Stepping off the plane at Honolulu International Airport, there’s the peril of believing you are entering the U.S.A. And of course, you are, but that’s not all. You are also about to touch an ancient culture, one which predates many.
There are reminders immediately of course. The brilliant orchid or frangipani lei placed around your neck by the person meeting you. His greeting: Aloha! Bright tropical colours in the clothing. People’s faces.
This is America as you may never have seen it. This is America in the Pacific – a U.S. veneer, if you like, on Polynesia. And while that glossy layer – shopping malls, luxury resorts, highways, taxis, hot dogs, popcorn – may at times seem to be all there is, it is not. Beneath this lies one of the world’s richest cultures.
Stay in Waikiki in early October and the first Saturday may land you with front row viewing of the several-kilometre, photo-worthy Aloha Floral Festival Parade. Perhaps there is no easier and more enjoyable way to take the pulse of island culture than this: to spend a sunny morning watching the marching bands, floral-decked cars, horses with regal riders in brilliantly coloured flowing costumes. There’s the cheering, the music. The glorious celebratory vibe.
Polynesian languages love vowels and repetition, which can mean some initially unpronounceable words. Try this one: Humuhumunukunukuapua?a. It’s the name of a poolside restaurant at Grand Wailea Resort on Maui, renowned for its seafood dishes, with some of the ingredients coming directly from below your table.
Recent decades have brought many influences to these islands: Japanese, Filipinos and of course Americans and other Westerners. It is too simple to call it a melting pot. It’s more a tropical cocktail, albeit served topped with a yellow hibiscus, the state flower.
Museums may appear daunting but think again if you want to grasp the significance of what you’ll see as you travel these islands. In Honolulu, the floor of Bishop Museum’s huge Pacific Hall, which opened in September 2013, has an inlaid map of the vast Pacific Ocean and its islands. Display cases hold craft and artefacts and an outrigger canoe hangs high above.
You may even taste the culture at the fascinating Saturday morning Kapiolani Farmers’ Market on the edge of Waikiki. Here you’ll find pizzas topped with local cheese and tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, rich Hawaiian coffee, live abalone, roasted corn, taro chunks and poi. The latter? A local acquired taste!
On Maui, a half hour flight from Honolulu, Andaz Hotel’s Ka?ana Kitchen serves up an always-changing menu, created from the freshest and finest local produce that day. Take a seat on the airy terrace to watch Chef Brent Martin’s brigade in the open kitchen inside creating world-class dishes.
Nearby the Grand Wailea offers its guests many options, one of the more unusual being a botanical tour of the garden. It’s easy to forget that the original people of these islands were fishermen foraging far on the ocean in massive outrigger canoes. Those who remained on land grew fruit and vegetables in rich volcanic soil. The resort’s Landscaping Manager, Jim Heid, leads these tours and is proud of the 16 hectares of native flowers, plants and trees he cares for. He points out those used ceremonially and for health.
“Despite this,” he says, “gardens are meant to tap into your senses. Landscape is art.” Jim Heid should know. He has spent nine years at the Grand Wailea creating and overseeing this immaculate backdrop to the resort.
As you travel these islands, listen too for the stuttering plucking of a ukulele, set to become Hawaii’s state instrument. Portable, cheerful, surprisingly loud, you’ll find it everywhere from an informal beach picnic to a festival. Real fans should head to Hawaii in time to attend the sixth annual Ukulele Picnic on May 25. If you have some uke skills, come a day early for the international ukulele contest.
The eight main islands of Hawaii draw on an ancient heritage. Volcanic in origin, many Polynesian myths and legends revolve around the gods, and of fire, water and appeasement. Perhaps the most poignant sight is the cliff diver at Sheraton Maui, who each night brandishes a flaming torch at the sunset then launches off into the ocean many metres below. He is re-enacting the leap of the last chief of Maui who proved his spiritual strength by surviving. To the watching crowd, sipping margaritas and cold beer at the poolside bar, it’s gasp-worthy and their cameras click despite the fading light.
Without their knowing, though, perhaps this collision of cultures might tempt them back to Hawaii. More than the golden sands, the surf, love and laughter. This is the U.S., this is the Pacific, as it exists nowhere else.
Pictures by Gordon Hammond
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