʻi, it’s a very walkable place. Until then, Aloha!