Wild and Wonderful Waikiki
The only state not located in North America, Hawaii is a bit like the one family member who escaped a small hometown and became famous. What other state’s name is uttered like a sigh of pleasure? Go ahead, try saying "New Jersey" and see if you get that same lilting lift you get when you say "Hawaii."
Ever since its admission to the United States in 1959, Hawaii has been synonymous with paradise in the American imagination. With 750 miles of coastline, Hawaii is the only true island state, completely surrounded by water (unlike Rhode "Island," for example).
If you grew up with television, you probably first saw Hawaii on "Hawaii Five-O" - or "The Brady Bunch." Or maybe you saw the famous onscreen beach clinch in "From Here to Eternity." Or else you heard Don Ho, the exemplar of breezy island kitsch, singing "Tiny Bubbles." Elvis Presley loved Hawaii, the locale for his three Hawaiian movies and his massively popular television special, "Elvis, Aloha from Hawaii." Bette Midler, who plays the ukulele and sang Hawaiian ditties, was born in Hawaii, as was Nicole Kidman - and of course, Barack Obama, who became the first Hawaiian-born President of the United States.
Across the chain of eight primary islands that make up the state of Hawaii, North American and Asian influences commingle with the islands’ indigenous Polynesian traditions. The result is a sui generis Asian-American culture - and the only state where "Tropical America" is not an oxymoron.
Falling Asleep to the Sound of Ocean Waves
The southernmost state in the US, Hawaii is the only state that grows coffee, the only state with royal palaces, the only state whose second official language is Hawaiian (and whose second "unofficial" language is Japanese) and one of only two states that doesn’t conform to daylight saving time. And, perhaps not surprisingly, Hawaii is also the state whose citizens have the longest lifespan in all the US.
In short, Hawaii is - and is not - American. Hawaii is the closest you can come to living in Japan - while living in the United States.
Since the island republic’s annexation by the States, Hawaii’s dominant industry has been tourism. More than seven million tourists visit annually - and the recent partnership between Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue will enable East coast visitors direct flights from JFK to Honolulu starting in June 2012. Think about it: you wake to the sound of sirens in Manhattan - and fall asleep to the sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore of Waikiki Beach.
On the south shore of Oahu, east of the airport and downtown Honolulu, rises the neighborhood of Waikiki. For years favored by the Hawaiian monarchy, the fabled stretch of beach became famous worldwide, thanks to Duke Kahanamoku, the five-time Olympic medalist and the global ambassador for the sport of surfing.
All-Night Madison Avenue on the Pacific
Riding in from the airport, particularly when arriving after sunset, Waikiki resembles an all-night Madison Avenue on the Pacific mixed with the more luxurious elements of the Las Vegas Strip. The neighborhood’s primary thoroughfare is Kalakaua Avenue, named for King Kalakaua, whose former grounds now house Luxury Row, a world-class collection of boutiques such as Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Tiffany & Co., amongst other usual suspects.
In the evenings, Kalakaua Avenue is a veritable passeggiata of some of the world’s most fashionable consumers of luxury goods. At times like these, surrounded by such ebullient devotees of conspicuous consumption, Waikiki, which means "spouting fresh water" in Hawaiian, might as well mean "willingly open wallet." Along Kalakaua Avenue, it’s possible to shop stores such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton until nearly midnight, all while surrounded by those similarly obsessed by the spoils of capitalism.
For others of a more metaphysical bent, the allure of Oahu (often referred to as the "heart of Hawaii") is connected to the fresh, floral air and the warm, tranquil ocean, framed by breathtaking vistas of natural beauty.
Yes, Hawaii is paradise. Nonetheless, as George Clooney intoned in the opening to this year’s Oscar-winning film, "The Descendants," there are social ills in Hawaii, such as homelessness and obesity - and yet, certainly it’s far better to endure such conditions in paradise, as opposed to, let’s say, Wyoming.
The Capacity for Wonder
Without question, some of the peace of mind that tourists experience in Hawaii is connected to the "aloha spirit" that greets one and all, thanks to a populace that is the very manifestation of serene bliss.
As James Michener, author of "Hawaii" and "Tales of the South Pacific," wrote, "Without these remarkable people, the island would be nothing. With them, it is a carnival. They are generous, courageous, and comical. They are perpetual adolescents of the ocean, the playboys of the Pacific."
There’s nothing like a hula lesson at ten in the morning, followed by a surfing lesson on Waikiki Beach, to be reminded of the truth of Michener’s statement - and to realize anew that Ponce de Leon’s cartography was askew. As Michener realized and legions of tourists confirm, the fountain of youth is Hawaii.
For in spite of its slightly kitschy edge and its, arguably, overdeveloped beach, Waikiki retains that quality that Fitzgerald described at the end of "The Great Gatsby" when he wrote that "for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath...face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
As much today as ever, the wonder of Waikiki is commensurate to its capacity for inspiring the joy of life.
(Feature continues on following pages: What to Do, Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Where to Play, Where to Shop, Getting There...)