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Waikiki? Why Not Waikiki?

Finding the essence of the islands on the fabled beach too often bypassed as touristy.

March 11, 2001|JAMES T. YENCKEL | James T. Yenckel is a travel writer in Washington, D.C

HONOLULU — "Why Waikiki?"

That was the response of a friend who owns a condo on Maui when I told him I'd be spending nine days in Hawaii, five of them on Honolulu's fabled beachfront.

"Join us on Maui," he said. "It's the real Hawaii."

Oh, sure, I thought, his real Hawaii-a golf course by the sea.

Poor Waikiki. Hawaii's oldest resort-the royal family summered here-with the image of Rio or Miami Beach: a waterfront of high-rise hotels and package tours. To quote from a sightseeing guide to Hawaii that's distributed widely in Waikiki, "Repeat visitors may pooh-pooh it

Like Rio and Miami-and L.A.'s Venice-Waikiki is an urban beach with distinctive character: a romantic vacation destination surrounded by people living their workaday lives. Don't look at it just as a beach; look past that to what makes it unique. Stay a few days and be part of the scene.

Years ago, I took a leave from my job in Washington, D.C., and traveled for a year. Near the end of my journey, I settled for a month in a modest apartment hotel a 10-minute walk from Waikiki Beach. I became permanently captivated, and I keep coming back. Sandy shares my enthusiasm.

We've escaped to Waikiki so many times that we've developed little rituals. On arrival day we give each other leis. So typically touristy, you think. Not true. Hawaiians honor each other with flower leis on important occasions. For us, a lei makes an evening special.

We stay at the beautiful Halekulani Hotel, and we begin almost every evening with a mai-tai at sunset at the House Without a Key, the hotel's outdoor bar. For years, dancer Kanoe Miller, a former Miss Hawaii, has performed authentic hula there beneath a giant kiawe tree with the sea as her backdrop. As the sky reddens, Hawaiian tunes harmonize with the splashing surf. Hokey, I suppose, but it's all part of the fun of a Waikiki holiday.

The price range of lodgings in Waikiki may be the best in the islands, from deluxe and boutique down to motels and hostels. In fact, the hotel building boom of the go-go late '80s created a glut, and deals abound for the careful shopper.

The first-time visitor can get acquainted with an economical "tour" on the Bus, a city line that runs along Waikiki to the North Shore beyond Diamond Head. It costs $1.

Once tawdry, Kalakaua Avenue-Waikiki's spruced-up Main Street, which parallels the beach-now ranks as one of America's most attractive and interesting shopping streets. Gucci, Fendi, Prada-they're all here, along with the tacky but always appealing International Market, a dense cluster of vendor stalls selling T-shirts, beach flip-flops and other souvenirs. The flashy new Galleria at Kalakaua and Royal Hawaiian avenues boasts three floors of fashionable boutiques. In December, Japanese tourists poured in by the busload.

For island flavor, pause in your shopping for a 60-minute ukulele lesson, taught daily at a sidewalk table in front of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. We caught a free courtyard concert there of the Royal Hawaiian Band, featuring such island classics as "I Wore a Lei of Stars for You."

Up on the shopping center's third floor is a great place to buy authentic souvenirs: the Little Hawaiian Craft Shop.

We recommend a walk to (and from) dinner along Kalakaua, which is graced by hanging flower baskets and, at night, gas-fired tiki torches, more than 50 of them.

On your stroll, step off the sidewalk onto the back lawn of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the 1927 Spanish-Moorish "Pink Palace," and you stand on ground where Kamehameha the Great camped with his generals as they began their conquest of Oahu. They established themselves in Honolulu, and the beach soon became a royal playground.

Today, Waikiki's 11/2-mile crescent of white sand is lined by a wall of high-rise hotels. "What a shame," the purists sniff.

Well, yes, Waikiki would be more of a tropical paradise if the hotels hadn't been built, but then it would not have evolved into today's cosmopolitan community. Still, the setting remains remarkably lovely. The sea, lapping gently ashore, gleams in shades of turquoise and blue; to the east, the slopes of Diamond Head bring drama to the picture; above the extinct volcano's crater, white clouds dance across green ridges. I've been up there, and I've often seen rain squalls sweeping across the summit, sending barely a sprinkle to the beach.

To get the best of Waikiki, it helps to have a fun-seeker attitude. Once, I was standing in the doorway of a Waikiki hotel just as a young woman and her conventioneer husband stepped outside for their first look at the legendary beach. It was blanketed solidly with sun-bronzed bodies in all states of undress, and a few dozen of them would have had to move an inch or two if this couple had wanted to join them. "You gotta be kidding," the woman said in, perhaps, momentary despair.

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