Beyond the Beaches of Waikiki
Look past the sand and sea to discover Honolulu’s wealth of
By Katie Solan
But if you come to this hub of Hawaii with a yen to do more than sit in a lounge chair and sip a mai tai, you're in luck. Honolulu, Hawaii's largest city, boasts a vibrant, diverse arts and cultural scene, one that I explored during a five-night stay late last year. I listened to a concert performed by the oldest symphony west of the Rockies, toured the only royal palace on U.S. soil and visited a famous heiress's real-life Shangri-la.
My first stop was the 1889 Bishop Museum, a gorgeous, imposing Victorian-style building made entirely of coarse lava rock. The museum was built by Charles Reed Bishop, a successful businessman from Oregon, as a memorial to his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, of Hawaii's ali'i, or royalty.
The Bishop Museum houses the world's largest collection of Hawaiian and Pacific artifacts -- some 2.4 million items. I caught a glimpse of the museum's premier gallery, Hawaiian Hall, currently under renovation but scheduled to reopen by mid-2009. It's a perfect example of Victorian exhibition design, three stories high with an expansive, open central gallery. The hall typically displays artifacts from Hawaiian monarchy and the cultures that left their mark on Hawaii, but its most impressive feature is the 50-foot-long sperm whale skeleton that hangs from the ceiling.
The Bishop Museum's vast collection ranges from the interactive (there's a great children's section that has the world's only erupting volcano learning center), to the stunning, such as a 450,000-feather yellow cloak that belonged to King Kamehameha.
A satellite of the Bishop Museum, the Hawaii Maritime Center is located at Pier 7 at Honolulu Harbor and chronicles Hawaii's maritime history. An audio tour walks you through the 1,500-year-old relationship between man and water, beginning with artifacts from the first Polynesian voyagers who reached the islands.
The only royal palace in the United States has a curious location -- it's tucked in the center of Honolulu's downtown Capitol District, along busy King Street where businessmen and women briskly walk the city streets, passing the occasional palm tree on their way to offices in skyscrapers.
Iolani Palace was the last official residence of Hawaiian royalty. Two monarchs lived here: King David Kalakaua and then his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani, who was overthrown in 1893.
King Kalakaua built the palace in 1882 for $360,000; a $12 million restoration project will be completed this spring. Docents who guide tours invite guests to step back in time and pretend they are visiting the palace for a royal ball or luau -- albeit in vacation clothes and hospital slippers, worn to protect the wood floors.
The grandeur of the palace is unmatched, beginning with the reception hall staircase made of native Hawaiian koa wood -- it's the largest koa structure in the world. The hall's windows are of acid-etched glass from San Francisco, and art pieces from Europe and Asia rest in recesses.
Perhaps the most interesting stories of the palace are those of the monarchs who once inhabited it. The Blue Room, for example, was a favorite of King Kalakaua, who hosted small receptions here. He was known as the "Merrie Monarch" for his affinity for entertaining.
King Kalakaua was deeply curious about science and technology, and he outfitted the palace with electric lighting in 1887. Iolani Palace was the first home west of the Mississippi to be entirely electric -- four years before the White House. He also installed telephones in the royal residence and encouraged the growth of telephone technology on the islands.
King Kalakaua was the first monarch of any nation to circle the globe and visit fellow royalty. Throughout the palace you can see the influence of the royal family's travels. A European-style formal dining room is outfitted with furniture from Boston, and the table is set with flatware given as a gift by Napoleon III. The king's opulent bedroom contains much of its original furnishings, with pieces from Asia, Europe, Hawaii and mainland America.
The highlight of the tour is the throne room, a long, rectangular space with red carpeting, curtains and two larger-than-life golden thrones.
My fourth day in Hawaii took me into the heights of the Manoa and Makiki neighborhoods. We drove out of the city and up along winding roads, passing quaint, early 20th-century homes. Soon we arrived at the tucked-away Manoa Heritage Center, anchored by a 1911 Tudor revival-style house.
The real attraction of the site lies behind this house. In the backyard is a heiau, a sacred stone structure that many Hawaiians believe was built by the mythical Menehune people hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. Brown-black lava rocks from the last lava flow in Manoa -- 67,000 years ago -- are stacked about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide in a perfect square surrounding a plot of packed earth. From the heiau, there's a breathtaking view of the Manoa Valley.
The center's garden can be explored during a walk along a winding, rocky and sometimes steep path. Indigenous plants and Polynesian introductions grow here, such as the papala kepau, or "bird-catcher tree," and the mamaki tree, whose leaves are used to make tea.
My next stop was The Contemporary Museum, perched on an even higher hill in Makiki Heights. It's the only museum in the state dedicated wholly to contemporary art, and it's housed in a funky, 1925 Japanese-style home overlooking a sprawling manicured lawn. Diamond Head, Oahu's recognizable volcanic crater, can be viewed in the distance.
Of note is the museum's permanent exhibit by artist David Hockney, "L'Enfant et Les Sortileges," inspired by a Maurice Ravel opera. The 3-D "walk-in environment" is housed in its own separate room on the campus. Ravel's opera plays on a loop as you step into what seems to be a child's artwork come to life. The walls and ceilings are covered with paper upon which a sky, hills and figures have been painted. There's a central tree and benches, where one can rest while listening to the music and gazing at the very happy, dreamlike scene.
Honolulu cast a spell on tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who spent a few months in Hawaii in 1935 at the tail end of an extended honeymoon with husband James Cromwell. The newlyweds had just traveled through the Middle East and South Asia, and along the way the 22-year-old Duke developed a fascination for Islamic traditions, art and architecture. Two years later, she built a home on five acres, east of Diamond Head. She called this retreat Shangri La and filled it with treasures from the Islamic world.
Shangri La seems plucked out of "The Arabian Nights," with its Persian-style central courtyard and a dining room that resembles a Bedouin tent. For nearly 60 years, Duke amassed artifacts for Shangri La. Her 3,500-piece collection reflects the very best of Islamic art: Moorish columns from Spain, Persian tiles dating to the 13th century, a prayer rug from West Africa, an Ottoman fireplace and intricately carved marble screens from India, among many other treasures.
Duke not only had a keen eye for art but for real estate as well. The view from Shangri La is stunning, the best I saw in Hawaii.
One evening, I sampled Honolulu's performing arts scene at the Hawaii Theatre Center, a wonderfully restored 1922 movie house in Chinatown. Grand, gilded Corinthian columns border each side of the stage, and an allegorical, neoclassical mural spans the wall above it. The theater still has its original organ.
That evening, the Honolulu Symphony gave a fine performance of works by Beethoven, Dvorak and Copland. (The orchestra's usual home, the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, was undergoing renovations.) The multipurpose Hawaii Theatre Center hosts a variety of music, theater and dance events.
My hotel for this getaway played its own role in Hawaiian history. The Royal Hawaiian, known affectionately as the "Pink Palace of the Pacific," easily stands out from the rest of the hotels lined up along Waikiki Beach. Built in 1927 for $4 million -- the largest building project in the Pacific at that time -- the hotel flaunts a pink adobe, Spanish mission-style facade. The six-story, 400-room structure was the second hotel to be built on Waikiki. The first, the 1901 Moana Surfrider, now a Westin resort, is nearby. Both are known as the "Grande Dames of Waikiki."
I stayed on the 12th floor of the Royal Tower Wing, added to the original structure in the 1960s. My room had an L-shaped balcony that wrapped around a corner. From one side, I had lovely vistas of the vast Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head; from the other, a view of the urban Waikiki skyline with its modern skyscrapers and high-rises.
And, as if to remind me that I was not in Anytown, USA, lush green mountains shrouded in mist rose behind the cityscape, completing the essential Honolulu contrast I discovered on this trip. There is enough arts, culture and city streets to soothe the urban dweller, but for a moment of peace and tranquility, the beach, sea and mountains are never far away.
Information: To book a stay at the Royal Hawaiian, Westin's Moana Surfrider or other hotels and resorts in Honolulu, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 998-6925.
More on the Arts in Honolulu
Here are a few more cultural venues worth checking out during a stay in Honolulu.
* The Hawaii State Art Museum, just across the street from Iolani Palace, houses regional contemporary art and is located in the 1928 Armed Forces YMCA building. Bonus: Downtown at the HiSAM, the museum's restaurant and a popular downtown lunch spot, serves Western Mediterranean and New American cuisine.
* The Mission Houses Museum was the headquarters of the Sandwich Islands Mission, a group of American Protestant missionaries from the East Coast, from 1820 to 1863. The three-building complex re-creates the life of these early Westerners in the islands and contains the oldest wood-framed structure in the state.
* The Honolulu Academy of Arts has a diverse, 50,000-piece collection, including a large number of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet and Picasso, all housed in an architecturally outstanding building.
* The University of Hawaii Art Gallery is a 4,200-square-foot space on the campus of the state university that hosts changing exhibits throughout the year.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in March/April 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925 for current rates and details.