Oahu

Eyes closed, I could have lain on the beach at Waikiki for years. It's the wind that does it. A few days drifting in the flower-filled trade winds and the mind starts to rot. Others have suffered in their time. Robert Louis Stevenson, lounging on this same beach a century ago, called the Waikiki condition "a fine state of haze." That breeze, the bubbly towers of the distant clouds, the clear light¿you soon find yourself going soft on Oahu and ripening into a sort of Pacific stupidity. Poet Rupert Brooke was another victim in 1913. He found his memory going. The best he could do was "recall, lose, grasp, forget again,/ And still remember, a tale I have heard,or known." That's the Waikiki fuddle.

You can't help but love it. Only after a day or two did I realize something was wrong: I was not a surfer. I did not have beach-blond hair, no all-over suede-suit tan, no surprisingly easy way with girls, and no sunglasses. Listening to the long, long draw of the deep ocean swell offshore, I knew something had to be done.

Cowboy was a large Hawaiian who had been surfing for 49 of his 55 years. Teach me, I said. "OK, Carl," he said. (Some misapprehension there.) "You're a big boy," he added, and took a ten-foot barge out of the rack. On Waikiki's imported sand, Cowboy showed me what to do. Push up, one foot up, one knee up, two feet up, both hands up, look up, crouched, balanced, perfect. I was a genius.

Waikiki has its singular charms, but beyond it lies the real Hawaii.

Eyes closed, i could have lain on the beach at Waikiki for years. It's the wind that does it. A few days drifting in the flower-filled trade winds and the mind starts to rot. Others have suffered in their time. Robert Louis Stevenson, lounging on this same beach a century ago, called the Waikiki condition "a fine state of haze." That breeze, the bubbly towers of the distant clouds, the clear light¿you soon find yourself going soft on Oahu and ripening into a sort of Pacific stupidity. Poet Rupert Brooke was another victim in 1913. He found his memory going. The best he could do was "recall, lose, grasp, forget again,/ And still remember, a tale I have heard,or known." That's the Waikiki fuddle.

You can't help but love it. Only after a day or two did I realize something was wrong: I was not a surfer. I did not have beach-blond hair, no all-over suede-suit tan, no surprisingly easy way with girls, and no sunglasses. Listening to the long, long draw of the deep ocean swell offshore, I knew something had to be done.

Cowboy was a large Hawaiian who had been surfing for 49 of his 55 years. Teach me, I said. "OK, Carl," he said. (Some misapprehension there.) "You're a big boy," he added, and took a ten-foot barge out of the rack. On Waikiki's imported sand, Cowboy showed me what to do. Push up, one foot up, one knee up, two feet up, both hands up, look up, crouched, balanced, perfect. I was a genius.

Boys with skins like expensive luggage lounged in the crossed-leg way of true superiority as I paddled out through the tiny surf. Cowboy and I turned and waited for the wave. At the critical moment he pushed me and the board shoreward. "You're a good boy, Carl." The push momentum merged into the wave momentum, a sudden acceleration, a self-sufficient feeling of all-rightness, the surf gushing around my feet as if electric-pump-driven. My giant plank was away, I was up, buoyant, standing, cruising in on the organized chaos of surf toward the shining towers of Waikiki.

After a few more waves, a sense of ease. "Why don't you try it?" I coolly asked a pale Japanese boy bobbing in the water on an air mattress. "It's quicker than that thing." He looked abashed, and I realized I had made it: I had joined the company of the truly objectionable. Except that I was still pink.

It was only later, when Cowboy paddled out with his next set of pupils, that the light of truth dawned. That smooth, calm "being one with the wave" (I had read that in Surfer magazine) did not look the same from the outside. I watched a crouched, rigid figure with his arms out sideways (as if being measured for a suit) and a death mask on his face (he thought he was smiling) being carried along by the wave like a man who had fallen onto a baggage carousel and wasn't sure how to get off. There was plainly still some way to go in my surfing career.

For all that, the beach continued to hold its allure. Waikiki is a decorous and strangely unsexual place. There is no nudity, no leering. Men are more attentive to their Handycams than to their own or other people's wives. It offers its own theater: Japanese ladies in their linen dresses stand in front of the horizon on which the container ships and the navy destroyers maneuver toward Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. The lifeguard arrives for yet another day in his tower, walking very, very slowly. Victims of the in-shape tyranny pad the hard sand at the waterline. Jolly, broad-backed American boys, fresh in from some military base somewhere, play juvenile games in the shallows. Everybody watches them, so handsome, so pectoral, so tanned.

It occurs to me, 6 feet, 3 inches of white English ectoplasm, that we might come to some sort of arrangement¿.

Across the road, the Kodak Hula Show in Kapiolani Park has been going on since 1937, sponsored by the Eastman Kodak Company to provide the unforgettable series of Kodak moments without which your time on Oahu would be incomplete. The smooth-talking-Julio-Iglesias-plus-lei-and-microphone host says that in the hula "the swaying of the body adds to the beauty and gracefulness of the dance." The Royal Hawaiian Girls' Glee Club with their guitars and ukuleles is a Some Like It Hot band 50 years on.

"This is not," I was warned by a friend, "the real Hawaii." I was not to judge the place by the Kodak Hula Show, he told me. I had to get out into the "country," away from the honky-tonk of Waikiki and the abominations of the Club Rose or the Carnation Lounge, the Elvis Memorial Library, the gap-toothed grin of the vacationer's city, the traffic foul-ups, the political squabbling over the mass transit system, the massively expensive airport extension. That was all the white noise of the modern Oahu, the service end of an industrial-cum-tourist-cum-military culture, plunked out in the middle of the blue Pacific. There were other Oahus if only you looked. I should go to find them.

Out beyond the eastern stretches of Waikiki and its expensive suburbs, where the truly rich own multimillion dollar houses on the private shore, out beyond the Kahala Hilton, where a company called Tuxedo Junction arranges American marriages next to waterfalls for visiting Japanese, you will come to Hanauma Bay. A volcanic crater has been breached by the sea and in the flooded bowl a coral reef grows - or at least once grew.

The sheltered bay, the curving sand, the currentless swimming, the memory of Elvis singing, swooning, sweet-talking here in Blue Hawaii - all this has made the bay too famous. Until coach tours were restricted two years ago, as many as 13,000 people a day were coming down to the sea to play here. Its status as a conservation zone was irrelevant in the face of that. The numbers are down to a third of that now, but the place has changed - on a human time scale irreversibly. Ninety percent of the inshore reef is dead. People standing on coral heads have killed it. Too much suntan lotion and - it has to be said - human urine have played their part. We have squashed the coral and then poisoned it.

But something else has taken its place. People who bring bread and frozen peas to feed the fish are now handed trout chow to use instead by volunteers from the University of Hawaii. In this educational effort there is a new symbiosis. The tropical fish here are living on a reef made up not of coral polyps but of human beings who have free food dripping off the ends of their tentacle fingers.

And what you find there underwater remains miraculously beautiful. The fish, in their lit and shadowed places, are glittering with movement and color. The parrotfish pecking like goats on the coral, the trumpetfish floating as transparent, slightly flexing reed instruments, the surgeonfish and the angelfish hanging as parts of a mobile on strings: Imagine the first time someone put on a mask and snorkel and saw that! Despite the bruised and deadened shallow corals, there is something hopeful in Hanauma Bay: a post-natural Oahu landscape.

there comes a moment as you drive along the coastroad, at Makapuu Point, the easternmost corner of Oahu, when you turn the corner and you have for the first time the long view up the windward coast. This must remain one of the great sights of the world: the dark, Chinese shapes of the Koolau Range, with its sharp, pleated folds, the big cloud shadows on the wooded mountains, the model-eye blue of the perfect sea, the combers trailed across it, the haze hanging over the surf in the distance.

As you look at this long, grand prospect, this century's contribution to the scene, which is little more than stringy, scruffy suburbia - not quite a set of places, not quite anything else - becomes ignorable. The nose-to-tail traffic on this coast road, its succession of tawdry commercial opportunities, become no more significant to the body of Oahu than the sliver of a fingernail that sticks out above a finger.

What matters, what remains as astonishing now as it can ever have been to the first Europeans in the 18th century or even to the first Polynesians making their way here from the Marquesas in perhaps the third or fourth century, are the two huge realities on either side - mountain and ocean, forest and shore.

The noise of the surf on the rocky shore insulates you from the traffic as you step down to the rock shelf on which the ocean breaks. It is a dangerous place, and you must be careful.

Each of the pools and hollows in the rock is filled by the successive swells in a shock of surge. A whole, boiling, frothed pool of surf lurches in over the natural barriers and then stays there, waiting, the bubbles popping on the surface of the clear water.

In this noisy, mobile place you will find yourself looking at the details: the way in which the basalt, pouring from the volcanic vent millions of years ago, cracked and split as it cooled. In some places it is netted and noduled like the skin of a lizard. In others, where it flowed out in smooth laminar sheets - some reddish from the iron, some yellow, sulfurous - the sea has picked out the softer bands so that a whole promontory is ribbed and cleaned like a driftwood plank.

But the pools are the beautiful things, filling and draining, filling and draining with pump after pump of the sudden sea beer. In there, the pale green and pale pink sea urchins cower in their pocket-size nests, which they and their ancestors have made in the rock, scraping continuously with their underbody mouths to make a home from which the surge cannot remove them. Very pale gray-blue algae coat the floor of the pools. Hidden around a corner is the now rare slate-pencil sea urchin, its coral red cylindrical spines making a pretty, brittle Christmas tree tuft in this dark and decorationless place.

Around the edges of the pool is a creature without anEnglish name, the ha¿uke¿uke, a sea urchin designed for this very place, where nothing loose or blowy could survive and where everything that exists is clamped onto the rock. The ha¿uke¿uke's spines are flattened, tabletopped and polygonal, so that it presents a smooth snakeskin surface to the waves, battened down against its chosen environment.

One or two tiny fish - perhaps they are blennies - flicker like grasshoppers in the pool from one hiding place to another. Minuscule black-and-white sea snails somehow cling to what must be one of the most unstable environments on earth.

It is not difficult on this shore to recreate the excitement of the Europeans' arrival in the Pacific: the comprehensive strangeness of it all, as well as the familiarities, the distant association with things European. It is no wonder that they took back creatures and plants in such vast quantities that their boxes sometimes remained unattended to 50 years or more after they got home.

A little farther up the coast is the tall conical island known as Chinaman's Hat, but in Hawaiian called Mokoli¿i. It was created by a goddess who killed a dragon that was terrorizing the countryside. She set his giant flukes off Kualoa Point as a mark for fishermen and laid his body as a long, wide stretch of fertile shore.

Here are 4,000 acres that offer a glimpse of Oahu perfection. It is owned by John Morgan, whose family first bought 600 acres from the king for $1,300 in 1850. The family gradually acquired more land, served as counselors and friends of the royal family, planted sugarcane and pineapples (both without success), and now farm the one crop that guarantees a real income: tourists. Japanese on weekdays, Americans on the weekend.

Most come to play on the various water toys, others to take a ride through the ranch's beautiful valleys, steep and green at their margins, grazed by cattle, scattered with monkeypod trees, whose arched green roofs are held up by branches like the fingers of an upturned hand. The ranch loses $250,000 a year on the cattle, but the animals keep it grazed and pretty and guarantee that the ranch is taxed primarily as a farm. Young, beautiful, and rich John and Carri Morgan, with their tourism income, and their slice of predevelopment Oahu - you might well envy this.

Meet Mrs. Morgan, sitting on her creaky saddle, wearing the tan of the century. That long look down a patrician nose from the height of a saddle is as unnerving now as it can ever have been. Around her the ranch hands attend to the guava weeds and the cattle stroll over the grasslands, all against a view of the distant surf beyond the orchid farm.

At Punaluu, tucked into a little studio at the Punaluu Gallery (whale paintings, seascapes, landscapes, bits and pieces of this and that), I met Beth Surdut. She is an artist who paints on silk, reveling in the tropical color that is there in the sea at her doorstep or in the forest that rises behind the studio. It's as if God had been looking at Gauguins before designing this place. All an artist has to do is transcribe the brilliance.

But the artist's life here is no Gauguinesque rejection of bourgeois comforts. This is post-Polynesia, a place aiming for the best of all worlds, both the comforts of that breeze and all the other comforts of what is essentially a city life.

"But you can't really have it all," I said to her.

"Can't I?" was the straight Oahuan answer.

Her pictures are what people imagine they might like the island to be. And despite all the despoliations, the traffic chaos, the compromised land, the "paradise paralysis," as she called it, Surdut holds onto a purer version of the island.

In her gardens and her paintings Surdut showed me the Hawaiian plants she uses for her subjects: the soft-scented and huge, spike-leafed spider lilies, the red and blue ginger flowers, the flowering jacaranda trees, the white, yellow-eyed flowers and high-gloss leaves of the plumeria, the hedges of stephanotis and hibiscus and bougainvillea. This is all still there, still to be had: paradise on a plate.

The real jungle stretching up behind the commercial shore is different - effortless, cumulative, resilient, and thick with an unpretty potency. It is, even on this rainy coast, a place in which the quiet is total. Perhaps this is simply the distance from the sea, the absence, for the first time in a week, of the constant underbass of the surf.

Whatever the reason, the sensation of this enclosed silence is as if I were padding around someone else's house, an illegitimate presence. There is a completeness here in which I have no part. A hundred feet from the branches of an African tulip tree, flowers lie like a flock of sodden birds on the forest floor, guavas rotted around them. There are sawtoothed leaves, aerial roots, a pandanus tree with a sudden eruption of leaves like starburst fireworks 40 feet above me. And then the sudden breaking of the quiet by chirpings and squeakings, near-human whistlings from creatures I cannot see.

A boulder, mossy-skinned, has a small collection of stones wrapped in ti leaves lying on its surface, gestures by those who still attend to the old Hawaiian beliefs. Again I have that sensation of first arrival, of rediscovering a Hawaii that has been driven from the surfside strip. In a mountain pool, at the hollow foot of the valley, I swim alone in the shadow of a falling stream.

Around the northeast corner, Oahu changes again. The hills withdraw from the shoreline and a wide bench of land rings the North Shore. Sugarcane grows in thousands of rustling acres here, threaded by red earth roads. Outside Haleiwa the huge 1940s-ish rusted metal of the Dole sugar mill continues to embody a previous, Third-World Hawaii. Some 350 workers, Filipinos mostly, still toil in the fields and in the massive, steaming factory, from which, in certain winds, a whiff of molasses blows out toward the beach.

The mill is a fragment of memory, as much of the past as the heiaus, or Hawaiian temples, scattered at various places above the shore. Almost unvisited now ("great places for stealing from cars" I was told) these elegiac and spiritual places were sometimes places of sanctuary, sometimes of sacrifice. Now they are monuments to abandonment, to a culture moving on.

Of course, as the world knows, the North Shore has for more than 30 years become a temple for another sort of cult. Here 2,500 miles of fetch on a giant ocean swell coming from the Aleutians meets a steeply shelving shore, and the sea suddenly and magically lifts into creaming, perfect walls of terrifying water. The ceremonies for this cult occur only in the winter, when the 30-foot waves roll in from the north and the surf heroes of the world congregate to play on them. But the surf shops are open all year-round, and for them alone it would be worth traveling halfway round the world.

This is the Bond Street, the Savile Row of surfboard shapers. Talk to someone like Scott Bucknell, the inventor of the revolutionary Ex-fin surfboard skeg, the owner of Race Hawaii ("that's the fastest name you'll find"), the bearer of a foot-long scar on his thigh where his board speared it one day (he lost five pints of blood getting back to the shore), and you will be talking to an addict.

"I hate surfing," he says with the light of true adoration in his eye. "I hate surfers. They never have any money. I'm getting out of it. I'm going to put my Ex-fin on race boats." But he doesn't mean it. He can't.

What is it like, I ask him, surfing Banzai Pipeline, the curling wave here where the Pacific wraps you up in a looping bear hug of glass-thin, translucent ocean. "It's like Westminster Abbey collapsing around you," he says.

Fun? "No, not fun. I'd say more like berserko."

The west coast of Oahu is the back end, the dry, leeward side. The beaches here, especially up in the north beyond Makua, are empty. Almost no tourists and very few whites are here on the prettiest, country-backed beaches in the whole island. The country is devoid of ugly new housing because the military owns it. Notices behind the high fences proclaim unexploded bombs. Here, as in England, nothing is more conservationist than people playing soldiers. Like the Morgan ranch at Kualoa, exclusion of the rest of us has kept the island looking as we all want it to be.

The highway slides down the leeward coast into the dormitory suburbs of Honolulu and onto the shores of Pearl Harbor. Professional survivors of the Japanese bombing talk to us gawkers at the USS Arizona Memorial. The story is familiar enough to be like a remembered film. Only the unexpected detail reintroduces a sense of reality.

One survivor I speak to, in his white, medal-heavy, veteran's cap, tells me how the sailors caught within the upturned hulls remained alive, in some cases for many days afterwards. They could be heard tapping on the steel, begging for release. Nothing could be done for some of them. Slowly the tapping died away.

Finally I return to the hubbub of Honolulu itself, to the fish, art, and harlots of the semi-revamped downtown, to the beautiful, rich men's villas on the hills overlooking the city, to the chronic car crisis on an island where there is almost nowhere to go, to the ethnic babble of Portuguese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean, Chinese.

For at least a century, Honolulu has been a world city. Only in one place, crammed into the corner of a crossing between a freeway and a highway, is a densely concentrated memory reservoir devoted to Hawaii's place in Oceania, to its role as the northernmost corner of Polynesia.

The Bishop Museum contains one of the great collections of the world. Here you can see the most beautiful artifacts of an earlier Hawaii and Oceania, pearl and bone and carved wood, feather capes and feather money, model canoes and stick charts of the oceans with cowries for islands. Here, strangely, inaccessibly, you can feel that this island is the first footfall in Polynesia, that from here a whole oceanic world extends from island to island as far as Southeast Asia. The Bishop Museum's darkened rooms and treasure-filled cases are an invitation southward and westward. The real Pacific starts here.