The Brancatelli File



April 3, 1987 -- Everything that makes Hawaii a leisure traveler's paradise simultaneously conspires to make it vaguely disconcerting for the frequent traveler who expects the Islands to be an all-American version of the Garden of Eden. The currency and the flag may be American, but Hawaii isn't America like Chicago is America or Montana is America.

Hawaii is not about pilgrims' pride, purple mountain majesty and amber waves of grain. It's about Polynesian princes and black volcanic hills and gray-green fields of sugarcane. It's well, someplace else.

Frequent flyers who think they've chosen a "domestic destination" for a leisure trip are surprised by the differences between Hawaii and the mainland. The rules of life are somewhat different.

Hawaii is truly isolated. The Islands are thousands of miles and several time zones away from the mainland, and the informational thread is exceedingly thin. Don't expect Hawaii to be consumed by--or even interested in--the same news, sports or financial events that dominate the mainland. Even keeping up with events on the mainland is a chore. Network news appears on Hawaiian televisions at least four hours after it was first broadcast in the East. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today reach Honolulu about noon local time; that's just about closing time on the East Coast. When everything goes well, the other Islands receive mainland papers a day late, and not at all if everything doesn't go well.

Hawaii is Oriental. The mainland has always been dominated by European ethnic groups and European cultural influences. Not so Hawaii, which is distinctly Oriental and Polynesian. The Japanese traditionally have been the largest and most powerful ethnic group on the Islands, and the recent strength of the yen has brought an even greater Japanese influence. The Islands are now a favorite honeymoon and vacation spot for Japanese of even modest means. And Japanese firms are the most active investors in Hawaiian real estate and hotels. Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese are also well integrated into Hawaiian society, as are immigrants from Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.

Life is more casual--sort of. Hawaiians are exceedingly casual in daily life. Only lawyers wear suits, or so the locals insist. Tourists not wearing bathing suits, cover-ups and beach clogs are usually wearing those brightly colored--dare we say garish?--Aloha shirts and muumuus. Yet Hawaii isn't all that leisurely. The better resorts demand sports jackets for men and cocktail dresses for women at dinner. People who claim frequent flyers don't need dressy attire in Hawaii are people who never leave the beach and take all their meals from room service.

There is a language barrier. The lyrical native Hawaiian language isn't dead. It's alive and well and confusing the daylights out of the unsuspecting. The locals regularly drop such Hawaiian words as "pau" (finished), "ono" (good) and "hui" (group) in casual conversation, and many of the street signs and location names are Hawaiian. Places like Kaunakakai and Kaneohe and Uluniu Avenue sound lovely when " kamaainas" (locals) say them, but it takes a while for "malihinis" (newcomers) to catch on.

The pace is different. Rushing to catch a flight from Kauai to Maui, a harried frequent flyer recently pleaded with the shuttle-bus driver to step on it. The driver looked back, smiled broadly and said: "Why so much wiki-wiki [Why are you in such a hurry]? The planes never leave on time. They wait for you." Needless to say, the frequent flyer missed the flight. But you get the idea. Time is money in Hawaii. It just seems to be marked down about 35 percent.

Speaking of airplanes. Three ferociously competitive carriers--Aloha, Hawaiian and Mid Pacific--dominate the bustling interisland market. Aloha tends to be the choice of local frequent flyers because of its all-jet fleet and its long-standing promise to operate all scheduled flights. In general, interisland fares are low (usually about $50), price wars are frequent (a $25 fare is not unheard of) and the flights are short hops (about 20 or 25 minutes). Commuting to and from Honolulu and the other islands is simple; there's usually a flight every half-hour or so. Nonstop service between the other islands is much less frequent; reservations are advised.

The "aloha spirit" is real. More than beaches and volcanoes and resorts and golf courses, Hawaii is about its people. They are warm, sincere, outgoing and courteous. Everyone seems to smile all the time. The folks who handle Hawaii's public relations call it the "aloha spirit." But the goodwill of the locals isn't artificial; it isn't manufactured to fit an advertising slogan. It's genuine. And, frankly, cynical mainlanders usually need a day or two to adjust to all the friendliness.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright 1983-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.