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Hawaii: Oahu

Hula Yule : A Waikiki-style Christmas means lights in banyan trees, exotic fare, surfin' Santas

November 03, 1996|ED KENNEDY | Kennedy is travel editor of the Honolulu Advertiser

HONOLULU — It was Christmas morning a couple of years ago. The day dawned warm and cloudless. From the open lanai came the smell of hibachi smoke--sure sign of a holiday in our neighborhood.

Then my wife got a phone call from her work: She had to go into Honolulu, 20 miles away, across the Koolau Mountains. No time for presents beneath the tree, no time for an island-mainland--hape haole--Christmas meal.

I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself when our 10-year-old daughter said: "Maybe there's still a way to have Christmas together. Maybe we could go to Waikiki."

Christmas in Waikiki? I hadn't considered it. The holidays are busy with tourists; the beaches fill with pale visitors from Wisconsin and Toronto. I hadn't been in Waikiki on Christmas Day in years.

But if Christmas at home was going to be a bust, listening to "Jingle Bells" through the surf at Waikiki Beach was a good alternative. So my daughter and I decided we'd be tourists in our own backyard. We packed up the presents and headed for the city.

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Like nearly everything in Hawaii, Christmas is a cultural mix. In department stores, kids in swimsuits and zoris line up for Polynesian Santas. Rows of fake reindeer ride among sprays of orchids and frangipani. Many visitors find the pace here gentler than on the mainland, and the smart ones slow down and celebrate the holidays to the island rhythm. With a little planning, travelers can book rooms during the holidays. Except for Christmas week itself, December is not the highest season for Hawaii. "These come in February and August," says Erik Kloninger, with PKF-Hawaii, a management and hotel consulting firm that tracks occupancy and rates of Hawaii hotels. (High season rates--about 10% more--for hotels tend to kick in about Dec. 15.)

The Honolulu holiday season begins semi-officially with the City Lights Festival (Dec. 7 this year) and the lighting of a giant Christmas tree in front of Honolulu Hale (city hall). Then the mayor throws a switch, illuminating the monkey pod and banyan trees around Iolani Palace and the city and state buildings.

Honolulu Hale is filled with Christmas trees decorated by different city departments and a Christmas wreath exhibition that shows off the work of Hawaiian craftsmen. Food booths dot the grounds between Honolulu Hale and the state capitol building. Hawaiian entertainers mix traditional Hawaiian music and Christmas songs--such as "The Little Drummer Boy" accompanied by Hawaiian drums. The party is about four miles from Waikiki. Beginning Dec. 9, you can tour the downtown lights by motorized trolleys, which run from the center of Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center on Kalakaua or at Ward Warehouse, a popular shopping center located just across from Ala Moana Park at the edge of Waikiki. The Ward tours run from Dec. 8 to 30.

During the first two weeks of December, towns around Oahu sponsor many Christmas parades. They're filled with marching Boy Scouts and Girl Scout Brownies dressed as reindeer. Many of the homemade floats have Christmas scenes adopted to Polynesian themes, such as Mary dressed in a traditional Hawaiian kikepa (a wrap-around, one-piece dress) with hibiscus blossoms in her hair.

One of the better parades is in Kaneohe, on the windward side of the island (Dec. 7 this year). It's a good opportunity to experience a part of the Hawaiian Christmas season like the locals.

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Holiday craft fairs, associated with many of these parades, can be great places to pick up gifts for the family you left back home. Probably the best is the Pacific Handcrafters Guild Fair scheduled for Dec. 7 and 8 at Thomas Square, an elegant little park about halfway between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. This year's fair will feature about 130 booths with all locally made crafts, ranging from Hawaiian basketry, to finely carved koa wood sculptures, to handmade ukuleles and intricate shell creations. (For more information, telephone [808] 254-6788.)

As Christmas approaches, Waikiki's big hotels get festive. There is caroling in the lobbies and Santa Claus arrives by canoe or surfboard off Waikiki Beach. One of the most popular arrivals is at the Halekulani Hotel. Santa usually wears bright red swimming trunks along with his bag of goodies. This year, he is scheduled to paddle in at 4:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. All the children who show up will get a gift.

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Honolulu also offers two Christmas shows that have achieved some local fame. "Scrooge," a musical based on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," features one of Hawaii's most popular comedians, Frank DeLima. The show, now in its seventh year, runs from Dec. 6 to 22 at Diamond Head Theater and takes a look at Dickens' classic from a decidedly local slant (tel. [808] 734-0274.)

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