Hawaii: Foraging on Fantasy Island

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01 September 2012

Hawaii has often been the exotic island from, and for, central casting. But now, as Amruta Slee discovers, appropriately for an archipelago Captain Cook called the Sandwich Islands, its multicultural fusion cuisine is in the spotlight.

It’s no surprise to find, on a movie tour of the island of Kauai, that this has been the backdrop for more than 60 movies, TV shows, commercials and videos. The northernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago, Kauai is Hawaii in shorthand: hibiscus, frangipani, surf, sand, waterfalls. Elvis got married there in Blue Hawaii, Rita Hayworth gave its sights a run for their money in Miss Sadie Thompson, and Gilligan’s crew began there before moving to Oahu.

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What is surprising is that Kauai has also stood in for many other countries. In Tropic Thunder it played Vietnam. It’s been Africa, it’s been New England, it’s even been outback Australia in The Thorn Birds. And several times, as in the 1976 remake of King Kong or Jurassic Park, it’s been a metaphorical island, a place that is whatever people want it to be.

Which is kind of true. Ever since Captain Cook’s ships arrived in 1778, gleefully recording a land of libidinous women, verdant loveliness and adoring natives, Hawaii has been a canvas for projected fantasies. Though Cook met a gruesome end there, the idea of an enchanted isle lingers. Author Paul Theroux who has lived there for the past 22 years, notes that it is invariably depicted as "a paradise pinned like a bouquet to the middle of the Pacific, fragrant, sniffable and easy of access".

On a more literal note, reclusive American heiress and Islamic art collector Doris Duke, who settled in Oahu, called her splendid house, now a splendid museum, Shangri La, a mythical place of perfect living.

It has been such a successful branding exercise that the reality can come as a bit of a shock. On first sight, modern Honolulu’s overcrowded shores and shopping malls feel disorienting – why aren’t there more palm trees? What’s with the traffic? Is that really a Macy’s store?

Indeed it is. Hawaii may be about five hours’ flight away from the mainland and it may be Polynesian at heart, but it is a part of the United States. With distinct boundaries. "Being Hawaiian has a better feel in the world than being American," one local says bluntly when asked about national identity. "We make a point of being quite different from the mainland." 

Those differences are apparent even in the big smoke of Honolulu. Hawaii’s airports may be the only ones in the world where officials still smile as though they mean it. Considering that some two million tourists a year pass through the place, that must count as a minor miracle.

The majority of visitors end up in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, where they head straight for Waikiki beach. Fair enough, because this is one of the world’s great beaches, like Miami, LA’s Venice, or Bondi: slightly loud, slightly corny, but ultimately winning with its wedding parties, its college kids, mystic surfer dudes and ukulele players, its Japanese lady tourists dressed in gloves and parasols – all communing with its pearly waters and pastel sunsets.

However, Hawaii Tourism is attempting to broaden visitor horizons by marketing the other islands, particularly Kauai. They’ve had unexpected help from The Descendants, a movie that has encouraged a new wave of tourists eager to spot its star George Clooney jogging along the island’s most famous stretch of beach, Hanalei Bay.

He’s unlikely to be found, but the place has other charms. Those looking for the Hawaii of old will find it here in what is called "the countryside". Kauai’s zoning laws forbid building anything higher than four storeys, or more poetically, taller than a mature coconut tree. There’s only one main road, much of it rimmed by forest, the townships are small and the scenery is absurdly beautiful.

It takes a car to properly get around. Correction: it takes a car, a kayak, a surfboard and most definitely a helicopter. A 90-minute ride with Island Helicopters takes in benign palm-tree coasts, velvety canopies of forest, deep emerald valleys lined with waterfalls and then something wilder and less expected: Waimea’s vast desert canyon. Folds of red and black lava mountains stretch away to the horizon, the Na Pali Coast, whose cliff fortresses plunge down into the sea. The internal walls of Mount Waialeale, an extinct volcano, are wreathed in clouds and wallpapered with ancient plants. How all this geographical wonder has been reduced to a few sun-drenched postcards is a mystery.

But then this might be the key to Hawaii’s enduring appeal. What keeps people coming back time and again is that for all its surface familiarity, Hawaii remains elusive. "Not one place but many," as Theroux sums it up: a paradise for sure, but one with more than a few secrets up its sleeve.

Eat & Drink

Hawaii’s food scene has come a long way since the days of spam and pineapple salads, but it has a way to go. For all the talk about the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine revolution of the 1990s and the "farm to table" movement of right now, few ingredients on menus are local. In this heavily unionised state, labour is expensive and 90 per cent of food is imported. Bizarrely, much of the local produce is exported. Don’t look for traditional food. Menus reflect the influences of successive waves of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Portuguese and other nationalities who now make up a big part of Hawaii’s population: ahi (tuna) tacos, ceviche served in a coconut, corn chowder, Cajun-style beef. Fusion may have fallen out of favour elsewhere, but in this polyglot society, it’s the future.

That said, there are treats to be had. Sometimes eating well means booking into an upmarket restaurant, other times, it’s knowing which food truck/fish market/hot dog stand to form a queue at.

Best Japanese food
Morimoto, Waikiki, Honolulu. 
www.morimotowaikiki.com
Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant, set in The Modern Honolulu hotel, has clean, pretty food, a casual vibe and a good wine list. Yes it’s fusion, but it works, from the crispy rock shrimp tempura to the angry chicken. Ask for a morimoto tai to kick the evening off. 

Best people watching bar
Mai 
www.royal-hawaiian.com/dining/maitaibar
Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian, Honolulu. The cocktails are good, the pink Moorish hotel is ravishing and the world is walking by on the beach. Get there early to get a seat right up the front or go with a group and grab one of the pink cabana tents.

Best cheesy sunset photo op
Beach House Restaurant, Poipu Beach, Kauai. 
www.the-beach-house.com
An old surf-and-turf hangout in a prime spot with French doors opening right out onto the beach. At sunset, patrons put down their drinks and pose under the palms while surfers glide past in the background.

Best frat boy cuisine
Island Taco, Waimea, Kauai. 
www.islandfishtaco.com
Give in to an inner American college kid food urge at this tiny pit stop, where the tasty shrimp, chicken and beef tacos are fresh and local in style. Across the road, Jo Jo’s has what’s said to be the finest shaved ice desserts on the island and they’re huge – so save room. 

Best fresh fish
Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant & Fish Market, Kauai. 
www.royal-hawaiian.com/dining/maitaibar
Excellent sashimi, sushi, poke (it sits somewhere between sashimi and ceviche) and other fish fancies. Warning: they like their spice. The mini market next door does takeaway snacks if eating on the beach down the street is preferable. 

Best fresh food
Living Foods Market & Cafe, Kauai. 
www.livingfoodskauai.com
After drowning in too many sauces, rubs and spices, the salads, organic produce and designer-healthy feel of this deli-cum-cafe feel like a lifeboat. Even the homemade pizza is sublime. The owner also runs Bar Acuda in Hanalei.
 
Best restaurant vibe 
www.koakea.com/dining-at-red-salt
Red Salt, Poipu Beach, Kauai. Manager Chris Steuri trained in Switzerland and it shows. From the great breads to the mushroom bisque to the shrimp carbonara linguine to the buoyant atmosphere, Red Salt is an expertly run piece of Europe in the cute Koa Kea Hotel.

Best steakhouse
Beachhouse, Moana Surfrider, Honolulu. 
www.moana-surfrider.com
Waikiki’s first hotel, beaux arts in style, is both elegant and casual – very Hawaiian, in fact. The gracious dining room overlooks the beach and serves good, unpretentious fare. The beef is from Pennsylvania (Amish-raised, no less), a lot of the fish and vegetables are local, and the chef has a blissfully light touch. 

This month (Sep 6-9) Hawaii hosts its second annual Food & Wine Festival, with international chefs such as Australia’s Tetsuya Wakuda as well as local luminaries such as Roy Yamaguchi.

Source Qantas The Australian Way September 2012

Amruta Slee

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