From HONOLULU ’s new food scene to the epic mountains and beaches of the north shore, HAWAII’S most bustling island is riding a new groove rooted in rediscovering its heritage that will feed your soul in more ways than just poke and poi
Is Hawaii the new food capital of the world?
“CAN WE GET SHAVE ICE?”
It was a question, but I read it as a mission statement: “We must find shave ice. Now.” That was my fiveyear-old daughter’s first wish when we got off the 11-hour flight from New York City to Honolulu. Not to hit the beach, not to hunt for waterfalls, but to devour thin flakes of ice shaped into a fluffy mound, served in a bowl and doused with a variety of fruit syrups — ice cream and fruit toppings optional, but highly recommended.
Shave ice is to the kindergartner what a mai tai is to an adult when it comes to the thing you crave most as Hawaii’s warm air and fragrant flora welcome you to the most isolated population centre of the world. They are the cliche desires of non-hawaiians but I’ve found from visiting this archipelago over the past 15 years that Hawaii has a special way of making cliches feel authentic, even on Oahu, the most visited of the islands, and one synonymous with the high-rises of Waikiki.
The island can often be more of a stopover for those seeking the even slower tropical rhythms of Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. That’s too bad because Oahu has increasingly become an even more soulful place in touch with its land and history. Honolulu has emerged recently as the kind of dining destination where one makes reservations at places like Sushi Sho before booking a flight. And when the vibe on the continental US feels as divisive as ever, experiencing the spirit of aloha is refreshing.
Oahu moving beyond its colonial and industrial history feels organic, holistic. Take our first shave ice of the trip at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, a place in a strip mall not far from the Kahala neighbourhood. Shave ice, while deeply satisfying on a hot day, can taste, and look, as artificial as, well, a snow cone. Started in 2011, Uncle Clay’s uses natural ingredients derived from the wide diaspora that makes up Hawaii’s food ways. There are the expected guava and pineapple syrups, but made
from the actual fruits, no neon colours added.
You feel a reclamation of Oahu’s heritage at
Kako’o ‘Oiwi, a nonprofit organisation whose goal is to help restore Hawaii’s agrarian past before the sugarcane and pineapple industries scarred the land — the last sugarcane plantation on the island shut down as recently as 2016. In He’eia, a verdant marshland with a backdrop of the lush crinkles of rock and foliage that makeup the Ko’olau mountains, my family and I took part in a volunteer program to till the earth, manually, with our bare feet in the mud, up to our torso. For a city person whose instinct is to avoid mud, it’s a kind of revelation once you get brave enough to jump into the brontosaurusfootprint-sized hole. The stuff smelled, well, earthy. Alive. We were breaking up the ground to plant kalo, also known as taro, a culturally important staple. Kalo was one of a few plants that the original Hawaiians carried with them across the water, using only the stars and an uncanny understanding of the ocean to navigate, yet most of it is imported. In fact, Hawaii as a whole still imports around 85 percent of its food.
In restaurants across the island, however, there is greater effort to support local farms. The bounty can be seen firsthand at the Kapi’olani Community College farmers market every Saturday morning or at the mini empire of local-centric restaurants from chef Ed Kenney, one of the leaders of sustainable farming practices on the island.
Oahu’s seedier urban area is also going through a revitalisation. Chinatown has always been a home to Asian communities, but it also carried a reputation of being a brother-esque hangout for sailors and soldiers from its inception in the mid-1800s through World War II and the years following it. When I first visited Chinatown in the early aughts, I turned the car around. A little too “up and coming,” let’s say. Today I shopped for modern aloha shirts at Roberta Oaks, looked for vintage aloha shirts at Barrio Vintage, browsed the worn curios at Hound and Quail, and had a most avant-garde meal at Senia. The neighbourhood,
IN A PLACE WHERE RAINBOWS ARE ON THE LICENSE PLATES, BEAUTY MANAGES TO POP UP IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
which is filled with the worn beauty of turn-of-thecentury brick architecture, feels like it has finally arrived as an organic neighbourhood destination, a pleasant contrast to the mall-ness
-of Waikiki, just a few miles away.
But in a place where rainbows are on the license plates, beauty manages to pop up in unlikely places. In our rental car, my daughter asked me, “Daddy, do you know there’s a place where people not only sing in harmony but live in harmony?” The answer, she tells me, is Oahu.
Where did this spot-on truism come from? In the rearview mirror I see that she’s reading from a travel brochure she grabbed from a kiosk in Waikiki.
When it comes to Oahu, the poetry is everywhere.
The Hawaiian island of Oahu has long been a surfer’s paradise, but there is more to it than sweet reef breaks