Photographer: Alasdair McLellan
Stylist: Benjamin Bruno
The other day I found myself staring hard at a woman at Waimea Bay, on the North Shore of Oahu, near where I live. What was it about her that compelled my hot gaze? I smiled and mocked myself when I realized that it was because she was wearing a fluttery knee-length dress and expensive shoes: perhaps a TV producer, just here from the mainland, supervising her people filming—it was a day of 45-foot waves. She stood out not merely because she was pale and probably a malihini, a newcomer, but also because the other women around her, young and old, were half-naked, barefoot, and bosomy and buttocky in Brazilian thongs, gleaming and golden, heavily tattooed, and, therefore, inconspicuous. The woman in the fluttery dress was exceptional.
Dressing up is forgivable in Honolulu, but in other parts of the island it might be regarded as pretentious—in fact, people tend to dress down. Except at black-tie fundraisers and parties of celebrity bottom-sniffing, a place this warm does not allow you to be judged by your clothes, or shoes, where (on lawns and in most houses) people tend to be barefoot. It’s obvious that the Obamas spend part of every year here because island life is the opposite of Washington: low-key and informal. Elvis Presley loved Hawaii because it was laid-back, and Elvis is still remembered for being a benefactor (he helped fund the USS Arizona war memorial in Pearl Harbor). Locals always say what a relief it is to arrive home in the islands, from anywhere. “Lucky we live in Hawaii” is a mantra. I agree.
The sinuous film producer Allison Sarofim also agrees. A part-time Hawaii resident who keeps a low profile, Allison gives parties with great style in the Sarofim family home, once the seaside retreat of the American author, politician, and U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce. One of the more sought-after invitations in Honolulu is to the annual New Year’s party given by the Sarofim family, with Allison’s father, Fayez, the patriarch, presiding. The social unit of Hawaii is the ohana—the family—and Allison’s ohana consists of close friends who have become like family, and whom she graciously introduced to W: the big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara, the author Princess Dialta Alliata di Montereale, the lomilomi healer Kapono Souza, the ukulele player Taimane Gardner, and myself.
Is Hawaii sophisticated? I think these islands are too improvisational socially to claim any sustained refinement, though some people fuss to make attempts. A society that recognizes sophistication is one with a well-defined social structure, and worldliness, which fragmented and divided and philistine Hawaii does not have. Putting on airs or having an attitude is not the same as having sophistication or good taste. A designer bag or a set of labels is laughable in such circumstances. A person who uses big words is mocked here for being pompous—“Too hybolic, eh,” in the pidgin phrase. A writer, as I know from experience, is unclassifiable and probably hybolic too. Who cares? Many races live more or less harmoniously here, the murder rate is low, and we have the best weather on earth. At heart, Hawaii retains the oldfangled attitudes of its plantation history, with the predictable divisions and grievances. But the spirit of “aloha”—an island agreement to be civil—is a unifying factor.
Who has status in Hawaii? Only the Hawaiian ali’i—the genuine nobles—and the old-timers, kamaaina, descendants of the missionary families. Pedigree matters more than money. Some of the old multigenerational Chinese and Japanese families have class, and a certain amount of philanthropy might get you noticed. Everyone else is here on sufferance, and is regarded as a wash-ashore. ** These are islands, after all, with limited elbow room.
The most important thing to know about Hawaii is that it is not one place but many, an archipelago sitting in the ocean, 2,300 miles from the nearest land mass. We have no neighbors and are subject to minimal influences. We are a cluster of high volcanic islands, some of them dramatic and uninhabited, many with towns or villages, a few heavily urbanized, some of them disfigured and tormented by developers.
Hawaii is not like other places—not even like other island groups. That is Hawaii’s boast, but there is more to know. I love it for its easygoing folks, the house I built in the middle of nowhere, its marine sunshine, its beaches, its informality, and its isolation. But isolation can create distortions—Hawaii’s remoteness has produced its own ways of behaving, oddities of culture, language, and food. Consider the floppy aloha shirt and its eye-blinding colors—but most people own one (or 20), and it is part of the informal dress code of Honolulu’s exclusive Outrigger Canoe Club. When the distinguished food writer Mark Bittman visited Honolulu not long ago, he appeared on a local TV show and was enthusiastically offered a local specialty, which he gazed at with alarm and nibbled with caution. It was a Spam musubi—a slice of precooked meat product on a rectangle of clammy white rice, the whole thing wrapped in a ribbon of green seaweed. He praised it—like a polite guest—but you could see his gorge rise. Pidgin English is another peculiarity of the islands, a linguistic gabble, also the result of isolation. The survival of native Hawaiian culture is practically a miracle, given its years of suppression by missionaries and its vulgarization by the tourist trade, but it has been assertive and now flourishes.
Hawaii had a monarchy, so plenty of people claim to have titles, but the real royalty are the princes and princesses of surfing and hula. A big-wave surfer is king of the beach, and a local idol; a brilliant hula dancer—woman or man—is admired by everyone, for being graceful and maintaining a link with the ancient past.
Rather than sophistication, Hawaii has style. And because Hawaii is possessed of outstanding natural beauty, it is simple, barefoot, short-sleeve, billowy-dress style, related to the outdoors. Hawaii makes the most of its superb climate, and many of the big-money weddings I’ve attended have taken place on a lawn or a beach; the family luau is a popular event, a baby luau (held when a child turns 1) is a significant milestone, and many concerts and festivals are held outside. The outdoor party is greatly valued for its freedom of movement.
After traveling the world, and being a resident for years in a number of countries, I came to Hawaii and fell in love—first with a woman, then with the place itself. Love with the woman has been consistent, but my love affair with Hawaii has had its ups and downs over the past 27 years, always reminding me of Marcel Proust’s dictum in Time Regained: “The only true paradise is a paradise we have lost.”
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