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ALOHA, HONOLULU PATHS OF HAWAIIAN FATE, FORTUNE HAVE INTESECTED HERE.

Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

HONOLULU - Hawaii's largest city is misunderstood by some visitors to the islands, willfully ignored by others.

Tourists at Waikiki Beach's high-rise hotels might assume that this is downtown Honolulu, not realizing that the islands' core of commerce and governance is, in fact, several miles away; Waikiki is more akin to a suburb.

Other vacationers probably don't care one way or another. On the flight in, they spy that tangle of office buildings and boulevards and conclude that their concept of unspoiled tropical paradise has been grievously offended. Off they promptly jet to the more verdant reaches of Maui, Kauai or the Big Island.

Both cases are a pity, because Honolulu, though bustling, noisy and gritty, is the historical and cultural heart of Hawaii. Over the past century and a half, it has been the seat of royalty, a center of commerce for entrepreneurs and immigrant laborers, a shelter for warships. It is also an uncommon urban center - bathed in sun and caressed by a sea breeze, with public art sprouting like hibiscus blossoms in every open space.

And don't be too distressed by all those skyscrapers. Honolulu's defining symbol is still a natural one - the craggy prow of Diamond Head, which towers above the cityscape at the east end of town. It need make no apologies to such man-made cousins as Sydney's Opera House, Paris' Eiffel Tower or Seattle's Space Needle.

A much more poignant symbol stands in the center of downtown, and it's probably appropriate to begin an exploration of Honolulu here, at Iolani Palace. Built in 1882 for Hawaii's ``Merry Monarch,'' King David Kalakaua, it holds the distinction as the only royal residence on American soil.

When you venture inside on a guided tour - slipping cloth booties over your shoes to protect the rich wooden floors - you'll receive an encapsulated, neutral overview of the dashing of Hawaii's innocence.

Kalakaua, an introductory film reports, was fascinated by Britain's royal trappings and fashioned his monarchy accordingly. There he is in a portrait, looking silly wearing a sash, braided gold cord, a spray of medals on his breast and a tunic buttoned to his chin - on a day when it was probably the requisite 85 degrees on the south shore of Oahu.

The opulent palace, built in what has been described as an ``American Florentine'' design, was intended to signify the strength of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Right. Soon after Kalakaua died in 1891, his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown by powerful businessmen - many of them the progeny of missionaries - who held powerful political sway in the city. The monarchy gave way to a republic, then a U.S. territory and, ultimately, in 1959, a state.

The vestiges of the final days of the island kingdom can be perused on the tour. A magnificent staircase is of prized native koa wood, polished to a high sheen. A Throne Room done in shades of regal red and gold was used for balls and receptions.

This building, guests are told, was also one of the first of its type to have electric lights (before even the White House and Buckingham Palace). But the system was so primitive that there was only one switch, in the basement. ``So when the king got sleepy and wanted to retire,'' said our guide, ``everyone else had little choice than to go to bed, too.''

The saddest corner of the palace is surely the upstairs room in which Liliuokalani was held under house arrest for eight months after being deposed. It holds a simple twin bed, a table and chairs and - the greatest insult of all - windows that were tinted opaque so that she could not see out or others see in. Because of the perceived danger of the queen inciting insurrection, she was only permitted out on the lanai after dark.

The seeds of all this were unwittingly sown a short distance away. At the Mission Houses Museum, visitors can take a formal tour or stroll independently among the clapboard, New England-style homes built here by Congregationalist missionaries after their arrival in the 1820s.

The houses have small windows, designed to keep out the brutal chill of winter - which never materializes here. They have attic rooms, which had to be stifling in the tropics in the days before air conditioning. And cellars? To what purpose?

Next door, in the rear graveyard of the coral-block Kawaiahao Church, it's intriguing to survey the headstones of the missionaries' business- minded offspring - Alexanders, Baldwins, Castles, Cookes and Doles who drove Hawaii's fortunes at the end of the 19th century. Overhanging plumeria trees drop their delicate, fragrant blossoms among the graves, including that of Sanford B. Dole, pineapple magnate, first president of the republic and chief instigator in the dethroning of a queen.

The plantations - first sugar, later pineapples - profoundly shaped the makeup of Honolulu's citizenry. For confirmation, head a few blocks west to Hotel Street and the city's Chinatown district.

As native Hawaiians died in droves from diseases introduced by whites, the demand for field workers became extreme, and poor people seeking a fresh start poured into the city. The Chinese were first, followed by (in succession) Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans and Filipinos.

The ethnic mix of the city is resultantly rich, and even today in Chinatown you'll find Vietnamese and Thai food stands competing vigorously with the many purveyors of dim sum.

Unfortunately, Honolulu's Chinatown has also become the city's refuge for panhandlers and adult entertainment enterprises, so a visit here is not particularly comfortable in broad daylight - and a little risky after dark.

We thought a guided walking tour, led by an elderly fellow from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, would be preferable to exploring aimlessly. It proved a mild disappointment, largely because of the guide's grumpiness over the decline of his neighborhood and his inability to answer even simple queries. (What are these exotic herbs, and what maladies are they used for? ``Don't know,'' he'd say, and move on.)

The lunchtime delicacies at the Maunakea Marketplace (steaming heaps of chicken feet?) and the bins of fresh produce and fish at the open-air Oahu Market provided endless fascinations, however.

The waves of immigrants fairly swamped Hawaii's native culture, but two notable Honolulu institutions are caretakers of its remnants.

The Bishop Museum was established in 1889 as the repository for the treasures left behind by Princess Bernice Pauahi, the end of the royal Kamehameha line and the wife of Charles Reed Bishop.

Over its more than a century of existence, the museum has acquired thousands of artifacts of native Hawaiian history and anthropology, from ancient weapons and tools to 150-pound koa wood surfboards.

The Honolulu Academy of Arts is another steward of Hawaiian cultural expression. In the gallery that houses its ``Arts of Hawaii'' exhibit, visitors can examine leis made from the bright-yellow feathers of the oo bird and the now-extinct mamo.

The academy's collection of art from throughout Polynesia and Asia is extensive - fitting for a city that has long served as a Pacific Rim crossroads.

Once Hawaii was aswarm with planters, field workers and whalers, it wasn't long before a new visitor arrived: the leisure traveler.

An enduring symbol of the tourist trade (now Hawaii's largest industry) stands at Honolulu Harbor. When it was built in the 1920s as a reckoning point for incoming ships, the 184-foot Aloha Tower was the tallest edifice in the islands.

The vast majority of visitors now arrive at the airport a couple of miles west, but the top of the clock tower still announces ``Aloha'' in all four directions. There is no charge to ride an elevator to the 10th-floor observation deck and look out over the Pacific, the mountain slopes - and the office buildings that now dwarf this little blip on the waterfront.

From the very beginning, tourism was concentrated along Waikiki Beach. And why not? The gentle crescent of sand. The perpetual sun of the south-facing shore. The inviting waters. The commanding presence of Diamond Head.

Most visitors don't need much help navigating their way through Waikiki today, but don't miss a few important links to Hawaii's tourism genesis.

--A statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimmer, surfing pioneer and goodwill ambassador for Hawaii, stands in a beach park on Kalakaua Avenue (across the street from the Hyatt Regency). Duke's outreaching arms are almost always draped with colorful flower leis.

--The Waikiki Historic Trail has 22 sites peppered around the region, most along the beach. They are marked with placards in the shape of surfboards jammed into the sand.

--To savor some wide-open spaces after jostling with the other tourists along Waikiki, head to 500-acre Kapiolani Park at the base of Diamond Head. This land was set aside for public enjoyment 126 years ago. Alas, the long-running Kodak Hula Show at the Waikiki Shell recently died a quiet death.

--By all means, don't fail to poke your head into Bailey's Antiques & Aloha Shirts, a couple of blocks from the beach on Kapahulu Avenue. The store is a treasure trove of island kitsch - called Hawaiiana by avid collectors. In here you'll find such tourist gifts as hula-girl lamps with fringe around the shade, as well as the store's serious stock in trade: aloha shirts. There are more than 5,000 in stock, including the vintage stuff from the '40s and '50s featuring images of palm trees, pineapples and bathing beauties riding to shore atop the shoulders of muscular surfers.

It was the beguiled servicemen of this era who put Hawaii tourism on the map just a few years after Imperial Japan nearly wiped the island from it.

At the end of 1941, America was jolted from its complacency and isolation by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, at the western edge of Honolulu. To this day, most visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial are stunned into silence as the shuttle boats pull up to the simple white memorial that sits astride the sunken battleship.

The ship's massive bulk is visible just below the surface of the water, and a rusted turret protrudes. Droplets of oil still ooze from its hull from time to time. Most of a crew of 1,177 are entombed in there, the Arizona having sunk in less than nine minutes after a bomb crashed into its ammunition magazine.

Four years after World War II ended, a military cemetery was established on a hillside overlooking Honolulu in a dormant volcano crater called the Punchbowl. The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific holds the graves of another 776 Pearl Harbor victims along with more than 13,000 of the war's dead from various Pacific killing grounds, including Japanese prison camps.

Don't feel guilty if you're distracted by the beauty of the setting. Locals and visitors alike have been coming up here since the inception of the cemetery to take in a sweeping overlook of Honolulu.

The breadth of high-rise development might be a little dismaying from here, especially when you consider that it all sprang up in the space of about 40 years. Visits like yours drove it.

Somewhere down there, in the heart of downtown, is a gilded statue of Kamehameha I, the monarch who forcibly unified the disparate, bellicose tribes of the island chain in the late 1700s.

Towers of steel, stone and glass rise all about the king, obscuring his view of the Koolau Mountains, blunting the ocean breezes at his back, mocking him with the hollow shell of a royal palace across the street.

Once the appeal of his enchanting empire was widely known, there was just no stopping them.

Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681

eric.noland(at)dailynews.com

IF YOU GO

BAILEY'S ANTIQUES & ALOHA SHIRTS: 517 Kapahulu Ave. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (808) 734-7628.

BISHOP MUSEUM: 1525 Bernice St. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $14.95 for adults, $11.95 for seniors 65 and up and children ages 4 to 12. (808) 847-3511; www.bishopmuseum.org.

CHINATOWN: Tourism information available at www.chinatownhi.com. Chamber of Commerce walking tour, held from 9:30 a.m. to noon Tuesdays, meets at 42 N. King St., cost is $5 per person, (808) 533-3181. A walking tour alternative - a cook's tour of Chinatown markets - is offered through the Hawaii Heritage Center, (808) 988-0456.

HONOLULU ACADEMY OF ARTS: 900 S. Beretania St. Open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for seniors 62 and up and students. Children 12 and under are free. (808) 532-8700; www.honoluluacademy.org.

IOLANI PALACE: South King Street between Richards and Punchbowl streets. Reservations and ticket office open 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The 90-minute Grand Tour, offered every 30 minutes between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., costs $20 for adults and $5 for kids ages 5 to 17. No guests under age 5 are allowed. A self-guided Gallery Tour of exhibits in the palace basement costs $10 for adults and $5 for kids (the Gallery is included in the Grand Tour). Information and reservations: (808) 522-0832; www.iolanipalace.org.

Note: Try to park on the grounds of the palace, where the limit is four hours, rather than the surrounding streets, where it is two hours (for the 90-minute tour, you'll cut this close). In either event, parking is at meters only, and the tariff is 25 cents per 15 minutes. Bring plenty of quarters.

MISSION HOUSES MUSEUM: 553 S. King St. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Tours of the houses, conducted at 10 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., cost $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 55 and up, $6 for students. (808) 531-0481.

NATIONAL MEMORIAL CEMETERY (PUNCHBOWL): 2177 Puowaina Drive. Open 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 29 (until 5:30 p.m. from Sept. 30 through March 1). (808) 532-3720.

USS ARIZONA MEMORIAL: From the H-1 Freeway west, take the Arizona/Stadium exit (15A). Open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Interpretative program, including film and boat ride to memorial, begins at 8 a.m.; the last is at 3 p.m. There is no admission charge. (808) 422-0561; www.nps.gov/usar.

VISITOR INFORMATION: Honolulu Chamber of Commerce: www.cochawaii.org. Oahu Visitors Bureau: (877) 525-6248; www.visit-oahu.com.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) Honolulu is a city of magnificent views, a statue of a king and the kitsch of hula-girl lamps.

(4 -- 5) Honolulu's charms include the statue of famed swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku, right, on Waikiki Beach. The Aloha Tower, above, which welcomed ship-bound travelers in the days before jet travel, was built in 1926. At the time, it was Hawaii's tallest structure.

(6) Honolulu's Chinatown features plenty of markets and other businesses, including this herb specialist.

(7) The memory of Dec. 7, 1941, is kept alive at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1U9HI
Date:Jul 20, 2003
Words:2531
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