Our travel nomad Peter Delevett explores the spiritual culture and natural beauty of Hawaii


by Peter Delevett, an award-winning travel writer and editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His 14-month, 14-country backpacking trek through Asia and Europe formed the basis of the forthcoming travel memoir, Walking on the Moon. He and his family live in one of America’s three remaining Japantowns.

Before our son was born two years ago, an annual Hawaii trip was a mainstay for my wife and me. We’ve been all over the four main islands, drawn as much by the spiritual culture as by the natural beauty.

So along with the usual sleep deprivation, our transition to parenthood has included plenty of island fever. It helps a bit that we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place with some 35,000 Pacific Islanders. Our neighborhood boasts a hula school and a ukulele shop, and there’s no shortage of nearby places to gorge on poke and kalua pig and lau-lau. There’s even a 24-hour Hawaiian music station – which we listen to nonstop.

Still, at times there was a fine line between savoring the nostalgia and torturing ourselves. So right before his second birthday, we packed up the boy (and his diapers and toys and books and about a million other toddler-related items) for the five-hour flight across the Pacific. Fortunately, our son loves to fly; in fact, when we landed in Honolulu, we practically had to drag him off the plane.

We’d decided to begin his first trip to the islands in Waikiki – kitschy, sure, but with its sandy beaches and gentle swells, we could take him into the water without much fear of rogue waves. After checking into our hotel near the Ala Wai Canal, we performed our traditional welcome ritual: drinks at Duke’s Canoe Club. It’s more or less the heart of Waikiki, and from the lanai you can watch surfers coast in the shadow of Diamondhead.

(It was also at Duke’s that I experienced, for the first time, that moment of panic when you can’t find your child: as James was toddling around the place, a waitress came between us for a split second, during which he disappeared. Did he break right and head for the water? Did some creepy stranger spirit him away? After the worst 30 seconds of our lives, we found him checking out the in-house band, which was playing some of the very songs he’d listened to at home day after day.)

We ate dinner that night at the Hau Tree Lanai, a historic spot in the New Otani Beach Hotel. The tree that gives the restaurant its name dates back at least to 1903, and according to island lore Robert Louis Stevenson relaxed in its shade; today, it’s the centerpiece of an open-air courtyard where you can dine just steps from the water.

Between the food-coma and jetlag, we missed the torch-lighting ceremony and hula that take place at Kuhio Beach on weekend nights by the statue of fabled surfer Duke Kahanamoku. But we were back in the morning – the early morning, I should add. (One good thing about traveling with a toddler is you get up before most of the tourists; we had the strand mostly to ourselves, except for the most determined surfers and a lithe woman who greeted the day with a hula hoop.) The good lads at Star Beach Boys hooked us up with an outsized umbrella, and James merrily played in the sand while Daddy sneaked in some body-surfing.

After naptime, it was off to the legendary Royal Hawaiian resort. The “pink palace” is a tad less pink these days after a recent renovation, but it still oozes the old-school swankiness that lured Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and various Rockefellers. Still in the mood for kitsch, we poked around the cavernous International Marketplace – decidedly more down-market than the Royal Hawaiian, it’s still a good place to catch a free hula show or impromptu ukulele concert.

I had time for one last bit of nostalgic snacking before it was time to head to the airport and an onward flight to the Big Island to visit family. Takoyaki Samurai is one of very few places I’ve found outside of Japan that serves a delicacy called takoyaki – tiny battered globes of octopus, served up a dozen to an order. It’s part of the unique seafood street-food of Osaka (a more upscale take on this same cuisine can be found at Okonomiyake Chibo in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping center).

Then it was back to Kuhio Beach for the goodbye ceremony, as we cast our withering leis into the sea. The waves carried the still-fragrant blossoms out from shore – a good omen that guarantees a return trip to the island in the future.

Three days and many miles later, we were home. As I came into James’ bedroom to start the morning, he bounced up in his crib and said, “More Hawaii airp’ane?”

“That’s my boy,” I thought.