Waikiki Love and Hate on Oahu Island
By Gillian Kendall

Searching for "Green Hawaii" on an island she keeps returning to, a woman of two nations finds a lot to love — and hate — about Oahu.

waikiki oahu travel

A hippie, an animal-rights activist, and fan of sustainable travel, I'm not your typical visitor to Waikiki. People like me probably don't even figure in the Oahu Visitor Bureau's marketing profile. They don't make bikinis in my size, I'm a vegetarian (no sushi for me!), and by American standards, I'm poor. But, even though I'm probably the most critical person on the island, I keep going back, because it's a good stopping point between Australia and America. Every time I return, I recommit to our love/hate relationship.

Loving Oahu

Waikiki flower

HNL is the only US airport where I can smell nice, humid air right after stepping off the jetway. Open, unwalled corridors lead from the gates to baggage claim — the rain-scented air soothes the plane-dry throat and lungs. Also, practically everyone arriving in Hawaii is happy, and many of them are greeted by friends bringing leis, so fresh flowers abound — that, and fresh-flower stands, selling the exquisite, exotic, expensive gifts. And next to the lei stands are fascinating Hawaiian gift boutiques and good-smelling Kona coffee places, and suddenly I want to eat ice cream; I want to go surfing; I want to have coconut-butter sex and an aromatherapy massage in the sun under the mai tai rainbow on the beach on my shaded lanai while a volcano erupts beneath the full moon, before I even leave the Honolulu airport.

My enthusiasm makes me a little territorial. Upon landing, I am walking along, swinging my carry-on and ostentatiously inhaling fresh breaths. From behind me, a large, middle-aged American woman (not unlike myself, yet more large, more middle-aged, and more American) asks querulously, "Do we have to take the Wiki-Wiki shuttle to baggage claim?" From the corner of my superior gaze, I see that the speaker is clutching a guidebook and addressing a harried crew member.

"I'm not sure," mutters the stewardess, who evidently feels that her duties towards this passenger have been done already. "Ask at the front."

"You don't have to take the shuttle," I interrupt, eager to show off local knowledge. "The airport's great."

"Is it far?" the tourist asks.

"It's not far. It's open air. It's a lovely, balmy walk." I breeze ahead, demonstrating my familiarity with, and the desirability of, the whole arrival-in-Oahu experience. I leave the needy newcomer in my humid, floral-scented wake.

Seconds later, on that same open-air walkway, I see a store selling Hawaiian ice cream, and I immediately feel the need for pineapple sorbet. No matter that I'd breakfasted in San Francisco and snacked on the way across the Pacific. Hawaii, sugar, self-indulgence, now.

Wanting to Hate, but Seduced Instead

Amer-Asian love of luxury has infected the most popular island like a virus, and I'm susceptible to the lure of thread count, the acreage of quiet lawns, the countable, costly perks of staying at a luscious resort. People who say they hate Waikiki are guilty of reverse snobbery, or they're lying. I suspect that secretly, everybody enjoys five-star hotels, the same way everybody secretly likes Coca-Cola.

Waikiki, my darling: you're my cigarette after sex, my extra whip on iced latte, the mint on the long white pillow of Honolulu beachfront. As man-made ugly as it is naturally beautiful, Waikiki reeks and reels in excesses of consumption.

At the same time, though, I feel haole tourist guilt. I lament the wasted resources and crowded landfills: the food served in Styrofoam, the air conditioners that keep empty rooms at arctic temperatures, the diesel-fueled delivery trucks bearing imported meat and liquor, the condensers running to cool the plunge pool, the shiny clean chemical-wiped sidewalks, stairways, and swim-up bars. In theory I come not for the man-made junk but for the real Hawaii: birding hikes to pure waterfalls, snorkeling with wild turtles, the waves coming in, the waves coming in. But in truth I love the opulence I deride. I may sneer at the new blocks of the Mauna Surfrider and Royal Hawaiian — overpowering the lovely old hotel buildings — but I'm jealous of the people who get off the shuttle there.

To ease the jetlag and start looking for "green" recreation for a feature I'm writing for an Australian newspaper, I take a walk from my hotel — the truly restorative Hotel Renew, a block from the beach and worlds apart from the big towers — and begin saying no to non-green options. In a few blocks, I'd passed up endless sugar and alcohol concoctions, zillions of dollars' worth of designer clothes and shoes, giant American meals, and tiny imported drugs. I make it to the beach without spending a cent. The water is perfect, as is the view if you swim out and turn your back on the land. Out there, in the ocean, it's possible to have that rare thing: a direct, unmediated, unplanned and un-advertised Hawaiian experience. JoJo surf instructor

Oahu is a Polynesian cliché, an American Dream Vacation, and a Middle American synonym for all that is good and beautiful. On Waikiki you can't just get a burger, it has to be a Cheeseburger in Paradise and cost $12.99. Everything on the strip and for miles around has floral designs, luau promises, and Aloha ™. Hawaii is the happy face of Polynesia and the Pacific, the safe American getaway where you can still get your Starbucks.

But offshore, no one's selling anything, and waves are shared fairly. I learned to surf in those waters, from lessons with actual Hawaiian or Hawaiian-born surfers. Most recently it was JoJo, founder of Gone Surfing Hawaii, one of the few female instructors around, who showed me how to stand up on a board even with a badly bruised knee. Like God, a good surf instructor makes all things possible, and despite my having fallen badly on some lava and developing an impressive indigo-and-taupe bruise, I surfed better and longer than ever before.

I love the locals who love the tourists. People like JoJo don't seem stressed by the thousands of us who land daily on their land, coming to ogle them on their beaches and boats and surfboards.

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