Oahu’s bustling beachfront a gateway to Hawaii’s cultural capital by Tom Tracy
From the lobby of the newly-renovated Sheraton Waikiki, with its focus on Japanese visitors to Hawaii, I could see that what I heard about weddings here was true: every hour from morning until night yet another impeccably-dressed bride and groom emerged from the elevators.
Many of them go to at a section of beach under the shadow of the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Trump Waikiki high-rise, where photographers and their wedding parties come in waves to get a shots with the iconic Diamond Head volcanic formation in the background.
To witness the hyperactivity of Waikiki’s shopping district — Kalakaua Avenue — and the state’s most visited beach, Waikiki can prompt one of two thoughts: “Thank goodness we don’t have this kind of beach back home,” or else “Why can’t our beach be a little more like this?”
With no previous experience in Asia or the Pacific, I used to think I might never see Hawaii but recently had a chance to come visit for a week and shoot a wedding.
There are throngs of people everywhere in Waikiki’s strip, and they are out and about at all hours, darting in and out of restaurants, boutique shops and classic hotels like the (century-old) Moana Surfrider and The Royal Hawaiian (The Pink Palace), where my bride-client did her getting ready pictures.
The bride’s family was from Hawaii, and the couple ultimately decided to have two wedding ceremonies several days apart: one religious ceremony in a Catholic church (that was my assignment) followed by dinner at the Moana Surfrider. The other was sunset beachside service at a spectacular venue on Oahu called Kualoa Ranch, where King Kong and Jurassic Park were filmed in part.
Getting to Hawaii from Florida was a bit of an undertaking, with stopovers in Texas and San Francisco, and so I chose to travel light and rent about half the gear I would need from Hawaii Camera Rental in Honolulu. Seriously: why can’t every town have a photography rental shop like this: affordable, huge inventory of Canon and Nikon gear and good-hearted staff.
I took the occasion to try out Canon’s impeccable new EF 130mm F2 lens and the EF 40mm so-called pancake lens, along with a Mark III rental. After my wedding responsibilities were finished and with a little help of the bride & grooms extended family, I explored Waikiki and Honolulu.
A recent makeover has helped generate new interest in Waikiki including widened streets, fine art galleries, strict anti-smoking laws, a two-story Tiffany’s at the end of what is locally called Luxury Row (the Fifth Avenue of Honolulu), short flights to Neighbor Islands like Maui, and the downtown Ala Moana Shopping Center.
It would be a shame to come all this way and not take a half-day to visit the Pearl Harbor Historical Sites, with memorials to the USS Arizona and the Battleship Missouri, along with a well-designed visitor’s center, theater and World War II exhibition.
From there, its was a short distance to Honolulu’s downtown and the arts community transforming old Chinatown through its First Friday Gallery Walk. The monthly event showcases local food, art, fashion, a green market and hand-made leis.
“This area is the most unique, eclectic area in all of Hawaii -- these merchants set up shops to create a character unlike anything else here,” said Jesus Puerto, a Tampa native and founder of Soul de Cuba Restaurant in Chinatown across from the old Hawaii Theater.
“We have wonderful art galleries, other ethnic restaurants and nightlife and bars. The tourists who really look for that off the beaten path experience find us,” Puerto said, whose cafe stands alone in serving Cuban cuisine in Hawaii.
Nature lovers and tropical garden aficionados like myself wouldn’t miss the 13.5-acre Foster Botanical Garden downtown -- a museum of tropical, rare and endangered plants, orchids and trees that traces its roots to 1853. One of several botanical gardens in Oahu, Foster is the easiest to get to and nicely complements a visit to Pearl Harbor or the Asian restaurants in Chinatown.
Near Diamond Head is a feature I failed to visit but will save for the next time: Shangri La, a tropical estate owned by tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke and which is open to the public. The houses Duke’s personal 2,500-piece collection of Islamic art and architecture, and is considered one of Hawaii’s most architecturally significant homes.
“Four seasons of summer is my cup of tea,” says Joshua Stricktland, the Hawaii-born entrepreneur and shop owner whose company rented me the camera gear. “I was raised on the East Coast when my parents needed a change of pace — but I came back about 10 years ago. I haven’t looked back since.”
Tom Tracy is a writer, photojournalist and event photographer in West Palm Beach. He has traveled extensively as a travel & religion writer. www.TomTracy.com
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