How to Spend a Rainy Weekend in Honolulu

Shangri La, Hawaii | Photo: Shangri La
Shangri La, Hawaii | Photo: Shangri La

There’s more to Hawaii than tropical beaches and shopping, as Sofitel Melbourne on Collins General Manger Clive Scott discovers

What was I to do? I’d flown off to paradisiacal Waikiki to lap up the sun’s rays, but instead I was seeing nothing but rain outside my hotel window. ‘I’m not going to be like that,’ I vowed as I walked past a commotion at the front desk on my way to breakfast. Mrs Webster from Room 1215 appeared to be in the middle of berating several staff as to why the rain was all their fault, leaving the still-smiling uncertain on their next move. After all, the customer is always right.

But I wasn’t going to let a bit of drizzle ruin my holiday. In fact, this was the ultimate challenge, so as I relaxed over a lazy breakfast, I got out my trusty guide books and leafed through the pages looking for activities I could do indoors in this tropical locale.

Half an hour later and with a rapidly scribbled itinerary in-hand, I was on ‘The Bus’, Hawaii’s award-winning transit system. At just $5.50 USD for an all-day pass, it was a cheap and cheerful solution to both my ‘things to do’ and ‘how to get there’ dilemmas. Not to mention, it’s got to be the most courteous transit system I’ve been on – you’ll often see the driver stop and happily help an elderly passenger on and all the way to their seat – it’s expected, and it’s all part of the service.

First stop? The Bishop Museum, more formally known as the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

The Bishop Museum

Built by wealthy businessman Charles Reed Bishop to honour the memory of his wife, the late Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the Bishop Museum is a surprising beauty and the first of many I end up having on my rainy Hawaiian tour.

Bernice Pauahi Bishop was born into the royal family of Hawaii and was the last legal heir of the Kamehameha Dynasty, which ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii between 1810 and 1872. The museum was built in 1889 on the original boys’ campus of Kamehameha Schools, an institution created at the bequest of the Princess in her will to benefit native Hawaiian children. Two of the museum’s buildings were designed in the popular Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, which at the time were dubbed “the noblest buildings of Honolulu” by an Hawaiian newspaper, and today they are still a sight to behold.

Originally intended to house the Princess’s family heirlooms, the museum eventually grew into a Polynesian treasure trove and today is the largest museum in Hawaii, showcasing the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural artefacts and natural history specimens. Not to mention, it has the third largest entomological (that’s ‘bugs’ in science speak) collection in the United States, at 24 million creepy-crawlies.

But I’m more interested in culture than insects, so I bypass the bug displays and bee-line (excuse the pun!) for the ancient Hawaiian arts and craft. As I walk around the Polynesian collection, I come to gain a real understanding of the Hawaiian people, learning about their history, lifestyle and their pride as a first nations people. As I peruse the displays, I can’t help but think how we in Australia would benefit from such a museum, dedicated to the history of our indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders.

Moving my way around the exhibits, I can’t help but be drawn to the shiny section of the museum – the Royal Family’s heirlooms. My favourite is the Kahili collection – a Kahili is a chief’s standard or pole made from feathers and small birds of religious or spiritual significance. The Bishop houses a room full of these Royal standards going back hundreds of years, and it’s a wonderful display of colour and grandeur.

My final experience at the museum is witnessing a ‘lava pour’, where basalt rock is heated to 2500 degrees to become molten rock and then lava, which is then poured out in front of us. It quickly cools, forms volcanic glass and shatters – leaving us each with our very own souvenir of a volcano!

Honolulu Museum of Art

Outside, it’s still raining so it’s back onto The Bus. My next stop is the Honolulu Museum of Art, another beautiful building located on the way to downtown Honolulu where there’s more surprising architecture to be found.

The building was designed in 1923 by American architect Bertram Goodhue to represent the story of the Hawaiian Islands. In a series of light-filled courtyards reflecting Chinese and Mediterranean architecture, Hawaii’s climate, and a pitched roof popular in Hawaii, he created a unique Hawaiian architectural style. It’s lovely catching tantalising glimpses of these little outside oases throughout the gallery as I wander between exhibits.

My favourite is the Chinese garden with Hawaiian lava rock surrounding the small pool with koi fish – a very serene space that’s ripe for meditation and contemplation, and still beautiful in the misty rain.

The Museum houses a very large collection of Asian art, especially Japanese and Chinese works, and I discover some beautiful Japanese wood block prints from artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai. There is also the world’s largest collection of prints designed by Utagawa Hiroshige, but I find myself circling back several times to see a print called Bird on Hydrangea Branch by Japanese artist Kono Bairei. Its use of colour and simplicity is sheer beauty.

After a steady, museum-paced amble, I realise I’ve somehow forgotten to eat lunch, and as luck would have it my break at Museum Café has more to offer than tasty salads and snacks. One of the waiters tells me about “paradise” … Shangri La in Oahu, a museum for Islamic arts and cultures that offers guided tours, residencies for scholars and artists and programs with the purpose of improving understanding of the Islamic world. There, he says, I’ll find one of the most beautiful buildings in Hawaii.

Shangri La

And that’s how I ended up back at the Honolulu Museum of Art the next day awaiting the Museum shuttle that takes you to this famous Hawaiian building. It’s there that I make the biggest discovery of my rainy-days excursion, because Shangri La is truly spectacular.

Built in 1937, Shangri La was built by tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who visited Hawaii on her honeymoon in 1935 and ended up staying for four months. Throughout her life, she was consistently drawn back to the islands, attracted to the privacy in the seclusion of the Pacific that was far removed from the demands and expectations of the heiress’s life she led in New York.

At an early age she discovered Islamic art through the private collections of families such as the Rockefellers and through her own family’s support of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose Islamic Collection opened in 1932. The fascination with this art form led her to build a house in Hawaii in 1937 that was centred around Islamic architecture and the Islamic art collection she amassed while on her travels.

The house’s interior is something out of The Arabian Nights, with design references to the Taj Mahal and other buildings from the Mughal dynasty and inspiration taken from the architecture of places such as Syria, Turkey and Moorish Spain.

Built to house Duke’s extensive collection while being comfortable and liveable, it’s no surprise that I feel calm and relaxed walking through the spectacular rooms; the gardens reflect a Sultan’s Palace and the bedroom pays homage to inlaid marbles of the Taj Mahal and the Turkish Rooms, with pieces directly from the Quwwatli houses in Damascus.

Thanks to the guides’ extensive knowledge about the collection and the history of the house, I learn that we are in a very special place. Not only does the beautiful building mark a moment in history and give insight into the personal artistic taste of Doris Duke, but it also clearly shows the standard of living the uber wealthy enjoyed when on holiday in Hawaii in the pre-war era. Being in Doris Duke House feels like I’m sneaking a peak into Duke’s very own ‘Shangri La’ – her piece of Hawaiian paradise.

On my trip home on The Bus later that day, I find myself reminiscing about my two rainy days of discovery. I might not have had any poolside sun worshipping time, but I feel like I’m all the richer for it, with a deep-dive education into the art, architecture and culture of Hawaii that I wouldn’t have otherwise received had the sun been out.
That’s not to say I’m no longer interested in such tropical activities… after all, it seems after two days of deluge the sun has finally decided to made an appearance. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be at the beach… with my piece of volcanic rock and a book on Hawaiian history.

Share this article