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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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More grinds: da plate lunch

Last summer when Barack Obama was asked what he was going to do while on vacation with his family on Oahu, he said “I’m going to get a plate lunch.”

That response may have confused mainlanders, but everyone in Hawaii knew exactly what he was talking about. A plate lunch, for the uninitiated, is quintessential Hawaiian cuisine. It consists of two scoops white rice, one scoop macaroni salad (heavy on the mayonnaise), and a heap of protein—maybe some kalua pig or teri beef or katsu chicken. Basically anything that is cheap so you can get lots of it.

They say the genesis of the plate lunch was probably the bento box meals eaten out in the sugar cane and pineapple fields by Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos back in the 1880s.

Zack Lee of Sugoi

Zack Lee of Sugoi

Supposedly Obama likes the plate lunches at Zippy’s and Rainbow Drive-In, two old-time flip-flop joints, but my favorite is Sugoi in Honolulu. Sugoi, which means “awesome” or “excellent,” was started by Zack Lee in 2000. 

“My wife, Sherry, used to be a hula dancer,” Zack told me, “and the Japanese tourists would yell, ‘Sugoi!” while watching her dance. That’s how we came up with the name.”

In keeping with the origins of the plate lunch, Sugoi started out specializing in bento box lunches—misoyaki butterfish, mahi mahi, salmon, ahi, as well as chicken. You can still order fish, but the thing to get, as far as I’m concerned, is the spicy garlic chicken plate lunch. It definitely gonna broke da mouth.

“It’s become our signature dish,” Lee says. “And you can’t get our garlic sauce anywhere else because we make our own. We call it ‘liquid love.’”

Which is curious because the flavor of the garlic chicken is so intense, you’re going to reek of it for days on end. So the only way you could consider it “liquid love” is if you brought your squeeze with you and they had the same thing. Udderwize, bruddah, bettah off getting da yakisoba noodles, okay? Kay den…

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Blue Hawaii

I’m sitting on the balcony of my room on the 27th floor of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki in damp swim trunks and a still-creased OBAMA SURFS t-shirt, purchased yesterday at an ABC store, sipping a little rum and oj. It’s dusk; the sun has just collapsed in a heap over the Pacific Ocean.

Far below me, Waikiki is just starting to put on her night face. There are cars streaming up Kalakaua Avenue, like fish in an aquarium, as everyone heads for their favorite Friday evening destination. Mixed in with the sounds of the traffic are the distinctly Hawaiian strains of electric ukulele music coming from the little park next to the Duke Kahanamoku statue where there’s a free concert going on. Even from here, I can see the hula dancers doing their thing on the stage.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

It feels like I’m sitting way-up in the nosebleed seats of a darkened Broadway theater, furtively watching rehearsals for a new big-budget musical that you just know is going to be a smash hit. I mean, nothing much is happening and yet…and yet…it’s all very thrilling and moving and evocative. The whole Waikiki scene below me makes me feel inexplicably happy. Like sticking my head far out over the railing and yelling, to no one in particular, “I love you, man!”

But wait—it gets worse. As I finish off my cocktail and start to make myself another one, that melancholy Iz tune starts playing in my head. You know the one I mean; don’t make me hum it. The one that makes you puddle up even when they use it to sell Volkswagens or life insurance.

I’m sitting on the 27th floor of my hotel and looking over Waikiki, unshowered, unrepentant, and with a slight buzz on, and even though I’m the most caustic, cynical, misanthropic excuse of a human being you’ll ever meet, what I see all around me are trees of green, skies of blue, friends shaking hands saying, “How do you do?” And I think to myself, What a wonderful woohooorld.

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