Hawaii: You got me at aloha

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The song “Aloha Oe” was written by Queen Lili’uokalani, last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom, as she sat in a cell, with nothing but her solitude to keep her company. Although the word aloha is so commonly heard everywhere to greet you as you arrive, and as you depart, these words were translated into English as a farewell. There are many interpretations of what aloha means, but no doubt the first mariners from Polynesia, seeking out some unknown paradise, took with them the feeling of ohana or family with them. They would never be lonesome out in the open sea because Mother Nature would always be there with them, in the sky, the stars, the sea. From the root crops to fibers, foodstuffs and the knowledge that ohana would always be there. It is this oneness with nature that really brings the true meaning of the aloha spirit.

Ha`aheo ka ua i nâ pali – Ke nihi a`ela i ka nahele

The Hawaiian Airlines jet, its tail liveried in the trademark floral design, had gone through the 10 hours without so much as a bump. As it approached our destination, like the opening lines of the song . . . “Proudly swept the rain by the cliffs – As it glided through the trees” . . . we drifted over the open sea, ready to make our approach. Throughout the flight the window shades had been drawn down, and as they slowly went up, nothing but a majestic sea welcomed us and the images of emerald green isles, ringed by white sand beaches, slowly came at us until the gentle touch of the wheels on the tarmac told us we had arrived.

This was our first welcome to Hawaii.

Unlike our arrivals in many a tropical island most anywhere around the world, the first blast of fresh Hawaiian air did not assault us with its muggy humidity, instead a whiff of the freshest ocean air you could imagine welcomed us. Sandra of Roberts Hawaii held her shell lei up with a big smile and placed it over our heads and on our neck like we had just won the lotto, and that’s how it felt. Roberts Hawaii is the island’s largest tour and transport operator, traversing the length and breadth of these islands over the last 70 years. As the only employee-owned operator, it was certainly good to know that they are proud to be a part of this organization. The white Chevy suburban high roof van stopped just enough to let us see the green and white design proudly declaring “Driven by Aloha”, as our driver jumps out with a customary “Aloha” of his own, in the brightly colored yellow and white Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants, and showed us the door.

E hahai (uhai) ana paha i ka liko Pua `âhihi lehua o uka

Hawaii is a chain of of islands stretching over 1,500 miles right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean just slightly above the equator. Its isolated location allows the trade winds from the East to blow freely across the entire island chain and bring an almost endless supply of fresh air. The biggest island is Hawaii, or simply called “the big island”, but is surprisingly not even half as densely populated as Oahu. Despite the disparity of population densities, a brief walk along the main road of Waikiki does not bring you to a concrete jungle with shadows and light playing between buildings, but is in fact, an extremely pleasant walk along its 2.5-mile shoreline.

So as this lyric goes, “Still following ever the bud; The `ahihi lehua of the vale”, we were looking forward to this visit and the schedule prepared for us by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

`O ka hali`a aloha i hiki mai Ke hone a`e nei i

“Sweet memories come back to me bringing fresh remembrances of the past”. As Mario, our bus-cum-tour-guide herded us in, it seemed strange that he referred to everyone as “cousins.” Apparently, this colloquialism is a standard reference to all visitors and friends to the islands. This is yet another example of the ohana spirit at work.


Oahu loosely translates as “the gathering place” and if the population is any indication, it certainly fits the bill. With a population density exceeding 1400 people per square mile, it is the most heavily populated of the islands, with heavy concentrations in Waikiki, playground of the state. This tour takes us around the island from South to North and back again, with many stops along the way.

Hanauma Bay is a half circle-shaped coral reef whose caldera collapsed into the sea and formed the protected bay that we see today. Inside the reef is the site of the From Here to Eternity kissing scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Closed on Tuesdays, one of its main attractions is the Blowhole that sprays like a whale when the surf brings the water into the cliffs. We make a brief stop at the Waimanalo Shopping center showcasing Hawaiian-made pearl jewelry. On the way to the Pali lookout, we see the roads lined by the kukui tree, the state tree of Hawaii. It is a hardwood that was the standard for surfboards and canoes in the past. As we drive up the zigzagging road cutting across several tunnels, we arrive at the top of the Nu’uanu Cliffs, site of one of Hawaii’s bloodiest battles for control of the islands. The winds swirling along the cliffs make for unpredictable weather, and while we were there, we saw exactly how that worked with a combination of rain, sun and gusty winds. As it turns out, this was also the site of the world’s gliding record of over 23 hours set by William Cocke on the glider Nighthawk in 1931.

We stopped at the Byodo Temple, built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Japanese migration to the islands. It’s an oasis of peace, with a giant bell standing as a mute testament to the influence of Buddha on the Japanese people, but more for those who made Hawaii their home. From there, we went to the Tropical Farms, Oahu’s most popular producer of macadamia nuts from their own farms. The macadamia is an interesting tree that can only grow within a narrow belt around the equator. It needs the right combination of sun and rain to grow. Although efforts have been made to raise them in other countries, Hawaii lays singular claim to reducing its growth and harvest to a science, despite the macadamia having originated in Australia. From plain nuts to chocolate covered ones, up to for food and cosmetics, this nut’s versatility has put Hawaii on the map as its largest commercial producer in the world. The most intriguing experience is in harvesting. They wait for the nuts to fall and as you peel away the outer core, the central nut is protected by a tough covering which we hammered open with a smooth stone on a tree trunk. This must have been the old fashioned way as it takes more than just a light tap to break it free. Hit the nut too strong and it gets smashed into a pulp.

We took a break for lunch at the Kualoa Ranch. It boasts of a vast estate along the Kamehameha Highway, where grass-fed cattle roam and horseback riding is the norm. The buffet of chopped salad, barbeque ribs, baked chicken and chili rice lent that ranch feel to our lunch and we spent an hour looking out at the 4,000 acre estate which has been the site of scenes from some memorable films like “Jurassic Park”, shot in the northern half of the estate in Ka’a’awa Valley. The North Shore has one of the widest expanse of beach in Oahu, the waves here are legendary as some of the highest in the islands. We finally got some sand between our toes in Wiamea Bay. Signs all along the shore display dire warnings of strong current and warnings of high surf. In the winter, the waves regularly go from 12 to 50 feet high at some points, and have with them a strong undercurrent. During the summer, it’s a calm public beach (like all other beaches in Hawaii), with families out for a picnic or just a swim in the salt sea. Right next to it is turtle beach, where we actually did see some leatherback turtles on the shore, with curious onlookers having a photo heyday.

Our final stop before returning to the concretized Waikiki Beach is the Dole Plantation. The development of the plantation spurred the migration of workers from the Philippines, Puerto Rico and as far as Portugal. Under the protection of the US government, James Dole built this fruit stand into one of the largest suppliers of pineapple worldwide. Many of the systems and processes in growing, harvesting and commercial sale of pineapple can be traced back to this site. Although it is a year-round operation and harvests go on daily, it takes as long as 15 months to grow a pineapple to marketable size.

Maopopo ku`u `ike i ka nani Nâ pua rose o Maunawili

Nothing quite prepared us for the majesty that is Kauai Island. Flying out of the Honolulu airport on a smaller jet bound for Lihue, this was the Movie tour, showcasing sites of some of the most memorable movies scenes. With tourism as the main industry of Kauai, it was important to keep a record of all the films shot here.

Jessie of Roberts Hawaii is there to meet us with our personal mini Van. Her “Aloha” is much gentler, and seems to be just a bit less contrived without the singsong greeting on the second syllable. It could be because of the long history of Kauai evolving as a separate island, where it had once developed its own language, and was the last among the islands to be part of Hawaii’s kingdom, choosing to capitulate rather than go into a long drawn out war with Kamehameha.

We start off with Wialua Falls. During the rainy season, these falls become one singular wall of water, creating its own weather. It is seen on the opening credits of “Fantasy Island”. The Wailua River has some archaeological significance because it was a traditional heilu or meeting place, and on a portion of the riverbank, Kamokila, a model village has been set up to showcase how this was done. We next go to the wettest spot on earth, Mount Waialeale. Meaning “overflowing water” in Hawaiian, the conically shaped 5,000-foot extinct volcano nurtures a lake at its top. The height and shape of the mountain forces trade winds to dump their moisture at this one location. Chalk this one up for “Tropic Thunder”, and more recently, “The Descendants” starring George Clooney.

Ahukini Point at Hanama’ulu Beach was the setting for John Wayne’s “Donovan’s Reef” and Boris Karloff’s “Voodoo Island.” The beach itself is a small expanse of sand strewn with driftwood and strangely enough sprouts pine trees along its banks. Moloaa Beach, site of many “Gilligan’s Island” scenes, offers a more serene mood.

If you’ve ever heard the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” you know you should visit Hanalea Bay where he is supposed to reside. The mountain itself is constantly shrouded in mist, lending that mystery to the song itself. Many sites are shrouded in mystery and none more than the now shut down Coco Palms resort, site of many personal and life changing events for many residents of Kauai. Aside from having been made popular by Elvis Presley in his Blue Hawaii scene, traversing the fish ponds towards a wedding decked in flowers, leis and a literal tropical paradise – it has played host to many sweet sixteens, baptisms, weddings and every imaginable reason for a party. Now, it is reduced to just a specter of what could have been. It’s hard to believe that this has been the playground of Kauai royalty since the 13th century, long before it was turned into a hotel. Everywhere you look, there are little vestiges of the opulence and natural wonder surrounding the property: from hand carved window shutters, to the signs pointing to the kitchens and business centers. It’s hard to believe that the last time its doors were open to the public was in 1992. It’s a melancholic end to a spirited tour.


We approached the gates guarding the entrance to the Pearl Harbor memorial. Our guide Daniel caught everyone’s attention with his words, “Although its an environmental hazard, they don’t pump the fuel still in the holds of the Arizona because that represents the blood of the over 1,700 soldiers still trapped inside, and the memory of the surviving crew members…maybe when the last survivor of Arizona’s crew leaves this Earth, they can clean it up.”

Despite of all that’s been said about how the United States annexed Hawaii and how the colonial period ushered in America’s imperialist venture, what happened here must be remembered. In its immaculate manicured perfection, the vestiges war are strewn around the area, with makeshift bombs and torpedoes displayed in their shining glory. But there are no marching bands, or Yankee doodle dancers. Only muted respect for what this represents is left.

A video and light show starts off the tour with a description of how the events played out, showing vignettes of the men and women that lived and died in Pearl Harbor. At the end of the show, we went straight into the ferry for the 5-minute boat ride to the Arizona Memorial, and as the American flag fluttered overhead, the reverence and respect was evident.

I laila hia`ia nâ manu Miki`ala i ka nani o ka lipo

“And ’tis there the birds of love dwell, And sip the honey from your lips”. Our first contact with Hawaiian cuisine was over 35,000 feet over the Pacific: the classic loco moco. Its origins go back right to Hilo at the Lincoln Grill. The name comes from two languages, loco for crazy in Spanish and moco for—you said it—mucus in the local language, with obvious reference to the egg yolk running down the edge of the topped dish. A steaming bed of rice, hamburger patty, gravy and a sunny side up egg served runny, leaves only one way to eat it, mixed up like a bibimbop, and savored mouthful by mouthful. Variations have since blossomed and every imaginable possibility has been explored. We’re told that the one place that has taken the loco moco to its highest potential and is a popular local (and Japanese) dining destination, The Aqua Café.


The Aqua Café started off as an upscale, high end restaurant at its location at the basement of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. The collection of other dining outlets did not seem to bode well for that kind of restaurant, but among the Japanese population and visitors, it started its claim to fame with simply good cuisine. Lynn Cheng of Advertising Associates, handles the PR work for the Aqua Café and her diminutive size belies the wealth of information she provides us about how the Aqua has built a reputation with the Japanese market that dries its menu. On this occasion, Aqua showcases the loco moco in all its possible variations to show us just how far Hawaiian cuisine can go.

The most basic variant is the all beef patty on rice with gravy and an egg. The teriyaki chicken loco moco brings the flavor of Japan into the mix and is likewise sitting on a bed of rice but with the sweet salty flavor of mirin and soy. We were also served a seafood salad, featuring the bounties from the waters around the area, from shrimp to white fish morsels, calamari and clams, sitting on a bed of chopped lettuce and drizzled with a tart vinaigrette.

One of the more well known exports in the land is coffee, and everywhere we went, while walking along Kalalua avenue, we would see packages of Kona coffee proclaiming this or that claim to fame. Lynn tells us that in order for coffee to be called Kona coffee, it must contain at least 20 percent of the famed bean, produced only on Kona Island. The Honolulu Coffee Company focused on working with the Kona arabica bean despite it representing only 1% of all arabica grown worldwide. In 1991, well before gourmet coffee and the coffee culture became en vogue in Hawaii, they setup shop. Their premier selection is the Peaberry grade, that is a much less acidic variety representing only 5 percent of all the coffee harvest.

Along the way we chanced on one outlet of the Honolulu Cookie Company and found a small crowd milling about the store. There is frantic wrapping, ringing of the register and a constant cackle of what the cookies are all about. Samples are freely given and tasted by the crowd. The store was started in 1997 by Keith and Janet Sung, realizing there was no gourmet cookie shop in Honolulu. Constant experimentation and selection of the finest ingredients resulted in one of the finest shortbread cookies in the world. In its unique pineapple shape, emphasizing its Hawaiian heritage, it covers a range of flavors that are quintessentially Hawaiian. We can see that each individually wrapped cookie has a gem of candied fruit or has been hand-dipped in chocolate or coconut.

We barely make it to our first Hawaiian full dinner and the Roberts Hawaii van patiently waited for us at the hotel driveway to take us to the Ali I Kai Dinner cruise. On the biggest Catamaran in Hawaii, this cruise takes you around the coast of Waikiki and Honolulu while dining on their Makahiki buffet and gyrating to the sights and sounds of true Hawaii.

The cuisine offers an international buffet that typifies the melting pot that the islands are, from the sliced pork loin to the steamed white fish fillets and barbecued chicken. As is typical with many an American meal, there is a preponderance of vegetables in the form of salads and sautées.

The modern Hula or Hula Auana dance was performed for the guest. Dancers were in grass skirts, and coconut bras have replaced the total absence of top covering. The repertoire includes the gyrating staccato beat of native gourd instruments. The audience participated as willing victims to sample how the hips do all the talking.

`O `oe nô ka`u ipo aloha A loko e hana nei

“Dearest one, yes, you are my own; From you, true love shall never depart.”

Thus far, we’ve had a Grand Island adventure and felt the magic of Hollywood on the island of Kauai, had our own cultural exploration and water adventure with the Ali’I Kai cruise, traversed the lands on the Grand Circle Island tour, and felt that patriotic rush with the Arizona Memorial visit. What else is left except to feel the magic of the islands in the Roberts Hawaii-owned and sponsored Magic of Polynesia.

Each night we walk the length of the Kalakaua Avenue, marveling at the street performers, and the assortment of stores, bars and restaurants. Little did we realize that just up the escalator to the Beachcomber Resort is a $7.5 million dollar showcase, where John Hirokawa weaves his magic, from illusions to disappearing acts, to the famous Houdini’s metamorphosis. As a Merlin awardee from the International Magicians Society, his brand blends the culture of Hawaii and Polynesia with dances and fire knife wielding acts, blended with sleight of hand, including a disappearing car.

Prior to the start of the show, we are treated to a gourmet selection of fine cuisine: beef with mushroom and fish lau lau combined with a medley of lobster and creamed mashed potatoes. It’s too bad we couldn’t take photos but it was certainly worth the wait because despite of the many other shows we’ve seen in the past, we couldn’t help but be dazzled.

The next day we take one last visit to the center of Hawaii’s souvenir paradise, Hilo Hattie. Hilo Hattie started as the name of a famous Hawaiian celebrity and since 1947 has established itself as the Store of Hawaii. It is the largest retailer of Hawaiian fashion and gift items from clothing to food and accessories. We see the world’s largest hula shirt and despite its size, the patterns on the shirt never break as the pockets are sewn on, and the sleeves come on. The entire range of shirts, from the simple to the fine, have this characteristic that reflects the care that goes into the production.

At the Nimitz branch, which is the largest of all the branches in Oahu, part of the attraction were a couple of hula dancers on the center floor swaying to Hawaiian music. We learn they are part of a Hula school or halau that teaches not only the Hula Auana but also the more traditional kahiko, dances developed in the late 1800’s for competition. We also meet Hilo Hattie’s EVP and COO, Mark Storfer on a Sunday! And this tells us the kind of hands-on management and care (again, that ohana spirit) they take in making sure the stores do well.

Aloha `oe, aloha `oe E ke onaona noho i ka lipo

Our trip was more intense than the usual whirlwind tours we normally get to, but we did see a lot of what has transformed this island into a magnet for leisure and pleasure. Jemy See of the Hawaii Tourism Authority made sure that we get a full treatment from the sights to the sounds, to the cuisine and the unique spirit evident with everyone we meet. We understand how real warmth and hospitality are translated into action. Each day was arranged like clockwork, with never a dull moment throughout our stay. This tour certainly gave us a first-hand look beyond what a typical tourist would experience. In some societies, you are welcomed and shown hospitality but you’re never treated as part of the family, but our experience of the warmth and our memory of the people we’ve met made us feel like a part of the family, the real Hawaiian meaning of the ohana spirit. Our thanks go to the Hawaii Tourism Authority for making this trip more than worthwhile.

The refrain of Queen Lili’uokalani’s song plays as an afterthought in our minds:

“Farewell to you, farewell to you; The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers; One fond embrace.”

We look forward to meeting Hawaii again, just like coming home to ohana and a family where we can be welcomed with open arms. Aloha and mahalo!

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