Ask Dr. Tracy

Finding The "Real" Hawaii

by Tracy Cabot, Ph.D.

There are two Hawaii's. One is the slick resort Hawaii where Don Ho sings, hula girls wiggle in plastic skirts and tourists drink Blue Hawaiians. The other is the "real" Hawaii, where chickens and goats run in the yards and people are gentle and kind to strangers.

The "real" Hawaii, sweet as the sugar cane that grows in the hills, is in the Aloha spirit of its people. To find the "real" Hawaii, drive to the smallest towns, visit the funkiest restaurants, smile at Hawaiians you meet, and ask them about their Hawaii.


You may find the "real" Hawaii, as we did, at a tiny snorkeling cove on Kauai's north shore.

The path to the cove leads down through a cooling arbor of Kamani trees. Squinting at the dazzling white sand and sun-dappled turquise water below, you see a lithe brown figure dancing all alone on the beach. As she sways, her long dark hair lifts gently in the tradewind. Hawaiian music comes from a tiny radio.

"Oh, I often dance here by myself, while I work," she explains with a smile. "My name is Ekena." Slender and girl-like from a distance, Ekena seems ageless up close. An old open-air beach pavillion serves as her workshop. Brightly colored puka shell necklaces and anklets cover a worn picnic table. Overhead, Lauhala leaf mobiles and intricately woven bracelets hang from weathered beams.

Ekena will sell you something, but only if you ask. "Buying is not necessary," she assures us. "I don't come here to sell, I come to gather and weave the leaves. This is such a beautiful place. It's so peaceful. I just love being here."

Pointing to small brown husks on the ground, she says, "these are paint brushes for painting on bark. They are natural, they fall from the trees. And these are my Lauhala leaves." She gestures toward a tree with the same graceful movements of her dance, and our eyes are opened to the wonder of her natural world.

Ekena shows us how she's making a real grass hula skirt for her granddaughter by shredding Ti leaves, and how Puka shells are found with holes already in them. She makes us a Ti leaf lei, just as a present, to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. "Bring it back, and I'll change the flowers," she says. "Aloha."

On Kauai, be sure to drive to Hanalei Bay, where the "real" Hawaii exists in a sort of 60s time warp. On the way, stop for "smoothies" at Waiakalua Fruit & Flowers, and "talk story" with Christian Marsten and his wife Haunani, an ex-Miss Hawaii.

Hawaiians come from a heritage of verbal, not written, communication, and they love to "talk story." In ancient times, that meant sharing everything from family lineage to news from other villages. Today, you can "talk story" with a Hawaiian simply by introducing yourself, saying you love the islands, and asking a couple of sincere questions.

If you're too bashful for that approach, stop by one of the "Hawaiiana" programs offered by resorts such as the Hyatt Regency Kauai, which are open to the public and offer free lessons in hula dancing, Ukelele playing, and other aspects of Hawaiiana. Just listening to one of these delightful ladies will quickly give you a sense of Hawaiian "talk story." For true local food, eat at Aloha Diner in Kapaa. Order Kahlua pig and poi, since the best way to try poi is a little poi with a big bite of pork.


"As I walk up to my momma's grave, I see this tall haole setting some flowers by a nearby tombstone."

George Applegate, a native Hawaiian of American, Apache, English, Irish, German and Japanese ancestry, is telling us about meeting a haole (which means foreigner, non-Hawaiian). "We exchange greetings, and I go ahead and set down the rice bowl.

"We stand there, and after a minute or so he nods toward the grave he's facing and says with a Texas accent, `Tommy Yoshira. He was ma co-pilot in 'Nam.' I say `Yah, I grew up with him. My Momma's here.'

"Now he's staring over at me pretty steady, and after another minute he kinda coughs and says, `Uh, ah don't mean to be disrespectful or nothin, but ah see you put rice and stuff there. How's your momma gonna taste that food?'"

"`Same way Tommy's gonna smell those flowers,' I tell him, and we go for beer."

The Big Island is a great place to meet Hawaiians and find the "real" Hawaii. In Hilo, have breakfast with the locals at Dick's Coffee House, featuring fish and eggs for under $3.00 or steak and eggs for under $4.00.

Be sure to stop by Maile's Hawaii in downtown Hilo, where Maile Canario will be happy to tell you about Hawaiian arts and crafts. North of Hilo is the little town of Honokaa, full of "real" Hawaii. Beyond lies Waipio Valley. Take the four-wheel-drive tour into this ancient "Valley of the Kings" and lose yourself in its overwhelming beauty and almost palpable sense of history.

In Kailua, at Old Airport Beach, drive right down the old airport runway and park. Hang out, watch the Keikis (kids) play in the water like seals, and listen to the Hawaiians play their guitars and ukeleles. Ask someone to show you the Queen's Bath, a pond in the lava.


Lean and handsome, clad only in shorts and sandals, he was squatting in the dust cutting a papaya when we first met him at a farmer's market on Maui.

"I'm Wayne Nishiki. Can I help you?" His smile was dazzling. We found, by "talking story," that he was the proprietor of the market. Then he discovered that one of us surfed.

"Hey, I hear surf's up at Hookipa. Wanna go?"

As we roared off in his four-wheel drive, leaving the market in the hands of his reproachful-looking daughter, Wayne mentioned that he is also a Maui Councilman, and just that morning had voted against a new development. He explained his feelings.

"You know, in a beautiful place, it's easy for everyone to be nice to one another. But if you pave the land, the people become hard, too."

Local markets and festivals are great for mingling with local people. The Maui Swap Meet, held every Saturday morning in Kahului, is the biggest market on Maui. The biggest festival, on Maui and throughout the islands, is Aloha Week. Like a movable feast, Aloha Week actually goes on for over a month, shifting from island to island.

Hawaiians have a deep affinity for the ocean and love to spend their Sundays at beach parks. On Maui, you'll find lots of locals at Puamana, just south of Lahaina, and at the three Kamaole parks in Kihei. Bring a big picnic lunch and a six-pack, and offer to share food. It's the Hawaiian way.

Churches can also be a good way to find the "real" Hawaii. At a service led by a local Hawaiian minister, you are surrounded by a happy swirl of sweet-smelling leis, colorful muu-muus, lilting songs, smiles, prayers and hugs. A powerful sense of Ohana (family, community) pervades the congregation, yet their welcome of strangers is so spontaneous, warm and genuine that you feel included. Nowhere is this more true than at the Waiola Church in Lahaina. Reverend Kekapa Lee is young, gracious, and very Hawaiian.

Allow a (very) long day for driving to Hana. Stop at Keanae Peninsula to visit local crafts people and see the ancient taro patches still being farmed. Try a "plate lunch" (rice, meat, and vegetables) at Tutu's by Hana Bay, and be sure to "talk story" with Mary Pinho, caretaker of the old Hana Cultural Center Museum.

For excellent Hawaiian food, try the Lau Lau lunch at Maui Boy Restaurant in Wailuku -- a huge plate, like you'd get at a $30 luau, for under $7. Waitress Jozy Malacas will explain all the Hawaiian dishes.

Even if you never leave the Kaanapali resort area, you can find a little oasis of "real" Hawaii in the Kaanapali Beach Hotel's lobby each Friday. Visit with the Hawaiians displaying their arts and crafts from 9 AM to 4 PM, and don't miss the story telling at 10:30 AM. At 11 AM, the hula dancers and singers on the hotel's staff all take a break from their clerical and housekeeping duties to give a warm, down-home Hawaiian performance.


You can find the "real" Hawaii on a beach in Oahu, if Sonny Ching is there. At 6'3", with a long grey pony tail down his back, you can't miss him. Sonny is a Social Studies teacher, and he's usually willing to teach a haole about Hawaiian values.

"In Hawaii," Sonny will start, speaking local "pidgin" dialect, "man feesh. Catch fo' feesh, man happy, wife happy, children happy. Mo' feesh? No good. Feesh only spoil."

Then he shifts into precise English. "But change the value system from fish to money, and you can never have enough. And you can never be happy."

Greater Honolulu seems to be mostly populated with yuppies in Aloha shirts talking on car phones in freeway traffic, but here too, the "real" Hawaii can be found. Visit Bishop Museum to get a sense of perspective on the Islands and their history. Try saimin (noodle soup), a real Hawaiian dish, at Shiro's Hula Hula Drive In and Saimin Haven.

In Waikiki, teeming with tourists, you may despair of even seeing a real Hawaiian, let alone finding the "real" Hawaii. But it's here. In the towering Hyatt Regency, you'll find Aunty Malia's "sharing place" -- a small museum of Hawaiian culture. Here, Aunty Malia will tell you about quilting, tapa making, petroglyphs, and language. An irrepressible character with definite views on almost any subject, she will "talk story" with you in her own inimitable style.

And don't leave Waikiki without getting into your bathing suit and going for a canoe ride. Three hundred yards offshore, Waikiki looks very different, and flying down the face of a wave in an outrigger canoe is a thrilling and true "real" Hawaii experience.


To find the "real" Hawaii on Lanai, just slip out of your Rockresort and walk through the sidestreets of Lanai City. Smile and say hello to people tending their gardens. Try fresh-baked local pastries at Blue Ginger or saimin at S & T Properties, Inc.


Molokai is the "real" Hawaii. Kaunakakai, the island's metropolis, doesn't even have a traffic light. Start by wandering around town, have lunch at Kanemitsu Bakery, then drive to Halawa Valley at the east end of the island. Think about visiting in mid-May, when the local hula festival takes place.

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