New Hawaii

By Orenstein, Peggy | Sunset, December 2016 | Go to article overview

New Hawaii


Orenstein, Peggy, Sunset


Away from the bloat and bluster of Waikiki lives a city that's full of soul, style, and serious street cred. Come see how the locals do Honolulu.

"It's like L.A. here," my almost-12-year-old daughter observed, as we crawled through the inevitable Honolulu traffic toward our hotel. "Except pretty. With trees. And flowers."

A few minutes later, as we passed a strip mall anchored by a Jack in the Box and a 7-Eleven, she corrected herself. "No," she said. "It's like San Jose. But more interesting."

She changed her mind again as we passed a string of construction sites. "They're building so many skyscrapers here! So, I think it's more like San Francisco. But warm."

She was right. All three times. A lovelier L.A. A balmier San Francisco. A more compelling San Jose. I used to swear I would never write about my affection for Honolulu. I wanted to keep its secrets to myself. But with Honolulu's 4.8 million visitors a year, I suspect that particular horse is not only out of the barn, but also the barn itself has burned to the ground, been rebuilt, the horse caught, and escaped yet again.

Still, most of those millions stick to the concrete cavern that is Waikiki, where the beaches seem filled with more bodies than grains of sand. That, needless to say, is not my Honolulu. I'm not saying that I've found the proverbial little grass shack here. More like an urban paradise--one with fabulous restaurants, distinctive boutiques, and a lively arts scene, plus the opportunity for a morning dip in a cerulean sea. At its best, Honolulu mixes the high and low, the old and new--plus it blends Asian, American, and Polynesian culture in a way that is unique not only in Hawaii, but in the world as well.

As we passed Kapiolani Park, under the cane-scented blooms of the shower trees, the traffic finally thinned out, the hawkers and buskers replaced by kids playing soccer and picnicking families. A slack-key guitar melody wafted toward us from the lobby of The New Otani hotel. My husband and I first stayed here nearly a quarter-century ago. Although it had been five years since our last visit, the bellhop grinned in recognition when he saw us. "It's been a while," he said. "Welcome back." We had timed our arrival for sunset; the view from our newly renovated room stretched from Diamond Head all the way across Waikiki Bay. The three of us stood side by side on the lanai, watching silently as the sky deepened from tangerine to lavender to indigo, the lights of the city flickering like stars on the water.

Honolulu's Chinatown was partially forged from the ballast stones that 19thcentury whaling ships carried in their hulls to stay upright, but that didn't make the neighborhood more even-keeled. Two major fires, a bubonic plague epidemic, and strict immigration laws reduced the number of Chinese residents by World War II, leaving behind a warren of bars and brothels that enticed sailors on shore leave. As recently as the 1990s, Chinatown was still an area of dubious repute: A mix of old-school lei shops, divey restaurants, and produce markets during the day, it was, by night, blighted by drugs and homelessness. Tourists, for the most part, kept away.

Over the last decade, though, the neighborhood has changed--a renaissance similar to those in the downtowns of Los Angeles and Oakland. The new crop of artists, chefs, and shopkeepers supports one another in the spirit of ohana--family, community--and are eager to talk story. We thought we would zip in and out of the neighborhood one morning, a cursory visit after a breakfast of dim sum at the classic Legend Seafood Restaurant. We ended up staying the whole day. At La Muse, a women's clothing and home store, a salesclerk regaled me with details about the artist (a pediatrician!) whose drawings of leis I admired. Although I ultimately resisted, she somehow chatted me into a pair of linen trousers. My husband went for a tiny, whimsical wooden horse sculpture for his office. …

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