Board game: Ruby Wax makes waves in Hawaii
The lifeguards are handsome (if incomprehensible), the food is fantastic – and everything's covered in flowers. Welcome to Hawaii, where everyone says 'Aloha'
Saturday 19 September 2009
You would think I'd be in a bad mood after listening to a baby practise an opera based on screaming for hours on the plane, but as I disembarked at Honolulu airport, I was welcomed by muumuu-clad women who laid leis over my head so all that rage melted to nothingness. A lei is a necklace of exotic flowers and when you receive one you can't refuse it, as it's a sign of respect. So you just bow slightly and allow them to wreath you until your head disappears into a hole of fauna.
Flowers grow on every surface of Hawaii – parking meters, traffic lights, baggage carousels – the whole place looks like prom night. And everyone smiles. Not with that scary American-insanity-have-a-nice-day face, but softly, from the heart. There is hardly any crime and a school here called Punahou High educated President Obama – so really, how bad can it be?
I landed on the island of Oahu. (It might seem like a cluster of random letters but that's how most Hawaiian words look – like you're winging it in Scrabble.) Honolulu is the capital of Oahu – a show-off of a metropolis filled with designer stores that stand next to very cheap, very kitsch shops. So just after you've purchased a $5,000 wallet from Louis Vuitton you can pop next door and get a plastic cat with a giant head that meows the time.
The city looks like a wedding is going on. The place is scattered with blinding purple, fuschia, orange and aqua flowers called things like llima, kukui, lokelani and plumeria, as if the Technicolor has been turned up too high. And there is something about the air here that I've never felt anywhere else; it wraps you up in a cocoon of warmth and breeze that's blended to perfection – and it stays that way. Next time I need oxygen I'll ask for Hawaiian flavour.
All the shops stop at Waikiki beach, which has a sea so blue it hurts your eyes, with a matching sky and a mountain made of swirls of velvet green called Diamond Head which juts out of the waves.
But the best thing about the place is the resort where I stayed. I sincerely believe this is the prototype of the place you go when you die if you've been very good. It's called the Halekulani, which actually means "House Befitting Heaven", so I'm not way off. When you arrive, you're greeted by a row of smiling teeth. These belong to the staff that come out and greet every guest, saying: "Welcome home." The 453-room resort wraps around an emerald lawn which wraps around an oval pool. The floor of the pool is covered with a mosaic of an orchid that's made from a million tiles in every shade of azure.
I spent my days watching the other guests, most of whom were Japanese. There was the odd, old withered-looking man with a tiny grey pigtail, but the women all looked like young nubiles. They do not age. All had perfect figure-of-eight bodies, black hair and skin made of porcelain – no silicon whatsoever is used to enhance. At the pool of the Halekulani there are no facelifts, no concrete-filled breasts, no hanging skin tied up behind the head: just perfect specimens. I wore a robe and hid behind a tree.
Beyond the pool is an intimate beach with rolling waves of 80F water. You can body-surf up 20 feet of sand and back down again into the sea. Usually I'm bored looking at an ocean: water, ripples, waves, and that's it. Not here. There are more people on water than on land. Here the whole population stands on surfboards holding an oar. A whole community, laughing and chatting while standing on water – Jesus would fit right in.
This is probably the first sight Captain James Cook had when he beached up in 1778: men walking on water. Imagine his surprise, especially as he wasn't even looking for Hawaii. The Hawaiians thought he was God because of his big boat and there was a huge celebration. Sadly, some of the crew gave the locals VD, so it wasn't a complete success. In the end they killed Cook. I guess he tried to get away without paying the bill.
The whole history of Hawaii confuses me as it's not very precise. It seems that the volcano goddess called Pele and a shape-shifting demigod who often manifested himself into a boar called Kamapua'a had a disagreement. Pele and her sisters apparently saw Kamapua'a one day at the volcano and called him a pig, which he was. So he said, "Well, all I see is a smelly old hag." And so a battle began. Pele hurled molten lava everywhere and Kamapua'a summoned the rains in an attempt to stop the fires and so they fought, but in the end they became lovers. That's one story.
Another story, this time told by simple geologists, is that the 130 Hawaiian islands that stretch across 1,600 miles of the northern Pacific Ocean are the end result of lava spewing from a "hot spot" beneath the earth's crust. Over millions of years the hot spot has remained stationary while the Earth's crust moved four inches per year opening new vents through which lava belched up to create the various islands. Take your choice: Pele or science.
Anyway, that's history. Today surfing is the It Girl. Go to the North Shore in O'ahu, a district on the other side of the island; this is where the surf culture began. On the cliffs you can see where Elvis lived. The surroundings are jungle-lush (it was a location for Jurassic Park) and the town is very bohemian. This is where the surf bums hang out.
In the 1940s, in the time before the internet, people who'd heard of surfing via conch shells came here to "ride the giants" – the 30-footers. They stared out at these mini-tsunamis and wondered how they could live through the pounding. And while they watched the waves they lived off the land, which wasn't such a chore as there was an abundance of pineapple, coffee, bananas, mango, corn, lychee and shrimps. Basically the land was your buffet. Eventually one man rode a wave 40ft high and lived to tell the tale, so since then the most beautiful men and women (otherwise known as surf bunnies) have come here to ride the foam.
The North Shore consists of beach after beach, called things like Lanikai, Sunset and Pipeline. On Turtle Beach, giant turtles come on the sand at the same time every day. Each beach is more gorgeous than the next – and I'm not just talking about the lifeguards, who are breathtaking. I tried to talk to a few.
Ruby: "So what do you do out here?"
Lifeguard: "If it's gnarly we spit through the pipe over at the gas chamber, ride the lip and maybe whip out on the dark side."
Ruby: "That's nice."
Of course I had to surf because all the cocktail parties seem to be going on a mile out on the water. The Halekulani has a surf school on Waikiki Beach where a guy called Ty tows you out with his toe on your surfboard while he paddles in front of you. This means no wear and tear for you, and you can look at his bottom. When you get miles out you see that everyone who is anyone is sitting on their board waiting for the perfect wave. Ty told me that when I stood up to surf I should never, ever turn around as I would see a 6ft wave and have a heart attack.
So I did what I was told. He yelled, "Paddle, girl!" (I loved that) and then I stood in the position he told me to stand in – a Kung Fu squat – and it was a miracle. I heard Ty shout "You go, girl! Don't mush out or rag doll on me!" And I didn't; I stayed erect. And that baby takes you right into the sand if you hold on with your toenails. Waikiki Beach is the only beach in the world which has a wave that doesn't break: the best rolls keep moving all the way to shore.
Now, when official forms demand my occupation, I write "surf bunny".
Something not to miss is going to a Lu'au. This is a special nightly festival where you get together with other tourists to eat pig, raw fish, chicken and squid wrapped in coconut leaves (the food, not you). Afterwards you watch many local dances which need to be explained otherwise they look ridiculous.
Na Hula O Kaohikukapulani is a type of hula where the upper half of the body sways, waif-like, with the dancers' hands moving like delicate swans, while down below the waist there's a kind of gangsta-rap "shake da booty"-type thing going on. The arms, I was told, are telling you about the moon, rain, sun and water. No one knew what the bottom-half stuff meant. Perhaps it's a way of keeping off flies, though there are no flies or mosquitoes in Hawaii.
There are different dances from different islands. Some involve sticking your tongue out to your knees with your face painted like a zebra. Some involve twirling a baton on fire and end when the dancer swallows it (very show business). And some are just dancing barefoot with no top on. No wonder Captain Cook was so captivated by the islands.
My favourite place to eat was at the Halekulani. The Sunday V C Brunch at Orchids is what I would call a Bacchanalian mouth orgy. A harp and flute play in the background as you wander past every possible food that man has ever swallowed. The Japanese people hovered over a continent of raw fish trawled up from the sea, while my people and I ran for desserts last seen in such extravagant abundance just before the siege of Versailles.
One night we ate in the hotel's newest signature suite, which is called the Orchid Suite. Vikram Garg, the Halekulani's executive chef, asked us during the day what kind of food we liked. I said make something easy, because I had read about him. What I'd read was: "His sensory approach towards cuisine awakens the guest's memory of earlier times and places with mellifluous force and passion of Proustian proportions."
So we walk into this Orchid Suite, which costs $7,000 a night. Before we get to the food, I just want to mention that the tub/pool spoke to me, saying hello and what colour lights did I want, and what type of water. Also the toilet knew if you were a man or woman and would adjust its seat accordingly. There is an entertainment room by Steinway Lyngdorf in the suite which contains a $250,000 Steinway on-the-wall, in-the-ceiling sound system with speakers and boundary woofers and fully digital amplification. We listened to Spiderman 3 on it. I wept, I laughed hysterically; every organ in my body resonated with that sound. With the suite they also throw in free use of a Maserati, a Bentley and a Lotus in case you're bored.
Then we ate dinner. I think 10 people were in charge of making sure we got our forks to our mouths. The "simple meal" consisted of things that have never before passed my lips. I did not know food could get this poetic; until then I had been a mere peasant. We had kampachi carpaccio, hamachi tartare, sea asparagus and ogo to start. I have no idea what this means but most of it was raw fish so delicate it made sushi taste like horsemeat. It was explained to me that the kona lobster and kahuku shrimp that followed had to be caught at a specific depth at a specific temperature or they wouldn't make the menu. Imagine the feelings of the lobsters that auditioned but didn't make it? Not to be upstaged, we then had kogashima wagyu (a kind of beef you don't have to chew, it melts) and for dessert, 24-carat gold wrapped over peanut caramel and roasted apple banana ice cream. You know when your eyes roll to the back of your head with bliss? That was me.
The next day I went to SpaHalekulani, where everyone talks to you as if you're a very tiny baby who has just learned to speak. I had a massage from someone who talked like she was reading a fairy tale: "If someone hands you a coconut it is a great honour as it is the fruit closest to heaven; it is most precious and you are a very honoured and royal guest. Here we go to the ocean waters for healing, these waters are known as lomi lomi." Then she told me that aloha means "hello", "goodbye", "I love you", "I'm sorry", "I need a sponge" and "pass the vodka". I don't think they have a huge vocabulary.
I was told the staff at Halekulani are actually trained to feel empathy and cater to the soul of the guest and when they do something extraordinary they are honoured. I know my soul was honoured but it was my body that gained a stone. I thank them anyway.
*United Airlines (08458 444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk ) flies to Honolulu from Heathrow via Los Angeles or San Francisco. Continental (0845 607 6760; continental.com ) flies via Newark and then Los Angeles or Houston.
Tour operators offering packages to Halekulani, Honolulu include North America Travel Service (020-7569 6710; northamericatravelservice.co.uk ). Visitors to Hawaii need to complete the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (Esta) prior to travel ( usembassy.org.uk ).
*Halekulani Hotel, 2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii (001 808 923 2311; halekulani.com ). Four-night stays start at $1,275 (£790) per double room.
*Hawaii Tourism: 020-7367 0935; gohawaii.com/uk
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