My first visit to Hawaii was over thirty years ago with my parents. I was in the sixth grade. We landed on Oahu and spent a few days as tourists before flying to Kauai, where we made the breathtaking Princeville Resort our vacation home for three-and-a-half weeks. My memories of the trip are fond but sketchy. I do remember winning a hula contest. More importantly, the beauty of the land and the warmth of the people made a lasting impression.
The aloha spirit was indeed still very much alive and well on my more recent visit. I was the guest of my partner, Sam Yoder and his beautiful and charming mother Geri at their vacation home in Mililani on Oahu, where Geri was born and raised until the age of 15.
Natives are referred to as Kanaka Maoli. Moving from the multicultural melting pot of Hawaii to pre-civil rights era Louisiana was a culture shock for Geri who embraces diversity and inclusiveness. She began wintering in Hawaii almost 30 years ago, and Sam practically grew up on the island.
Geri warmly greeted me upon my arrival at the airport with an enthusiastic “Aloha” and presented me with a fragrant lei of green orchids, white tube roses and red carnations. A lei is a Polynesian garland of flowers. The lei custom was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by early Polynesian voyagers, who took an incredible journey from Tahiti, navigating by the stars in sailing canoes.
Speaking of flowers, the flora of Hawaii is nothing short of amazing, including tropical delights anthurium, bird of paradise, chamelia, Indian ginger, heliconia (looks like a mini bird of paradise), and hibiscus. There are also exotic fruit trees, including mango, guava and papaya.
You will never go hungry on the island. All the major chain restaurants are present–everything from fast food favorites Starbucks and McDonald’s to higher-end establishments like Roy’s and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I had the best burger in quite some time at Islands Restaurant at Ala Moana.
There are many other local places to try as well. Leonard’s Bakery specializes in malasadas (Portuguese donuts) in Waikiki. Island favorites, including Spam Musubi, chicken katsu, Teri beef, Lumpia, fried saimin noodles, and shave ice are offered around the island.
Duke’s Waikiki is a popular restaurant on the beach named after surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku with strolling musicians serving up Hawaiian melodies table side to accompany the delectable offerings. Geri requested “I Wanna go Back to My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua” and beamed as she sang along.
Geri and I had the Opa fish encrusted with macadamia nuts and herbs accompanied by a lemon butter sauce with capers. It was beyond delicious. Sam had a filet that was scrumptious. Be sure to add the salad bar to your entree for only $4. It features traditional salads along with local favorites like potato macaroni salad and more exotic options like Asian quinoa and an irresistible pesto pasta salad with macadamia nuts.
The macadamia encrusted Opa at Haieiwa Joe’s on the North Shore was also very good. Their sourdough dinner rolls and garlic bread are worth the carbs. Sam’s strip steak and baked potato was mouthwatering. For the ultimate steakhouse experience, be sure to visit d.k. Steakhouse at the Marriott Waikiki, featuring Hawaii’s only on-premise dry aged beef.
Other island delights include chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and you can savor fresh pineapple ice cream (known as the Dole whip) right at the Dole Factory. It doesn’t get much fresher than the pineapple plantation where men dressed in protective leather suits harvest the fruits by hand, which grow on top of the plant. The leaves of the pineapple plant are razor sharp, but the fruit is sweet.
Fresh tropical fruit is not the only benefit of the climate, as the island also features some of the most breathtaking beaches attracting surfers and sunbathers from around the world. Beaches include: Ko’Olina, Ala Moana, Waikiki, Makapu’u, Waimanalo, Lanikai, Pipeline (where the surfing championships are held), Haleiwa, and Waimea. Halona offers a lookout over the blow hole as well as a beach cove that is so majestic it is featured in movies and magazine shoots. The turquoise blue waters in Hawaii are sublime.
After eating and sunbathing, you’ll need to burn some calories. Diamond Head and Koko Head offer hiking, along with many trails all over the island leading to secluded waterfalls.
You can also enjoy a drive around the island. There are many spectacular lookouts. I appreciated seeing Fort Shafter where Geri’s Mom, a young lady from Waipahu with humble beginnings, rose to a high level military communications position. We also saw Saint Augustine by the Sea–the church in Waikiki where Geri was baptized as an infant. The Iolani Palace sparkles at night and across the street is the King Kamehameha Statue, which stands in front of the Hawaii State Supreme Court. A great warrior, diplomat, and leader, King Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian Islands into one royal kingdom in 1810 after years of conflict.
In the event the weather is uncooperative for outdoor activities, you can also Indulge in retail therapy. Ala Moana is a shopper’s paradise in paradise, boasting three levels of stores and restaurants and featuring a center stage highlighting shows with local music and hula dancing. Downtown Waikiki boasts major luxury brands, like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Hermes, Cartier and Tiffany & Co. There’s a swap meet at the Aloha Stadium that offers T-shirts and other souvenirs at a bargain.
Must-see attractions on Oahu are the USS Arizona Memorial and the Polynesian Cultural Center. This past month marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In an official proclamation marking the occasion, Hawaii Governor David Ige stated, “The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and other airfields on the island of Oahu led directly to our country’s entry into WWII. Those events changed our lives forever and triggered our resolve as a nation, our can-do attitude and an unmatched commitment to the defense of freedom.” There are 991 service men entombed on the USS Arizona below the stark white memorial. Survivors of the attack, like my friend Geri, have vivid and terrifying images of the faces of the kamikaze pilots permanently embedded in their memories.
Located on Oahu’s North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a unique treasure created to preserve, perpetuate and share with the world all the beauty, enchantment and love found here in these isles of the South Pacific. It’s all in the spirit of the islands — all in one place! We opted for the opulent luau that includes a hula show (did you know that hula was banned for 50 years?) as well as the evening magnificent Polynesian performance and extravaganza, Hā. The central theme of Hā—which in Hawaiian means “breath”—is a simple, universal one, capturing the importance of family, love, culture and tradition.
Sometimes called “The Gathering Place,” Oahu certainly lives up to its name. The third largest Hawaiian island is home to the majority of Hawaii’s diverse population, a fusion of east and west cultures rooted in the values and traditions of the native Hawaiian people. It’s this fundamental contrast between the ancient and the modern that makes discovering Oahu so enjoyable.
The people are just as warm as the weather. On the flight over, I watched “Kumu Hina,” a movie about the Mahu–or Hawaiian transgender community. The Mahu are believed to possess the attributes of both genders. More specifically the documentary features a teacher at the Halau Lokahi charter school in Honolulu dedicated to the teaching and preservation of native Hawaiian culture, language and history. Hina Wong-Kalu, the Mahu hula teacher in the film, served as an inspiration to her young students, imploring them to embrace their identities. She went on to announce her candidacy for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, thus becoming the first transgender candidate in American political history.
The story captures the true meaning of Aloha: Unconditional love and respect. As one parent in the film articulated, love is the biggest thing to teach our children, “If you love a person for who they are and let them be who they are that’s a full circle, and life’s a full circle. What goes around comes around.”
Sacred Hearts Academy where Geri went to school and Mililani High School where Sam attended must have instilled these same values for they embody the aloha spirit. The same is true for their neighborhood in Mililani, a community where neighbors are more like extended family who truly care about each other, sharing meals and walking each other’s dogs.
Hawaiians are fond of their pets, and while it was a process to bring my dogs along with me, it was worth it. They were warmly welcomed throughout this island paradise. Because Hawaii is rabies free, one must begin the process of importing dogs 120 days prior to arrival in Honolulu. Consult with your vet and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.
Hawaii’s society is a thriving blend of cultures—food, drink, language, fashion, and folklore. Despite 200 years of oppression by foreign settlers, Hawaiians are still here. They are a strong and resilient people with a celebrated culture and history rooted in living in harmony with the land and with each other. That’s the aloha spirit.