Afterthoughts: The Long Way Home

Waikīkī will always be special to me.


I have a confession to make: I love Waikīkī.


That doesn’t seem to be a popular opinion among friends and colleagues who complain mostly about the parking and tourists, but I (briefly) lived in Waikīkī when I was little, and experiencing the neighborhood as a kid meant it got a firm grasp on my heart before harsher realities set in.


My grandma called Waikīkī home throughout my entire childhood. During summer vacation, I’d take the bus to her apartment, eat some of her killer spaghetti for lunch and lie under the coffee table watching soap operas. I’d do some small favors, like organize hard-to-reach things underneath the bed, or carry heavy potatoes home from Food Pantry. Then we’d go on little adventures—Grandma took my sister and me to see Lilo & Stitch at the Waikīkī 3 once. The box office attendant let me in a quarter short because I looked so nervous standing there, an awkward 12-year-old fiddling with her change. My favorite thing, though, was to go with my grandma to see the penguins at the Hilton, then eat some ice cream after.



Illustration: Kim Sielbeck



On the weekends, my family would often go to the beach. We’d park at Grandma’s, then cut through Duke’s Lane and the International Market Place. We rarely bought anything there, but I longed for a giant fan with a panther painted on it and bamboo wind chimes. We schlepped our mats and chairs past the racks of surfboards and floaties for rent, then hunkered down right in the middle of Waikīkī Beach for a few hours.


It was perfect: warm, shallow water, no big waves, the occasional school of fish or turtle. The sounds of conch shells that meant the catamarans were coming back to shore, the same guys playing Frisbee on the sand every weekend, boogie boarders, canoe paddlers, friendly tourists who were just happy to be there: It was such a scene. I didn’t always want to go, but once I got there, it was wonderful.


Whenever family came to visit us from abroad, they’d stay in Waikīkī, and hanging out with them always made me feel like I was on vacation, too. The neighborhood is bursting with people who are excited to visit Hawai‘i, and their happiness is infectious.


I never noticed homelessness or crime or the commodification of Hawaiian culture as a kid. I always caught the bus or got a ride, so parking never concerned me. Sure, there were a lot of people on the streets, but I was in no rush to get anywhere and have never been that bothered by crowds. To me, Waikīkī was such a happy place.


As I got older, I rarely went to that beach anymore. The theaters shut down. The Hilton got rid of its penguins. My grandma passed away. But I was still fond of Waikīkī—for different reasons. Before I was old enough to get into bars, I’d go to Kapi‘olani Park late at night, eating curly fries from Jack in the Box on the steps of the bandstand with friends because there wasn’t anything else to do. My senior prom was at the Hyatt, so we wandered around afterward, just exploring and having a good time. The streets are alive at all hours.


Now that I’m an adult, I love popping into a restaurant for some dessert after a conference, shopping, catching musician friends playing a gig or checking out block parties (Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz made eye contact with me at the Pro Bowl All-Star Block Party a few years ago and I almost fell over). I go to cocktail tastings at Sky Waikīkī, concerts at Blue Note, dinner at Stripsteak. The neighborhood has changed a lot in the past 20 years, but so have I. It has its share of problems and many of the things I used to love are no longer there, but Waikīkī always offers me a new reason to love it each time I return. And it always reminds me of my grandma. I still like to drive down Kalākaua Avenue from time to time, even when it’s not the fastest route home.