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A luau and then aloha

When I admitted to Dara, over a breakfast of loco moco at the Rainbow Lana’i in the Hilton Hawaiian Village, that I’d never been to a luau before, she couldn’t believe it.

“What?” she said. “How can that be?”

I had no idea. “It’s just never worked out,” I told her.

So Dara insisted I go to a luau. With her. Tonight. End of story.

Frankly, I found the whole idea kind of cheesy. And exciting. At the same time. Like going to a strip club.

And I saw, as soon as I arrived, that I wasn’t far off with the strip club analogy. The barely-clothed performers who greeted me with a shell lei when I first walked in could easily get jobs at a men’s club if they ever get tired performing the hula.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Anyway, here’s what happened at the luau: First I got a mai tai. Then we all stood around and waited for the kalua pig to come out of the imu pit. The pig was then put on stretcher and carried around by a couple of burly bare-chested Hawaiians, as we all oohed and ahhed and got really hungry.

After that we sat down at these long picnic tables and waited for our turn to go get some pig as well as huli huli chicken, Hawaiian paella, lau lau (fish steamed in banana leaves), lomi lomi salmon, and, of course, poi. Got to eat da poi, bruddah.

While we were waiting to get in line to get our food, the entertainment started. You got your hula dancers and fire eaters and guys banging on the drums, though the most amazing act, to me, was this young woman, Taimane Gardener, who comes out and plays the electric ukulele like you wouldn’t believe. I mean, she is the Carlos Santana of ukulele players. People went crazy. When she started doing a wild ukulele version of Miserlou/Pipeline, I practically choked on my kalua pig she was so good. This YouTube video doesn’t show her performing at the luau, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what she can do.


Finally, the show closed with a four-man Samoan fire-knife dancing team. Which, normally, would have been very cool. But following a crazy-bad act like Taimane is tough. So I left before the fire-knife act had finished. Off to the airport. Time to move on. 

Aloha, Hawaii.  

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Kualoa Ranch and Captain Cook

Ena Sroat, who has degrees in History and International Relations from Brown University, knows so much about Hawaiian culture and mythology that it makes your head spin. Or at least it does mine.

She’s the sort of person who, when you ask, “What’s the name of that valley?” she not only tells you the name but then gives you the whole thousand year history of who used to live there, digressing to tell you about this Hawaiian god or that, and what that all has to do with the Hawaiian moon calendar and next thing you know, neither one of you can remember what the question was.

But she sure is interesting.

Ena Sroat of Hina Adventures

Ena Sroat of Hina Adventures


Ena and her business partner, Ulu Hopkins, own Hina Adventures, a cultural and eco tourism business. Yesterday Ena and I roamed around Oahu visiting various ancient Hawaiian sites and talking about the Hawaiian gods, particularly Lono, the god of agriculture.

Actually, we weren’t talking about the Hawaiian gods (because what do I know?)—Ena was talking about them. I wish I could tell you what she said, but her mind moves so quickly I had a hard time keeping up with her (particularly since we were also hiking around Kaneohe Bay at the same time).

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing


Ena did, however, stop hiking long enough to let me take a photo across Kaneohe Bay to the steep cliffs of Kualoa, one of the most sacred sites on the island. This photo might be too small to really see it, but at the far right of Kualoa is a little peaked mound which is really an island called Mokoli’i (although most everyone calls it Chinaman’s Hat, and you’d understand why if you ever sailed by it, as I have).

I’ve visited the Kualoa Ranch before and have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the family that owns this old cattle ranch on what used to be both a residence for Hawaiian kings and a training ground for royalty who were instructed in the arts of history and social traditions, is to be commended for preserving and protecting this gorgeous 4,000-acre valley from development. On the other hand, in order to do that, they have to run horseback riding and ATV tours over the ranch to pay the bills. The ranch is also a popular backdrop for movies and TV shows (Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Five-O and Lost have all been filmed here).

None of that interests Ena as much as its connection to Hawaiian gods like Lono, the fertility god who came to this valley on a rainbow to marry Laka, the goddess of hula. What’s really interesting, Ena tells me as we start hiking again, is that some historians think the Hawaiians thought Captain James Cook was Lono, who, they had been promised, would return to earth by sea on a magnificent boat.

But, Ena says, Lono, who was also the god of peace, was supposed to be a very easy-going humble god who didn’t ask for much. And Captain Cook and his men were kind of assholes. So although they welcomed him the first time he visited, when he came back, they decided they’d had enough. And stuck a spear in him.

I guess, like a lot of people, he just didn’t know when it was time to leave the party.  

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The “Stand By Me” hula

Maybe it’s just a coincidence but every live band I’ve seen in Honolulu, from the Jimmy Buffet wannabees to a troupe of ukulele players strumming on Kuhio Beach, has played “Stand By Me.” The band at the Shorebird in the Outrigger Reef hotel did a lovely slack-key version of it the other night. At the Moana Surfrider a woman who played the organ and sang a lot like Karen Carpenter did a version that was so soulful you knew for certain there was a story behind why she was singing that particular song. No doubt a sad story.

Sunday afternoon a duo playing at Duke’s, one of its members sporting a Hawaiian Mohawk haircut, did it fronted by a hula dancer. I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

As you probably know, the only reason that song ever got recorded in the first place is because Ben E. King was in the studio recording “Spanish Harlem” and finished up early. As he was packing up, the producers asked him if he had anything else. So he played “Stand By Me,” which he thought was a throw-away song, on the piano, and the producers loved it. Somebody ran out to get the other musicians before they left and an hour later, they’d cut a classic record.

And now, some 50 years later, some little lady at a bar on Waikiki is dancing the hula to it. I wonder what Mr. King would make of that.

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Dane anoints me in aloha spirit

You spend enough time walking around Waikiki and sooner or later you feel like you ought to go surfing. Which is a problem if, like me, you don’t know how to surf. Not that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to learn. It seems like every few feet on the beach there’s a Hawaiian beachboy or two giving lessons on how to properly stand when you’re in the green room.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

The Hyatt, like a lot of hotels, even has its own surf school, called the Dane Kealoha Surf Academy. I’ve gone in there a couple of times just to, you know, check it out. Usually there are two or three grems in there (average age about ten) trying on wet suits that they’ve somehow convinced their folks to buy.

Yesterday I ran into the man himself, Dane Kealoha. I always imagined that big-time surfers were hip dorks—like an Austin Powers character. Not Dane. He was very cool. He asked me if I was interested in a surf lesson and I told him I didn’t think so. “Bad knees,” I told him.

Rather than blowing me off or getting all snarky, he pointed to the scars on his own knees and said, “I know what you mean, brah.” And suggested we go out on stand-up paddle surfboards instead. Which sounded kind of fun.

As we headed for the water, I asked Dane about the Surf Academy. He said it was the hotel’s idea. “Me, I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea of charging people to surf,” he told me. “I mean, I didn’t pay to learn to surf so why should I charge someone else?”

Obviously Dane is not your standard entrepreneur. But the hotel really wanted to have a surf school and they really wanted Dane to run it, so he finally gave in. Though charging people money still made him feel bad.

Dane Kealoha

Dane Kealoha

“But what happened was that I’d get out in the water with a couple of students and maybe someone else would come over and listen to what I was saying and I’d tell them to join us—even though they weren’t paying for it. And that made me feel good. It was living the aloha way of life I’d grown up with.”

Dane said that when he’s in the water, he feels very spiritual. “I feel blessed with the aloha spirit,” he said. ‘It’s what holds me together. I’m at peace within my heart when I’m out on the water. I find the ocean comforting. It allows you to let go of the world and open your soul to the aloha spirit. And that’s the way I want to live my life.”

Something to think about.

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A mai tai at the Pink Palace

I love the fact that, after 80-plus years, the Royal Hawaiian, aka the Pink Palace of the Pacific, is still on Waikiki (and looking lovelier than ever following an ambitious case of cosmetic surgery last year which caused her to stay out of the limelight for over nine months).

You look up Waikiki at sunset from the curve at Kuhio Beach Park and there she is—blushing in the twilight, a light that particularly suits her, looking like the hotel version of Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot” on a beach full of crass Britney Spears hotels.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Originally built by the Matson cruise ship line in 1927 as an exotic destination hotel for tourists coming over on the SS Lurline from Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s always been kind of a mythical hotel for me, probably because my parents came over on the Lurline on their honeymoon and then stayed at the Royal Hawaiian where, it’s quite possible, I was conceived. Kind of strange to think about.

Speaking of Marilyn and honeymoons, Joe DiMaggio and his new bride did, in fact, stay at the Pink Palace in 1954 on their honeymoon. And John McCain met his second wife, Cindy, here while at a military reception in 1979 (although he was married to someone else at the time, he convinced her to have drinks with him at the hotel’s famous Mai Tai Bar).

Although the Pink Palace officially reopened back in January, everything has been pretty low-key until their big gala party last Saturday. I thought about going to that but the $1,680 price tag seemed a little steep (did I mention that included a “signature take home gift”?).

Instead, I went over yesterday afternoon and got a little tour of the hotel with Taeko Busk, the hotel’s elegant director of guest relations, who’s been at the hotel for 32 years.

“When I was a little girl in school in Japan,” she told me, “my teacher asked me where I would like to live and I said, ‘Oh, a palace!” And I ended up at the Pink Palace. So I am very happy.”

After walking through the hotel (and trying to imagine which of the rooms my parents may have stayed in), Taeko and I ended up at the Mai Tai Bar where I had a mai tai, of course, and Taeko had, of all things, a Shirley Temple.

“Did you know,” Taeko asked, “that the Shirley Temple cocktail was invented here at the Mai Tai Bar for when the little actress visited the hotel with her mother in the 1930s?”

Who knew?

First I had the classic Royal Mai Tai—pineapple juice, rum, Cointreau, and Disaronno Amaretto. Then I tried their updated version, the Garden Mai Tai, made with Alize rose and lychee and orgeat syrup in place of the pineapple juice, and topped with sparkling rose wine.


My recommendation? Always stick with the classics. 

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