Finding Mana in Waikiki

Visitors and residents alike are rediscovering the cultural spirit of Hawaii's most famous beach

By: Marty Wentzel

For Peter Apo, dawn is the best time to feel the mana (spirituality) of Waikiki. “There is nothing better than to greet the sunrise by walking the beach from the Waikiki Natatorium Memorial, at the foot of Diamond Head, to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel,” said Apo, director of the Hawaiian Hospitality Institute. “Look out to sea in the morning calm, and witness the surfers carrying on an unbroken ritual of wave riding that has occurred at this place every day since before recorded history. It is a Waikiki of quiet reflection that is amazing in its beauty and melancholy in its brevity.”

Wait a minute. Is Apo talking about Waikiki, home of traffic and high-rise hotels? The bustling urban Honolulu resort, where 9,000 people from the mainland visited each day for the first two weeks of December? Indeed he is. In fact, Apo and others of Hawaiian ancestry are more dedicated than ever to helping visitors look past the high-rises and appreciate the cultural value of Waikiki.

New activities are giving clients a chance to embrace Waikiki’s days gone by. For the past three years, the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association has led walking tours that point out important sites like the location of King David Kalakaua’s home in the 1800s, and a royal coconut grove dating back to the 16th century.

At Na Mea, a two-year-old shop at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, visitors can learn about and buy fascinating made-in-Hawaii products. On Kuhio Beach, members of local hula halau (troupes) share time-honored dances at sunset for free, near a statue of Hawaiian surfing and swimming legend Duke Kahanamoku.

Similarly, a growing number of Waikiki hotels are instilling the guest experience with the culture of the area.

Two years ago, Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach instituted a series of Friday programs, when hotel employees talk about Hawaiian medicinal plants, island music and localisms.

Sheraton Moana Surfrider, the first hotel in Waikiki, presents free guided tours of memorabilia dating back to its 1901 opening.

Unexpectedly, while such changes are being made with visitors in mind, residents are rediscovering Waikiki as well, said Maile Meyer, a director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association.

“There’s a much better chance for Waikiki’s visitors to interact with locals now,” said Meyer. “Just hanging out on the beach, a local might show you how to catch a wave on a boogie board, or tell you the best place to try plate lunch (fast food, Hawaiian-style). This sort of interaction increases a visitor’s overall understanding of Hawaii.”

Waikiki’s renewed sense of place extends to the entertainment scene as well, Meyer said.

“More local musicians are coming back to perform in Waikiki,” she said. “That’s a big change from 10 years ago.”

At the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, clients can sit on the Moana Terrace and hear legendary falsetto singer Auntie Genoa Keawe on Thursdays, and classic slack key guitar practitioners on Sundays.

Tiki’s Grill & Bar at the newly renovated Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel is booking established and emerging Hawaiian musicians like Kapena and Kaala Boys. For three years, Aston has been hosting free full-moon concerts at the Kapiolani Park bandstand, with local favorites like Brothers Cazimero and Amy Hanaialii Gilliom.

Waikiki not only sounds more Hawaiian, but it looks the part as well. On the heels of the Kalakaua Avenue beautification, Waikiki Improvement Association is planning to revitalize Kuhio Avenue with wider sidewalks and tropical landscaping.

The state has earmarked $700,000 for replenishing the shoreline of Kuhio Beach in Waikiki, and Hawaii governor Linda Lingle is asking for $2.4 million from the state legislature to continue adding sand to eroding beaches in the area.

Last year, when Honolulu-based Honu Group opened an upscale Waikiki retail center called 2100 Kalakaua, it built a hula mound in front for Hawaiian music and dance. It is precisely that blending of the past, present and future in one destination which makes Waikiki a must-do for visitors, said Apo.

“I look beyond the built environment of Waikiki and appreciate it as a Hawaiian place,” said Apo. “It has always been, since the first migration of natives set foot on her beaches, a place of respite and healing. It still emotes a spiritual energy for those who have the sensitivity to see beyond the buildings.”