Every city conjures a distinct sensory experience, one that greets you the moment you step off the plane. I can recall a few memorable examples: the sweet, tangy smell of Delhi; the humidity that hits your skin in Venice; the desert dust in Doha, Qatar; the sun-kissed breeze in L.A.; even the faint waft of garbage in New York City (a personal favorite that always reminds me I’m home). Those who travel to the state of Hawaii arrive in Honolulu, the capital, to the scent of honey and ginger from the plumeria trees that line the inner courtyards of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
That airport, which normally welcomes millions of tourists a year, then funnels them across the islands of Hawaii’s fabled archipelago, has been predictably silent for much of the past year. In March, the state government mandated a two-week quarantine for visitors, which was lifted in the fall. Tourism, a cornerstone of the economy that makes up nearly a quarter of the state’s revenue, was down 99 percent during that period.
While things started to slowly open up in October, Hawaii now has a calmer vibe than any time in modern memory. Daily arrivals to Hawaii had numbered 28,500 per day in 2019, but plummeted to the low hundreds for most of 2020.
I came to Hawaii on my first-ever visit in June, at the invitation of my close friend, the novelist and T: The New York Times Style Magazine editor in chief Hanya Yanagihara, who grew up on Oahu and is an alumna of Punahou School (whose graduates include Barack Obama and a current Hawaii senator, Brian Schatz). I had always wanted to visit, but waited until I could come with her because to me, travel is about the people and the context as much as the destination. Little did I know that my planned two-week sojourn would turn into a four-month stay. That’s how hard I fell for Oahu.
Hanya’s parents live in a 1920s bungalow in the neighborhood of Manoa, in the center of Honolulu. Manoa’s streets are dotted with historic houses whose front yards bloom with the most fabulous flowers, like wild green ohia and crimson lehua, and fruit trees including mango and jackfruit. The family’s home, full of Hawaiiana, proved an idyllic spot to quarantine (the health department called us every day and traced us on our phones to make sure we were staying put). Once that was behind us, I was eager to discover the real Hawaii.
From their rain-misted garden (inhabited by Fred, a hibiscus-eating sulcata tortoise), Hanya’s mother, Susan, a former schoolteacher, gave me my first primer on Hawaiian craft. In addition to being a master of quilting, lauhala (leaf weaving), and making hand-turned koa-wood bowls, Susan also whips up a mean mango bread—thanks in part to an abundance of the fruit growing in the neighbor’s yard.
But it wasn’t just Susan who gave me insight into Hawaii’s often-overlooked craft traditions. During my stay on the island, I met a number of artisans who ordinarily would have been much harder to meet. These people revealed Honolulu as a place far from the mai tais and hula girls that so many on the mainland have come to associate with Hawaii. Instead, what I encountered was an island populated by artists and makers, where craft is seen in a profound, uncommercial, and spiritual way.
Spiritual is a good adjective to describe the town Hanya and I decamped to after our two weeks in Honolulu. Waimānalo, on the windward side of Oahu, is also known as one of the last remaining strongholds of native Hawaiian culture on the island. It’s the kind of place where KEEP HAWAII HAWAIIAN signs show up on lawns and old Hawaiian families live among the beauty of night-blooming-cereus gardens and white-sand Sherwood Beach, which is bordered by an ancient ironwood forest.
It’s a small town with a general store and a fast-food joint, Keneke’s, that serves iconic local favorites like “loco moco”—two eggs and hamburger patties on rice served with gravy and a scoop of macaroni salad. There’s also a McDonald’s whose specialty is another staple around here, Spam musubi—a fried piece of Spam and white rice, wrapped together with a ribbon of dried seaweed—with scrambled eggs. Waimānalo Market Co-op sells a juice of passion fruit and kava—a plant whose roots are used for its relaxing and mouth-numbing properties.
Change is afoot here, though, most notably due to Barack Obama, who purchased the famed “Magnum, P.I. estate”—the setting for the 1980s version of the television show—and is in the final stages of building a waterfront compound (a Secret Service outpost has already been erected on a hilltop behind the house).
About a half-mile inland from the Obama property sits Ahiki Acres, a farm run by 24-year-old Waimānalo native Haley Miyaoka and her boyfriend, Matthew McKinnon, originally from Washington State. The young farmers started out with the help of GoFarm Hawaii, a university-backed learning program that provides affordable plots of land for up to three years. On their sun-soaked, half-acre field bordered by the mountainous Kuliou’ou Trail, Miyaoka and McKinnon grow lettuce, fennel, cilantro, basil, beets, okra, kale, collards, radishes, turnips, and peppers.
There are also edible snapdragons and marigolds that they sell at the farmers’ market and to local restaurants, including Mother Bake Shop (this new patisserie is in the nearby town of Kailua and known for its urbane offerings like lilikoi “cruffins”—croissant-muffin hybrids—sprinkled with purple nasturtium). Everything is grown organically, and they choose what to cultivate “based on what we like and what’s popular,” McKinnon said. “I think it tastes better when it’s farmed by hand,” Miyaoka added. “I like it when people say, ‘These are the best green beans I ever had.'”
That same attitude is also evident in an altogether different Hawaiian pastime. On the second floor of a repurposed mall in the industrial, newly cool Kaka’ako district, near downtown Honolulu, is KoAloha Ukulele, a family-run business of ukulele makers started in 1995 by Alvin Okami. It’s now operated by Alvin’s four sons. While the instrument has gone in and out of fashion over the past century, a new breed of artisanal manufacturers like KoAloha is changing its kitschy image.
As one of the sons, Paul, walked me around the showroom (factory tours are offered by appointment), one ukulele in particular caught my eye: an electric number made from pink-stained koa wood that would look right at home in the hands of the Grateful Dead. Other choice examples are made with dyed curly mango wood or inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the shape of the Hawaiian Islands.
A few weeks later, Susan introduced me to Kumu Ipolani Vaughan, a grand master in many traditional Hawaiian disciplines, from hula to the Hawaiian language. “As you learn more about the Hawaiian sovereignty movement,” Susan explained a few weeks later, “it’s also important to know that Native craft has wonderful practitioners and notable kumu [teachers] who realized the need to preserve their love of Hawaiian heritage.”
Vaughan has an infectious laugh and sparkling blue eyes, as well as an incredible collection of Hawaiian gold name bracelets. Name bracelets are a tradition started by Queen Liliuokalani, the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last reigning monarch, after she saw them in 1865 at Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Over three consecutive visits to our rented house, Vaughan, along with Susan and her friends Steve Prieto and Mariko Kobayashi, sat around the outdoor dining table and taught Hanya and me the art of lauhala.
All four have completely different backgrounds, but are members of a prestigious weaving group. Their intricate pieces (some of which take months to make) and practices (which take years to learn) are private. No cameras, photos, or videos are allowed during their meetings. I naïvely asked where I could purchase their creations, and all the weavers at the table looked at me and laughed. Commerce, I would later learn, is totally beside the point.
“Lauhala is an art form that needs to be taught—you need a kumu,” Susan explained. “You can’t just figure it out and sit down and do it,” Vaughan chimed in. “If someone tells you that, they’re not telling the truth.” And most importantly, Prieto added, “New students have to commit to not putting it on YouTube.”
The Hawaiians have a phrase, which is to “talk story” and is the equivalent of a kaffeeklatsch—the German word for a casual get-together that includes trading gossip and tales of shared history. “Every time we gather at the club, we make sure to acknowledge the contributions of our deceased kumu,” Vaughan explained. “We only know them through stories that are told around the table.”
I tried to wrap my head around all this while contemplating how thick and machine-made my own panama hat looked compared with the fine, smooth weaves these masters were creating. And praying that one would decide to make a piece for me (one of the only ways to get one is to be given it, though wonderful examples can be found for sale at various galleries in Honolulu, including the exceptional gift shop at the Honolulu Museum of Art).
“The point of lauhala is not lauhala at all,” Vaughan said. “We want to pass this on from generation to generation, to tell stories and remember.” Later, Vaughan would christen me with my own Hawaiian name: Kamakana, “The Gift.”
Back in the center of town, close to Honolulu’s Bishop Museum—which has an exceptional collection of Native arts and crafts, including elaborate examples of feathered cloaks, capes, and helmets worn by Hawaiian royalty in the 18th and 19th centuries—I tracked down Pat Breeden, whose family business, Royal Hawaiian Heritage Jewelry, has since the 1970s been making the gold name bracelets Vaughan was wearing. These pieces, which are traditionally engraved with one’s Hawaiian name in black Old English script (as a nod to their origin), can depict tropical flowers, sea turtles, or just about anything that can be etched in gold.
“They tell an entire story of a person’s life,” Breeden explained. “There’s a nostalgia seeing your whole life reflected on your body. The options are limitless.” While the original shape is over a century and a half old, Breeden has been experimenting with new shapes and sizes, which include heavy rings and pendants Justin Bieber would go gaga over.
Just as local jewelry is evolving from the iconic pearl studs visitors would typically take home from their South Pacific vacations, the best embodiment of the spirit of young Hawaii has to be design-driven surf gear. And in particular, three clothing retailers who are leading the charge in bringing a refined street-wear sensibility to the classic island style.
In Kailua, there’s Olive and Oliver, men’s and women’s boutiques that sit on the same street and are run by husband-and-wife team Parker Moosman and Ali McMahon. They offer a rotating selection of 1970s muscle shirts, overdyed sweats, locally crafted heirloom shell lei, and ceramic souvenir trays.
Over on the North Shore in the town of Haleiwa, which is famous for its big-wave surfing, Cappy Esguerra (who grew up in the area) stocks beachy brands like Banks Journal and Riverside Tool & Dye at her store, No. 808 (on my visit, I picked up a 50s print of Goofy on a surfboard).
But the most talked-about shop may be Salvage Public, run by three native Hawaiians—brothers Joseph and Noah Serrao, and Nāpali Souza. Established in 2013, its mission is to design clothing for Hawaiians, by Hawaiians, from a modern studio in Kaimuki, near the lower slopes of Diamond Head, the island’s legendary extinct volcano.
“Designing from a place in which we have roots that span generations has an almost spiritual feeling,” Joseph says. “There’s a responsibility to heritage that defines the framework of any product we develop. We are Hawaiians, and that is embedded into our brand.” Suffice it to say, I left their Kaka’ako retail outpost with enough board shorts to last a lifetime.
I should mention here my own experience of surfing, which I took up in my last weeks on Oahu. Even at the height of the pandemic, when the beaches were empty, the restaurants were forced to close, and the hotels were shut down, people were still surfing. Hawaiians consider access to the ocean their birthright, and surfing is inextricable from their identity (it was literally the sport of Hawaiian kings). Every day at sunset I had this magical moment on my board, riding the waves toward the empty beaches of Waikiki, then turning around and seeing a sea of glistening bodies in the water.
As my trip came to an end, I looked back on the introductions I’d had to guides and teachers who, in a busier time, I may not have had the privilege to meet. People like Vaughan, Kobayashi, Prieto, Breeden, and so many more, who showed me that Hawaii is a place that we, as travelers—and as fellow Americans—have only scratched the surface in understanding.
Oahu by Design
Where to Shop
KoAloha Ukulele: A family-owned studio and store making custom ukuleles in downtown Honolulu.
No. 808: Men’s and women’s casual wear, plus vintage objects, on Oahu’s famous North Shore.
Olive and Oliver: Island- inspired men’s and women’s clothing boutiques in Kailua, with a second location at the Surfjack hotel in Waikiki.
Where to Eat and Drink
Ahiki Acres: Next-generation farmers in rural Waimānalo growing all manner of produce.
Islander Sake Brewery: The only sake brewer in Hawaii, producing small batches of the Japanese rice wine in Kaka’ako.
Mother Bake Shop: A husband-and-wife duo merge Hawaiian flavors with French pastry techniques at this Kailua.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Only in Oahu