Finding Hawaii in Waikiki

by Gray Cargill on June 18, 2014


A few months ago, I announced I was going to Hawaii, staying in Waikiki. Somebody who follows my blog responded “But Waikiki isn’t really Hawaii.” I see where he’s coming from; Waikiki is easily the most touristy place in the Hawaiian islands. You could easily vacation there at a luxury resort on the beach and not learn much about Hawaii’s culture or history.

But to be honest, the statement rubbed me the wrong way. It smacked of elitism–and by that, I mean the “traveler vs. tourist” elitism that some travelers have, where they believe that you can’t get to know the local culture unless you completely reject all the places where tourists hang out and get “off the beaten path”. I don’t believe that.

To me, that’s like saying you can’t get a good education unless you attend an Ivy League school. Which is a crock. It’s not where you go, it’s how you apply yourself, your openness to learning, your sense of curiosity, your willingness to ask questions and seek out experts who can help you advance your knowledge.

Fruit on truck

On the North Shore

Not everybody cares about culture when they come to Waikiki, of course. Some people just need to “get away from it all”. They work hard all year and on vacation, they just want to sun themselves on a beach all day and go to nice restaurants at night and sip cocktails all day. And that’s okay. We all deserve vacations like that once in awhile, and that’s their right.

But if you’re interested in the “real” Hawaii, if you’re interested in learning about the Hawaiian culture, there’s no reason you can’t do that while still making Waikiki your home base.

Where can you learn about Hawaiian culture in Waikiki and around Oahu?

(Note: Everything listed below is accessible by bus if you don’t have a car. If bus is inconvenient, I’ve noted it.)

Polynesian Cultural Center

The Polynesian Cultural Center

Around Oahu

The Polynesian Cultural Center – The Center provides transportation if you book a package through them (and it is far more convenient than taking the public bus), though renting a car is best for maximum flexibility. At the Center, you’ll learn about the cultures of all the Polynesian islands (including Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Samoa). The Center is arranged in “villages” that are designed to be like authentic villages from the various islands, and is staffed by natives of those islands, who demonstrate arts, cooking, and more.

Hawaii’s Plantation Village – Located in Waipahu, this outdoor history museum is a replica of a sugar plantation, with restored buildings. It educates visitors about what life was like on the sugar plantations between 1850 and 1950. Many different immigrant groups worked on these plantations and so you’ll see artifacts from a variety of cultures (Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, etc.). By the way, when you consider Hawaiian culture, you can’t ignore the fact that this includes not just native Hawaiians, but also many other ethnic groups who have migrated to the islands as well.

Bishop Museum

Bishop Museum

In Honolulu

The Bishop Museum – This place was the sleeper hit of my trip to Honolulu in January. In addition to cultural artifacts and a  historical timeline of the islands, they have very interesting and entertaining programs all day long at this museum. Spend a day here, and you’ll learn a lot about the culture of Hawaii.

Iolani Palace – Home to the former royal family of Hawaii. Here, you’ll learn about the history of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Chinatown – Most major cities have a Chinatown, and Honolulu is no exception. Check out the Chinese markets and restaurants here.

Conch blowing

The blowing of the conch at the torchlighting ceremony

In Waikiki

You can be the laziest traveler in the world and still manage to get some culture right in the heart of Waikiki.

The Royal Hawaiian Center – Consider this the appetizer course in your cultural education. Here, you can take ukelele lessons, learn how to make a lei, and learn hula.

The Honolulu Surf Museum – Believe it or not, you can learn a lot about what life is like on a Hawaiian island by learning about surf culture. If you live in a big city, you might not understand what it’s like to be influenced by the environment and weather around you the way we are in agricultural states, or the way an island like Hawaii is.

The Kuhio Beach Park Torchlighting Ceremony and Hula Show – I’m sure a lot of people might think of things like luaus and hula dancing shows to be cheesy tourist attractions, but hey, have a little respect. These things are part of the Hawaiian culture, which they are being gracious enough to share with visitors (for free, in this case). Here, the end of day is marked by the blowing of the conch shell, lighting of the torches to herald the coming of night, and then followed by a hula show and music.

Rainbow Drive In

Eat like a local at the Rainbow Drive In

And More!

If you want to rub elbows with locals, definitely take the public bus, because locals do. Hit up locals restaurants, like the Rainbow Drive-In or Ono’s Hawaiian Foods. Try the local food specialties, local brews, and local coffee.

Even in Waikiki, you’re surrounded by locals working in the tourism industry every day. Just chat them up. Show some curiosity about the culture and what life on the island is really like. What’s the employment situation like? Is it a good place to raise children? What are the community’s biggest challenges and concerns? What do locals do for fun on the weekends? Get to know people as human beings, not just as the person checking you into your hotel or the person driving you around the island.

Can a week in Waikiki give you the knowledge of what life is like for people who live here 365 days a year? No, of course not. The same is true of any other travel destination–unless you can afford to stay for several months–or years–and live in a neighborhood, you’ll never truly know the place. But if you want to step outside the passive Hawaiian tourist experience and learn more about Hawaiian culture, it’s easy enough to do. Yes, even in Waikiki.

Mev June 20, 2014 at 9:32 pm

Thanks for this post Gray. It not only gave me ideas of ways to find Hawaiian culture in Waikiki but it also made me more aware of the tourist vs traveler elitism that I’m sometimes guilty of. Like you said, if somebody works hard all year and wants to lay on the beach all day, it’s not my place to judge.

You had a similar post about travelers turning their noses up at tourist attractions. That it’s like a traveler going to a stranger’s house that wants to show you their 20 year old art collection only to shrug and say that you’d rather see their garage. Hahahaha!

Anyway, wanted you to know that someone on the TripAdvisor Oahu forum posted a link to your blog and I’ve been absorbed by it for the past few days. Even stared a gratitude journal yesterday 🙂 Thanks for all your insightful writing. It’s a pleasure to read.

Gray Cargill June 21, 2014 at 8:14 am

Hi, Mev, thanks for your kind words. None of us have the right to judge other people’s lives, but boy, do we ever, don’t we? That’s something we all have to work on. Congrats on starting the gratitude journal! I hope you have as much success with it as I did!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: