When the Friendly Fires album ‘Pala’ came out in 2011, complete with track titled ‘Hawaiian Air’ that I disco danced to in many a field that summer, little did I know that just two years later I would be humming it to myself whilst boarding Hawaiian Air flight 11 to Honolulu International.
Buffie, my lifelong Fife-long (yet not particularly long) pal is been travelling with me. And from San Francisco, we decide to swap our jeans for grass skirts, and our hoodies for coconut bras. The plan is to spend a few days on the island of Oahu (pronounced wa-hooooooooo, well it is in my head anyway) before taking an interislander flight east to Maui.
So we touch down in Honolulu, and check into the Aston hotel on Waikiki Beach from which the view looks a little like is.
It certainly has the most character of all of the hotels in what is essentially a line of Marriots and Hiltons.
It is all high rise on the outside…
…but all retro Hawaiian chic on the inside.
Waikiki Beach is tourist south central, somehow I can’t actually believe I am walking on its soft sand. It feels like a dream…that or an hilarious outtake from Magnum PI.
All the major services are here, the surf rescue…
First item on the agenda differs perhaps from your standard Honolulu tourist itinerary. It is something of a pilgrimage for those who worship at the church of Norman Collins, much lauded American tattoo artist considered the founding father of the modern day tattoo. A man of talent so uncompromising, and of spirit so original, that a rum was created in his honour. There is no way a trip to Honolulu would be complete for me without walking in his footsteps, and sampling his wares.
After a rum punch to get things started, we head to Hotel Street the site of his first tattoo parlour. Although modernisation has brought with it the standard influx of McDonalds and Starbucks, his influence is still clearly felt in the area surrounding it.
Eventually we reach Hotel Street, and I’ll admit to having a weird feeling strike me. It feels very much like hallowed ground, knowing how respected he is in so many circles and what a legacy he left behind after his death.
The place is closed, but we peer in like giddy children at the flash art adorning the walls.
The best we can hope for is to hit the nearest dive bar on the block and celebrate the man, responsibly.
When the rum flavoured fug clears the next day, we haul ourselves to Hau’ula on the other side of the island to go learn more about Polynesian culture.
En route we are introduced to our tour guide who introduces himself as Cousin Cali. He is from Fiji and has a rather commanding way about him. We find ourselves jumping to his attention all day.
The Polynesian Culture Centre does exactly what it says on the tin, it pulls together all of the cultures from this expanse of the world and brings them to life.
Some fast facts above for you, personally I had no idea that it covered 16 million square miles. When you think about it, it is remarkable that they have such strong ties and affinities with each other given how far apart the islands are. Cousin Cali has given us clear instructions on how to get the most of the day, these instructions are to do exactly as he says and to leave any independent spirits behind. It is a grave warning, and one we heed strictly…
The day starts with a welcome parade on the river, with each country represented. First, Hawaii.
It is a very colourful display, and a great way to start the tour. From there, we travel through the ‘villages’ that have been created within to honour each country’s traditions.
We visit Samoa, and learn about their tribal traditions…by way of a wicked sense of humour which tickles us Scots.
We are then invited into the Aotearoa prayer house with a traditional welcome ceremony, and taught how the Maori’s greet each other. It is called a hongi, and you press your nose and forehead together with the person you’re greeting. Kind of like the face equivalent of a fistbump.
We are then treated to one of the most majestic haka, meaning new breath, I have ever seen.
From there Cousin Cali frogmarches us, sorry, leads us to Tonga where we get a lesson in traditional drumming.
Can you see Cousin Cali loitering with intent in the background here at Tonga?
Moments after this shot was taken, he gave us the curly finger and we duly made our way over to Fiji. He is originally from Fiji, so he walked us through the Chief’s house, called a Vale Levu, and all the traditions that come along with the chief system.
This house would be the largest and most elevated in all of the village. Apparently, the chief would sleep on the gigantic mega bed in the house, while his ‘favourite’ wife and children would sleep on the floor. He practiced polygamy, so his favourite wife would change in accordance with his humour, and other wives were housed in nearby sleeping quarters.
For her trouble, she was buried when he died having been given the delightful option of being stoned to death or stabbed. Remarkably, the role of favourite wife was still sought after, since it secured the fate of your children.
From the four doors, only the chief was allowed to use the back door which was usually positioned to the east side where the sun rises. Anyone else using that door, tradesmen, pizza delivery guy, Jehovah’s witnesses etc, would be slaughterers as their use of the door was seen as a sign of intended murder of the chief.
From there, we take a canoe trip back through the beautiful grounds…
The following day, we head to Pearl Harbour to learn more about the events surrounding the attack, and of course to pay our respects. It was to be a very emotionally draining day, but it started with the most verbose tour driver we have ever met. Seriously, it feels like we are being over instructed, he stops just shy of actually telling us how to put one foot in front of the other. Thankfully he is only driving us to the monument, and will not be with us all day.
Once we have managed to lose him, we arrive first in the queue. As the doors open, the queues grow to over a thousand people and we swell into the grounds.
We head straight for the USS Arizona Memorial which we are shipped to by US Navy crew.
Y’all know the story, but let’s refresh. On the 7th December 1941, Japan conducted a surprise air attack on the American military base on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The attack, lasting only two hours, obliterated the US resources. Almost every ship in the US Pacific Fleet was anchored there, side by side. And all were severely damaged or destroyed. There we over 3000 casualties including 2403 deaths, from service men and women to civilians. This lead to the famous statement from President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling it ‘a date which will live in infamy’ and ultimately brought the US into World War II.
The USS Arizona was sunk, taking 1177 sailors and marines down with it. The ship still lies undisturbed as a tomb, and in 1962, local architect Albert Preis was commissioned to create a marble memorial in tribute to those whose lives were taken.
The structure lies above the sunken vessel, with a sloped roof signifying the initial defeat of the attack, with strong edges raised on either side demonstrating ultimate victory. Its roof is open, letting in natural light and, when we were there, the sun shines through the ‘tree of life’ design reflecting beautifully on the names of those killed.
It is incredibly moving, and brings both Buffie and I to tears.
The vessel itself is exposed and visible underneath. Small patches of oil collect on the surface, leaking in tiny quantities from the ship below. The decision was taken not to disturb the ship, and to respect its peaceful grave, with the oil widely regarded as the tears of the comrades who were killed that fateful day.
The audio tour is voiced by Jamie Lee Curtis, her own father, actor Tony Curtis, a veteran of the US Navy who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbour and served until he witnessed the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay.
Back on the mainland, we visit the museum which goes through the events surrounding the attack.
We also pause for reflection at the vessel’s anchor.
After an emotional day, we head out for dinner on Duke’s Barefoot Bar on Waikiki Beach. Whilst we are sipping cocktails, something quite remarkable and, we’re told by the staff, incredibly rare happens.
From a barge a mile or so out on the Pacific, an absolutely huge firework display begins on the water. For those of you who have been, and to give it some context, it rivals Edinburgh or Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
We feel incredibly lucky to have been there. The whole beach and restaurant stops in their tracks to watch it together. We’re told that this only happens once every few years, when somebody important comes to town. We like to think that means us…but it is probably some gazillionaire.
Before we know it, it is time to leave Honolulu. We liked it here, the characters we met on the street were colourful.
Even the statues wore leis…
Now east to Hawaiian island Maui.
And the soundtrack was:
Friendly Fires ‘Pala’
Thumpers ‘Dancing’s Done’
Theme from Magnum PI
Theme from Hawaii 5-0
The Shins ‘Chutes too Narrow’
Various ‘Hula Hana’