Hawaii: Molokai, coffee roasting experienced during Coffees of Hawaii tour
Hawaii: Molokai, coffee roasting experienced during Coffees of Hawaii tour

Hawaii Culture – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Many of the visitors to Hawaii unabashedly seek beaches and sun, especially the winter traveler escaping the wind-chill factor. But a portion of visitors also want further enticements, asking: what do The Islands offer beyond beaches and sun? Where can I learn of the historic story of Hawaii? What are the special experiences of nature available here?

The answers begin as your plane touches down at Honolulu International Airport and the magic of the eight major Islands in the Hawaiian group infuses your sensibility. First of all, you have just made a long voyage, fully five-and-a-half hours from the U.S. West Coast or perhaps more if you came from Asia. After traversing long stretches of ocean, the islands suddenly appear (if you have a daylight flight), as improbable as they must have seemed to the first Polynesians who sailed and paddled their canoes from the South Seas to this site about A.D. 750. From out of nowhere you alight into a fully realized dream, Hawaii.

Soon you begin observing the people in this airport. The most striking aspect of the people is that their racial origins are diverse and are primarily from the Orient and South Pacific. Some main groups were Polynesians, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. The ethnic groups that make up Hawaii are so different from the North American experience that the place is truly exotic, a foreign country, yet English-speaking. The history of Hawaii, an inquiring visitor soon learns, leans culturally toward the Pacific Basin, unlike the U.S. story leaning toward Europe. The people of Hawaii flourished without benefit of any Indo-European contact or religious trappings until the 18th century. They developed their own severe and superstitious, but understandable, religious system, the kapu system, that required death for slight infringements. Like Christianity with its confessional, the kapu system provided a few sacred places where forgiveness was possible.

The natural setting is equally novel. When you enter the airport, a lei may be put around your neck. Leis are sometimes made of vanda orchids, a flower that can be eaten, or of plumeria. The perfume of the lei and the warm tropical air of Hawaii immediately bathe a visitor. A range of bright flowers can be seen everywhere, starting with bougainvillea or hibiscus, the state flower, giving a technicolor aura to Hawaii. Brightly floral aloha shirts, which appear so ostentatious on the Mainland, seem immediately appropriate here. Tropical plants grow luxuriously in the warm, bright sun and moist air.

Another stimulus awakening the desire to look beyond the beaches and sun in Hawaii is the Hawaiian language. The language is so rich in liquid vowels that a face needs to smile to speak. Originating in Polynesia, the language is musical and sensuous, absent of gutterals and spitting consonants, soothing a visitor’s ear. Many of the meanings of words come from the beauty of nature and the joy of life. Not only does a word sound beautiful, but when you inquire about its meaning, you are liable to hear that it means something like “a bouquet of rainbows.” The classic greeting of Hawaii, which is aloha, translates roughly as “I recognize in you the breath of life.” Could a more evocative or metaphysically profound salutation be imagined? Honolulu, Waikiki, Hawaii, Oahu, Hanauma–just say the words and try to avoid the hypnotic softness. The Polynesian Hawaiians had no written language before the Europeans arrived in the 18th century (the Europeans and Americans controlled later migration of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos in the 19th and 20th centuries.) In earlier Hawaii, with its emphasis on a spoken language, elders enjoyed a special role because in their minds and speech the collective culture of the people survived and passed from generation to generation.

When you begin to look for Hawaii beyond beaches and sun, there is also an air of illusion about the place. The economy is supported mainly by unseen resources decided upon far away, namely military expenditures and tourism. Agriculture or fishing on the islands is actually miniscule compared to government spending. The military controls 25 percent of the land mass on Oahu, the island where Honolulu is located. Because Hawaii occupies a strategic position, its future is secure, though the basis of its security is dependent on the distant military providers. As long as inexpensive gasoline or other fuel is available, Hawaii as a tourism destination also looks promising. However, if fuel sources became unavailable or costly, the entire tourism economy would collapse overnight.


To discover Hawaii beyond the beaches, we’ll concentrate on the two most promising sites. First we’ll go to the Island of Oahu and its metropolis, Honolulu, the capital of modern Hawaii. Then we’ll proceed to The Big Island of Hawaii, the royal capital before the period of European dominance.

Island of Oahu: Discovering Honolulu

Upon arrival, step back to ponder how this paradise arose. The best place to seek answers is at the Bishop Museum, which devotes itself to the origin of the Hawaiian people. The Bishop Museum is in the western part of the city at 1525 Bernice Street.

The Bishop Museum building has a tropical and exotic feel, with three levels built around a large courtyard. The first level displays the origins of the Hawaiian people. Feathered capes and helmets are some of the historic artifacts of greatest interest here. The historic kings of Hawaii were a colorful lot. On the second level, which portrays the age of whaling and missionaries, artifacts of the natives contrast with the Christian and European temperament. A necklace of human teeth, wooden swords with shark-tooth blades, and bark cloth garments are some of the ethnic items on display. On the third floor, the many cultures of modern Hawaii are presented, including the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean migrations. A whale skeleton shows the massive size of these behemoths.

After the Bishop Museum, proceed toward the downtown and Iolani Palace, a royal residence from the monarchical days of Hawaii. The house, west of Waikiki beach, was built in 1882 by King David Kalakaua and served as the royal residence until the demise of the monarchy in 1893, when Sanford P. Dole, of pineapple fame, guided events surrounding the formation of a Republic of Hawaii. While imprisoned here in 1894, celebrated Queen Liliuokalani wrote several Hawaiian songs that are still popular today. Guided tours take you through this Hawaiian adaptation of Victorian architecture, where Hawaiian woods, such as koa and ohia, were fashioned into hardwood elegance. In the throne room you can see feathered capes favored by the royalty. Iolani Palace is at King and Richards Streets.

Across the street from the palace is a large statue of the legendary King Kamehameha I, in front of the Judiciary Building. On June 11, King Kamehameha Day, flower leis clothe the statue to this man, who united the Islands by 1795 after subduing rival kings on his native Island of Hawaii and then conquering the other islands.

A short walk away from the statue, along the waterfront, you come to the Hawaii Maritime Center. The Aloha Tower and Maritime Museum, at Pier 8, offer a view of the harbor and city from an observation deck. Hawaii’s importance, historically and today, depends on its safe harbor in the long Pacific waterway. Adjacent to the tower is the historic ship, the Falls of Clyde, a surviving fully-rigged four-masted sailing ship. The Falls of Clyde was built in 1878 and carried sugar between Hawaii and San Francisco.

Berthed next to the Falls of Clyde is the Hokulea, a square-rigged replica of ancient ships that the Polynesians used to navigate in these waters when they discovered Hawaii. The Hokulea has engaged in a longterm re-creation of the voyages of discovery, an epic undertaking that included volunteers re-living the voyages without benefit of modern navigation instruments.

The other area to visit is east of town at Kapiolani Park. At this multi-use open area people fly kites or practice their tai chi exercises. One of the special pleasures here is the renovated Waikiki Aquarium, 2777 Kalakaua Avenue, which has more than 300 species of Pacific marine fish. At the Aquarium you will learn of the ancient fish ponds that were so important for raising food fish in the region. The Hawaiians had learned to dry salt from the sea, create nets and lashings from coconut fibers, cultivate certain seaweeds as vegetables, and make effective weapons with shark teeth.

Within Hawaii, interest is strong in preserving the native culture. At the Kamehameha School in Honolulu, you must have some Hawaiian blood to matriculate. As part of the curriculum, you learn Hawaiian language and lore.

All considered, Honolulu is the best initial place at which to discover Hawaii beyond the beaches and sun. The next most promising venue would be The Big Island, former royal residence of Hawaii. The Big Island is a 40-minute commuter flight southeast from Honolulu. Fly into the airport at Hilo.

Island of Hawaii: Discovering Hilo

In the Hilo region you will learn most about Hawaii by visiting the Lyman Museum, Akaka Falls Park, Nani Mau Gardens, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Come prepared with rain gear to enjoy Hilo. The lush tropical vegetation that makes the area so inviting flourishes because an average of 137 inches of rain falls here each year.

Lyman Mission House and Museum is a major attraction and historical interpreter for the Island of Hawaii. The galvanized iron roof of the house suggests the typical structures in which missionary families lived as they brought western culture and Christianity to the region in the 19th century. The Lyman property is at 276 Haili Street in Hilo.

David Belden Lyman and his wife built this house in 1839 with the financing assistance of the American Board of Foreign Missionaries. The Lymans raised a large family of eight children. Their role was cultural and agricultural as well as religious. Farming skills and carpentry were as crucial for survival as the proper theological passions. With the coming of the missionaries, some Hawaiian traditions changed. For example, the men of Hawaii did the cooking before the missionary period. The staple food was taro root, made into poi. If you have a chance to sample poi in Hawaii, you will appreciate it as a bland sustainer of life, perhaps destined to oblivion when competing with tastier foods of choice.

The Lyman Museum and House is organized to present a panorama of Hawaiian life. The human pageant of Hawaii is the saga of Polynesians, Orientals, and Portuguese fashioning a mixed-race culture of today. The tools and baskets of the Polynesians are impressive, including their fish hooks, fishing lures for catching the sea’s bounty, and large wooden bowls for food storage. Tapa bark was pounded to make clothing and bed coverings. Feather standards became the mark of the aristocracy. The religious beliefs, known as the kapu system, dictated death for offenses that would seem to us as trivial, such as glancing up from a prostrate position as the royalty passed by. All of the material world was infused with a supernatural force or spirit, the mana of the object.

The museum also salutes the man who might be called the greatest adventurer of all time, Captain James Cook. Cook made three world-circling voyages between 1768-1780, losing his life on the Island of Hawaii in a scuffle with natives. He brought the existence of Hawaii to the attention of Europe by making the first contact here on January 20, 1778, naming the Islands after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. Cook’s worthy title is that of The Great Circumnavigator.

Displays in the museum chart the modern contributors to the Hawaii ethnic mix.

The Chinese first came in 1852 as contract laborers, bringing their three major religions, all of which developed from teachings in the 6th century B.C. Buddhism emphasized that life was a continual round of cares, joys, and pains. Taoism counseled that one should flow with the inevitable and move with events. Confucianism stressed obedience and orderly social virtues.

The Japanese came to Hawaii starting in 1868, as farmers. Europeans were too expensive, so the planters, who needed a labor force, looked to Japan. In 1885, and later, large contract labor teams came from Japan.

The Portuguese came after the Japanese. Planters, meaning the landowners, still seeking inexpensive European workers, found them in the people of Madeira and the Azores. In 1878 the first shiploads came, bringing their braginhas, the forerunners of the ukulele, which became a symbol of Hawaiian music.

Koreans arrived after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 cut off Japanese emigrants. In 1903 the planters contracted with the first Korean migrants.

Filipinos were the last to arrive. The 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement cut off further Japanese migration, which opened the way for the first Filipinos.

All of these ethnic groups blend in the city of Hilo today in the attractive visages of the people. Hawaii, as a state, is a kind of microcosm of the world at large, a working United Nations, showing the possibilities of a social and economic democracy.

North from Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park offers both appealing waterfalls and an introduction to a tropical rainforest. The larger of two waterfalls in the park drops 442 feet into Kolekole Stream. The park amounts to 65 acres of dimly-lit undergrowth and fecund trails. Akaka Falls is 13.5 miles north of Hilo on Highway 19, with a clearly marked turnoff west into the foothills. The road approaching the falls provides lovely views of snow-capped Mauna Kea, the 13,796-foot peak that is the highest point in Hawaii.

The side road north (Highway 240) takes you to the Waipio Valley overlook, one of the loveliest views on the Island. Stretching right to left before you is the blue ocean, the dark sand beach with its white surf, and the fertile green valley. Jeep shuttles can take you on a guided trip down the steep road into Waipio Valley.

South from Hilo, the Nani Mau Gardens are an extraordinary display of Hawaiian and Polynesian flora. The name of the garden translates to mean “forever beautiful,” which aptly names this landscape of 225 types of flowering plants, 100 species of fruit trees, and over 2,300 orchids, one of the world’s largest collections. Here you can see good examples of the Vanda Orchid (named after Miss Joaquin Vanda), which is so prominent in the leis of Hawaii. Blooming in this garden is sequential, so there is always something colorful in flower. Many visitors mistakenly assume that everything in Hawaii is always in bloom, which is not true. However, you are likely to find unusual flowers in bloom at any time here, such as the Red Bombax (Ellipticum). Many kinds of hibiscus and bougainvillea flourish here. One common practice at Nani Mau is to plant a tree when a famous visitor arrives. The past social history of the Nani Mau Garden can be read on the plaques associated with trees planted by dignitaries. The Nani Mau Gardens are 3.5 miles south on Highway 11, at 421 Makalika Street, with signs clearly marking it.

Hawaii: Molokai, coffee roasting experienced during Coffees of Hawaii tour
Hawaii: Molokai, coffee roasting experienced during Coffees of Hawaii tour

West from Hilo some 30 miles is the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, domain of Pele. Pele is the goddess of fire, daughter of Haumea the Earth Mother and Wakea the Sky Father. Pele lives inside the two volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Kilauea on the Island of Hawaii. Pele is the melter of rocks, the builder of mountains, the eater of forests, the burner of lands. Within Pele are the paradoxical roles of creator and destroyer.

One attractive element in Pele’s domain at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the Jaggar Museum, located on the north rim of the Kilauea Caldera. The Museum honors Thomas A. Jaggar, a professor who founded the volcano observatory here in 1912. One of the special pleasures of the Jaggar Museum is a video of the eruptions that have occurred here within the video-making era.

The volcanoes of Hawaii differ from volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The Hawaii volcanoes, it is said, are laid back and calm, like the people. An eruption amounts to an outflowing of lava. By contrast, the Cascade chain of volcanoes, such as Mt. St. Helens, have explosive natures. Size of the lava flows in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park simply stuns the imagination. Various flows, which scientists can pinpoint as to year of origin, spew over hundreds of square miles of landscape, causing a rough, newly-created appearance.

The Park honors the two most-observed volcanoes on earth, Mauna Kea and Kilauea.

Mauna Kea is the taller of the two volcanoes and is said by some to be the world’s largest volcano. If you consider it as rising from the ocean floor, the mountain is fully 31,700 feet high. You can drive toward the summit of Mauna Kea on the Mauna Kea Strip Road and get spectacular views at the road’s end, a shelter at 6,662 feet. The hike to the summit is an arduous one, however, because of the altitude, plus potential for sun, wind, and frost exposure. If you are in Hawaii and have heard that either volcano is erupting, you can call locally for recorded reports (ask locally for the number).

Mauna Kea’s various eruptions in recent decades, including a 22-day performance in 1984, are part of the video record available for viewing in the Jaggar Museum. So massive were the outflows of lava in a 1950 eruption, for example, that the volume of material is said to be capable of paving a four-lane highway 4.5 times around the earth. During the 19th century the volcano erupted on the average every 3.8 years.

Kilauea is the little sister volcano, at 4,090 feet, but Kilauea is as active as Mauna Kea. Certain pyrotechnic performances, including curtains of lava spewing out, have made Kilauea a marvel to behold. These recorded performances are all available for viewing at the Museum. The caldera of Kilauea is a shallow pan about 2.5 miles across. The central part of the pan is called Halemaumau or “The Fire Pit.” Major eruptions occurred in 1952 and in 1955. During the 1955 eruption the village of Pahoa, outside the park, was buried and curtains of lava shot forth for 88 days. It is easy to imagine why the ancient Hawaiians paid such attentive homage to their fire god, Pele.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is easy to visit. The Jaggar Museum and the Kilauea Visitor Center can orient you. The volcanoes are sometimes called “drive-in” volcanoes because you can circle Kilauea in your car and peer into the caldera.

Big Island of Hawaii: Discovering the Kona-Kohala Coast

The final area to explore in our search for Hawaii culture beyond the sun and beaches is the west side of the Island of Hawaii, the Kona-Kohala Coast.

Royalty has a way of choosing the best places to live. On the Island of Hawaii, King Kamehameha and the generations of dominant kings left no doubt about their judgment on the choicest real estate. They favored the sunny west side of the island, the Kona and Kohala region coasts. Their abodes remain important historic shrines today.

At three main stops along this coast you can encounter the royal story of Hawaii.

*The City of Refuge, or Pu’Uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park. The visitor who can pronounce and spell the name of this historic park correctly should win a free trip to Hawaii. The Anglicized title, City of Refuge, tells the story of this most important historic site in all of Hawaii. Established in the 15th century at the time of the death of Keawe, ancestor of King Kamehameha I, this site was a main expression of the severe kapu system of religion. Kapus were various taboos that could require death as atonement. Taboos were numerous because there were many gods who could be angry. Volcanic eruptions or tsunamis, those devastating seismic waves that destroyed coastal habitations, were taken as evidence of the gods’ anger. If the gods were angry, who had made them angry? Let that person be discovered and properly punished.

As in Christianity, with its confessional, the severe kapu system allowed for the prospect of forgiveness. If a transgressor in the kapu system could somehow reach the City of Refuge without being killed, the transgressor would be safe at this sanctuary. Atonement and purification rituals, as determined by the priests, might take a period of time, and starvation was a risk, but no punitive deaths were allowed here. Once absolved, the transgressor could leave the City of Refuge and return to his or her home village without fear of retribution. Refugees in time of war could also find safe haven here.

King Kamehameha II destroyed the kapu system by openly flaunting it in the 1830s. His sacrilegious act amounted to dining with women, formerly a taboo. When he did this and the volcano did not erupt or other untoward events occur, the force of the kapu system was called into question and collapsed.

At the site you can see recreated, carved effigies of the gods, a heiau or stone-walled sacred area, and such minor aspects of daily life as a Hawaiian checker game. Today, craftsmen at the site build canoes in the traditional manner and display arts of early Hawaii, especially wood carving.

*Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site in Kawaihae. This heiau, another sacred walled place, was dedicated in 1791 with 11 human sacrifices by Kamehameha I, who went on to conquer the Island and subsequently all of the Islands of Hawaii. Kamehameha believed a prophet’s pronouncement that if he built this heiau and sacrificed here to his war god, victory over all the other chiefs on all the islands was assured. The human sacrifices to his war god, Kukailimoku, are a special tale. The story of the visiting rival chief, Keoua Kuahuula, and his warriors, who turned out to be the sacrifices, is a poignant matter, partly because it appears that they perceived their role and did not resist. This site is important to the people of Hawaii because they consider it the birthplace of the modern Hawaiian kingdom and state. A festival called Establishment Day occurs here each August, emphasizing hula skills, lei making, and the Hawaiian language. The heiau is off limits, partly in deference to its religious importance and partly because of the danger to visitors scrambling around on mortarless lava rock. The appearance of this heiau on a hill, the simplicity of the gathered lava rock in this grassy setting, marking what was a sacred place to earlier humans, is a moving experience. Originally there were thatch houses on the heiau, but tropical decay has claimed them.

At the site, closer to the sea, there is also an older and smaller heiau, Mailekini Heiau, built by the ruler who preceded Kamehameha.

*The Hulilee Palace State Monument and the Ahuena Heiau in Kailua. These sites were the epitome of the favored residences for Hawaiian royalty.

The Ahuena Heiau, appropriately within the grounds of the present Hotel King Kamehameha, saw dramatic changes in Hawaiian life. This is where Kamehameha’s son, Liholiho, by eating with women, broke the kapu system. The heiau area was called Kamakahonu or “eye of the turtle.” Today you can see at the site a replica of the final residence of King Kamehameha and temples for worship. From this building the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands managed his affairs from 1813-1819. This site was also one of the first landing places for missionaries from New England. In the lobby of the hotel you’ll see a large selection of photos from early Hawaii.

The Hulihee Palace, a short walk from the heiau along the waterfront, was the summer residence of Hawaiian royalty in the 19th century. The structure was built in 1838 by Governor Kuakini, who was Hawaii’s first governor after consolidation of the islands. The structure houses an extraordinary collection of quality Hawaiana, such as a dining room table made from one piece of koa wood, and an elaborate set of portraits of Hawaiian royalty. Other important historic treasures at the palace include fishing stones, tapa cloth garments and fabrics, sandals, drums made of coconut palms, kukuinut necklaces, coconut wood dishes, and sandalwood artifacts formerly exported.

Across the street from Hulihee Palace is the first Christian church in Hawaii, dating from 1836. The church is rich in ohia and koa wood. In the back you can see a replica of the ship Thaddeus that brought the first missionaries here, in 1820.

Hawaii’s beaches and sun are compelling reasons to visit The Islands. Added pleasures of history and nature, including the full panorama of Hawaiian culture, can enhance the journey for actual travelers or armchair voyagers.


Hawaii: If You Go

For further information, contact the Hawaii Convention & Visitors Bureau at http://www.gohawaii.com.




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