Honolulu & Waikīkī

Hawai‘i’s capital city has two focal points, the historic and business district of Downtown Honolulu and the world-famous resort of Waikīkī. The downtown area first gained prominence as a trading port in the early 19th century. Waikīkī, by contrast, was still a swamp when its first luxury hotel went up in 1901. With Honolulu’s best beach, however, the resort’s success was guaranteed.



Kamehameha the Great, who ruled the islands from 1795 to 1819, is Hawai‘i’s most revered monarch. This Hawai‘i Island chief turned the islands from chiefdoms riddled by internecine warfare into a respected monarchy. As a young warrior, Kamehameha met illustrious foreigners, including Captain Cook in 1778. He soon grasped the importance of Western technology and incorporated ships and cannons into his conquest of the warring chiefs. After consolidating the kingdom, Kamehameha I turned his attention to looking after his people. With its gold-leaf feathered helmet and cloak, the bronze statue in front of Ali‘iōlani Hale is one of the most famous sights in Hawai‘i. The original statue was lost in a storm, and this replica was unveiled by King Kalākaua in 1883. The original was recovered by divers the same year and erected in Kapa‘au.


This imposing edifice is a monument to Hawai‘i’s missionary days. With the collapse of the old Hawaiian religion around 1820 – shortly after Kamehameha I’s death – the missionaries soon gained influential converts, including the formidable Ka‘ahumanu, the king’s favorite wife. In earlier thatched churches on the site, the Reverend Hiram Bingham preached to as many as 2,000 penitent Hawaiians, who would attend in what one missionary wife described in 1829 as “an appalling state of undress.” With their first exposure to Western clothing, some wore just a shirt or a top hat. By the time the present church was built in 1842, the women wore deco rous mu‘umu‘u (long dresses), and most worshipers sported shoes due to the planting of thorn-shedding kiawe trees.

The church’s New England-style architecture is softened by the coral-block construction. The upper gallery has 21 portraits of the Hawaiian monarchs and their families, most of whom were baptized, married, and crowned here. Outside are two cemeteries for missionaries and their early converts, and a mausoleum where King Lunalilo is buried. Apart from Kamehameha I, whose bones were hidden so that no one could steal his mana (spiritual power), most of the other royalty lie in the Royal Mausoleum.


This bucolic enclave of the past contains the oldest timber frame house in Hawai‘i, a testament to the persuasive powers of the New England missionaries. In 1821, one year after their arrival, Kamehameha II allowed Reverend Bingham to build a Christian house and to establish Hawai‘i’s first printing press. A more elegant house followed, part of which contains a replica press. The interiors have been lovingly preserved. Especially interesting are the clothes worn by the missionaries, including long underwear. The missionaries were so good at converting the rowdy whalers and Sandwich Island heathens that in 1825, a Russian visitor described Honolulu as follows: “streets deserted, games prohibited [and] singing, dancing [and] riding horseback on Sun days all punishable offenses.”


King David Kalākaua was inspired by English Victorian architecture when he commissioned this royal residence on the site of an earlier palace. Drawing heavily on sugarcane profits, Hawai‘i’s “Merrie Monarch” tried to recreate the pomp and circumstance of the English court in the palace’s luxurious interiors. The only royal palace in the US, ‘Iolani (“Royal Hawk”) Palace served that function for just 11 years. Kalākaua took up residence in 1882, followed by his sister, Lili‘uokalani, who reigned for only two years before the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. The palace became the seat of government, and in 1895, Lili‘uokalani was imprisoned here for nine months. The first governor used Kalākaua’s bedroom as his office, and the legislature met in the chambers downstairs. After the government moved to the Capitol building, the palace became a set for Jack Lord’s office in the television series Hawaii Five-0. Fans will recognize the arched floor-to-ceiling windows. Children under five are not admitted to the palace. The grounds make a pleasant place for a stroll. The barracks of Kalākaua’s royal guard, which date from 1871, serve as a gift shop and visitor center. The grass near Kalākaua’s coronation bandstand makes an ideal picnic spot, and every Friday at noon – except in August – the Royal Hawaiian Band gives a free concert.


Crossing beneath the canopy of banyans from ‘Iolani Palace to the back of Hawai‘i’s State Capitol is a trip from old to new, from Victorian monarchy to contemporary crossroads of the Pacific. America’s youngest state boasts the most imaginative statehouse, its architecture symbolizing Hawai‘i’s majestic environment. The building rises from a reflecting pool just as the islands rise from the blue Pacific. Fluted columns, suggesting lofty palms, circle the veranda, and two volcano-shaped chambers contain the houses of the legislature. At the rear, by the Capitol veranda, stands a statue of Queen Lili‘uokalani, holding the music to “Aloha ‘Oe,” a famous ballad she composed. The words mean “may you be loved or greeted.” The statue is often decked with flower lei. In front of the building is a modern statue of Father Damien (see p105) by Marisol Escobar. Across Beretania Street (“British” street in Hawaiian) is the Eternal Flame, a memorial to World War II soldiers. Farther down the street is Washington Place, formerly the governor’s mansion and Hawai‘i’s oldest continuously occupied dwelling. This Georgian-style frame house was built by John Dominis, Queen Lili‘uokalani’s father-in-law, in 1846. After release from imprisonment in the palace, the queen lived out her days in this house and it is now a museum in her honor.


The oldest Episcopal edifice in Hawai‘i, St. Andrew’s was built as an Anglican cathedral in 1867. (It turned Episcopalian in 1898, when Hawai‘i became an American territory.) Alexander Liholiho (Kamehameha IV), Hawai‘i’s most Anglophile king, brought Anglicanism to Honolulu following a trip to England during which he was enchanted by English church rituals. His wife Queen Emma, the granddaughter of Englishman John Young, an advisor of Kameha meha the Great, was baptized by the first Anglican clergymen to arrive in the islands. After the death of the king in 1863, Emma traveled to England to raise funds and to find an architect for the cathedral. Her husband’s brother and successor, Kamehameha V, laid the cornerstone four years later. Much of the stone was imported from England, although the arched walkways are more suggestive of Gothic churches in France. The cathedral was not consecrated until 1958, when the final phase of construction, including a huge stained-glass mural, was completed. Outside, a statue of St. Andrew appears to preach to fish rising from a surrounding pool. The carved message reads “Preach the Gospel to every creature.”


This street was named after the former Kekuanohu fort. Kamehameha I decided to build a harbor fort after he fought off a Russian bid to colonize the islands in 1816. John Young, the king’s advisor, supervised the work, and the whitewashed walls stood until 1857. According to early documents, the stronghold also functioned as a prison. By the 1860s, the adjacent street was a thriving business center, with a dressmaker, milliner, hardware store, and lumber yard. Some small shops remain today, but the four-block street has been turned into a pedestrian mall. At the mauka end (toward the mountains) is Our Lady of Peace, an austere Catholic cathedral built of coral in 1843. Father Damien, the “Martyr of Moloka‘i,” was ordained here in 1864. Opposite is the contemporary Hawai‘i Pacific University building. Eating places nearby reflect the university’s international student body – Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, French gourmet, and even a Filipino-Polish restaurant. Midway down the mall, the benches are often occupied by retired Filipino grandpas who spend their time people watching, strumming ’ukulele, and chatting away in Tagalog. The mall affords interesting views both mauka and makai (toward the sea).


Originally known as the “Gateway to Fort Street,” the Aloha Tower was constructed in 1926, in the days when tourists arrived by steamship. Locals flocked to the tower and terminals to sell lei to the arriving passengers, dance the hula, dive for coins, and partake vicariously of the excitement of travel only few could afford. Departing passengers threw multicolored streamers from the decks while the Royal Hawaiian Band played the famous and much-loved ballad, “Aloha ‘Oe”. Standing ten stories high, with four clocks facing the four points of the compass, what was once Honolulu’s tallest building is now dwarfed by gleaming skyscrapers. An elevator carries visitors to an observation deck, which delivers a 360° view of Honolulu Harbor and the mountains. Today, the tower is the hub of a tasteful complex that houses upscale stores, and restaurants offering sheltered outdoor seating, perfect for sunset -watching. Local musicians play throughout the complex. Cruise liners still pull up at the pier, as do working ships from all over the world. Some naval vessels welcome visitors free of charge during designated hours. Sightseeing vessels run harbor tours, and Navatek I offers whale-watching cruises from January to April.


Opened in 1922 to present vaudeville, musicals, plays, and silent movies, the Hawai‘i Theatre was dubbed “The Pride of the Pacific”. Hawaiian architects Walter Emory and Marshall Webb created a Neo-Classical exterior with a variety of decorative elements – Byzantine, Corinthian, and Moorish – and a lavish interior with plush carpets, ornate columns, marble statuary, and a gilded dome. When talking pictures took off in the 1930s, the Hawai‘i became an upscale movie theater, but eventually, it went into decline, finally closing down in 1984. A local campaigning group raised funds to save the building and restore it to its former glory. It reopened in 1996 as a multi-purpose venue offering films, concerts, and stage performances. Exterior renovations were completed in 2005. In recognition of its historic importance, the theater is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.


This museum, housed in a handsome Spanish-Mission-style building, is dedicated to Hawaiian art, including bark cloth items, embroidery, quilts, and pottery. Many items blend Western forms and traditional folk art. The museum is also home to Art in Public Places, which brings together over 5,000 works of art by more than 1,400 Hawaiian artists.


This exotic neighborhood is full of colorful flower lei (garlands worn around the neck) stands, open markets with hanging ducks and tropical fish, herbal medicine shops displaying dried snakes and rats, trendy art galleries, and acupuncture and tattooing emporia. There are also less salubrious saloons with topless dancing, especially on Pauahi and North Hotel streets, downtown Honolulu’s red-light district – the legacy of World War II soldiers on leave. The twin lions on Bethel and North Hotel streets, the gateway to Chinatown from the adjacent business district, are symbols of a major rejuvenation project. Many buildings, such as the Hawai‘i Theatre, have been beautifully restored. Visitors to Chinatown may be lucky enough to witness a Chinese wedding with a full percussion orchestra and a prancing lion dance. At the Maunakea Market Place, you can sample food from all over Asia, and the noodle shops along River Street are much favored by local residents. At the edge of Chinatown, the Foster Botanical Gardens are an oasis of tranquillity in the heart of a fast-paced city. They contain some protected trees and a prehistoric plant exhibit. The gift shop sells plants that can be sent home.


Waikīkī was a nondescript place of taro patches and fish ponds when Kamehameha I, the chief who united the Hawaiian islands, landed here to launch an invasion in 1795. After conquering the chiefs of O‘ahu, he built a bungalow facing the ocean, not far from the present Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Now Waikīkī has one of the world’s famous beaches, a sliver of people-packed sand against the backdrop of Diamond Head crater. Waikīkī’s “golden mile” of glass and concrete skyscrapers is a hectic hodge-podge of Western, Asian, and Pacific cultures bustling with some 65,000 tourists a day. The streets are packed with T-shirt vendors, sunburned honeymooners, Japanese matrons with Christian Dior bags, and barefoot boys carrying surfboards on their bikes. Local people strum ‘ukulele at beachfront bars, music throbs from nightclubs, and a band of performers roams the streets. The turquoise water is dotted with swimmers and multicolored inflatables. Beyond them, outrigger canoes cut swaths through the ranks of surfers, and farther out, red and yellow sailboats bob on the horizon.


Wide Kūhiō Beach stretches eastward from Duke Kahanamoku’s statue in central Waikīkī. Near the statue are four sacred boulders, known as the Wizard Stones, that represent healers who came from Tahiti before the 16th century. The healers are said to have passed their powers to the stones before returning home. The beach is a calm haven amid Waikīkī’s swirling crowds. It is often rich in local color – grandmas in mu‘umu‘u (long, loose dresses) string lei garlands and weave coconut fronds, locals play backgammon, and hula schools entertain in the evenings.


Considered the world’s finest museum of Polynesian culture, Bishop Museum was created as an American businessman’s farewell to his beloved wife. When Princess Bernice Pauahi, the last royal descendant of Kamehameha the Great, died in 1884, she left all her family heirlooms to her husband, Charles Bishop. Her cousin, Queen Emma, died shortly afterward and bequeathed her own Hawaiian artifacts to Bishop. He immediately set about building a home for the priceless collection, and Bishop Museum opened in 1902. Designated the “State Museum of Natural and Cultural History,” it has over a million Pacific artifacts, plus millions of specimens of regional fauna and flora.


In 2012, the Honolulu Academy of Art, founded by Mrs. Charles Montague Cooke in 1922, and The Contemporary Museum combined to form the Honolulu Museum of Art. The galleries are located in two of Honolulu’s most beautiful buildings. Visitors can enjoy the cafés, gardens, concerts, and films in both locations for a single admission fee. The permanent collection includes more than 20,000 works of Asian art, with the highlight being the James A. Michener Collection of more than 10,000 Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The collection also features European art, notably Italian Renaissance paintings and works by Van Gogh, Monet, and Picasso. American works on display include pieces by Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer among others. A tour to the Shangri La, home of American heiress Doris Duke, starts at the museum. This architectural landmark houses an extensive Islamic art collection from Iran, India, Morocco, and Syria.


Only a short drive from busy Waikīkī, this retreat is an ideal tonic for the weary sightseer. Short, verdant trails wind through the trees and reveal botanical delights at every turn. Founded in 1918 in an effort to reforest land made barren by cattle grazing, the Lyon Arboretum is now home to over 5,000 plant species, both native and introduced. It is nationally recognized as a center for the conservation of Hawaiian plants, and its 194 acres support over 80 endangered and rare species. These include the state flower, ma‘o hau hele (a yellow hibiscus), and the tree gardenia, nānū, whose scientific name, Gardenia brighamii, honors W.T. Brigham, the first director of the Bishop Museum. The arboretum now features around 600 varieties of palm, more than any other botanical garden in the world. A substantial part of the arboretum is open to the public; the rest is set aside for research. The on-site hybridization program has resulted in more than 160 new cultivars, including hybrids of hibiscus and rhododendron. There are three quiet memorial gardens and an aromatic spice and herb patch near the main building. A little farther away, the Beatrice H. Krauss Ethnobotanical Garden displays plants that have been used by native Hawaiians as medicine, food, and building materials.


This 300-acre expanse of green offers a 2-mile (3-km) jogging path, tennis courts, barbecues, and special areas for softball, archery, and kite-flying. It is also the site of crafts fairs and many celebrations. The north end of the park is devoted to Honolulu Zoo, whose highlight is an extensive African savanna section. On Sunday mornings, local artists display their works on the zoo fence facing Monsarrat Avenue. The Waikīkī Aquarium, on the southwest side, features the usual sea life as well as a special exhibit on the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and a hands-on tide pool. The aquarium also organizes reef walks, some especially for children. The park acts as a gateway to Diamond Head. To see the extinct volcano, either take the scenic circle drive to Diamond Head lighthouse, whose lawn is a favorite spot for tourist weddings and sunset watching, or you can hike to the summit from a parking lot in the crater. Entrance to the crater is marked by a sign on Diamond Head Road, the continuation of Monsarrat Avenue. The trail is quite steep, but the sweeping view is worth the hour-long ascent. Part of the hike involves climbing a staircase in a tunnel; take a flashlight if you are claustrophobic.


When Honolulu was made the capital of Hawai‘i in 1845, a major reason was its proximity to one of the world’s best natural harbors – Pearl Harbor. In the time of Kamehameha the Great, the inlet supported oysters that were farmed for their pearls. Later, the port was crucial for whalers, trade with China, and both the sugar and pineapple industries. Leased to the US in 1887 as part of a trade treaty, it was first used militarily in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Today it houses modern warships, military museums, and memorials. Most significant among these is the USS Arizona Memorial, perched above the sunken ship of that name. The ship went down with hundreds of its crew during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, which brought the US into World War II. For many people, the visit to this site is a pilgrimage, so appropriate dress is requested.

On busy days, tickets may all be allocated by 1 pm, and there is often a wait of up to 2 hours for the boat to the offshore memorial. It is best to get your ticket first and then browse in the museum, which features details of the attack and histories of the ships, planes, and personnel involved, both US and Japanese. It offers a balanced and personal view of the participants. Near the ticket desk is a panel describing the volunteers for the day. They are usually Pearl Harbor survivors and are available to answer questions and share their stories. Ceremonies are held here on important days.

Another place to visit during a day at Pearl Harbor is the nearby award-winning USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, a tribute to the role of the submarine in war and peacetime security. The museum covers the history of submarines, beginning with the first attempt to build one in 1776. Visitors can view the inner workings of a Poseidon missile, and they can also inspect control panels from retired submarines and see how the crew whiled away their time in cramped quarters. The USS Bowfin submarine is moored nearby and is open for public viewing. The park itself contains a memorial to the crews of the 52 US submarines lost in World War II. The USS Missouri, opened to the public in 1999 as the Battleship Missouri Memorial. On September 2, 1945, General MacArthur, aboard this ship, accepted the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Check the web site for additional information and images from the ship’s history: (www.ussmissouri.com).