Visitor searches for Hawaii of the past

The beach in front of Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian. At the original building, the rooms were not positioned to face the water.
The beach in front of Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian. At the original building, the rooms were not positioned to face the water. TNS

Sometimes when I’m in Honolulu, I’m convinced I’ve misplaced Hawaii.

The Aloha Tower, built in 1926, was once the figurative high point on Oahu. That’s what passengers saw as their cruise ships docked in Honolulu.

Today, people arriving from the mainland see an urban area that ranks in the top 5 among U.S. cities in its number of skyscrapers. Land is limited, said DeSoto Brown, historian at the Bishop Museum, so if you can’t grow out, you must grow up.

Perhaps it’s too grown-up. It’s not the Hawaii that I and many others remember.

I can still find it, though. It requires more effort, but five places connect me to a Hawaii whose grace shines through despite the chaos and incivility inflicted on it.

The hotels

The Royal Hawaiian, Matson’s Pink Palace, is an awkward reminder that architecture sometimes overtakes local sensibilities. Located on a piece of once-marshy land that belonged to King Kamehameha I, this Spanish-Moorish hotel has an exterior that looks more Quixote than Kamehameha.

I chatted with Brown at the Bishop Museum, which I’ve visited several times to quench my historic thirst. (I skipped Iolani Palace, however, where the gentle retelling of ugly events gives me pause.) Because my time was limited on my most recent trip, I took a tour of the Royal and felt the touch and tug of the past in a new way.

Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Kaahumanu, had a home here. So did Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the great-granddaughter of Kamehameha. At her death, she held nearly 400,000 acres of Hawaiian land that she endowed to the Kamehameha Schools, where culturally based education helps preserve what was nearly lost.

It’s fun to see some of the smiling black-and-white photos of the celebrities who’ve stayed here, including one of a pantsuit-clad Amelia Earhart being taught to split a coconut by Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympian whose name is synonymous with surfing.

You can hear about opening night 1927, when hundreds paid $10 each to join the celebration, and learn why, in the original building, most of the guest rooms didn’t face the water. (Hint: Think arriving on a Matson ship after what builders thought were monotonous days at sea, and you’ll understand why the staff and servants had the view of the Pacific and Diamond Head.)

The Royal is alive with the past. There are parts I’d rather forget, but they teach us about strength and resilience and, in the case of those garden-facing guest rooms, how precarious it is to predict human behavior absent informed foresight.

Tours are at 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Info:

The colonial-style Moana, which dates to 1901 and was acquired by Matson in 1932, also is an architectural anachronism, but like the Royal, does a good job of letting a bit of the outdoors in.

You’ll find part of that outdoors if you walk from the entrance directly to the back of the hotel, where the mega-banyan tree holds court. The tree is noteworthy — nostalgia alert — because that’s where Hawaii Calls usually broadcast its radio show, beginning in 1935, wrapping up after a 40-year run mostly at the oceanfront hotel.

The Moana remained a hotel during World War II; the Royal was used by servicemen for R&R. After the war, barbed wire disappeared from the beaches, and Hawaii began the hard work of trying to move ahead. In many ways — the best ways — the Moana has not, remaining a cool and gracious portal to the past.

Tours of the Moana are offered 11 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Have lunch on the veranda or patio at the Beachhouse, stare at the ocean, or sit in one of the rockers and remember. Info:

An artful look

The Honolulu Museum of Art had a Georgia O’Keeffe hanging when I was there last month, and her Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast, No. II ordinarily would have held me rapt.

But my attention and affections were stolen by many of the other works in the John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery of the Arts of Hawaii. I was drawn to the Volcano School paintings, especially knowing that Kilauea continues to kick up is heels on Hawaii Island.

The Lei Maker, the 1901 Theodore Wores portrait of a vibrantly dressed child stringing flowers, captured me, perhaps because I had done the very same when I was her age.

It is always good to be reminded of home, even if that home is in the very long-ago past. Info:

Pali lookout

You can see where Kamehameha I fought the Battle of Nuuanu in 1795, driving scores of his foes over the cliffs. Take the Pali Highway toward Kailua and stop for a moment at the lookout. This time, there was something I’d not seen on my past three visits: feral chickens, said to be an increasing problem on Oahu.

But never mind. The vistas of the windward side are stunning, and you can marvel at the bravery — or was it savagery? — of Kamehameha’s troops, who ultimately prevailed in the struggle to unite the islands.

It’s said that some nights you can hear warriors chanting. I don’t go after dark; the history is enough to give me chills.

Halona Blowhole

At the end of a hot day, I drove about 15 miles east, past Hanauma Bay, to Halona Blowhole, the natural wonder created by a sea cave. It wasn’t at its best that day, but neither was I.

As I watched the waves rush in to fill the void, only to be pushed out the hole with a spray of saltwater, I felt cooler, calmer and more relaxed. Yes, there were tourists, but they faded away.

As long as I keep seeking it, Hawaii never will.

What happened to Honolulu’s watercolor dream?

That’s the dream that Matson built. Matson, the passenger and shipping company, practically invented Hawaii tourism.

In 1908, the first Matson passenger vessel joined its fleet, and the elegant white ships were soon sailing people from Los Angeles and San Francisco to this new tourist destination called Hawaii.

From the moment the Aloha Tower, the Hawaiian gothic clock and light tower at Pier 9, winked into view, you could feel the excitement. Suddenly, bronzed boys and men were diving for quarters and half- and silver dollars tossed from the ship; you could hear the strains of the Royal Hawaiian band, and when you disembarked, you’d be draped with leis so fragrant you’d swear you were in heaven.

In many ways, you were.

You could stay at a Matson-owned hotel. When it was time to go home, you reboarded a Matson liner and threw your lei into the ocean, perhaps promising yourself you would return.

If your memory of the trip began to fade, you had only to look at the gloriously decorated menus from the Matsonia or the Lurline or one of the other ships in the fleet, menus you had framed and then hung on the wall of your rec room. The light never dimmed.

But look at Honolulu today and you wonder whether paradise has disappeared. The boulevards’ high-end shops mimic those in Vegas, as does the traffic; Honolulu’s ranks among the worst in the nation. Northeasterly trade winds blow about 80 fewer days a year than they did 40 years ago, according to a 2012 University of Hawaii study, leaving the city hot and sticky.

Honolulu is “hugely cosmopolitan,” says Theresa Papanikolas, who curated the recent exhibition “Art Deco Hawaii” for the Honolulu Museum of Art, which featured some works commissioned by Matson.

Although aspects of the city she now calls home are relaxing, Honolulu has “the same problems as anywhere on the mainland,” said Papanikolas, a former L.A. resident who worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And yet …

You can still find the stuff of dreams. On a recent 48-hour trip, I revisited some of the cornerstones of that early vacation vision, found some new favorites and, as always, delighted in the people and places that keep the light on for us.

Thelma Kehaulani Kam, director of cultural services for Starwood hotels, including the Moana Surfrider and the Royal Hawaiian, soothed my troubled soul at the end of a tour of the Royal, which was once owned by Matson. When people say “aloha,” she said, the meaning is deeper than hello or goodbye.

 ‘Alo’ is the physical part of what the person sees — the smile, the nod. It’s the person coming close to you,” Kam said. “ ‘Ha’ means breath.

“When you put that word together, what you are telling that person is, ‘Take all of me. …’ You are giving all of yourself without the expectation of anything in return.”