Old Honolulu

Arriving in the maligned old city of Honolulu a few weeks back, I set myself a challenge: Before leaving the island of Oahu for the less exploited shores of Kauai, Lanai, Maui, and the others, I would hunt mightily for remnants of the quiet, barefoot, unadulterated Honolulu I used to know.

I don't know if I quite accomplished the mission, but I started on the right foot by overshooting Waikiki Beach with its parade of high-rise hotels and thronged beaches and checking into the Kaimana Beach Hotel, a half-mile farther up Kalakaua Avenue toward Diamond Head. In the summer of 1964 when I was working for the morning Advertiser, I lived in an airy little hut beside the Kaimana and watched a modest tower rise above the hotel's original string of cottages.

It was one of the last buildings of any stature to go up in this predominantly residential district, for environmentalists succeeded in blocking further construction to protect the crusty, historic profile of Diamond Head, the long-extinct volcano just up the road. My hut is long gone, replaced by a nightclub, but the Kaimana Beach has aged rather well and has earned a reputation as one of the most relaxed and economical hotels along the water. It has a slightly artistic bent as well, favored by such visitors as Seiji Ozawa and a number of singing groups.

You might also call the Kaimana cosmopolitan.It is owned by the New Otani company of Tokyo, which also has a hotel in Los Angeles, another in Sofia, Bulgaria, an enormous pile in Tokyo, and a large chain in Japan. When I was in residence in June the majority of the other guests were Scandinavian. Looking out of my eighth floor room in the 1964 addition, I noticed that progress had not altered the surge of graceful white curlers breaking over loden-green reefs, and that at the tender hour of 6:45 a.m. there were a number of fair-haired bathers already prone on the beach or testing the waters. It turned out they were members of a touring German swim club.

The Kaiman Beach has rooms in the old wing for as low as $32 and an average rate of $43 -- some $20 below the norm for oceanfront Waikiki hotels, according to Jack Foote, the Kaimana's candid manager. Another asset is the hotel's open-air beachfront restaurant (a rarity in changing Honolulu), which is shaded by ancient, umbrellalike little hau trees. These, said Mr. Foote, were favorite shelters of Robert Louis Stevenson 90 years ago.

Stevenson, who had a cottage nearby (it was called Sans Souci, the name of the apartment building that now stands beside the Kaimana), loved the Hawaiian people but was disappointed by the appearance in Honolulu of horsecars, mail steamers, and telephones. Eventually he moved down to Samoa to live out his life.

His five-month Honolulu stay is also remembered a half mile up the beach at the turn-of-the-century white clapboard Moana Hotel, another lingering symbol of old Hawaii. Dominating the Moana's courtyard is an outsize banyan. It was planted before 1885, and "Robert Louis Stevenson did much of his writing under this tree," says a sign at its spreading roots.Here, too, beneath the 140- foot-wide green canopy the long-popular radio show "Hawaii Calls" was launched in 1935.

The Moana, operated by Sheraton and owned by a Japanese company, is celebrating its 80th birthday this year, and in the breezy lobby is a display case with photos from the 1920s and '30s when the pink-palace Royal Hawaiian Hotel and Diamond Head itself were the only other substantial institutions in the area. If you count the adjoining Surfrider Hotel, as Sheraton does, there are 850 rooms in the Moana. I tend to block out the new wings and think only of the original building with its deep rattan chairs, overhead fans, broad corridors, and crowning cupola.

Though Sheraton has set about redoing the old building with a turn-of-the-century decor, it has not overstuffed the rooms or raised the rates too severely. Thirty-nine dollars will get you a double. Air-conditioning has not been part of the renewal, guests relying on overhead fans and sea breezes through wide Victorian windows.Next time I am in town I want a room above the courtyard with a little lanai so I can reach out and touch the leaves of Mr. Stevenson's banyan.

For all its clamor and modernity, Waikiki remains a strangely infectious place where the odd event or scene is somehow expected. As I walked out of the Moana at noontime I saw a muscular Polynesian man in a blue work uniform lying in the shrubbery by the driveway, fast sleep, with a huge machete strapped to his waist. Passing the hotel an hour later I saw a man high in a palm tree slashing fronds with his machete. He was a Samoan or Tongan with a tree-trimming crew, and I had seen him taking a lunch- break snooze.

It is fitting, I suppose, that the week I was hunting for a bygone Hawaii, a wrecking crew would be tearing down the Halekulani Hotel, last of the low-rise oceanside cottage colonies in Waikiki. I looed in vain for Wendell Aio, the big bronze beachboy who operated the Halekulani's beach concession for years, but his surfboards and outrigger canoes were gone and the postage-stamp beach was empty.

For sustenance, I sought out such standbys as Fred Kaneshiro's Columbia Inn (an Oriental Toots Shor's), and the open-air willows, a green jungle of a restaurant in central Honolulu where much of the Halekulani staff has turned up. It was clear to me that the barefoot Honolulu was getting harder to find.Still, the tangerine sunsets were there, and the spreading banyans and haus, and the incoming surf at 6:45 a.m.

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