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Destination: Waikiki : Vintage Vacation : A nostalgia-soaked search for remnants of a pre-Don Ho past

November 06, 1994|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Melinkoff is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

HONOLULU — My first visit to Waikiki came 40 years too late. I wanted Arthur Godfrey's Hawaii. Harry Truman in aloha shirts. A lei-strewn Matson Liner welcome at the docks. Alas, both Arthur and Harry have gone on to the big luau in the sky and at the Honolulu airport, fresh leis must be purchased out of refrigerator cases.

My attachment to the islands comes from the Hawaiiana I have collected over the years--postcards, books, magazines and photos from what I call the pre-Don Ho era, the time between 1927, when Matson Line opened the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and inaugurated passenger service between California and Hawaii, and the late 1950s, when statehood, jet travel and the arrival of Elvis signaled the end of that romantic period. Though I couldn't experience the Golden Age of Tourism firsthand, I was determined to find a few vestiges of the past on my trip last summer.

On my old postcards, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is surrounded by acres of lush palm groves. The grounds are now pared down in size, but thickets of elephant's ears and birds of paradise still hug the pink Moorish palace. The salons, no longer overdecorated in pattern-on-pattern splendor, remain stately and cool. Tacky Waikiki, just beyond the porte-cochere, seems far away.

The room of my dreams (Diamond Head view, of course) was $350 a night, so I contented myself with breakfasts and late-afternoon drinks at the Royal's Surf Room and Mai Tai Bar. Sitting there, I could reach over the sea wall and grab a handful of Waikiki sand, remembering photos of Bing Crosby playing a ukulele serenade on the same spot, Shirley Temple being made an honorary Waikiki lifeguard . . . probably a few feet away, Cary Grant (a guest in the 1930s) relaxing in the teak deck chairs that still face the water. Through trial and error, I discovered that the best time for drinks at the Royal Hawaiian is at sunset on Wednesdays. That's when local outrigger-canoe clubs practice in the bay with Diamond Head as the backdrop--just like they did 50 years ago.

Duke's Canoe Club restaurant in the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel, wedged (really wedged) between the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Moana Surfrider, is on the site of the original Outrigger Canoe Club--a hang-out for Hawaiian beach boys with names like Chickie, Squeeze, Panama Dave and Ox. Today, it's a Chart House-kind-of-place that pays homage to the Golden Age with Duke Kahanamoku memorabilia on the walls. The restaurant's namesake was the most famous of these beach boys--a two-time Olympic-swimming gold medalist (1912 and 1920) and Hawaii's most recognizable figure. It's worth a walk-through, even if you don't eat here, to study the old photos of Waikiki beach life and get a sense of how big and heavy those old surfboards were. A shiny, dark 17-footer is on display.

Built in 1901, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider is the oldest hotel on Waikiki Beach and, thanks to a $20-million restoration in 1989, it retains its Victorian splendor. The 99-year-old banyan tree helps . . . and so do the ornate banisters and molding. Old-fashioned rocking chairs line the front porch facing Kalakaua Avenue.

The essence of vintage Waikiki is the Moana's banyan veranda and patio. For 40 years, beginning in 1935, "Hawaii Calls" was broadcast to as many as 750 radio stations from this spot. The hula music was interspersed with sounds of waves lapping the shore and announcements of the air and water temperatures (torture for listeners in Syracuse in mid-January, which was the intent).

Now, evenings in one corner on the patio, a group of Hawaiian musicians play old-time hapa-haoli (half-Caucasian) songs. Listeners can order drinks from the courtyard bar or, better yet, settle into luxurious, over-sized rattan chairs on the broad veranda for drinks and a $9.95 all-you-can-eat, takes-the-place-of-dinner hors d'oeuvres buffet. Here, the paradise that 1950s mainlanders like my grandparents dreamed about is still palpable.

At the other end of Waikiki from the Moana, a convincing re-creation of "Hawaii Calls," now called "Sounds of Aloha" for legal reasons, is recorded Thursday evenings at the Shell Bar of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. This hotel is very 1960s in its ambience, too recent for my tastes, but close your eyes and you're back 40 years: "Sweet Leilani" plays, followed by an announcement of the current water temperature, usually hovering around 80 degrees. The show is broadcast on Honolulu's all-Hawaiian-music radio station KCCN on Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. It's also broadcast in Los Angeles on KJOI (Sundays, 8 a.m.) and KGRB (Sundays at 10 a.m).

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