An elderly woman walks into the renovated arts center in Kamuela
and exclaims, “Oh, I went to school here...in 1921.”
Hawaii is replete with arts and cultural attractions that have
strong ties to the community. The most prominent draw a large share
of the visitor industry, but many lesser known or overlooked places
have just as much to offer. Whether it is the architectural legacy
of a famous Hawaii resident, an ancient Hawaiian temple, the
alternative gallery scene or a revitalized arts town, there are as
many ways to connect to the arts and culture of Hawaii as there are
cultures and art forms to absorb.
Shangri La, Oahu
Certainly, many people have built their dream homes in Hawaii. Few,
though, will ever exceed the lavishness of Shangri La, built by
Doris Duke in 1937 on five oceanfront acres overlooking Diamond
Head. One of the home’s more impressive features is a glass living
room wall which can completely descend into the basement, powered
by an old-fashioned elevator system.
“It was very avant-garde technology for back then,” said Shangri
La’s executive director Deborah Pope.
Duke, a tobacco and energy heiress labeled the “richest girl in
the world,” discovered Hawaii on her honeymoon after traveling
through the Middle East and southern Asia. The 22-year-old fell in
love with both Islamic art and Hawaii’s lifestyle. Her
14,000-square-foot residence, opened to the public for small group
tours two years ago, reflects her lifelong passion for collecting
The most artistically significant piece, a 13th-century mihrab
room, a niche that points Muslims toward Mecca, was acquired from
Iran. A marble bathroom inlaid with semi-precious stones was
modeled on the Taj Mahal. Entire rooms were imported from overseas,
including a wealthy merchant’s home from Syria. The pool house, a
scaled-down version of a mid-1600’s palace complex built in Iran,
overlooks a 75-foot-long saltwater pool. The 16-foot deep end
accommodates a hydraulic-lift diving platform; Duke having been an
avid swimmer and athlete.
“I think what stands out most for visitors is the total mood and
ambience as a whole,” said Pope. “You are not walking into a
gallery with objects in cases and labels. It’s sort of an entry
into seeing the Islamic world.”
Tours of the property start at the Honolulu Academy of Arts,
Wednesday to Saturday, at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. A
mini-van ferries groups, limited to 12 people, to the residential
neighborhood. Cost is $25 for adults and children ages 12-17 and
includes admission to the academy. Advance reservations
Kahanu Gardens, Maui
Given the number of people who drive the famous Road to Hana, it is
surprising how few turn off the curving highway to visit one of
Hawaii’s most sacred places. Just outside the town of Hana resides
the state’s largest heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple, on the
grounds of Kahanu Gardens.
Built from all kinds of stones in the area, including round
river stones and lava flows, the terraced walls of Piilanihale
Heiau rise to a height of 50 feet and stretch across nearly four
acres. The heiau is believed to have been the home of Piilani, the
first Maui chief to unite the entire island back in the 16th
century. Unlike heiaus on the western side of the island, which
were destroyed by missionaries, this heiau is nearly intact.
Visitors to the garden can meander through 50 acres of the
property on a self-guided tour, following signs and a booklet,
which takes about one to 1½ hours to complete. In addition to the
heiau, the garden features Hawaii’s “canoe” plants, those brought
to Hawaii by its Polynesian ancestors, such as taro, breadfruit and
“It’s more like a step back in time than a showy flower garden,”
said Kamaui Aioni, director of the gardens.
Operated by the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, Kahanu
Gardens is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The
entrance fee is $10 per person. Children 12 and under are free.
Historic Hanapepe, Kauai
“When you’re driving down Hanapepe Road, you have this feeling
you’re going through an Old West town,” said Carol Bain of the
Hanapepe Economic Alliance.
The town has gone through many evolutions since the first wave
of Chinese immigrants came to work on the sugar and pineapple
plantations in the early 1900s. Hanapepe became a sizable merchant
and farmer town, with a distinctive plantation-style architecture.
In the 1970s and 1980s, artists and craftspeople moved in and the
town went through an arts renaissance.
This year the alliance introduced a 1½-mile historic walking
tour of the town with a self-guided map. The map provides a history
of Hanapepe’s commercial buildings, several of which are on the
state and national historic registers. One building, currently a
woodshop and gallery, has been a nightclub, a barbershop and even a
bowling alley. A pinsetter at the bowling alley later became mayor
of Kauai and the first mayor of Filipino descent in the United
The town now boasts 11 galleries, and for more than 10 years the
galleries have opened their doors and lit up the streets to host
the festive “Art Night in Hanapepe,” every Friday from 6 p.m. to 9
“There is a lot of diversity in terms of the types of art,” said
Joanna Carolan, owner of Banana Patch Studio, with works ranging
from watercolors, oils, batik, marble, basket weaving, ceramics and
koa wood sculptures and furniture.
“No two galleries really have artwork that are similar,” she
said, unlike some other popular gallery towns in Hawaii.
Isaacs Art Center, Hawaii
Housed in a historic school building dating back to 1915, the
Isaacs Art Center in Kamuela, outside Waimea, displays many
Hawaiian art treasures and offers some works for sale. The
renovated seven-room school house that once housed first- through
seventh-grade classrooms, still has its original Douglas fir floors
and sliding pocket doors, which doubled as blackboards.
Since the building’s relocation to the campus of the Hawaii
Preparatory Academy, the art center’s mission has been twofold,
said Director Bernard Nogues.
First, the center will display its permanent collection of 19th-
and 20th-century Hawaiian artworks. The original works of art,
represented by its collections, donations and consignments, include
significant etchings, engravings, vintage furniture and koa
woodwork. Its most famous painting is the “Lei Queen Fantasia,” a
10-foot by eight-foot oil painting by Madge Tennent created in
“She is one of the greatest artists on Hawaii,” said Nogues.
Its second objective is to raise money through its gallery
offerings to fund scholarships to the academy, a boarding and day
school for children kindergarten through grade 12. The center will
also maintain a rotating exhibition space. Currently on display is
Japanese art of the early 20th and late 19th century and classical
Chinese furniture of the 19th century. Galleries of
A drive to the sleepy town of Makawao, perched along the slopes of
Haleakala Volcano, affords a perfect getaway from the coastal
resorts of Maui, as well as a great opportunity to step into the
local arts scene. Over the last decade or so, 10 galleries have
established themselves in the former cowboy town. Among them is the
artist-owned Viewpoints Gallery, cooperatively run by about 15
“The difference with Makawao is that you are more likely to see
an artist,” compared to the galleries that line Lahaina and Wailea,
said painter Kari McCarthy of Viewpoints Gallery.
Viewpoints regularly arranges artist demonstrations on site and
hosts a new exhibition every month. A fun time to be in the gallery
is on “hanging day,” usually the Thursday preceding their monthly
opening reception. “A lot of chaos is going on with the artists
hanging their paintings. We all drift in and out,” McCarthy
The openings, which take place on Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 8
p.m., attract a local arts crowd. McCarthy, who also publishes “Art
Guide Maui,” a comprehensive guide to the galleries and artist
studios across Maui, added that one of the surefire crowd pleasers
in Makawao is the Hot Island Glass studio and gallery. Visitors can
watch through a protective shield as glass artists blow large
pieces and platters as large as a foot-and-a-half wide.
“It’s amazing to watch. It’s a spectator sport,” she said.
Tour Talk, Oahu
Visitors to Oahu often spend a day in a rental car checking out the
sights beyond Waikiki. If they head to the Kailua side of the
island, they are likely to drive along the Pali Highway and pass
the stunning Nuuanu Pali Lookout. Denise Moreland, founder of Tour
Talk Hawaii Nei, wants people to take in more than a pretty view
from the spot.
“Do they know what they are looking at? Do they know the
significance of things?” she asked.
By the time listeners of Tour Talk’s guided audio tour pull into
the vista parking lot they will have learned, through a dream
sequence narration by a Native Hawaiian, that warriors once jumped
or were pushed over the cliffs at this major battleground site for
Hawaii’s unification. In another sequence on the audio tour, a
local historian narrates a 12-minute reenactment of the Pearl
Harbor bombing as drivers approach the USS Arizona Memorial. Tour
Talk draws upon Hawaiian authorities and musical artists to provide
a background to the famous and not-so-famous sites on a circle road
tour of the island.
“It’s not just a site tour. It’s a culture-based tour,” Moreland
Drivers can go at their own pace, pausing at any time during the
three hours of recordings. A minimum of four hours is needed to
complete the full driving tour. Launched in 2003, the tapes have
caught on. Frequent travelers who had grown weary of the “same-old
same-old” now find new interest in familiar sites.
Until listening to the audio tour, “they never connected to the
destination,” Moreland said.
Other feedback to Moreland has come from locals who apologized
for being skeptical at first, but found, in the words of one, “I
learned so much about my homeland.”
Tour Talk is available in CD or cassette and includes an
information-packed booklet. It retails at $24.95. Travel agent
commissions are available.
Shangri La, Oahu
Kahanu Gardens, Maui
Historic Hanapepe, Kauai
Isaacs Art Center, Hawaii
Galleries of Makawao, Maui
Art Guide Maui
Tour Talk, Oahu