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Aloha alternatives: Discover a different side of Hawaii

Discover a different side of Hawaii, which is more than just beaches, volcanoes and tiki huts

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Lydia Vasko on 08 Jul 2018

The Straits Times

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Hypothetically speaking, you do not like sand, sunning yourself on the beach or the thundering surf. Let us say you would much rather spend your day at a mall than hiking and that the best way for you to experience nature is from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle or on horseback - anything but hours on foot.

 

Let us say these are the reasons you have not been to Hawaii, the Pacific island chain best known for its beaches, volcanoes and tiki huts.


Now, what if I told you there is an alternative side of the Aloha state?

 

Honolulu is diverse and dynamic, with vibrant street art, immigrant enclaves, a nascent nightlife scene and pukka cuisine that is more than the popular poke bowl.

 

What if I told you that on a five-day trip to the island of Oahu, home to the state capital of Honolulu, not once did I hike, not once did I luau and not once did my toes touch the Pacific?

 

Here is what I did instead.

 

• The writer's trip was hosted by Scoot and Hawaii Tourism Southeast Asia.

 

KAKAAKO

 

Honolulu has a vibrant art scene and this is best exemplified in the city's Kakaako district, west of Waikiki beach. Predominantly a neighbourhood of warehouses, car dealerships and mechanic shops, it has been perfect for artists looking for affordable workspace.

 

Artist and curator Jasper Wong started bringing attention to the neighbourhood eight years ago when he founded POW! WOW! (powwowhawaii.com), a non-profit urban art collective that began decorating the industrial walls around the area with colourful murals.

 

Local and international artists were invited to take part and, now, acclaimed artists from around the world contribute fresh murals to the neighbourhood each February, painting over murals from the year before.

 

It has become an annual festival and has spawned POW! WOW! festivals around the globe in places such as Taiwan, Israel, Jamaica and South Korea.

 

Wong takes us on a whirlwind tour to see some murals - close to 100 pieces adorn the industrial walls - each a highly skilled and detailed work of art. There are no official tours for the public, but visitors can find a mural map and information about each piece online. Thousands come to snap pictures. I pass a mural that says: "You're entering a judgment-free selfie zone."

 

At one corner, I am so focused on keeping up with the group that I almost do not realise I am standing in front of a stunning piece by Los Angeles-based painter Audrey Kawasaki, whose work I have loved for years.

 

It is in her signature sensual style, two storeys tall, and Wong tells me it is her first outdoor work. I cannot bear to ask whether it will be painted over.

 

Over the past few years, the once-neglected neighbourhood has become home to a few new office buildings, apartments and lifestyle centres. One such development is Salt At Kakaako (www.saltatkakaako.com), a complex of more than two dozen boutiques, eateries and gallery spaces.

 

If you are hungry, the elevated hotdogs made of lobster, rabbit or wagyu beef at Hank's Haute Dogs will surely sate the appetite. There are also craft beers, many from local breweries, and Australian-style meat pies at Village Bottle Shop, and exceptional locally made bean-to-bar chocolate at Lonohana Chocolate Estate, all in the complex.

 

PEARL HARBOUR

 

I was sceptical about touring Pearl Harbour (www.nps.gov/valr/index.htm), concerned that it would be more of a showcase of the United States war machine than a memorial to the Japanese attack on the US naval base on Dec 7, 1941, which propelled America's entry into World War II.

 

Thankfully, what I find is a surprisingly humble memorial and an unmissable naval museum.

 

I walk around the Remembrance Circle, a low concrete structure overlooking the harbour, where plaques pay tribute to the men, women and children who died and a bronze 3D map shows the locations where the island was hit.

 

In total, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded during the 90-minute attack. Japanese torpedoes, bombs and kamikaze pilots sank or damaged much of the US Pacific fleet, which was moored in the harbour, including the USS Arizona, which still lies at the bottom of the harbour.

 

A modest memorial to the fallen - 1,177 officers and crew - floats like a white suspension bridge above the ship's decks. I watch a powerful 23-minute documentary about the attack before taking a US Navy boat across the harbour to the memorial, where a list of all the USS Arizona servicemen who died aboard is carved into a wall of marble.

 

Shivers run through my body as I scan the names of the servicemen whose remains are entombed in the decks just below my feet. Some of the ship is still visible in the water and parts of the rusted wreck peek above the surface, which shines with a morbidly beautiful rainbow, the result of a slick of crude oil that oozes out of the Arizona at about a gallon a day.

 

Even though the memorial has since been closed indefinitely for repairs, the boat still takes visitors into the harbour to see the memorial up close.

 

Pearl Harbour is worth the visit despite the closure as there is plenty to see on land.

 

I spend some time in two exhibition galleries, Road To War and Attack, which describe the events leading up to and after Dec 7 .

 

Through photographs, artefacts and audio records, the galleries tell the personal stories of people who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbour and I am struck by an unexpected connection to home - a map which shows the dates that the Japanese invaded locations across Asia.

 

Somehow, I had never realised that the Japanese invasion of Malaysia started on Dec 8, 1941 - the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour - as did the bombing of Hong Kong, the Philippines and Guam - and I feel a switch flick in my mind. Suddenly, I understand what Pearl Harbour meant for the Pacific. What would have happened to Malaysia and Singapore if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbour and triggered America's entry into World War II? Where would we be today?

 

It comes full circle when I join a tour of the Battleship Missouri Memorial (www.ussmissouri.org), a decommissioned battleship which was active during World War II and is a 15-minute shuttle-bus ride from Pearl Harbour Visitor Centre.

 

The ship has been turned into a museum and delving into its steely bowels and exploring behind the scenes - stooping into the engine rooms, gun turrets, bunks and officers' mess, flicking switches of its historic navigation system - is a unique experience.

 

But nothing compares to the incredible feeling of standing on the ship's deck, where representatives of the Empire of Japan formally surrendered to General MacArthur in Tokyo Bay, Japan, ending the war on Sept 2, 1945.

 

A plaque and copies of the surrender documents are visible on deck and, for a history-lover like me, it is unforgettable.

 

WAIKIKI

 

Honolulu's Waikiki neighbourhood is the Times Square of Hawaii, bustling and full of people even on a Monday night. Locals and tourists alike come to the worldfamous Waikiki Beach, a 3km crescent, to surf, swim, snorkel, boogie-board and people-watch. There is always something going on.

 

The same is true of the neighbourhood's main streets, Kalakaua and Kuhio avenues, which are lined with a mix of large resorts and boutique hotels, luxury shops and clothing stores, restaurants and bars.

 

In Dukes Lane, I find a daily flea market with about two dozen stalls selling cheap souvenirs, tchotchkes, jewellery and sarongs. Shoppers looking for great deals on branded clothes will find them in Nordstrom Rack and Ross Dress For Less off Kuhio Avenue.

 

Upmarket shopping and dining experiences can be found at International Market Place (www.shopinternationalmarketplace.com), an open-air mall which straddles Kalakaua and Kuhio avenues. The mall also offers free activities including monthly lei-making sessions, regular yoga classes, and Hawaiian and Polynesian song-and-dance performances every evening at 6.30pm.

 

I stay at The Laylow (www.laylowwaikiki.com), a 251-room boutique hotel which opened in Kuhio Avenue in March last year. Its mid-century modern aesthetic - with hula figurines lining the wall at check-in, vintage leather seats in the lobby and rooms that are a perfect mix of brass and rattan, teal and millennial pink - is utterly Instagrammable.

 

My favourite time of day in Waikiki is the peaceful limbo of sunset. It is best seen from the beach, so I walk down a paved alley lined with surfboards to the sand where dozens of people are swimming, strolling and enjoying the last of the sun's rays.

 

I take a seat and watch a young Japanese couple giggling and snapping selfies at the water's edge as the sun casts a ribbon of liquid gold behind them. The sky, sea and sand are glowing and I stay until the yellow orb sinks beneath the horizon and the silhouette of a passing sailboat slips from view.

 

NORTH SHORE

 

Oahu's residential North Shore is the local's laid-back antidote to the bright lights and busy streets of Waikiki.

 

This is where the world's best surfers come for the giant waves which pound the coast in winter, from November to March. Watching the pros ride the turquoise swells of 9m or more is an amazing sight and thousands of people often line the beach for hours of entertainment.

 

It is a pleasant hour's drive from Waikiki, past wooden bungalows and banana plantations, the Polynesian Cultural Centre (www.polynesia.com) and Oahu's famous shrimp trucks, such as Giovanni's (www.giovannisshrimptruck.com), serving plates of shrimp sauteed in garlic and melted butter with rice.

 

For dessert, stop by Ted's Bakery (www.tedsbakery.com/pies.html), a roadside store famous for its light yet flavourful cream pies in dozens of flavours. Save room for Hawaii's famous shave ice at Matsumoto's Shave Ice (matsumotoshaveice.com) in Haleiwa, a charming surf town with casual cafes and an oddball mix of boutiques selling surfing gear and preppy nauticalware.

 

Matsumoto's has been a North Shore institution since 1951 and our group orders a few flavours. The mound of ice, decorated with flavoured syrups, would be called a snow cone in other parts of America. It is all the better with the addition of mochi, azuki beans and ice cream.

 

I have my favourite treat of the afternoon at Coffee Gallery (www.roastmaster.com), a cafe down the road which serves coffee, speciality espresso and blended drinks. I order the Coconater - an espresso with coconut milk and housemade mocha sauce. Rich but not too sweet, thanks to the strong and bitter coffee, it is sublime and the best coffee of my trip.

 

The surf in this area may be intimidating, but I see a small lagoon at the end of Pupukea Beach which looks promising. Protected by a wall of rocks, it is a popular swimming and snorkelling hole on days when the water is calm.

 

I feel at ease walking around town and admiring the surfers along the beach. The pace is slower here, much more relaxed. This is a Hawaiian paradise where people walk around in bikinis and swimwear, surfboard in hand, their hair and skin crusty from the sea salt.

 

KUALOA RANCH

 

Heading out of Honolulu on a winding coastal drive north, I soon understand why Hawaii's verdant valleys and steep mountain ridges are dramatic filming locations favoured by Hollywood.

 

I make my way to Kualoa (www.kualoa.com), a 1,600ha private nature reserve and cattle ranch on the north-east side of Oahu, about 40km from Honolulu, where dozens of movies and television shows have been filmed since the 1950s, including hit movies Jurassic Park (1993), 50 First Dates (2004) and Godzilla (2014) and the Lost TV series (2004 to 2010).

 

Visitors can discover the cinematic scenery and film sets on e-bike, horseback or ATV tours, but I join a tour aboard a converted vintage school bus (US$45.95 or S$62.80 an adult, US$35.95 a child). It bounces and rumbles along dirt paths through the jungle and over the ridge, past grazing cattle and into Jurassic Valley.

 

It looks like a prehistoric place lost in time. The surrounding mountains rise almost vertically from the valley bed, their deeply wrinkled slopes like monstrous ribs running all the way to the sea.

 

We pass the famous Jurassic Park sign and faux triceratops bones and take pictures with the skull of King Kong, jumping for wefies.

 

We visit World War II bunkers dug deep into the mountainside which are now used by TV shows such as Hawaii Five-0.

 

Movie posters, memorabilia and props fill the bunkers' halls. The life-like dinosaur puppets which guard the bunkers provide excellent picture opportunities. Because the props and sets are mostly as they were during filming, the 90-minute tour is the most authentic and entertaining movie tour I have been on.

 

Rain begins to fall, a light mist settles on the valley and I wish I was with the horseback riders plodding in the thick grass in the distance. The quieter, slower pace is ideal to appreciate the scale of this magnificent place.

 

EAT AND DRINK

 

Travellers learn lots about a place through its supermarkets. The shelves at Foodland (www.foodland.com) are stocked with local varieties of pineapple and papaya; row after row of Japanese condiments; and Hawaii-grown coffee and chocolate.

 

Spam comes in jalapeno, teriyaki and garlic flavours. It is often eaten as spam musubi, a slice of spam on sushi rice wrapped in seaweed.

 

In Foodland, famous for its poke, the raw fish salad is offered in more than a dozen flavours. I love the spicy ahi poke, creamy and with a perfect punch of sriracha sauce that does not hide the impeccable quality of the ruby-red chunks of tuna.

 

Poke is an ideal symbol of Hawaii's food culture. It started as a traditional dish of sliced fish cubes eaten with a little salt, but over time, the favourite flavours of immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal and the Philippines, who worked in Hawaii's sugar cane trade, were blended in.

 

In Hawaii Regional Cuisine, such immigrant flavours and Hawaiian ingredients have melded into something fresh and exciting, but still familiar. Case in point: the delicious malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) from Honolulu institution Leonard's Bakery (www.leonardshawaii.com), which are served piping hot and coated in plain or cinnamon sugar or li hing (salty dried plum) - or stuffed with custard, chocolate or haupia (coconut).

 

Biting into a melt-in-your-mouth malasada (opt for the cinnamon sugar) is a Honolulu rite of passage.

 

So is the local dim sum, often called manapua. Char Hung Sut Restaurant (www.charhungsutrestaurant.com) in Chinatown serves ma tai soo, a sweet pastry stuffed with pork and turnip.

 

For more Hawaii cuisine, go to Chef Mavro (www.chefmavro.com). James Beard award-winning chef and owner George Mavrothalassitis, originally from Marseilles, is a pioneer of farm-to-table cuisine in Hawaii. He also brings French technique to quality local ingredients.

 

For what is new on the food scene, head to Chinatown, where Senia (restaurantsenia.com) is redefining modern Hawaii cuisine and booked months in advance.

 

The gentrifying neighbourhood hosts the city's best restaurants, such as modern Vietnamese eatery The Pig And The Lady (thepigandthelady.com) and seasonal American restaurant Livestock Tavern (livestocktavern.com).

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.