The islands of Hawai‘i are a classic romantic gateway, with a great mix of breathtaking landscapes and unique experiences. Follow our ideal itinerary to make the most of your time here
WORDS: RORY GOULDING
PHOTOGRAPHS: MATT MUNRO
Settle into Hawai‘ian time among wave-riders on palm-shaded beaches and a feast of dishes from around the Pacific Rim
Days into your trip: 1 – 3
The Surfers start Early at Waikiki. As first light erupts behind the old, spent volcanic cone of Diamond Head, a few hopefuls paddle out a half-mile on their boards to reach the break. Conditions are gentle today; the surf here rarely matches the rollercoaster waves of O‘ahu’s fabled North Shore. But Waikiki Beach in Honolulu is as close to a spiritual home as can be for this one-time sport of Hawai‘ian kings and the islands’ most far-reaching gift to the world. Waikiki’s stirring into life is a sight to reward many jet-lagged new arrivals to O‘ahu, the island that is home to two thirds of Hawai‘i’s 1.4 million people. Disruption to sleep routines is normal for most visitors to this mid-Pacific state. From Honolulu, you have to cross almost 3,862km of open ocean to reach the closest population centre of any great size (San Francisco), making the Hawai‘ian capital by this measure the most remote city in the world.
And yet people have travelled here from all corners of the Pacific and beyond. Firstly and most impressively, given they were heading into the unknown in wooden voyaging canoes, came the Polynesians. But across the islands, later arrivals have contributed to a mix unlike any other in the 50 states of the US. Sometimes it comes out in the architecture: Honolulu bus stops have roofs like miniature Japanese Shinto shrines, and indeed there is a copy of one of Japan’s most beautiful Buddhist temples, Byodo-in, on the other side of the mountains.
It’s even easier to experience this isolated-cosmopolitan culture in the food. From Asia come such ‘only in Hawai‘i’ dishes as saimin noodles with sliced spam, and the humble spam musubi: the canned meat of US military heritage transformed with a teriyaki glaze and served atop sushi rice. From Portugal sprang the malasada, a hole-free doughnut that often conceals more tropical fillings, such as coconut or pineapple. Leonard’s Bakery, inland from Waikiki and announced by a sign in vintage Las Vegas style, has been serving these since 1952.
Despite this promising background, many felt that the local food scene was not making the most of its potential. In 1991, a group of top chefs got together to launch a manifesto called Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, aiming to create a fine-dining counterpart to the everyday Hawai‘ian ‘plate lunch’. And, while Hawai‘i is not alone in its recent enthusiasm for using more locally-sourced ingredients, it was a particularly stark anomaly that these islands imported the vast bulk of their food when they have such agricultural promise.
Before the first Westerners sailed here in the late 18th century, the taro plant was Hawai‘i’s staple crop. “It was considered the elder brother to humans in the traditional genealogy,” says Liko Hoe, a Hawai‘ian studies lecturer who has taken on a new role in running a 110-year-old poi business.
Poi is a lilac-grey, mildly sweet-sour paste made from taro root that is a mainstay of the luau – the celebratory Hawai‘ian feast. Heart-shaped taro leaves are also used as an edible wrapper for shredded laulau pork. Liko serves these and other old-time staples at the wooden roadside counter of the Waiahole Poi Factory, in sleepy, rural surroundings across the mountains from Honolulu. In the last decade, there has been a rekindling of interest in older, small-scale methods of food preparation. “One of my goals is to encourage people to grow and pound their own taro,” he says, showing the technique with the customary monkey-pod wood pounding board and volcanic stone pestle. “We’re not quite there yet, but it’s starting.”
Back in Honolulu, on Chinatown’s main street, The Pig and the Lady is a restaurant whose head chef and owner, Andrew Le, started off at one of the flagships of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, Honolulu’s Chef Mavro. One of the younger generation of local chefs, his take on Hawai‘i’s eclectic and evolving cooking style is infused with Vietnamese tastes and techniques. “We grow up around the dining table, with scolding and laughter,” he says. “The name of the restaurant is a homage to my mom and her cooking. She called us kids her little pigs, and she’s the lady.” Hawai‘ian beef brisket appears in Andrew’s reinterpretations of Vietnamese classics such as pho noodles and the banh mi sandwich, and O‘ahu taro and heirloom tomatoes are other favourite ingredients. “You can grow pretty much anything on these islands,” Andrew says. “If you’re not taking advantage of it, you’re doing it wrong.”
As the day draws to a close, beachgoers gather on Waikiki’s breakwaters to face the setting sun, and a free performance of hula starts up by the statue of surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku, always garlanded with fresh leis. Away from the crowd, one surfer picks a spot to kneel down and face the ocean. He clasps his hands in front of him, and offers a silent prayer.
Hawai’i is a paradise for nature lovers, foodies, water babies and adventure junkies, and we’ve got three more stops across the islands for you in LPMI’s September 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.