Monday, November 28, 2005

Greetings From the City of the Future

Mary-Jo and I are vacationing in Honolulu, the world's most remote large city—it has a population of 900 thousand, and it's a good five-and-a-half-hour flight across the Pacific from Los Angeles, as our sore backsides can attest. It's also a visually remarkable place, studded with slender high-rise glass-and-concrete apartment towers featuring contrapuntal zig-zag or curvilinear designs as avant-garde as anything this side of Dubai, all towering over streets lined with palm trees and flower-fragrant shrubberies.

We're staying at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, a tall sliver of a hotel fronting Kalakaua Avenue, the busy main shopping drag of the Waikiki district of Honolulu. It's one of those beachside hotels ingeniously designed with the rooms wedged at angles into the structure so that each little balcony all along the building's length has its own view, however narrow, of the ocean. In our case, we can see a 15 per cent segment of Waikiki Beach, a shallow strip of sand almost covered with towels, blankets, and woven mats, and the placid waters of the Pacific dotted for a good quarter of a mile out with waders, swimmers, and surfers starting as early as seven o'clock in the morning.

The hotel captures in a particularly striking way the atmosphere of Waikiki. Its ground floor is dominated by Duke's, a big, bustling restaurant decorated with surf boards, vintage photos, posters, framed Hawaiian shirts, and other memorabilia related to Duke Kahanamoku, the surfer and Olympic swimmer who helped bring Hawaiian culture into the American consciousness back in the 1920s and 30s. Duke's bar is open to the beach and is manned by flower-shirted mixologists who rustle up mai-tais, daiquiris, mud slides, and other rum-laced beach drinks for the swimsuit-wearing crowd of locals and tourists with a bottle-juggling flair reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Recorded steel-drum-band music provides the predictable sound track, except on Saturday night when a local rock group bangs out tunes clearly audible up in our twelfth-floor room.

But if you leave Duke's, stroll across the hotel lobby, and then step out the front doors, you'll find yourself suddenly on a crowded city street that resembles New York's Madison Avenue in midtown, only with palm trees. Outlets for Gucci, Tiffany, Coach, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, and other upscale merchants rub shoulders with schlocky (but expensive) art galleries and glitzy gallerias that compete for the dollars of Japanese tourists with atmospheric doo-dads, from antique cars and flaming sidewalk tiki torches to a two-story street-front aquarium tank boasting a shark and a couple of sting rays cruising majestically among swarming schools of lesser fish.

There are plenty of great beaches in the world as well as many vibrant urban centers of commerce and pop culture, but I imagine no other city (with the possible exception of Miami) combines the two quite as dramatically as Honolulu.

This is our second visit to Hawaii. On our first visit, almost five years ago, the economy seemed depressed. Today the islands are thriving. Our cousin Michael, a building contractor in Honolulu, reports that his services are much in demand. Another cousin, Willie, who is a small business owner in Hilo on the "big island" of Hawaii, says that the demand for workers has made it prohibitively difficult to hire help. (Willie told us, "Hawaii's unemployment rate is the lowest in the country." We checked, and, sure enough, as of October, 2005, the state's 2.7 per cent is the best in the country; no other state beats Virginia's 3.4.) The casual impressions of a tourist reinforce the theme: The streets and shops are jammed with visitors, every other block on Kalakaua has some new mall, hotel, or office complex under construction, and the wealthy Japanese whose absence was blamed for the last slowdown are back by the busload.

Honolulu's ethnic diversity is striking. In New York City, we see many Japanese travelers, particularly in the business districts of midtown and lower Manhattan and at specific cultural sites like the museums and, especially, the great botanic gardens of Brooklyn and the Bronx. We also see a lot more European visitors than one sees in Honolulu; you hear plenty of French, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Russian and Swedish spoken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Moma, as we New Yorkers refer to the Museum of Modern Art. But nowhere in the US are there as many local residents of mixed ethnic background as one sees in Hawaii. It's something I particularly enjoy, being myself of Eurasian extraction (half Japanese, half German). Walk down any street in Honolulu and the first twenty people you pass are likely to include people of a dozen different skin shades as well as many variations of nose shape, hair curl, and eye slant. In that sense, Hawaii is even more ethnically diverse than New York City and perhaps represents a foretaste of where America itself is ultimately heading as our many bloodstreams inevitably mix.

Throw in the surprisingly casual culture of the islands--you commonly see tattooed youths with dreadlocks and flip-flops toting surf boards past the pricey jewelry shops on Kalakaua, and the ubiquitous open-collared, flowered "Aloha" shirts are worn even by silver-maned anchors reading the news on TV--and you can get some idea why Mary-Jo and I find it especially stimulating to vacation in Hawaii. Winter temperatures in the 80s don't hurt, either.

We'll be here in Honolulu for three days, catching up with some of our favorite relatives and enjoying the city/beach scene. Then it's off to Kauai, the "garden isle" of Hawaii, which we've never visited. We'll report more from there.

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