“Lovely scenery, quiet, pure air, clear sea water, and heavenly sunsets,” reckoned Robert Louis Stevenson when he holidayed at the Diamond Head end of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach in 1893. You can still sense the beauty that he celebrated, albeit in clichés, even if a large hotel now squats where the Scottish author once mused. The waves still roll out of an ocean that’s as blue as a postcard’s promise but now there is a Legoland of some 35,000 hotel rooms looming before it.
Take a walk with history for a couple of kilometres along the Waikiki shore and its smaller beaches and coves reveal a deeper self. I start with the folksy-corny and much photographed Hula Show at the Waikiki Shell. Since 1937, this free performance has packed ’em in with hula dancers swaying demurely (no lusty Tahitian-style groin-grinding here, please) to the strains of the matronly Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club. A century ago, manic repressive Christian missionaries almost succeeded in stamping out Hawaii’s supposedly obscene “hoola”. Today, the show’s finale, in which the lumbering Moms and Pops of Middle America – dressed in flowered mu-mus, socks and sandals – attempt the hula, suggests that the missionaries had at least an aesthetic point.
Waikiki means “spouting water.” In pre-colonial times, when lush with fishponds and food gardens, it was a haven for both royalty and commoners. With the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 by US business interests, the area degenerated until it was, according to one citizen, “most unsanitary and unsightly.” The mess of mosquito-riddled swamps was drained by the construction of Ala Wai Canal in 1922 and the rest, as they say, is real estate history.
Sugar-plumed swells roll shoreward all day. Long before haoles (Caucasians) came, Waikiki was a surfing mecca. Today, the break is a mosh-pit of kayaks, canoes, tandem malibus and a bulbous yellow catamaran. It’s hard to believe that surfing — he’enalu — nearly died out here by 1900 (thanks to the censorious missionaries) before it was revived by Honolulu locals, including Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who spread surfboard riding around the world, including to Australia.
At a stretch of Waikiki known as Kuhio Park Beach, I watch the Duke’s descendants, Hawaiians of all ages and races, flinging themselves shoreward on body boards. Not far away stands a large bronze statue of the great waterman. When it was erected there were dark murmurings about why he had been stood — wrongly, in local opinion — with his back to the sea? The answer was simple, symbolic — photo-opportunism. The Duke was made to face inland so that Gidgets from Ginza and sand-challenged flatlanders from everywhere might frame themselves before him in an instant of surreal authenticity, with his once-regal beach as their backdrop. The Japanese love of Waikiki contributes greatly to its prosperity and the proliferation of surfers from Nippon, many with bleached blond hair, means that Honolulu Lulu, Queen of the Surfer Girls, today looks more like office lady, Yokohama Yoko.
With the presence of millions of domestic and international visitors each year Waikiki today is like a Surfers Paradise squared, a Cancun cubed. Its tsunami wall of accommodation glares back at the Pacific, an empire of balconies where everyone is Sun King, or Queen, for a day. New arrivals, fluorescent with first-day sunburn, weave amid a group of women struggling across the circus sands in high heels. A bikini-clad girl gets swamped in the shorebreak while nattering on her phone. Massive Hawaiian beach boys on equally massive boards dance like ninjas across lines of bluebird surf. Inescapable are the voluble, exclamatory haoles, often from inland mainland USA. “Are we on the island of Waikiki?” yells a conference escapee from Utah. A teenage Beavis emerges from his first dip in an ocean, hollering to his friends, “I got sand in my pockets! Hey, I got sand in muh butt-crack!”
I stroll north towards lunchtime, which presents me with the choice of the four essential local food groups — chilli dog, shave ice, burger or spam sushi. I settle for a sandwich. (And why not? The early British colonial name for Hawaii was the Sandwich Isles.) Munching, I fall into step with a surfer, Rocky who’s striding towards the reef break at Ala Moana. He’s a local, one of Waikiki’s 30,000 permanent residents. Like many people on Oahu Island, Rocky is a bitsa, “hapa” (half) this and that. As he says, “Hapa-Hawaiian, hapa-haole Portuguese, hapa-Chinese – you know, da kine, all-Hawaiian.”
There’s no mistaking the cochineal-pink confection I’m soon standing before, Waikiki’s most famous pile, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Moorish-Deco seraglio of colonnades and archways. A royal coconut grove of nearly 10,000 trees once stood here, along with the summer home of Queen Kaahumanu, a powerful, 19th century Hawaiian regent. The 384-room Royal Hawaiian that sprouted in their place in 1927 was touted as the “finest resort hostelry in America”. Nearby, in the courtyard of the nearby Sheraton Moana Surfrider – known as the “First Lady” of Waikiki’s hotels – I relax under a huge banyan tree that is some 130 years old, with its branches spreading 50 metres.
In some places, Waikiki’s shore at high tide is no more than a few metres wide. With the sands regularly washing away, urban myths flourish about the source of their replenishment – everywhere from Florida to Port Kembla. The actual source is the nearby island of Molokai.
For early Hawaiians, the next section of Waikiki that I reach, now called Gray’s Beach, was a place of healing, of strong mana where the sick and injured came to be treated by kahuna physicians. Their beach is now much diminished in sand and probably mana, too, but soon it widens again at Fort DeRussy Beach, which is home to, of all things, a US Army Museum. This huge, anomalous structure was once a gun battery that the army tried to demolish in 1969 but the task proved almost impossible and so the building was turned into a museum.
Toe rings, tattoos, $29.99 aloha shirts, hula dolls and newbies surfing in sandshoes. Tourist culture reaches both its apogee and nadir in Waikiki. Alongside the tour groups is another set, the involuntarily transient, aka the homeless. Beached here in alleged “paradise”, they sleep beneath the trees of Fort DeRussy Park. Just behind them is a hotel, the aptly named Hale Koa (“the house of the warrior”) for US services personnel. Beefy military police attempt to blend in by patrolling the shore while jammed into a golf cart.
By Paoa Park at the northeastern end of Waikiki, I’ve walked sufficient history. The Hilton Hawaiian Village now sprawls where Duke Kahanamoku’s family once lived and the legendary waterman learned to swim in the old-fashioned way, by being thrown in to sink or conquer the world. Out on the reef, his heirs, Rocky and his pals are pulling into the snappy, left-hand barrels of Ala Moana reef.
Sunset is coming. Soon the balconies of those 30-storey hotels will erupt in a flashbulb fire fight of cameras straining to catch infinity in a 35mm frame. I find a bar-with-a-view, the Duke’s Canoe Club, and ponder why — amid the relentless spam of tourist culture — do rubbernecks like myself still make the trek to Waikiki? Then again, to sit below this lavish, cocktail syrup sunset in a place where the Duke once rode giant, bluebird waves and kahunas strode the earth, and still be asking “Why?” seems like missing the obvious.
All photos and text are world copyright John Borthwick and may not be reproduced, copied or retransmitted by any means.