Mike Sisiem sits on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and waits for customers. At 52, he still looks like a surfer from a brochure – tanned, extremely relaxed and one with the sea. Here, on the most famous beach in Hawaii, the islands, where surfing flourished in its present form and from where it was carried all over the world, guys like him glide through the surf on their boards shortly after sunrise.
But Sisiem not only surfs, he offers beach visitors an even older Hawaiian tradition: trips on the outrigger canoe. Small, fast paddle boats of this type probably discovered the islands more than a thousand years ago – by adventurers from Polynesia.
The tempting promise of South Pacific flair still surrounds the islands today. Hawaii, synonymous with a peaceful, exotic world, has long since become a destination. The 50th state of the USA offers tourist packages for honeymooners, nature and beach vacationers – but can they really find what they’re looking for here? Did the island romanticism survive the Americanization and the tourist marketing? Or was it an invention of the travel industry from the start, a legend?
Paddling like the Polynesians a thousand years ago
What is it about the myth of Hawaii? You can actually experience its origins here, literally: with paddles in hand on Sisiems’ ten-meter long outrigger canoe, the slim Polynesian boat with a stabilizing outrigger on the side.
As a captain, Sisiem focuses on steering through the waves – not an easy thing. The apprenticeship lasted over ten years, and only a few achieved the master’s license.
He turns the canoe a few hundred meters from the beach. After a pause, the sharp command comes to paddle the four tourists who sit one behind the other in the narrow hull. The boat is lifted onto the crest of the wave and shoots towards the beach.
It is a wet pleasure – and a reminder of Hawaii’s founding myth. Around the first turn of the millennium AD, intrepid sailors from Polynesia discovered and settled the Pacific archipelago at the Tropic of Cancer.
They must have been on the go for weeks on their wooden canoes, around 3,500 kilometers across the open sea without technical navigation aids, trusting in their feeling for water, wind, clouds and stars. Nobody imitated them that quickly.
Hawaii is a long-term destination with many facets
A Polynesian-Hawaiian culture was able to develop undisturbed by external influences for around eight centuries – until the British James Cook found and shaped the islands in 1778 and then at ever shorter intervals. They carried the news of an exotic paradise into the world and created dream pictures that tourists follow to this day.
Sonorous names like Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai or Big Island mark a tourist destination with many facets. Whoever says Hawaii calls up a colorful program in the mental cinema: sun, sand, exuberant natural beauty, rich colors. But also spectacular and not harmless volcanic eruptions with glowing lava flows.
One thinks of hula dancers who sway to the high sound of the ukulele. Or there is the languishing Elvis Presley in technicolor and with a flower chain around his neck, while private investigator Magnum carries out his colorful shirts in a red Ferrari.
The dinosaurs from Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park”, one of the many films that were filmed here, romp through the rainforest. IZ’s cover version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” provides the right Hawaii sound, and the all-defining move is the elegant ride over the waves.
Surfing is popular sport in Honolulu
While the tour in the outrigger canoe is reminiscent of the hard work of early seafarers and fishermen, surfing is literally the supreme discipline in cultural history. The bays with the best waves were once reserved for the rulers, and the first king of Hawaii, Kamehameha I, was a legendary surfer.
After his death in 1819, the unique culture, including the almost holy surfing popular with the whole people, suffered. The Christian missionaries condemned it as pagan and immoral – men and women surfed together – idleness, which was soon banned. When the adventurous Royal David Kalakaua became king in 1874, he resurrected the tradition of surfing.
Today, the former royal residence, Honolulus Iolani Palace, a museum and surfing is again an integral part of Hawaiian culture. It is part of everyday life that water-drenched surfers of all ages walk the streets balancing the board on their heads. Only those who can afford it have parked their boards on brackets on the beach, where they are locked in rows.
On the Waikiki waterfront, a larger-than-life statue pays homage to the man who is revered in Hawaii as the “king of surfers”: Duke Kahanamoku (1890–1968). The three-time Olympic swimming champion is considered the founder and global ambassador for today’s surfing. Numerous leis (the colorful wreaths of flowers that can be pulled from refrigerated machines at the airport for $ 20) hang on the arms of the statue, which are spread out to bless the surfers.
Surfing is popular sport, especially in Honolulu, where almost everyone dares to board. The experts, on the other hand, meet on the north coast of Oahu. In the north, it is rougher on all Hawaii islands. It rains a lot here, the steady trade wind brings huge clouds and really big waves from the east.
The vegetation is lush and becomes tropical at higher altitudes. The tranquil town of Haleiwa is a hotspot for the surfing scene and, although it reminds a little of a small California town, it can still be called Hawaiian.
Fusion cuisine and traditional dishes in the city
Honolulu, on the other hand, could be described as the Manhattan of Hawaii. There, where Europeans and Americans, weary of civilization, thought a paradise more than a hundred years ago, new skyscrapers are always growing up. In the streets behind Waikiki Beach, American malls with standardized shops from international brands are waiting for wealthy customers.
The culinary offerings also follow globalization. There are numerous branches of the usual burger and chicken chains. Does the city fail the authenticity test? Not at all, because even here you can find the real taste of the islands. Noble restaurants maintain the Hawaiian fusion cuisine, which reflects the legacy of the different immigrants from North and South America, from Europe, but also from Japan and China.
Very original dishes have also been preserved, such as the traditional Luau banquet: a whole Kalua pig is wrapped in taro leaves, buried in the hot lava soil and slowly cooked. The roots of the taro plant become Poi mashed, a tough porridge that you have to like. Fresher tastes against it Poke: For the traditional Fischer meal, raw, marinated pieces of fish are refined in various combinations with algae, vegetables, berries, salt, chilli and nuts.
It is worth looking for the small bars of “Hawaii’s Favorite Kitchens”. Under this label, young family businesses offer simple but good things, such as Malasada, an airy lard pastry that originally comes from Portugal. It tastes good – and protects the travel budget.
Because Honolulu is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Rents are exorbitant, prices are high. A beer (also available in Hawaii, even home-brewed) costs eight dollars, a glass of wine doubles, two beach chairs under an umbrella cost 50 dollars. Still, the Pacific Islands – over a five-hour flight from San Francisco or seven and a half from Tokyo – are more attractive than ever. With almost ten million guests, the seventh record number of visitors in a row was reached in 2018.
Fake beaches and jungle backdrops
Hawaii lives well from mass tourism. The most important asset is its immaculate sandy beaches. But they have been at risk of erosion and rising sea levels for years. In the three-kilometer Waikiki Bay, for example, more and more sand is disappearing in the sea.
Replenishments are brought in from the neighboring island of Molokai so that the fairytale view is preserved. Artificially built fake sandy beaches. Which doesn’t bother many tourists because they don’t notice it.
The real great illusionists are at work half an hour’s drive north of Honolulu. The American film industry has discovered the island’s jungle scenario. The 1600 hectare Kualoa Ranch was set for many Hollywood films. In addition to “Godzilla” or “Südsee-Paradies”, TV series such as “Lost” were filmed here. On the dream beaches, Drew Barrymore acted through “50 first dates”.
The dream factory continues to work, and the ranch is a single amusement park: Anyone who traverses the valley between the mountain ranges in a vintage bus, on horseback or on off-road motorcycles will discover an artificial backdrop with World War II bunkers, South American drug villages or alpine via ferratas made of plaster.
Big Island is the island of superlatives
Big Island – the island of superlatives – offers natural, spectacular backdrops, 40 minutes’ flight away. With 10,500 square kilometers, four times the area of the Saarland, Big Island is the largest of the islands.
The city of Hilo is considered the rainiest in the USA. The Mauna Kea volcano is the highest mountain in Hawaii at 4205 meters. From the coast to the alpine peaks, eleven of the world’s 13 climate and vegetation zones are said to be found. Skiing in the morning, snorkeling in the evening, here it is possible.
For Ehitu, Big Island is simply “the paradise everyone wants to live in” – and “too beautiful to move away”. The young Hawaiian tried it. He studied tourism in Pennsylvania, played basketball professionally.
It went well for him, but the homesickness was stronger, even if he can’t make ends meet with a job on Hawaii Island: he guides tourists around his island, he also sells used surfboards, sells photos of surfing and goes hunting and fishing , to save money. But he obviously enjoys life in his paradise, about which he cannot tell enough. “Ask, ask! I love questions! “
Tour to lava fields and volcanoes
Ehitu, which means “number seven” because he is the seventh child of his mother and weighed seven pounds at birth, praises the new four-lane roads and even shows understanding for the strict speed controls: “We have little crime, so the cops have to do it busy yes. “
Above all, Ehitu knows about volcanoes. His tour leads to the gray-black plateau of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, in the middle of which the Halemaumau crater is steaming and bubbling.
Not far away you can explore tunnels that were created in the rock-blower, or huge, cooled lava fields that stretch from the four-thousand-meter peaks into the sea. If the black rock forms smooth shapes like a cake batter, it is pahoehoe lava – while aa lava is brittle and rough.
It is a fascinatingly inhospitable landscape that has its secrets. There must be water somewhere in this lunar landscape. Plants occasionally squeeze through the black rock masses, like the ohia tree with its red flowers. It only exists in Hawaii. According to legend, the warriors Ohia and the beautiful Lehua, who had previously separated the jealous volcanic goddess Pele, are united in bloom and tribe.
“The Americans Illegally Occupied Hawaii”
The cultivation of Hawaiian mythology and culture is experiencing a renaissance – and this shows how holidaymaker interest can also have a positive effect. The tourism authority is committed to the Hawaiian language, the alphabet of which is only twelve letters. So she tries to enforce the punctuation with the ’Okina (German:“ separation ”), the apostrophe that indicates the correct pronunciation – for example Hawai’i instead of Hawaii or O’ahu instead of Oahu.
The respect for the cultural heritage prevails, also at the hula shows in the big hotels. The dances that originally performed only men are less Americanized. Bast skirt and big band sound disappear. The original dance representation of the myths and one’s own story come to the fore again.
Approaches of an independence movement can also be discovered, for example on political graffiti on house walls. Etihu, who is always in a good mood, suddenly becomes serious as he drives past a US Army base. It is present everywhere, the islands between America and Asia have always been of great strategic importance. “The Americans illegally occupied Hawaii,” says Ehitu, to the detriment of the Hawaiians.
Descendants of the indigenous people demand independence
On the right side of his body he is tattooed with the story of his family, from neck to toe. Ehitu proudly points out that he is 56 percent indigenous. How does he come up with the number?
Genetic tests are carried out – which not only alienates visitors from Europe – in order to determine the ethnicity of the real Hawaiians. A daring venture in a region that has been home to Polynesians, Japanese, Chinese, mainland North Americans, South Americans and various Europeans for centuries.
But those who can identify themselves as descendants of the indigenous people get advantages, for example when it comes to places in schools or apartments. In 1993 the US government apologized for the 1898 annexation, but little has changed in the balance of power and property.
The call for independence therefore does not fall silent. It is also evident in the ubiquitous Aloha spirit, even laid down in the law. This means openness, respect and tolerance for each other, but also the connection to nature and the love for home and other people.
The Aloha greeting is often underlined by the Shaka gesture, which comes from Hawaii. You roll your ring, middle and index fingers into the palm of your hand, while your thumb and little finger are spread apart.
Ehitu is convinced that the Polynesian canoe captains were able to navigate with it. With the fingers spread, the distance between the stars and the horizon was measured and thus the position on the Pacific was determined. Nowadays you wiggle your hand lightly too – the perfect Hawaiian greeting gesture.
Tips and information
Getting there: For example with Lufthansa or United Airlines to San Francisco, on to Honolulu on Oahu, Hawaii’s largest airport. There are many connections between Hawaiian Airlines between the islands. Because of the long journey, it makes sense to combine a Hawaiian vacation with a trip to the US west coast.
Accommodation: The “Alohilani Resort Waikiki”, renovated in 2018, ranks among the high-rise buildings on Waikiki Beach and offers a pool, spa, bars and a shop for snacks, drinks and beach supplies, the rooms with balconies have direct sea views or side views of mountains and Sea, double room from 178 per person (alohilaniresort.com). One of the oldest hotels in Hawaii is the “Volcano House” in the Volcanoes National Park on Big Island – if the Kilauea allows it, you can look directly into its crater, 33 rustic, simple rooms, double rooms from 159 dollars (hawaiivolcanohouse.com). The “Royal Lahaina Resort” on Maui is located north of the old whaling town of Lahaina directly on the beautiful Kaanapali Beach, extensive grounds with pools, spa, tennis courts, double rooms from $ 220 (royallahaina.com).
Island hopping: FTI Touristik offers many round trips, such as an 11-day rental car tour “Exotic Hawaii” via Oahu, Big Island, Maui, including domestic Hawaiian flights, overnight stays, road map, 24-hour hotline (rental car of your choice not included), from 1535 euros per person; or 14 days “Hawaii for adventurers” via Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island with similar services plus four excursion packages, from 3208 per person (fti.de). By ship: Studiosus offers a 17-day study trip “Hawaii – Pacific Coast – Dream Islands”, six days cruise with the “Pride of America” through the Hawaiian island world with stops on Oahu, Maui, Big Island, Kauai and stays in Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, including flights from Germany, domestic flights, full board, excursions, from 7290 per person (studiosus.com).
Editor’s tip: In Lahaina on Maui you can eat and drink well at “Fleetwood’s On Front Street” (fleetwoodsonfrontst.com), owner Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac is sometimes said to perform personally.
Further information: gohawaii.com/de
Participation in the trip was supported by FTI Touristik and Hawai’i Tourism Europe. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit.