The Brancatelli File



January 1, 1989 -- The Donald Trump of Japan wasn’t expecting much when he made his way to Honolulu 18 months ago. “My image of Hawaii was of naked people wearing rubber sandals—quite primitive,” said 55-year-old Genshiro Kawamoto.

“Then I visited for one night only. All that gorgeous beach and blue sky changed my mind. I thought it might be a good idea to buy a house—just to keep a change of clothes in.”

Kawamoto’s desire to own a little shack in the Hawaiian sun was hardly unique. Honolulu is the most dreamed-about vacation spot on the planet, and most of the 6 million visitors who journey here each year share Kawamoto’s fantasy. What ensures that most tourists depart with a beach towel rather than a beach cottage is Honolulu’s median home price: $200,000 per shack, the highest of any city in the nation.

But like our man Trump, Mr. K acts on his fantasies. He slummed around Honolulu’s swankiest neighborhoods in a long white limo and found himself a house. Actually, he bought 160 houses, including a beachfront estate that set him back $40 million—said to be the highest price ever paid for a single U.S. residential property.

Kawamoto’s spectacular home-buying binge underlines what’s happening in America’s most exotic city. Just as it was growing a bit less isolated from the mainland—same-day network TV and overnight mail service having recently arrived—Japanese investors hit town with satchels full of yen and very long shopping lists. By the time the buying frenzy cooled late last year, Japanese conglomerates owned 40 percent of Waikiki’s hotels, uncounted hundreds of oceanfront homes and condominiums, and a gargantuan slice of Honolulu’s business community.

Local reaction to the Japanese investors was virulent. Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi even flew to Tokyo to scold Japanese officials. His unabashedly jingoistic message: keep sending tourists—one in five visitors to Hawaii is now Japanese and each spends almost four times as much as the average traveler from anywhere else—but don’t dare buy any residential property or local businesses.

The sublime irony of the rise of the almighty yen in Honolulu is that it changes nothing except the names on some real estate deeds. For one thing, the city’s temperament and ethnic composition have always been more Oriental than Occidental. And while new Japanese owners are erecting bilingual signs here and renovating luxury hotels there, Honolulu’s essential character was decided long before it became a partially owned subsidiary of Japan, Inc.

For want of another raison d’être, Honolulu and the island of Oahu have metamorphosed into a gigantic seaside theme park. Locals cling to the charade of a diverse economy, but Honolulu now exists almost solely to cater to the dreams of travelers seeking sun, surf, shopping, aloha shirts and some personal Hawaiian fantasy. No matter who owns the town, all of Honolulu—verdant valleys, sandy beaches, blue waters, frenetic Waikiki, Diamond Head, even the famously friendly and hospitable people—was packaged as a tourist attraction long ago.

Call it Paradiseland, a sort of living, breathing, round-the-clock fantasy park. What’s most compelling about Honolulu isn’t a great restaurant or a pretty vista or a wonderful museum. It’s the city’s ability to allow tourists to live out whatever Hawaiian illusions brought them over in the first place.

For the vast majority of travelers, dreams of Paradiseland revolve around Waikiki. Locals sneer that it’s “un-Hawaiian”—too tall, too urban, too generic—but travelers bathe gleefully in Waikiki’s energy and crowds and beaches and shopping and nightlife. They arrive dreaming about the world’s best urban beach resort, and that’s exactly what they get: a clean, safe, mildly exotic and erotic hodgepodge with high-rise gift shops and ethnic restaurants, fast-food parlors and beachwear boutiques, dance clubs and sushi bars, international flourishes and Polynesian hokum, all of it just steps from the world’s most celebrated crescent of sand and surf.

Oily urban critics and pompous travel writers say the most awful things about Waikiki. Their vision of Paradiseland is the planned resorts of Maui, the small-town charm of Kauai or the wild beauty of the Big Island. They’re mortified—and disappointed—when tourists opt for Waikiki’s man-made diversions. Luckily Waikiki parties merrily on, oblivious to the stuffed shirts.

Travelers who dream of a gentler Honolulu aren’t disappointed, either. If their Paradiseland is a lush, fragrant, green place awash in orchids and ginger and hibiscus, they need only walk a few blocks from downtown into the exquisite Manoa Valley. Those whose Honolulu fantasy is steep cliffs, pristine beaches and endless expanses of Pacific Ocean can drive just a few miles past Diamond Head. Their Paradiseland is there, and it’s everything they dreamed of.

There’s also a rural Honolulu for those who fantasize about rustic Hawaiian pineapple plantations. And there’s an inscrutable Oriental Honolulu with an honest-to-goodness Chinatown. And a Honolulu just like the one in Magnum, P.I. or Hawaiian Eye or any old movie or television show from which travelers have fashioned a dream. Surprisingly enough, there’s even a Hawaiian Honolulu. It’s just a layer or two beneath the commercial luaus and shrink-wrapped “aloha spirit” doled out by locals who assume no outsider is really interested in anything genuinely Hawaiian.

Honolulu now? The Japanese own huge chunks of it, but every day a new planeload of travelers arrives, and the city accommodates them while they pursue their fantasies. Those with enough money can even buy themselves 160 beach shacks where they can leave a change of clothes.

When to Go: From a climatic point of view, Honolulu is almost always in season. Temperatures rarely dip below 70 or rise above 90 degrees. It rains almost every day somewhere on Oahu (the rainy season is December to March), but Waikiki is usually dry year round. Honolulu is most crowded from Mid-December to mid-April and during the summer. In May and October the tourist tide is at low ebb.

What to Pack: Honolulu is America’s most casual city. Sportswear of any description and beach attire with cover-ups are appropriate almost everywhere. Beach sandals (locals call them slippers) are the preferred footwear. And, of course, “aloha wear”—brightly colored floral or scenic shirts for men and long, flowing muumuus for women—is worn throughout the city. Honolulu is informal even in the evening, but some restaurants require jackets at dinner. Ties are virtually nonexistent.

Local Customs: Honolulu is America, but at times there’s a rather startling cultural gulf. Language is just one example. Words and idioms from the mellifluous Hawaiian tongue are used routinely in conversation and public places. Aloha (hello, goodbye, love) is simple enough, but you’ll also hear mahalo (thank you), kokua (help), pau (finished) and much more. Menus often use Hawaiian names, especially for fish dishes. Rest-room doors will say kane or wahine as often as they say men or women. You are a malihini (tourist). And being called a haole (white person) is sometimes an insult in a city dominated by fiercely proud Asian and Polynesian ethnic groups.

Nightlife: They’re virtually extinct elsewhere in America, but there are still nightclubs in Honolulu hotels. In fact, most hotels have at least two: one presents a cabaret act while the other functions as a dance club. The indestructible Don Ho, for example, still packs the house twice a night at the Dome Showroom of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Last time anyone checked, he still sang “Tiny Bubbles.” The best of the revues, a high-energy Polynesian show using native dancers from Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Tokelau, holds forth twice nightly at the Ainahau Showroom (Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel, 2342 Kalakaua Ave.; 922-5811). Honolulu’s reigning stars, however, are The Brothers Cazimero, two singer-songwriters who perform at the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The Caz, as they are known locally, serve up a joyous and intelligent mix of traditional Hawaiian songs, mainland melodies and the brothers’ own modern Hawaiian music.

Travelers who come to Hawaii for more than the beaches are stunned by the diversity of attractions. The Bishop Museum (1525 Bernice St.; 847-3511) is the world’s finest repository of Polynesian culture. Iolani Palace (King and Richards Streets) is an opulent reminder that Hawaii was once a free and sovereign nation with a history that has very little to do with the mainland United States. It’s also the only royal palace on U.S. soil. The huge pineapple-shaped water tower that dominates Honolulu’s downtown skyline is just one part of the Dole Cannery Square (650 Iwilei Rd.; 531-8855), where you can tour a pineapple-caning plant and have your picture taken with a cardboard Kenny Rogers in a cardboard pineapple field.

Those whose sightseeing whims are more nature-oriented can wander through two incredibly lovely parks. Paradise Park (3737 Manoa Rd.; 988-2141) is a 15-acre tropical rain forest just 15 minutes from Waikiki. Ninety minutes away is Waimea Falls Park (59-864 Kamehameha Hwy.; 638-8511), 1,800 acres of the most unspoiled space Hawaii has to offer. The park encompasses more than 30 gardens, waterfalls, an arboretum and botanical gardens and a riot of ducks, birds and peacocks. There are both hiking trails and guided tram tours of the grounds.

And then there is Pearl Harbor. The stark white Arizona Memorial that spans the sunken battleship USS Arizona and its 1,100 entombed sailors sits in the middle of the harbor. It’s crowded with visitors all day long, but in this otherwise raucous town, it is always the quietest place.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.