The Hip-Pocket City

Living on the Big Island, I've learned to love Honolulu even more.


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I didn't hate Honolulu when I moved away almost two years ago. After 23 years there, I wasn't trying to escape the beaches resembling ant colonies, restaurants where the cost of the appetizer kills your appetite, stink eye from the punks gunning their bling-bling Civics at the stoplight or the relentless creep of Big Boxes. I actually find all that stuff interesting, in a morbid sort of way. And to my countrified Big Island friends, who talk about Honolulu as if it's some kind of cancerously clogged artery about to explode, I've always said, Well, no, actually, Honolulu is a great little "hip-pocket city." That always shut them up quick, because they, like I, had no idea what I meant.

Now I do. My first visit back to Honolulu came eight months after moving to the Big Island. Almost immediately, symptoms of chronic Rose-Colored Eyeglasses Syndrome began to appear. Have you ever noticed how beautiful the drive is from the airport along Nimitz?

On my second trip, a couple of months later, the diagnosis was confirmed. That's when I noticed myself feeling a peculiar affection for Waikiki, even after being forced to stay there on business for four days. When living in Honolulu, I considered Waikiki good for two things: going to big-screen movies and gawking at garish tourist culture. Now, here I was gliding underwater through the milky ocean, now, sitting on my oceanfront hotel room lanai sipping wine with a good buddy, now, seriously considering purchasing a 6-foot-long Swatch watch in a Kalakaua boutique, now, munching fresh basil at a Thai hole-in-the-wall on Kuhio.

I've been back to O'ahu three times. Besides Waikiki, I spent a week house-sitting for friends in Waimanalo and a couple nights at the Ihilani Resort in Ko Olina–all great interludes, but too much like what you O'ahu folks think of as a "Neighbor Island getaway," and, since I already live on the best Neighbor Island, why pay today's surreal interisland airfares?

Illustration: Michael Austin

What I have loved when returning to O'ahu is what's available nowhere else in the world: the sweet little city of Honolulu. It's all right there before you: the beautiful women on Bishop Street in their sharp, short skirts and flowery blouses, the muddy bowl of 'awa at Hale Noa in Kapuhulu, the local-kine service among the worlds of wine at Tamura's and Fujioka's, the next new little restaurant in Kaimuki to be explored with old friends.

And Manoa. Even when I lived there, I got nostalgic for the neighborhood. At the end of the workday, riding my motorcycle into the back of the valley, a mist playing upon my face, I'd just sigh and grin, smitten with the slanted sunlight turning the Ko'olau ridges a luminous green-gold, in love with the shoppers buzzing around Manoa Marketplace like a particularly successful Sims neighborhood. When I returned after eight months away, these feelings again poured over me like a passing rain.

I even got to spend a night in my former Manoa home.

A shama thrush somewhere in the lychee tree sang its astounding song, stopping only for a moment when a bus roared into its climb up Alani Drive.

When living on Alani, I tuned out the buses. Now, their spewing roar sounded like the city coming awake. I remembered the seats filled with Japanese aunties and their collapsible rolling carts, young men in aloha shirts hugging their briefcases like Bibles, chattering students in their school uniforms pointing at the flashy sports cars whizzing by below.

I love coming back to Honolulu, because now I feel like I do when visiting an exciting city for the first time. But it's even better than Paris or San Francisco, because it's all right there in your hip pocket.

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