Editor’s Page: Waikiki Bound

I guarantee kamaaina can find something to love in this 1-square-mile neighborhood.

Photo by Linny Morris

We last covered Waikiki in-depth in June 2003, but so much has changed there since then (the reinvention of the Lewers Street area, the addition of new high-rises and residents, and more), that it felt like a good time to go back. One thing hasn’t changed, however, and it’s the nagging feeling a HONOLULU Magazine editor gets when crossing the Ala Wai that he somehow Owes the Readers an Explanation.

See, it’s a bit of a gamble for us to write about Waikiki. This magazine is written by kamaaina, for kamaaina—and kamaaina have spent the past three decades convincing themselves that Waikiki is someplace weird and foreign. Something Not of This Island, to paraphrase a line from old sci-fi, alien-invasion movies. Many locals loudly, proudly, profess to hate Waikiki. I can’t think of a comparable dynamic in any other city I’ve visited. Manhattanites may skip the Empire State Building as a tourist trap, but they don’t have an entire neighborhood they write off.

Maybe this could’ve been avoided. As my predecessor, John Heckathorn, noted in his ’03 defense of Waikiki, cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco have welcomed tourists for decades, but their hotels are distributed throughout the city, mixed in with the business towers and apartment buildings. Visitors and residents rub elbows all day. Some of their biggest tourist draws are also some of their biggest resident attractions—Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, for example, where I found myself in line with local families and school groups to visit the U-Boat exhibit.

But in Honolulu, we decided to stick all our hotels into a 1-square-mile neighborhood, which has since performed the same social function that the Sand Island Quarantine Station did in the early 20th century—keeping outsiders away from the rest of us! Two forces drove that separation, the visitors’ specific desire to be on the beach at Waikiki and our desire to contain the growth and development that came with surging numbers of visitors in the jet age. Ultimately, I don’t think it was the tourists we wanted to isolate, as much as the construction cranes. 

Well, what can I say. Some of the reasons people give for hating Waikiki are exactly the things I like about it. The density, the high-rises, the crowds, the shopping. When I was a teenager in Waipahu in the ’80s, we routinely drove into Waikiki for a taste of real city life; that was the entire attraction. Waikiki had the best movie theaters, the coolest clubs, the wackiest people-watching; it was an oasis of urban distractions.

As you’ll see in this issue, it’s still that, minus the movie theaters, of course. We also offer a ton of expanded coverage in our online version of the Insider’s Guide to Waikiki, including—because we know parking is complaint No. 1—a thorough guide to the best parking deals in Waikiki. I guarantee you will find at least one thing to love about Waikiki somewhere in all this.

If I have one complaint about Waikiki, it’s that there is still not enough Hawaii in it. I once saw a small crowd gathered in front of a Kalakaua Avenue storefront, transfixed by something in the window. It was a small TV, showing a DVD of Merrie Monarch Festival performances. People were so starved for a taste of authentic Hawaiian culture in Waikiki they ate up even that tiny, random morsel. Look at the street culture we do have: Metal-men and flautists, sketch artists and cornrow-braiders, hand-billers and parrot-people. Stuff you find in any city, stuff that screams tourist trap.

As we wrapped up this issue, I headed to Kapiolani Park for the Lei Day Festival. For 81 years, this festival has celebrated Hawaiian culture, with its lei competition, live hula and bands playing classic Hawaiian music on steel guitars. It was a gorgeous day, a true “only in Hawaii” moment, nothing kitschy, fake or touristy about it. If only every day were lei day in Waikiki, kamaaina might finally fall back in love with the place.