For those with the Honolulu impression of this island as all traffic and concrete, the drive out Likelike Highway comes as a revelation: Oahu has some of Hawaii's most stunning scenery. The coast road follows the contours of the Ko'olau mountain range, and Kualoa Ranch sits in one of the island's most beautiful spots. It would be wasted on cattle.
Following a ranch-run tour up the mountain in a six-wheel military vehicle, I meet co-owner David Morgan for lunch. I order the Hawaiian staple Kalua pork sandwich because the lunch counter doesn't serve Kualoa beef. "Only about 2 percent of our business is cattle," David says. "The rest is tours." Oahu businesses like his face a challenge: how best to showcase what people most love about Hawaii. To hear David tell it, Kualoa Ranch sits right on the fence between preserving its natural setting and promoting its tourist attractions. "We've had to find creative ways to keep this place as it is," he says. That tension exists across the islands, and I wonder where the balancing act leaves visitors like me.
After lunch David drives me around the base of a cliff to the Ka'a'awa Valley, occasional set for Jurassic Park, Lost, and other movies and shows. From a vantage point on the northern side, we can see down the green swale to the blue ocean accented with whitecaps. David watches me, smiling, glowing a little in the sharing, not because it's his but because it's here. He just wanted me to see this. "Wow," I sing my Hawaii refrain for him, shaking my head, smiling. I'm dreaming.
Below, a pair of school buses comes around the cliff, the film-set tour. A slow line of four-wheelers follows, the four- wheeler driving adventure. David looks away, points up the mountain looming to our north. "That's one of the toughest hikes in Oahu," he says. "Botanists found a plant up there they'd thought was extinct." He's not looking at the buses and four-wheelers. He sounds as if he'd like to hike up to see rare plants, but he has a ranch to run.
On the way back we hear shooting from the ranch's gun range. "Japan has strict firearms control," David says, "so the chance to shoot seems pretty cool. A lot of Japanese people know about the ranch before they even get to Oahu."
As much as I admire Kualoa Ranch for its beauty, I'm baffled by the amusements that support it. The tourism cash cow makes it possible to sustain this land a little closer to its natural state than production ranching would. I believe David Morgan and the company make that effort -- and that compromise. I don't leave the ranch with the unadult- erated feeling I get from walking in native forest or floating in the ocean. Economic necessity -- engine roar and gunfire -- worries the smooth surface of this Hawaiian spot. But the view down the Ka'a'awa Valley I can picture still. And if I lose it, it's on TV. From the parking lot, we can see Kane'ohe Bay and the enveloping cliffs. "I've looked at these mountains all my life," David says. "I'm still amazed."
Hours later, my head still flush with Oahu's surprising scenery, I'm standing before a bank of display cases and feeling overwhelmed. The Bishop Museum has 2.4 million artifacts in its collection, and I have an hour to see them all. Designated the "Hawaii State Museum of Natural and Cultural History," this Oahu showcase functions as de facto steward of Hawaiian culture, containing one of the world's best collections of Polynesian artworks and tools. But just as Kualoa Ranch doesn't feel exactly like nature, the artifacts in a museum don't feel to me exactly like culture. Peering at a necklace formed from hundreds of strands of black hair or the adz made from stone possibly quarried on Mauna Kea and used to carve canoes, I feel more removed from the culture I'm visiting, not closer to it, at least at first.
Then I get a glimpse of the prized 'ahu 'ula, the feather cloak once owned by King Kamehameha the Great and now temporarily in storage. The king may have worn it at the Pu'ukohola Heiau site on the Big Island, which I visited just days ago. Kamehameha built this war temple to assure victory in his quest to unify the Hawaiian Islands . He may have worn the cloak at the place now called Kualoa Ranch when the unifi cation was complete. And here it is, connecting and coloring the places I've seen. Comprising more than 450,000 golden feathers plucked from mostly black mamo birds, now extinct, the cloak represents the sacrifices made to exalt the fi gure of the king. The garment glows as an emblem of Hawaii itself.
Before the museum closes, I'm allowed into the Hawaiian Hall built by Charles Bishop to honor his late wife Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki and to display her family's collection. Currently under renovation, the hall's tiers of dark wood create hallowed space in which the objects resonate. The feather cloak will be displayed here when the hall reopens in August 2009. By the end, I'm nodding my head, picturing what it might be like to be Hawaiian, to sit in a thatched house, to carve and fish and pray.
Kualoa Ranch banks on motorized tours to sustain the setting that makes it spectacular. Likewise, the Bishop Museum displays the material of ancient life in a static way in order to preserve it. People attuned to Hawaii's culture -- storytellers, builders, even ranchers -- talk about the past, adding significance to the artifacts. Again, it's not magic, just imagination. But the effect can be magical. The adz hits the heart of the koa trunk and a voyaging canoe emerges. Tom Stone says, "We know how they did it," meaning how Hawaiians from previous centuries lived with their tools and systems. Living Hawaiians imagine with intention how their ancestors lived. That creative process -- open to anyone with a free hour -- is culture in progress, melding legend and landscape into a sustainable sense of Hawaii today .
Surf Waikiki: "Keep your eyes on the horizon," says teacher Mike. "Relax, and the rest takes care of itself." Most of his instruction also applies to travel in Hawaii, but I've come for a surf lesson in the shadow of Diamond Head, where legends like Duke Kahanamoku surfed. Waikiki Beach Services promises surfing "Hawaiian style," and owner Ted Kapuhiliokalani Bush claims, "Surfing itself is Hawaiian style. The way it's done and the way it's taught are endemic to Waikiki." The rolling break here eases learning. "You get the sensation of surfing without fear," Bush says. Out in the surf, Mike turns my 12-foot board toward shore. "Paddle now!" he says and pushes me into the wave. My board rises under me along with my spirits, and I pop to my feet. Then the nose plows under, and I fall headlong. By hour's end, Mike has me catching 2-foot waves in the outer break. I may not be a surfer yet, but for an hour I am surfing Waikiki. "After a while, you don't look down," Bush says. "The board disappears, it's like you're walking on the wave."