Kuhio Beach, Waikiki.

Oahu: A lei of many flowers

The classic gateway to the islands, Honolulu reflects just how much has changed in Hawaii ― and how much tradition endures. Visitors who love Kauai's quiet beauty and the Big Island's dramatic geography might argue that Honolulu doesn't represent "real" Hawaii, that the state's most cosmopolitan city is simply a mecca for tourists who want to soak up rays and ride the waves at Waikiki. That assumption is sorely out of date.

"Ten years ago, Hawaiians had a face but not a voice," says Clifford Nae'ole, president of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and cultural advisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, on Maui. It's my last night on Oahu and we're having dinner at The Willows, a Honolulu restaurant popular with locals. "We were lei greeters," Nae'ole continues. "Today we've got native Hawaiians in positions of leadership. That's good, because without Hawaiian culture, it's doomsday for this place. The trick," he adds, "is to preserve our culture, yet walk in the Western world at the same time."

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

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

One evening at Chai's Island Bistro, I watched Jake Shimabukuro play "Crazy G" (in F) to a mesmerized audience. Fingers dancing with lightning speed, his whole body moving with the music, he coaxed from those strings the sounds of banjo, guitar, and harp all rolled into one ― soft and sweet one moment, breathtakingly electric the next. This superstar is making a whole new generation of Hawaiians think 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 new sounds."

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

"Fresh produce and protein from small local farms are the heart and soul of contemporary cuisine in Hawaii," said Douglas Lum, executive chef at Honolulu's Mariposa. I caught up with Lum and his surfing buddy William Bruhl, also a chef, as they were about to hit the waves. Both support diversified agriculture and related island-based industries. 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 a Vietnamese mango-chili lime sauce ― represents this coming together of flavors.

But nowhere are contemporary Hawaiian themes being more provocatively explored than in the work of island artists. One painting I saw in a show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts ― Modern Times, by Chris Campbell ― shows a young Hawaiian woman dressed in a red pareo, her black hair knotted atop her head to reveal a tattoo on one shoulder. She stands, hands on her hips, facing a large white canvas spattered with dark paint. To some, her stance might suggest pondering, or trying to make sense of it all. But to me it suggests more of an acceptance, a recognition that here ― as with the ukulele ― is something new she could embrace.

The painting raises another question: how can native Hawaiians preserve ancient traditions within the calabash of ideas and cultures that is contemporary Hawaii?

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

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

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

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

Nae'ole drops me at my hotel, but instead of going in, I walk along the beach, shoes in hand. Gazing at a crescent moon that casts a silver path across the water, I'm reminded of what is real to me about this place, from abundant natural beauty to the easy warmth of locals who call out to one another in the darkness. "See ya, brah, malama pono." Take care of your spirit.

I toss aside my shoes and wade deeper into the water as fireworks splash the sky over Waikiki with shimmering light. The water 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 Bishop Museum offers an overview of Waikiki's history and the people who shaped 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 inaugural exhibit, Enriched by Diversity: The Art of Hawai'i, features the works of 284 artists with such themes as Hawaiian heritage and inspiration 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 Honolulu firefighters, classes are day trips to a beach where surf is gentle. From $97 (picnic and hotel pickup included). www.hawaiianfire.com or (808) 384-8855.

Honolulu Academy of Arts. Built in 1927, this museum houses some 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.org or (808) 532-8701.

Waikiki Historic Trail. Surfboard-shaped markers designate 23 historic sites. Walk it yourself (2 miles) or take a tour. Tours 9 a.m. Mon-Sat; free (call for information on where tours begin). www.waikikihistorictrail.com or (808) 841-6442.

DINING
(All listings are in Honolulu.)

Alan Wong's Restaurant. Chef Wong continually reinvents his menu yet serves some of the state's most creatively cutting-edge dishes, 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 Cazimero brothers, and other local favorites nightly as you dine on chef-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 the crispy fried sweet chili chicken plate with brown rice and Waimanalo greens. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. (until 10 Fri-Sat, until 5 Sun). Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd.; (808) 596-7488.

Mariposa. Chef Douglas Lum serves up flavorful dishes such as oven-roasted saikyo salmon with yuzu-soy vinaigrette in his inviting 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 (third level), 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 and curry; arrive early at the bar for pu-pu-s (Wed-Fri nights) and Kona-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 lime green surfboards and giant tiki torches blazing nightly, this 716-room hotel takes fun, kitschy Hawaiiana "to da max," thanks to a $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 the foot 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 (7:45 p.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 from jazz and "island contemporary" to Hawaiian slack key. 1 Aloha Tower; (808) 537-9611.

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