HONOLULU, HAWAII — The Honolulu Academy of Arts has long been one of Hawaii's best-kept secrets - tour operators don't stop there. Visitors who go on their own come away with a satisfying sense of discovery - not only because they see something that typical tourists don't, but because the quality of the collections is high and the way they're displayed is superb.
The museum's 32 galleries frame a half-dozen courtyards filled with lush plantings.
The museum was founded in 1927 by Anna Rice Cooke, a member by birth and marriage of Hawaii's missionary-turned-merchant elite.
Mrs. Cooke's initial gift of some 4,500 works of art included works by European masters such as Van Gogh and Pissaro as well as textiles and ceramics from China.
More important, she strove to exhibit art reflecting Hawaii's multiculturalism.
Cooke's intent was "to share the world of art with the children of Hawaii," but what's most appealing about her museum is that it's a world viewed from this particular island archipelago in the middle of the Pacific.
There are pieces from Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe, but the museum is best known for its Asian art: superb Japanese textiles, Korean ceramics, and pieces from the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. Also worth noting are artifacts from Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia.
Thanks to Hawaii's missionary families, which came to the islands from New England, the museum also displays Connecticut-crafted highboys and portraits by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart.
More surprising are the strong contemporary canvases by Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Philip Guston.
The "Art of Hawaii" gallery, displaying an array of art and artifacts - from 18th-century feather capes and etchings by European and Russian "expedition artists" to current sculpture and art - is definitely worth a stop for any visitor.
The museum's collections have grown steadily over the years - individual items now number about 34,000 - largely through gifts like author James A. Michener's 5,400 Japanese prints by such masters as Hokusai and Hiroshige.
But the academy's most dramatic growth has come in the past five years.
Its Asian wing has been renovated, with new galleries for the arts of India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Korea, and the Philippines.
The construction of the Henry R. Luce Pavilion Complex has expanded the museum's appeal. It includes a theater and magnificent gallery devoted to Hawaiian art since 1778, as well as a popular cafe and extensive gift shop.
Still, until the opening of Shangri La a little more than a year ago, few Waikiki visitors found their way here. Shangri La is Doris Duke's architecturally significant Arabian-style house. It's surrounded by formal gardens and overlooks the Pacific and Diamond Head.
It's a richly detailed jewel box of a house that contains this country's largest private collection of Islamic decorative art; more than 3,500 items, many - such as elaborate ceilings, doorways, and tiles - are part of the house.
In her will the tobacco heiress established the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to operate the house and its collections, but in partnership with the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which serves as the orientation center for tours of Shangri La.
Happily, however, the museum itself remains just off the tourist trail, so it isn't crowded. But not for much longer probably, after the blockbuster show it's staging this spring.
Four years in the making, "Japan & Paris: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Modern Era" (through June 6) is an exclusive for Hawaii's lively art museum, an appropriate venue given a permanent collection divided almost evenly between Eastern and Western Art.
The exhibit includes four Monets, two Picassos, two Cezannes, and three Pissaros, as well as paintings by Matisse, Rousseau, Modigliani, Renoir, Signac, Degas, Braque, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. This is the first time some of these paintings have traveled outside Japan, and it's the first exhibit in the West to highlight European influences on Japanese art and the history of collecting French painting in Japan.
I have my own suspicions about why this magnificent museum isn't hyped more to visitors: Obviously Honolulu residents don't want tourists crowding them out of the Pavilion Café, locally known as one of the best places to lunch on Oahu.
Furnished and finished in teak, the cafe opens onto a flowery courtyard shaded by a giant monkey pod tree and partially walled by a 60-foot-wide waterfall.
Try the feta, tapenade, and Hauula tomato sandwich with the house-made foccacia and the freshest of greens. Then enjoy island-made mango sorbet topped with candied ginger. Beautiful art and surroundings, delicious food, and few tourists - who could ask for more in Hawaii?
Honolulu Academy of Arts
900 S. Beretania Street, Honolulu
Tickets for "Japan & Paris: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Modern Era" (which runs through June 6) are $15 and must be obtained in advance, with specified entry times. Phone (808) 532-8719. Special hours for the exhibition are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
For reservations to tour Shangri La, call toll-free 1-866-DUKE-TIX.
Reservations are recommended for the Pavilion Café, (808) 532-8734.