Hanging Loose in Paradise

By Chris & Rick Millikan

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Honolulu makes a perfect one-week, hang-loose holiday. Nixing the rental car, we invest in trolley passes for travelling to outlying attractions and sturdy sandals for robust walks around bustling Waikiki.

The beachside neighbourhoods present tropical gardens and numerous sculptures revealing its regal past: Princess Bernice reading to schoolchildren; Princess Victoria surrounded by beloved peacocks; King Kalakaua, arts patron who reinstated the hula; Prince Kuhio, elected U.S. congressman for 20 years. A lei-draped statue honours Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian Olympic swimmer who popularized surfing, once an exclusively royal sport. Inspired, we decide to surf - sitting-down! This popular canoe alternative began in the '50s.

Launching from the beachfront of Waikiki’s oldest hotel, Captain Russell urges six of us to paddle our outrigger through crashing waves; then steering shoreward, we wait patiently under the bluest of skies for “the big one.” Amid tanned devotees on sleek surfboards, we survey Waikiki’s shimmering high-rises. Suddenly paddling furiously, our jolly crew catches a monstrous wave and races smoothly toward the beach. So much fun, this thrilling ride repeats twice more.

Southward, we saunter into Kapiolani Park beneath gigantic 100-year-old monkey pod trees. In the 1870s, King Kalakaua founded and named this beautiful green refuge after his wife. He also established Honolulu Zoo, where a nearby bronze Gandhi strides under an enormous banyan tree.

This immense park stretches along three kilometres of shoreline and encloses Waikiki Aquarium. Here, reef sharks swim benignly past our faces. Pulsating jellyfish, tiny seahorses, rare sea dragons, shy octopi, fidgety shrimp and moray eels thrive in smaller tanks; rainbow arrays of fish flit among dazzling corals. Behind, San Souci’s sweeping golden sands attract sunbathers and couples like us who snorkel this marine sanctuary’s gentle waters.

Our first trolley ride skirts Saturday’s busy farmer’s market near Diamond Head, then veers onto Oahu’s spectacular windward coast. After glimpsing paddling surfers, sailboarders, kite-boarders and hang gliders, our chatty driver pulls over, announcing a natural marvel - a spectacular blowhole! Below the cliff, we watch waves pound into the underwater lava tube forcing sparkling geysers skyward.

At Hanauma Bay, everyone heads to the ancient crater rim for picture-perfect shots. Dotted with stately palms, the white crescent beach embraces gorgeous turquoise waters. Hawaii’s first marine preserve provides snorkellers a pristine coral reef teeming with 420 fish species.

Arriving at Sea Life Park, the walk-through aquarium further introduces Hawaii’s marine excitement. Ocean panoramas backstop lagoons where visitors can ride dolphins, kiss sea lions and dive with rays. In smaller pools, penguins preen and toddle; sea turtles munch heads of lettuce and monk seals bask and frolic.

A ride into Chinatown reveals another side of Honolulu’s alluring past. Chinese immigrants first arrived in the 1800s, building this community of family stores twice devastated by fire. Brothels and opium dens proliferated during the Second World War. And in the last decade, this historic area was revitalized by new art galleries, upscale restaurants, boutiques and art nouveau Hawaiian Theater re-opening in 1996. A charming sculpture of young Sun Yat-sen stands in a garden oasis, a reminder that China’s first president was raised here.

Munching flaky egg tarts warm from the bakery, we mingle with locals shopping for produce, fresh fish and herbs in an open street market. After peering at curiosities in shop windows, our explorations conclude with a dim sum lunch of savoury dumplings.

On returning to Diamond Head, our trolley driver explains, “This famous crater’s name originated in the 1700s when British sailors thought calcite crystals covering its slopes were diamonds.” Our plan is to hike to the rim and back, an easy sounding 5.6 kilometres.

Armed with bottled water, sunscreen and hats, a paved path leads us upward to a steep, uneven dirt track following the original 1908 pathway to artillery placements. Switch-backing to a 74-step stairway, we continue climbing, passing through a dimly lit, narrow 68-metre tunnel. Puffing, sweating and guzzling water up 99 more steep steps, we rest at a panoramic lookout before gasping up one last staircase of 54 spiralling steps. Thankfully, it replaced an earlier ladder! Finally emerging through a small gunnery opening, superb vistas of Waikiki appear below. Local shave-ice treats back at the trailhead reward this hardy trek.

Magic of Polynesia proves an amazing sample of Waikiki’s nightlife. Integrating Polynesian dances, songs and chants, renowned illusionist John Hirokawa waves his wand and a helicopter appears on stage. Casting spells, people vanish and just as suddenly reappear. Objects take flight, mysteriously dissolve and even evolve into something else entirely. Astounding pyrotechnics and lasers add to the total wonderment!

Our last trolley offers stops at the Pearl Factory, Thurston Botanical Gardens and Hawaii’s oldest Ukulele Factory before arriving at our destination, Hawaii’s largest museum. In 1889, Charles Reed Bishop built the acclaimed Bishop Museum for Princess Bernice, his beloved wife; last descendant of the Kamehameha family. Nowadays, it houses her family heirlooms among millions of Polynesian treasures.

Ancient chants welcome us into the newly renovated three-story Hawaiian Hall. Above, a double-hull koa canoe and sperm whale’s immense skeleton are suspended. At floor level, a model heiau temple and actual thatched hale await us; original carved stone deities and wooden tikis reflect pre-contact beliefs and legends.

The second floor’s human realm highlights the land’s impact on daily life. Interactive stations and displays help us understand cultural practices and social structures. The third floor showcases the ali’i realm: high chiefs’ magnificent feather cloaks, legacies of princess cousins Bernice, Ruth and Emma and the Monarchy’s 1893 overthrow.

The trolley returns through historic downtown Honolulu; we hop off across from Kawaiaha’o Church, where monarchs were baptized, married and crowned - and services continue in the Hawaiian language. King Kamehameha’s nearby golden statue memorializes his unification of these islands. Behind him, a former palace now serves as state supreme court. Inside, heritage centre exhibits explain the evolution of Hawaii’s legal system.

Across King Street stands Iolani Palace, home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs. Long before the White House - even Buckingham Palace - this elegant Victorian palace had indoor plumbing, electric lights and telephones. King Kalakaua and his sister successor Queen Lili’uokalani entertained international leaders there. The United States’ only palace now displays royal regalia, exquisite furnishings and artifacts.

A chartered bus allows us to go native at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu’s north shore. Here we experience island hospitality in replicated huts, meeting houses and on grassy commons of six villages spread over 42 lush acres. While others stick on tattoos, weave baskets and throw spears, we play Fijian rhythm instruments, join exuberant Maori Haka and sample Tahitian soda bread. We also watch Hawaiian hulas, vigorous Tahitian huras, Tongan drumming techniques and comedic Samoans gathering and husking coconuts. Emerging from these island entertainments, all gather to behold Rainbows of Paradise, an outrigger parade that winds along the picturesque waterway. Our own restful canoe ride follows this musical extravaganza.

The luau proves fit for a King, complete with royal court pageantry. After feasting on poi, pineapple, purple sweet potatoes and coconut pudding, we head for *Ha, Breath of Life*, a new theatrical spectacle. Featuring an elaborate series of haunting, flamboyant and fiery dances, this saga traces an action-packed journey into manhood among Polynesia’s many cultures.

Homeward bound, we enjoy reviewing the diverse medley of car-less escapades that fulfilled our keen interest in sightseeing - and keeping fit!



When You Go:
Polynesian Cultural Center http://polynesianculturalcenter.com
Waikiki Trolley www.honolulutours.net/
Waikiki Aquarium www.waquarium.org
Magic of Polynesia www.magicofpolynesia.com
Bishop Museum www.bishopmuseum.org
Sea Life Park www.sealifeparkhawaii.com


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