You either are a beach-and-palms tourist or you are not. I sometimes wish I were, but my idea of a good time is pacing through grimy Saint Petersburg, (the Russian one), following in the steps of Feodor Dostoyevsky's murderering Raskolnikov, or re-enacting James Joyce's Ulysses in Dublin. I am a cultural tourist, often using books as a way to get inside a place.
So while preparing to visit family in Hawaii, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the gross inaccuracy of my Elvis-movie-abetted notions of the state. Several substantial writers – the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Theroux, Joan Didion, Mark Twain and Jack London – have travelled here and described their encounters. There is also a long history of locals writing with passion and knowledge. And these observant visitors and residents can take the curious traveller well beyond Waikiki's pristine beaches, right into the thick of things.
On a hill overlooking downtown Honolulu, I meet up with the state's most successful author, Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose 2007 bestseller, The Descendants, was turned into a movie starring George Clooney. She's just back from delivering the keynote speech at a major literary conference on Maui – the event's existence just one of many signs of the flourishing literary scene here. The descendants referenced in her title are those who, like herself, have a dual heritage: Their ancestors are the New England missionaries who came here in the early 19th century and often married Hawaiian aristocrats. It's specific on the sights and sounds of Hawaii, but she reveals that she wrote the bulk of the novel while living in San Francisco (she grew up on Oahu and has now returned to live in Hawaii).
"I didn't need to see those places while writing," she tells me as she waits on the plush grounds of her (and Barack Obama's) alma mater, Punahou, for her daughter's dance lesson to finish. "They are all with me, every detail inside."
She suggests I visit Prima, a restaurant in Kailua, the town in which she lives on the other side of the island. I know it's one of those towns, because some of the well-heeled characters in Joan Didion's Democracy live there. I duly make my way there: It is pretty and posh, and the food – Italian-Hawaiian fusion, featuring local produce and seafood – does not disappoint.
Later, I drive my rental car – nicknamed Oahu, after what Mark Twain called the long-suffering horse he rode all over the island to get material for a California newspaper – to another one of Hemmings's recommendations, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, named for its deceased patroness, a Hawaiian princess whose family was also part indigenous royal and part haole (the local word for, roughly, gringo – pronounced "howlee").
The highlight of the museum is a multi-tiered, wood-panelled atrium with a traditional grass hut at its centre and a sperm-whale skeleton hanging from its ceiling. In glass cases, mixed in with traditional jewellery made from animal teeth and sleds used to hurtle down volcanic rock spurs, are the first Hawaiian-English dictionary (created by the missionaries) and a gorgeously bound, jewel-encrusted Bible translated into Hawaiian.
The royals made extensive use of their missionary-encouraged literacy. One recorded the oral-myth cycles for posterity; Liliuokalani, the last queen, documented her travails during the U.S. takeover of the islands in a still-in-print memoir, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen. Today, the Hawaiian language that the preachers took such pains to document and learn remains a living thing, its words present in every conversation with locals.
In downtown Honolulu, the Iolani Palace, the only former royal residence on U.S. soil, sits in the middle of a park. In its second storey is the airy room where Liliuokalani was imprisoned; it contains the quilt she did up, with help from visiting friends, during her captivity. The palace library is extensive, and holds one of the first telephones installed on the islands. Hawaii's monarchs tended to be highly cultured and early adopters of new technologies. In the dining room, the docent tells me, one king insisted on sitting at the table's middle, not its head, to better gather information from travellers. One distinguished visitor, Robert Louis Stevenson, became a friend.
I'm put onto my next site by writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who covers another, less elite slice of island life: Her ancestors were Japanese immigrants who came to work on the sugar plantations, now mainly gone. In her most recent novel, Behold the Many (2007), she looks back in anger, yes, but also with compassion and humour at the multi-ethnic society that grew up on those farms. Because the planters wanted to prevent feelings of solidarity among the workers, members of each group were encouraged to keep their customs, to speak their languages and to decorate their houses as they would in the old country.
At Plantation Village in Waipahu, west of Honolulu, the Japanese houses cluster around a communal bath, the Puerto Rican houses have Caribbean coffee plants growing around them and the pagoda-style Chinese social hall is painted a festive red. My guide is a Japanese-American who has just retired from the shipyard at Pearl Harbor, and whose plantation-worker father fought on the American side in the European Theatre in the Second World War.
He explains that the mix of foods you see sloshed together on one plate in Hawaiian fast-food restaurants – Japanese shoyu chicken, Chinese noodles, Portuguese-spiced pork, New England-inspired macaroni salad – comes out of the plantation culture. "We were never a melting pot. We were the world's first multicultural society," he argues. "Everyone you meet, they'll often tell you what parts of them are which heritage. That's often one of the first conversations you have."
Near the end of the trip, I read one of Mark Twain's dispatches for the Sacramento Union about trying to learn to surf. After a disastrous outing, he sniffs that "none but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly." I decide to follow him into the water to see whether I can do any better.
It would make for a better story if I'd wiped out dramatically. But whether it was my instructor's pointers, the gentle waves or sheer beginner's luck, I manage to stay on my board for good stretches of time. And (I know from the photos), I ride the water with a strange, exhilarated look on my face: So this is how the other, beach-and-palm-loving half lives. Not too bad, not too bad at all.
But then I notice the hau tree under which Stevenson is said to have lazed, perhaps comparing the actual tropics with those he'd dreamed up earlier in Treasure Island. And down the beach I know there's the famous Outrigger Club – a setting of key scenes in The Descendants. Once again, I am caught up in a sea of stories.
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO SEE
Bernice Puauahi Bishop Museum: The Hawaiian hall is the highlight of this museum. Through objects, it tells the story of how these islands came to be inhabited, and how the arrival of missionaries utterly changed the way of life here. bishopmuseum.org
Honolulu Museum of Art: Hawaii author James Michener donated his extensive collection of Japanese woodcuts to the museum, and many of them tell vivid stories. The museum also runs tours to tobacco heiress Doris Duke's beautiful Moorish themed-estate, Shangri-La. (Full disclosure: My brother-in-law is the museum's director.) honolulumuseum.org
Hans Hedemann Surf School: The absolute beginner gets a gentle intro on the usually minimal waves of Waikiki. hhsurf.com
Hawaii Book and Music Festival: The 8th annual festival runs May 18 to 19 and features Kaui Hart Hemmings, Maxine Hong Kingston and Julia Flynn Siler, the author of a new history of the U.S takeover of Hawaii. hawaiibookandmusicfestival.org
Iolani Palace: The docent tours are more expensive ($21.75) than the self-guided tours ($14.75), but worth it, since the guides are extensively versed in the history of this landmark, the only former royal residence on U.S. soil. iolanipalace.org
Kumu Kahua Theatre: Local dramas by local writers. Typical: a poignant kitchen-sink drama about three old Okinawan sisters – with, literally, a kitchen sink in it. kumukahua.org
Plantation Village: Workers were brought from all over the world to work on the sugar plantations of Hawaii. With its evocative worker houses, the museum gives a great overview of how Hawaii became, arguably, the world first multicultural society. hawaiiplantationvillage.org
WHERE TO STAY
Ilikai Hotel and Suites: Sarah Vowell stayed in this Waikiki high-rise when researching her chatty history of Hawaii, Unfamiliar Fishes. The suites (from about $220 a night) are large; some are being remodeled in a suave boutique style, away from the sort of classic Miami Beach style of the others. Both have their fans. ilikaihotel.com
New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel: This lesser-known gem is at the less populated end of Waikiki, with rare access right onto the beach. Its downstairs is Hawaii casual, with a beachside restaurant under a hau tree that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about – but its suites are Tokyo elegant. Rooms from $175. kaimana.com
WHERE TO EAT
Prima: Descendants author Kaui Hart Hemmings's favourite restaurant in her pretty hometown of Kailua. primahawaii.com
Rainbow Drive-In: Among President Barack Obama's first stops when he returns to his home state is this fast-food joint to get one of its famous plate lunches, with a mishmash of foods from all over the world. rainbowdrivein.com
Salt Kitchen and Tasting Bars: The partners behind this popular eatery once salted a pig and dined on everything from snout to tail; sometime during the feast the idea of this restaurant was born. The vibe here is lively and hip. You must try the fried oysters. salthonolulu.com
WHAT TO READ
Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 1984): This is among Joan Didion's best, but least celebrated novels. It features a Kennedy-esque couple, with a wife whose family are members of the Hawaiian elite. In that Didion way, it both critiques and celebrates the American empire, and shows Hawaii's role in some of the wars, covert and overt, that the United States fought last century in and around the Pacific.
The Descendants (Random House, 2007): Kaui Hart Hemmings's book and the movie it inspired are credited by locals with getting a certain slice of island life just right. The society seems casual and easygoing, but much is brewing underneath the aloha-to-all surface.
Mark Twain in Hawaii (Mutual Publishing, 1990): His travels around the island on his nag, Oahu, remain vivid, relevant reading – and he gets in a good joke, often at his own expense, almost every page.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (Bamboo Ridge Press, 1993): Lois-Ann Yamanaka's book of dramatic monologues by various teenagers, revisits, with humour and honesty, the human wreckage of the plantation system.
Unfamiliar Fishes (Riverhead, 2011): Sarah Vowell's bestseller aptly conjures up the royal period – and the skulduggery that ended it. A visitor from the mainland, she nonetheless makes penetrating observations about how this history makes itself felt in the present day.
Hawaii (Fawcett, 1959): Nothing if not comprehensive, James A. Michener takes the islands from their volcanic formation, through settlement by Polynesians, to the mid-20th century.
Writer travelled courtesy of the Oahu Visitors Bureau.