Above the freeway, beyond the suburban houses crawling up the slopes of the Koolau Mountains, through a stand of Cook pines, past a grove of pungent eucalyptus, beside leafy breadfruit and Malay apple trees, long-stemmed bird-of-paradise flowers bloom. A regal-looking rooster struts across my path, squawks once, and disappears into the undergrowth. A warming sun fights through a dense canopy of kukui leaves, splattering light.
The trail switches back, climbing. Suddenly, the vista on the ridge opens—and I’m jolted by the appearance of Honolulu below. The tall towers of the city reflect hard midday light just a few miles—a thousand miles—away.
Cut to Waikiki, Honolulu’s famous beach district; I’m walking into the Prada boutique to try on a $2,500 suit I will never buy. Next, I’m floating on my back in the placid, turquoise blue Pacific Ocean.
I manage all this within 30 minutes.
I read recently that three separate studies had proclaimed Honolulu “the most livable city in the United States.” This shocked me.
I kept a home on Maui for nearly a decade in the late 1980s and early ’90s; I always passed through Hawaii’s state capital as quickly as I could—a blemish on the face of paradise, was my uninformed opinion.
Perhaps I’d missed something in my outer-islander snobbery, so I’ve returned.
The obvious place to begin is where most visitors end up: Waikiki.
Nearly eight million tourists a year come to Hawaii’s islands, the majority spend their vacation on Oahu, and nearly all of them stay in (and rarely leave) this beachfront quarter.
The word “Waikiki” conjures images of dark-haired hula dancers shimmying in long grass skirts in front of packaged tours of sunburned mainlanders.
The last time I walked its beach, nearly 20 years ago, the place felt dingy, on its way to being played out; nothing much had changed since Elvis was in town.
The Waikiki I find today still swarms with visitors but feels more global in appeal. Street life is more vital, the shops more upscale; where there once was faded glory, I’m finding a buzz.
“Honolulu is driven by change, not nostalgia; the last ten years have seen many improvements,” Randy Rarick tells me. With his white hair, Rarick is one of professional surfing’s elder statesmen—he’s ridden the blue waves off of Oahu for more than 50 years.
“I learned how right there.” He points to the small break off Waikiki beach. “I know a lot of people bag on Waikiki, but it is what it is, a resort town. And as a resort town, I’d say it’s the nicest on the planet. It has a beautiful beach, nice surf, great shopping, restaurants; it’s clean, safe, and has plenty of aloha. It’s the economic driver of Honolulu, of Oahu, of all Hawaii. Without tourism, we’re a backwater.”
Strolling along Waikiki’s main drag, Kalakaua Avenue, at night, I experience a giddy awe akin to arriving in Las Vegas—the sheer improbability of it all. Then, as with Vegas, excitement is followed by a nearly imperceptible shift, an untraceable moment when an invisible line is crossed and I’m consumed with an urgency to get the hell out.
“I know some locals who haven’t been to Waikiki in 20 years,” Rarick says. “Waikiki is set up for tourists. But there is much more here than mai tais and tiki torches.”
Amid all of the intense vacationing in Waikiki, it’s easy to forget that the rest of Honolulu is a working city. Six mornings a week at Honolulu Harbor, on docks beside cargo containers, hoists, and cranes, the Honolulu Fish Auction—run by the Hawaii Seafood Council, which advocates sustainable fishing—is in full swing before the sun has softened the sky over Diamond Head.
In a refrigerated warehouse on pier 38, far from the posh marinas that take tourists out on sunset cruises, thousands of pounds of opah, mahimahi, and more are laid out every day and sold, one fish at a time, to the highest bidder. Visitors may tour the auction early on Saturdays (after registering).
I enter, and meet Jake Maileoi. A Honolulu native with an open face and the easy manner I’ve encountered in so many Hawaiians, Maileoi has been auctioning fish daily, save Sundays, for ten years. He also is a hometown booster. “Honolulu is a great place to live in,” he ways, smiling. Maileoi looks over the dozen or so buyers, who will in turn sell their wares as far away as New York. “Some inspect the fish well, others just need to get fish,” he says.
The buyers share an offhanded intimacy, surrounding Maileoi as he inches his way down a line of ice-spattered ahi incanting an auctioneer’s lightning-fast banter, 80-70-60-50-40-30 … The flick of a buyer’s finger sends the price back up, 40-50-60 … there’s an imperceptible shoulder twitch … 70-80 … 90, then a grunt from another buyer, and the deal is done.
Today’s catch is a bit over 50,000 pounds. “It’s kind of slow,” Maileoi tells me as a row of huge, round, orange-tailed opah are lined up. He moves to a 252-pound ahi that is about to fetch more than $3,000.
“Looks tasty,” I say.
Maileoi eyes me. “I wouldn’t know; I don’t eat fish.”
As the action on the pier begins to slow, things are kicking into gear at the scruffy shops and markets that lurk beneath the shadow-casting skyscrapers of Honolulu’s downtown. Like the rest of Honolulu, the streets of Chinatown are a crush of cultures—Korean, Filipino, Samoan, Japanese, Chinese.
“There are so many lifestyles here,” says Roy Yamaguchi. Born in Japan but a frequent visitor to the Hawaiian Islands, Yamaguchi moved to Honolulu in the mid-1980s and became one of Hawaii’s star chefs. He helped lead the charge that transformed Hawaii’s food scene from sauce-heavy French fare to the lighter Pacific Rim cuisine that now prevails.
“Food influences culture, culture influences food,” he notes. “That’s why I go to Chinatown to buy certain things for the restaurants. Oahu is a small island, but Honolulu is a big town. We have the usual big-city problems, but there is a balance here; people find peace.”
Yamaguchi’s assertion is made real to me a little later in a parking lot outside Leonard’s Bakery, a Honolulu institution. Three large Hawaiian men sit in the bed of a small white pickup truck; the man in the center softly strums a ukulele. A beefy Samoan in a car next to the truck rolls down his window and taps his fingers on the dashboard.
I sit on a bench a few feet away, beside an older Japanese couple, listening as I eat malasadas—Portuguese doughnuts. A white surfer dude calls out a compliment about the music as he strolls into the bakery.
Stalwarts like Leonard’s Bakery have anchored Honolulu neighborhoods for decades, but farther west, in an area of old warehouses between downtown and Waikiki, the district of Kakaako is being reinvented. Condos are rising. Pop-up shops, markets, and restaurants here are the domain of young, multicultural Honolulu entrepreneurs.
“This, without doubt, is the most exciting neighborhood for me right now,” Dara Lum, a Honolulu native of Chinese and Thai heritage who works in public relations, says as we mingle in the thronging Honolulu Night Market along Auahi Street. “I love to come down here. It’s very current.”
Then there’s the Pacific Ocean. It’s impossible to overstate the impact Honolulu’s dominant feature has on its inhabitants. Early every morning, while paddling my kayak beyond the surf break, I see locals gather on the beach for a sunrise swim.
Farther on, others assemble for a paddleboard convoy. From first light until dark, surfers bob, wait, then race down the face of curling waves. Office workers steal a dip at lunchtime.
Late one afternoon, sitting at a red light in traffic on Ala Moana Boulevard, I look to my left; the Pacific shimmers a few yards away. A parking spot near me opens; I turn on my blinker and swing the wheel. Then I’m striding across powdery sand, past an impossibly beautiful Hawaiian woman in a day-glow orange bikini, and sliding into the cool ocean water.
Just three minutes earlier I’d been stuck in traffic. Is it supposed to be this easy to escape life’s daily annoyances?
One of the most enduring symbols of Hawaii’s mighty past stands on 11 acres in the center of Honolulu. Iolani Palace was commissioned by the highly educated, well-traveled King Kalakaua in 1882, to symbolize his enlightened rule and swell national pride. Designed in “Hawaiian renaissance” style, with four corner towers, and costing a staggering $360,000 (which almost bankrupted the kingdom), it had electric lights before the White House did.
The restored building today is elegant, tasteful, and restrained in design. The only official royal palace on United States soil, it was home to King Kalakaua, the ruler of a recognized sovereign land, when U.S. forces invaded in 1893. King Kalakaua’s sister and successor, Queen Lili‘uokalani, was quickly deposed and put under house arrest when the United States in 1898 annexed the free nation of Hawaii.
A few blocks from where the king once greeted world leaders and held extravagant balls, the beat goes on—but to a different drummer.
After sunset, downtown Honolulu hops. Up a flight of stairs in Thirtyninehotel, actually an arts and events space, past a jammed dance area, a pau hana—Hawaiian for “after work”—crowd sips cocktails under the stars.
Next door, at Bar 35, bare-shouldered gals perched on outdoor sofas shout into the ears of Hawaii’s version of hipster dudes over blaring rock-and-roll.
Around the corner, a jazz-fusion trio serenades a mellow crowd at the club the Dragon Upstairs. And Honolulu’s oldest bar, Smith Union’s Smittys, is still packing them in after 79 years. People wander easily from one scene to the next.
In none of these haunts—nor in most places I visit in Honolulu besides Waikiki—do I spot many tourists. It’s almost as though two separate towns exist.
One reason I left Hawaii was that I felt it lacked a cultural relevance beyond its beach-boy lifestyle and escapist mentality. But in Honolulu I’m finding the energy of a big city mixing, sometimes uneasily, with the trappings of a tropical arcadia.
Cities, by their very nature, are filled with a certain chaos, the friction of too many people in too little space. It’s in that crucible, in the forced intermingling of so many, that lives and ideas are forged, taken beyond what they’d attain in a less challenging environment.
As in other cities, daily life in Honolulu operates with a lightly simmering undercurrent of racism, but this coexists with a bounteous spirit of aloha.
Honolulu is plagued by insufferable traffic—but has an embarrassment of palm-fringed beaches. Parking is impossible; surfing is de rigueur. Honolulu’s parks, shaded by ancient banyan and monkey pod trees, pool around steel-and-glass high-rises. Popular bars like Duke’s, in Waikiki, hum with pink-skinned visitors; a stroll away, Home Bar & Grill keeps it local, serving fresh ahi under a TV tuned to kickboxing.
It’s the feeling of aloha—that active cultivation of a strong welcome, of a live-and-let-live attitude, of compassion and respect, of connection to nature and its source—that ultimately sets Honolulu apart from other cities.
“There are better beaches in other places,” George Kam tells me. Kam holds the well-deserved title of “ambassador of aloha” for the Australian surf-wear company Quiksilver.
“Honolulu has traffic, steep hotel prices, too much cement. But there’s a higher pull here. In Honolulu your soul can connect to the source, to the power—what we Hawaiians call mana. And the water, man, get out on the water. It’s where you’ll feel it most. Everything else comes and goes, but that one ocean connects us all; that’s what makes Honolulu not only so livable but a daily spa treatment for your soul.” Kam roars with laughter at his own island eloquence.
His words ring true to my experience. All of these years and visits later, it is that intangible thing, more than the sheer physical magnificence of the islands, that brings me—and so many others—back, again and again. That feeling of connection emerges not only atop awe-inspiring volcanic ridges or under fiery sunsets but in the simplest, most commonplace moments.
Late in the day, far from any beach or trendy boutique, I sit at a picnic table edging the parking lot of a neighborhood takeout joint eating freshly caught ahi and locally grown salad with a plastic fork from a Styrofoam container. It begins to rain. The rain is light and warm.
None of the locals at the half-dozen other tables move for cover or seem to notice the precipitation; their chatting continues, the kids race back and forth to the takeout window for shave ice. A breeze slides the rain softly over my skin. Nearby, traffic is moving freely, for once.
Then one of the kids drops his shave ice and lets out a howl of mock agony, his fists shaking at the heavens. Everyone turns, we all laugh.
Why is it that I don’t live here?
This piece, written by National Geographic Traveler Editor at Large Andrew McCarthy, appeared in the magazine’s December 2013/January 2014 issue.