I have a confession. I kind of hated Waikiki the first time I was there. That’s not an unusual sentiment — I’ve heard lots of tourists dislike it, the shoulder to shoulder hotels, the terrible traffic, the shopping mall feel… if you’re not a fan of crowds or cream colored designer store fronts or a certain commoditization of the notion of Hawaii, Waikiki can be hard to enjoy. But after repeated trips to this strip of city on the site of a former swamp, I was won over and now, if I’m Hawaii bound, I try to make sure I get a stopover at this tropical puzzle far out in the Pacific. When I learned you were making your first trip to Hawaii, to Waikiki, I got all lathered up. “Noooo!” I thought, “You can’t go without me! I want to show it to you, my way!” This will have to do. Please do these things for me.
- Get up really early and go swimming. Earlier than that. You can get a good look at the beach when it’s empty in a way you can’t when it’s wall to wall sunbathers later in the day. You’ll have this skinny strip of sand not entirely to yourself, but you’ll share it with the kind of people who get up really early to go swimming. If you’re lucky, this coincides with low tide and you’ll have even more beach; it gets quite narrow when the tide is in. Years ago, a tour guide told me that the beach was rebuilt regularly out of sand shipped in from Australia. That’s apparently not the case any more — now, they’re rebuilding it out of off shore sandbars. It’s artificial, Waikiki Beach and once you know that, your mind gets all crazy with the idea of Waikiki existing at all.
- Walk through the lobby of the Surfrider hotel looking for Japanese brides. They are so pretty and often overdone, they look like wedding cakes themselves in all their layers of white lace, their hair perfect, their grooms often in white patent leather platform shoes. It’s almost like an Alice in Wonderland adventure only there is more than one White Rabbit and she is a Japanese bride. You want to follow them to see where they end up at the other side of their limousine rides because how could they find a more perfect environment in which to exist than this grand old hotel?
- Listen to the music falling into the street from the second floor balconies and hotel bars, and then, if something sounds sweet, go find the source. In so many places in Waikiki, the music is the best Hawaii has to offer. Grammy winners, guys with piles of Na Hokus (sort of the Hawaiian Grammys) provide the sound track at the Outrigger and the Marriott (among other places) and it’s free or the price of a cocktail to listen. It’s the sound of the islands by artists you’d pay 40 dollars a ticket to see on the mainland, and it’s yours for almost nothing in Waikiki.
- Visit the royalty. Everyone has a sweet aloha for Duke, but Prince Kuhio is a little further along the beach promenade and off the main street, Princess Ka’iulani, and they remind visitors that this wasn’t just a surfer’s paradise, but home to Hawaiian royalty. I left my leis with Princess Ka’iulani last time I was in Waikiki, a barely adequate offering of my gratitude for her efforts to protect her island nation — and really to remind myself that she exists, that the Hawaiian people exist and this is their place and we must be good guests. Greet the princess, I worry that she gets lonely.
- Take the tourist trolley to the Ala Moana shopping mall. It seems counter-intuitive given all the shopping right there in Waikiki, but there’s an amazing Asian supermarket where you can get all kinds of great things to eat, and there’s a food court where you can buy delicious mochi. The mall is great for people watching, there’s a terrific park across the street, plus, you need an aloha shirt and a beach towel and more than three ounces of sunscreen. The mall reminds you that this place is real, people live here and they buy shoes and forks and plates of Indonesian noodle stir fry and did I mention the mochi? Get the chocolate haupia from Kansai Yamata. Good lord.
- Embrace all the tourist … stuff. Enjoy the silly shows at the International Marketplace, take the ukulele or Hawaiian language lessons in your hotel lobby, go make a lei with an auntie whose steady hands will teach you how to stack the blossoms carefully, one by one. Drink a cocktail with an umbrella in it, dance the hula badly and fall in love with the dancer that taught you that move, if just for half an hour. Just go with it, with all of it.
- Be the aloha you want to receive. It seems trite, I know, but so many people coming to Hawaii want to be immediately wrapped in the iconic aloha spirit. It’s there and I am here to tell you, it is very real. But you create it yourself, or perhaps you invite it, by doing what so many islanders strive to do — live aloha. Slow down, slow way down. Be kind and calm and generous of heart. If someone starts telling you a story, listen and do not look at your watch, there is nowhere else you need to be that is as important as this story, right now. You are surrounded by the ocean, it’s warm and wide and alive and in this perfect imperfect place, it teaches you everything you know about how to be in Hawaii. You will be a natural at this, I know it.
People say they love Hawaii, but not many people I know say they love Waikiki — I think they don’t know how. I know you’ll enjoy it, like me, you find something to enjoy everywhere. I just wanted to help you see Waikiki my way since I can’t be there to show it to you. I can’t wait to talk to you about it when your trip is over.
With much aloha and a great deal of envy,