Oahu: A lei of many flowers

The classic gateway to the islands, Honolulu reflects justhow much has changed in Hawaii ― and how much traditionendures. Visitors who love Kauai's quiet beauty and the BigIsland's dramatic geography might argue that Honolulu doesn'trepresent "real" Hawaii, that the state's most cosmopolitan city issimply a mecca for tourists who want to soak up rays and ride thewaves at Waikiki. That assumption is sorely out of date.

"Ten years ago, Hawaiians had a face but not a voice," saysClifford Nae'ole, president of the Native Hawaiian HospitalityAssociation and cultural advisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, onMaui. It's my last night on Oahu and we're having dinner at The Willows, a Honolulu restaurant popular with locals. "Wewere lei greeters," Nae'ole continues. "Today we've got nativeHawaiians in positions of leadership. That's good, because withoutHawaiian culture, it's doomsday for this place. The trick," headds, "is to preserve our culture, yet walk in the Western world atthe same time."

Tricky, indeed. Like any melting-pot society, this one keepsreinventing itself. Yet look beyond Waikiki's superficial glitterand you'll find a distinctive native Hawaiian influence, especiallyin contemporary music, cuisine, and art.

Take the humble ukulele, introduced to the islands by sugarcaneworkers from Portugal and promoted heavily by Hawaii's last king,David Kalakaua. In recent decades, it had been relegated to touriststatus in hotel lounge acts, but a 27-year-old Honolulu native ischanging all that.

One evening at Chai's Island Bistro, I watched Jake Shimabukuro play "CrazyG" (in F) to a mesmerized audience. Fingers dancing with lightningspeed, his whole body moving with the music, he coaxed from thosestrings the sounds of banjo, guitar, and harp all rolled into one― soft and sweet one moment, breathtakingly electric thenext. This superstar is making a whole new generation of Hawaiiansthink of the ukulele differently ― as an instrument of jazz,pop, and symphony. "What I do with the ukulele goes beyond music,"says Shimabukuro. "It's about feeling free to experiment with newsounds."

Hawaiian influences are also turning up in a new breed ofrestaurant that fuses local crops such as Kahuku corn and Mauionions with ingredients and flavors from the Pacific Rim ―and beyond.

"Fresh produce and protein from small local farms are the heartand soul of contemporary cuisine in Hawaii," said Douglas Lum,executive chef at Honolulu's Mariposa. I caught up with Lum and his surfing buddy WilliamBruhl, also a chef, as they were about to hit the waves. Bothsupport diversified agriculture and related island-basedindustries. But Lum is putting his own spin on regional cuisine.His lobster katsu ― lobster tails breaded Japanese-style,fried, then served on a bouquet of Hawaiian baby greens with aVietnamese mango-chili lime sauce ― represents this comingtogether of flavors.

But nowhere are contemporary Hawaiian themes being moreprovocatively explored than in the work of island artists. Onepainting I saw in a show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts ― Modern Times, by ChrisCampbell ― shows a young Hawaiian woman dressed in a redpareo, her black hair knotted atop her head to reveal a tattoo onone shoulder. She stands, hands on her hips, facing a large whitecanvas spattered with dark paint. To some, her stance might suggestpondering, or trying to make sense of it all. But to me it suggestsmore of an acceptance, a recognition that here ― as with theukulele ― is something new she could embrace.

The painting raises another question: how can native Hawaiianspreserve ancient traditions within the calabash of ideas andcultures that is contemporary Hawaii?

When I ask Nae'ole about this over dinner, he suggests we visitan old buddy. I almost laugh when we enter a lounge at the WaikikiBeachcomber Hotel and the buddy turns out to be Don Ho, thesilky-voiced crooner of "Tiny Bubbles" fame.

The lounge is dark and the stage awash in colored lights when Hosaunters out, banters with the audience, then introduces hisdaughter, Hoku, who perches on a stool and sings "Valentine." Thesong is Hollywood, but Hoku's voice, her face, and her smile arepure aloha, the music as lilting as Hawaiian slack-key guitar.

Ho comes back onstage, spots Nae'ole in the audience, and asksNae'ole to join him onstage. The pair sing together in Hawaiianlike long-lost brothers, delighting in a moment together. ThenNae'ole ― a member of Maui's only all-male hula halau(school) ― performs a chant in Hawaiian about the ancientnavigator Hawai'i Loa, whose destiny it was to follow the path ofthe fish to the new land. Both men bring down the house.

In a few heartbeats, Don Ho's lounge act has gone from 1960snostalgia to contemporary pop to an 800-year-old chant. Nae'ole'sanswer to my question is clear: For more than 200 years, Hawaiianshave adapted to changing economies and have borrowed from othercultures, but somehow they have managed to keep intact thetraditions they treasure. More important, the people of theseislands seem willing to share their Hawaii with those who take thetime to look for it.

Nae'ole drops me at my hotel, but instead of going in, I walkalong the beach, shoes in hand. Gazing at a crescent moon thatcasts a silver path across the water, I'm reminded of what is realto me about this place, from abundant natural beauty to the easywarmth of locals who call out to one another in the darkness. "Seeya, brah, malama pono." Take care of your spirit.

I toss aside my shoes and wade deeper into the water asfireworks splash the sky over Waikiki with shimmering light. Thewater is warm, delicious, a tonic. I have no idea what time it is,but it doesn't matter. I'm living aloha.

AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES

Bishop Museum at Kalia Tower. A new branch of the BishopMuseum offers an overview of Waikiki's history and the people whoshaped it. 9-5 daily; $9.95, $7.95 ages 4-12. Hilton Hawaiian Village: 2005 Kalia Rd.;www.bishopmuseum.org or(808) 947-2458. The main branch is at 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu;(808) 847-3511.

Hawaii State Art Museum. This new museum's inauguralexhibit, Enriched by Diversity: The Art of Hawai'i, features theworks of 284 artists with such themes as Hawaiian heritage andinspiration of land and sea. 10-4 Tue-Sat; free. No. 1 Capitol District Building, 250 S.Hotel St., second floor, Honolulu; www.state.hi.us/sfca or(808) 586-0900.

Hawaiian Fire Surf School. Started by three Honolulufirefighters, classes are day trips to a beach where surf isgentle. From $97 (picnic and hotel pickup included). www.hawaiianfire.com or(808) 384-8855.

Honolulu Academy of Arts. Built in 1927, this museum housessome of the state's best art collections. 10-4:30 Tue-Sat, 1-5 Sun; $7, ages 12 and under free. 900 S.Beretania St., Honolulu; www.honoluluacademy.orgor (808) 532-8701.

Waikiki Historic Trail. Surfboard-shaped markers designate23 historic sites. Walk it yourself (2 miles) or take a tour. Tours 9 a.m. Mon-Sat; free (call for information on where toursbegin). www.waikikihistorictrail.comor (808) 841-6442.

DINING
(All listings are in Honolulu.)

Alan Wong's Restaurant. Chef Wong continually reinvents hismenu yet serves some of the state's most creatively cutting-edgedishes, such as opihi (a type of limpet) shooters, an appetizer. Dinner nightly. 1857 S. King St.; (808) 949-2526.

Chai's Island Bistro. Hear Jake Shimabukuro, the Cazimerobrothers, and other local favorites nightly as you dine onchef-owner Chai Chaowasaree's sumptuous Thai/Pacific Rim cuisine. Aloha Tower Marketplace, 1 Aloha Tower Dr.; (808)585-0011.

Kaka'ako Kitchen. Hawaiian-style "gourmet plate lunch"eatery where you order indoors and eat outdoors on a patio. Try thecrispy fried sweet chili chicken plate with brown rice andWaimanalo greens. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. (until 10 Fri-Sat, until 5 Sun). Ward Centre, 1200Ala Moana Blvd.; (808) 596-7488.

Mariposa. Chef Douglas Lum serves up flavorful dishes suchas oven-roasted saikyo salmon with yuzu-soy vinaigrette in hisinviting Pacific-themed dining room. Go at lunch for ocean views,followed by an afternoon of great shopping. Lunch Mon-Sat, brunch Sun, dinner daily. In Neiman Marcus (thirdlevel), Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd.; (808)951-3420.

Sam Choy's Diamond Head. Serving Hawaiian regional cuisine,this restaurant is where TV chef Sam Choy serves seafood laulau (steamed in ti leaves) and fried poke. Dinner nightly. 449 Kapahulu Ave.; (808) 732-8645.

The Willows.Tropical ambience (waterfalls, pond, koa canoe)enhances this open-air Oahu classic. Locals love the poke andcurry; arrive early at the bar for pu-pu-s (Wed-Fri nights) andKona-brewed lilikoi wheat ale on draft. Lunch and dinner buffet daily. 901 Hausten St.; (808)952-9200.

LODGING

Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel. With its name spelled out on limegreen surfboards and giant tiki torches blazing nightly, this716-room hotel takes fun, kitschy Hawaiiana "to da max," thanks toa $30 million makeover. Decor is tropical and so vividly colorful,you may need sunglasses to sleep. From $150. 2570 Kalakaua Ave.; www.astonhotels.com or(800) 922-7866.

W Honolulu Diamondhead. Ultra-chic 49-room hotel near thefoot of Diamondhead has an understated Asian decor. From $400. 2885 Kalakaua Ave.; www.whotels.com or (808)922-1700.

PU-PU-S AND MUSIC

Don Ho. Hawaii's living legend performs Tuesdays, Thursdays,and Sundays. Dinner and show (7 p.m. seating) $52, cocktail and show (7:45p.m. seating) $32. Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, 2300 Kalakaua Ave.; www.donho.com or (877)693-6646.

Kapono's. Music on an open-air stage varies nightly fromjazz and "island contemporary" to Hawaiian slack key. 1 Aloha Tower; (808) 537-9611.

Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort. Legendary singer Auntie GenoaKeawe sings Hawaiian favorites on the Moana Terrace. 5:30-8:30 Thu. 2552 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 922-6611.

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