I’ve had an unofficial policy of avoiding Waikiki unless I’m being paid to be there since before the pandemic. I’ve had an official policy of avoiding Las Vegas without generous remuneration for decades, for pretty much the same reason. There’s really nothing there for me. But we’ve a dear friend in town we haven’t seen in years here at the HAT Blog, and she was intent on walking in Waikiki. I obliged, even paying for an Uber to get there.
We met at Kelley O’Neill’s at my suggestion, on Lewers Street just a half-block off Waikiki’s main drag, Kalakaua Avenue. They (mostly) know me there. I like to think I’m more than just another punter at Kelley’s, whether or not that’s true. The bartender recognized me. “Ah, Mr. Winpenny,” he said without irony. “How’ve you been?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m drinking bourbon in Waikiki at noon on a Thursday. I honestly don’t know.”
“Could be worse, then,” he smiled. He was there at Kelley’s as a patron to see my band perform a packed half-way to Saint Patrick’s Day gig back in September. And he was right. In paradise, it can always be worse. My visiting friend walked in, making things objectively better.
I introduced her to the owner, to whom she recalled many nights spent in that bar (and now quality restaurant) making questionable but ultimately harmless life choices. We finished our drinks. She was keen to head down Kalakaua to Lulu’s Waikiki for a heaping plate of kalua pig nachos and a beer. Just like that, we were walking in Waikiki.
It’s easy to dismiss Waikiki as a tourist trap. But that’s facile and lazy and it ignores the fact that Waikiki is the epicenter of Hawaii’s tourism industry, the state’s main economic driver. Waikiki has been remade in the past decade, and even more so during the pandemic when the hotel rooms were empty and major properties underwent dramatic renovations and rebranding. Waikiki, at least along Kalakaua where we walked, has been thoroughly sanitized.
It has been years since my friend, a former Hawaii resident, had been back, since well before the pandemic. She was astonished by the slick sheen of high-end brand stores like Ferragamo, Gucci, Armani and the like lining the avenue.
“That’s an Ugg Boots store!” she exclaimed as we passed. “Why would they have a full Himalayan sherpa outfit in the display window across the street from Waikiki Beach?” I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t. I mumbled a befuddled shrug. I didn’t know there was an Ugg Boots store in Waikiki.
A little further down the boulevard, my friend confessed. “I know it’s cheesy, but I just wanted to come down here and sneer at silly tourists and make snarky comments about total strangers,” she said. “And I really love Lulu’s nachos.” Fair enough. I’m down for both when a longtime friend is in town.
Other than my friends at Kelley’s and occasional journalistic duties, there really is no reason for me to be in Waikiki. I’m a homebody by nature as I get older, happy to work mostly from home and stay mostly close to it. I’m a downtowner. I have bandmates who live out on the North Shore and refuse to come to town unless they’re getting paid for it.
Walking in Waikiki gave me a kind of newfound appreciation for the tourist mecca. I appreciate that the monied interests that keep the gears of tourism commerce turning have polished the main drags. The part of Waikiki we walked was clean, sparkling, even, from Lewers Street to the Kapahulu “groin”. Beach umbrellas stood in neat rows along the beach by the dozens. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic streamed smoothly thanks to well-timed traffic lights. “It’s like the French Riviera down here,” my friend observed. She now lives on a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea. It struck me as a compliment, whether or not it was intended as one.
Waikiki is awesome, as long as I don’t have to be there. I enjoyed the Lulu’s nachos and seeing old friends, I looked with pride at the Duke Kahanamoku statue as we passed. I felt proud to live in a place that millions of people the world over flock to for its beauty. I imagined Kalakaua Avenue lit up like Paris or Rome at night, having only been to Waikiki at night once in the past five years (and that was for work).
“Could be worse, then.” Indeed.