HAWAII CALLS WITH A DIFFERENT TUNE

I get nostalgic every time I see a photo of beautiful Hawaii. In particular, the iconic image of Diamond Head in the background with the rolling King’s Surf in front of Waikiki Beach is a particular scene that I relate to. This was my introduction to the tropical world of the islands with the soft breezes and traditional music wafting across the sands of Waikiki.

My first encounter with this magical world was in 1947 shortly after I entered my freshman year at UCLA and being discharged from the U.S. Army. My family had relatives posted at Pearl Harbor which had been closed to tourist travel since 1942. We took advantage for the trip during the holiday break. Honolulu and Waikiki Beach had been frozen in time due to the war conditions with much of the same atmosphere one would have found during the 1920s and 1930s. Even getting there in 1947 was primarily by ship as the flights were still chancy by prop plane for that distance.

We did fly out of Los Angeles on a Pan American Clipper for an eight hour flight to Honolulu. Should there be any indication of engine trouble before the halfway point, the plane was required to return. We were lucky to make the flight arriving in the early dawn with the sunrise and the spread of Waikiki Beach below. We did return to the mainland on the historic cruise ship Matsonia to experience the joys of first-class cruising. Much better that the troopship I traveled on to and from Korea in 1946 on a crowded Victory Ship.

All of these memories came to mind when I read a recent travel article in the local newspaper touting the pleasures of a vacation at Waikiki. The author did manage to reveal that the vast tourist development and lure of a massive international crowd made Waikiki a different place than it was on my first visit. That’s one of the reasons why I went to the other islands later before they also were subject to heavy tourist development. There are a few out-of-the-crowd places on Maui that I still enjoy, but Molokai is the only island that remains reminiscent of my first experience in Hawaii.

My parents spent their honeymoon at Waikiki in 1926 while the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was under construction as seen in the background from the photos taken of the surfing activity from the pier. At that time the major hotel was the Moana which is still a favorite hostelry reflecting the grandeur of the Hawaiian territorial architecture of the early 1900s. The Halekulani Hotel nearby was still a converted residential complex being developed as a resort hotel. That’s where I stayed in 1947 and subsequent visits when it was still a tropical garden setting with island-style architecture and large lanai suites.

Oh my, how it has changed with a wall of high-rise hotels all but blocking the view of Diamond Head. About the only tradition left in 1996 when I lasted visited Honolulu was the sunset Hawaiian-music cocktail hour on the terrace at the Halekulani, now a posh high-rise hotel dominated by Asian tourists. Gone are the aloha shirts, the mumus, the coconut hats and the traditional lei.

The international tourist trade, primarily from Asia, don’t want Hawaiian schmaltz. Slick contemporary glass and metal high rise hotels with rock music blasting from clubs is selling big time. To find the old Hawaii, travel to the west coast of Maui or to Molokai where development is restricted by water resource.

One of my fondest memories of Molokai was a scene on the main street of territorial-style Kaunakakai, Life style is casual and relaxed in this village. As we drove along in the line-up of ancient pick-up trucks, there was a sudden stop as the front driver visited with a friend, No one honked or tried to bypass. It was just the custom.

What’s to remember 70 years later? My memories include the open dining beside the sea with the tiki torches and traditional Hawaiian music. On the beaches of Maui, Molokai and Kauai, away from any major tourist development, you hardly ever see anyone except for the occasional surfer. Along the west side of Molokai open beaches spread for miles while the north shore of Kauai offers numerous intimate coves and the beautiful, intimate beach at Napili Kai at Maui with extraordinary snorkeling with tropical fish and a large colony of sea turtles.

While staying in a lanai-style condo at Molokai, the beach was the hangout for the locals after work. I had two memorable encounters when I went down for an evening swim. Once I realized the local boys had all left the surf and were sitting on shore. When I came out of the water, I asked what they were looking at. Sharks was the answer!

The second special treat on the same beach was the weekly hukilau when the locals cast the giant net in the surf and pulled in the fish to be divided among the two dozen or more fisherman. It is a classic ceremony with special Hawaiian music sung while the heavy net is pulled to share full of jumping fish.

After enjoying daily fresh-picked fruit in the islands, the pineapple and papaya sent to the mainland is virtually tasteless. Maui was a very large pineapple plantation until the hotel development in the 1970s replaced the vast fields growing the small barrel-shaped fruit that is golden yellow and very sweet. The tree-ripened papaya and the large avocados melt in your mouth. Even the MaiTai drinks taste better in Hawaii. Is it the environment?

These are my sweet memories of days gone by when the islands had character. Some still remained in 1994 on my last visit to Molokai. A supplement to this travel piece called “Paradise Lost” was written at that time to recount the history of this more remote island of Hawaii.