Beyond The Beaches Of Waikiki: Queer Oahu

Americans don’t realize how Hawaii became part of the U.S., which is a shame, considering how much we like to vacation in this colonized part of Polynesia. 

Crowds of stunned tourists wander the consumer-strip wearing skimpy outfits, drinks in hand. In Vegas, they’d be looking at bright lights, but they’re in Waikiki, looking at the beautiful coast. Either way, they’re paying a fortune to capture a uniquely U.S. vacation fantasy, but (I imagine) feeling a bit disappointed by the array.

The travesty is that Oahu is a stunningly beautiful island, with so much to offer, but most tourists don’t make time to see it because they spend all of their time in Waikiki. “Booze and stroll” isn’t really my style, so I took the path less traveled to Kaneohe on the windward side, and Haleiwa, on the North Shore. I hope my detour inspires you to wander if you choose to visit Oahu — and have some great food along the way.

Queer folks are definitely part of the fabric of life in Hawaii. Though acceptance of queer and trans (often called mahu – though not always kindly) people was nearly squashed by missionaries who made Hawaii their home, our acceptance has flourished again. Some Hawaiian people have taken up their language and culture with renewed zeal, including the historical acceptance of queer folks, and the aloha spirit in general makes for a more welcoming vibe for all than in other U.S. states. LGBTQ locals and tourists are welcomed at numerous bars and venues, explicitly queer or not. Mahu teachers such as Kumu Hina have been the subject of documentaries highlighting their work as culture-keepers. 

My partner and I spent our first day visiting friends in Kaneohe. It was windy so we didn’t kayak out to the Sand Bar for snorkeling, but we did spend a beautiful time at North Beach. The wind caused white sand drifts to cover the walkway from the parking lot to the beach, so we felt as though we were hiking through beautiful snow. Of course, the warm waters reminded us where we were. We dined at Baci Bistro and lingered longer than expected because the food and ambiance were so delightful. From calamari to fettuccini to chocolate cake, dinner was sublime. This is a very small and popular local spot, so be sure to make reservations for dinner.

The following day, we scheduled a tasting at Manoa Chocolate to learn about cacao farming in the islands. Next door, we dined at tiny Ganesha Dosa which makes delicious lentil crepes with vegan and vegetarian fillings. There was still time for a trip to Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden which costs nothing to enter. Stroll or drive through a truly lush 400 acres, but check for opening times.

Next, we visited Lanikai Beach for more perfect – and crowd-free – white sand and snorkeling in Kailua before heading north to Haleiwa for the day by bus. It’s a long and winding road, but truly picturesque and also offers a glimpse into real life on the island. In the afternoon, school kids joined us, packed in, rowdy and sweaty from their day. The ride shows that Oahu is not just a tourist spot and begs consideration of how tourism and poverty (especially of Hawaiians) collide and how they might be related. In Laie, it felt surreal to see Brigham Young University’s outpost.  Mormon missionaries have historically (and problematically) attempted to convert Polynesians to their faith, which explains why this seemingly out-of-place university is in rural Hawaii to begin with. There’s a saying in the islands about the Mormon missionaries: “They came to do good, and they did very well.” The Mormon church holds a lot of Hawaiian real estate.

Hoping to visit more authentically Hawaiian destinations, we had the pleasure of trying out Matsumoto Shave Ice. A visit there is simply a must in Haleiwa. Japanese influence is strong on Oahu and Matsumoto has been serving shave ice with all the trimmings (ice cream, red beans, mochi, etc.) since the 1950s. The flavor list is long and satisfyingly diverse.

We then left the windward shore for more Honolulu sights. We stopped at the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout for a sweeping view of nearly the whole windward shore. We learned about the 1795 battle in which King Kamehameha I united Oahu under his rule. On our way into the city, we stopped at Leonards Bakery and Malasadas for some sweet treats. Island cuisine is influenced by Portuguese settlers and square, often filled, donuts are part of that tradition. Leonards is almost always packed with locals and cranking out pastries with tropical fillings galore.

Aside from the consumerism in Waikiki, Honolulu is a bustling and diverse city – by far the largest in Polynesia.  Queer bars and haunts are mainly in Waikiki. Hulas Bar and Lei Stand is worth a stop and The Arts at Mark’s Garage is the gallery and performance space to check out for queer and queer-friendly events. Both have convenient online calendars to help plan the trip. 

Iolani Palace offers a great tour and a way to learn about the U.S. overthrow of Hawaii’s lawful government. The palace is where Queen Liliokalani – Hawaii’s last monarch – was imprisoned until her death. A lot of Americans don’t realize how Hawaii became part of the U.S., which is a shame, considering how much we like to vacation in this colonized part of Polynesia. 

Lesbian history nerds should stop in at the YWCA building, near Iolani Palace for a look at one of architect Julia Morgan’s favorite projects. Ms. Morgan is best known for designing Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. The current YWCA building is called Laniākea and was the first designed by a female architect on Oahu. Ms. Morgan designed over 700 buildings in her career and is widely believed to have been a lesbian – definitely a badass before her time (she was born in 1872 and died in 1957).

The Honolulu Museum of Art and Shangri La – Doris Duke’s former residence – are worth a day on their own. Shangri La is a magnificent collection of Islamic art, amassed by the late philanthropist. The house was built in the 1930s as a stage for both art and excess. She assembled nearly 4,500 artworks including ceramics, wood, glass and textiles from the 1600s to 1900s. It’s still the only museum in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to Islamic Art. Visits are arranged only through the Honolulu Museum of Art. Keep in mind that tourists aren’t permitted to approach the house at all without a tour.

The Oahu airport is in Honolulu, and so are most of the hotels, so a visit is inevitable, but don’t just stroll and shop.  Kaneohe and Kailua, where we spent half of our time on this trip, are only about an hour away. Oahu is not just a tourist playground, it’s a rich history and stunning beauty worth discovering.

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