You don't have to be a Barack fan, but it helps
They're Obama crazy in Hawaii. The President has given his birthplace one more reason to celebrate in its 50th year as a US state, says Adrian Mourby
Sunday 08 March 2009
There are brides everywhere in the Moana Surfrider. The grande dame of Hawaiian hotels is the No 1 place for Japanese couples to have their wedding photos taken. This morning, so far, there have been eight couples posing at the bottom of the hotel's grand staircase, then going outside to be pictured on the beach.
The brides wear Princess Diana-style dresses and the grooms sport English morning dress. This seems particularly incongruous in Hawaii, the 50th state of a country where men traditionally get married in tuxedos. But then Hawaii is an American anomaly in so many ways.
As the island group prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its admission to the American union, Hawaii remains the only US state to boast a royal palace (occupied by kings and queens right until the coup of 1893). Moreover, the state flag is the only American emblem to incorporate the Union Jack, and, of course, Hawaii is the only state to have produced a non-white occupant of that whitest of all White Houses.
We're in Honolulu to travel the new Obama trail, which is quickly becoming as much a part of the local tourist industry as surfing and hula. Our guide, Mitch Berger, is from Missouri. Usually he teaches survival techniques, but today he is going to drive us round in a minibus, (inset right) along with 15 other eager political tourists from the mainland.
We head out of bling-drenched Waikiki and turn inland. Young "Barry" Obama would not have had much to do with Waikiki with its Hermès, Prada and Chanel boutiques. "Over there, to our left, was known as the Jungle," says Mitch, indicating the inland sprawl. "Back in the 1960s and 1970s that was the rough, fun part where young Barry would go to visit his mentor, Frank Marshall. Frank helped him to understand his black roots. You must remember that Michelle Obama has said that in order to understand Barack, you have to understand Hawaii."
We're passing Kapiolani Park and soon come to the Rainbow Drive-In, where young Barry used to eat "plate lunches" with his teammates after basketball practice. "Anyone know what a plate lunch is?" Mitch asks. My wife does. Kate is not just a card-carrying "Only Obama Can Redeem My Country" Democrat, but she also knows the Hawaiian backstory.
Apparently, we're talking about something involving a big $12 bucket of macaroni salad with mayonnaise and two scoops of white rice. I can't say it would get my vote, but then I'm not entitled to vote. I'm an American War-on-Terror Bride, someone who married into this country while the previous Supreme Commander was telling us all that he would bomb the world into peaceful co-existence.
"Now that, over there, is Zippy's. It didn't look that good in Barry's day. Zippy's chilli is famous. Young Barry Obama was one of those who sold chilli raffle tickets as fundraisers for community projects," says Mitch. "This has given rise to the joke here that he plans to close the national debt by selling Zippy's raffle tickets."
This first part of our tour is very food intensive, which is ironic given the wafer-thin fitness of the 44th US President. We also pass Leonard's Bakery (famous for its malasadas) and a "shaved ice" parlour. It seems this is another form of junk food which was once favoured by the future Saviour of America.
"His favourite shaved-ice flavours are choo choo cherry, Lanakai lime and guava orange." I wouldn't say Mitch Berger is obsessive but he certainly knows his Obama.
As we chug uphill to Makapuu Drive, Mitch points out the trees choked with mangoes and then the site of a guest house (now demolished) where Obama Snr stayed when he enrolled as a student of the University of Hawaii.
"I think we can say, if I may be tactful, that, er, there is a very good chance, well, a probability, that the future president of the United States was conceived where that house now stands." We all raise our cameras, trying to do so in as non-salacious a manner as possible. The house is unremarkable, a two-storey blue clapboard construct, but even if it were by Frank Gehry, it's nothing to do with Obama.
Now a voice from the back of the bus calls out asking Mitch to clarify if the Redeemer's parents were actually married. "Anne Dunham claimed that she and Obama Snr were married in their hearts," says Mitch, and I can tell that Kate is glad when that tabloid line of inquiry is laid to rest.
We pass on to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Mitch asks if anyone knows what subject Obama Snr and Anne were enrolling for when they met. "Russian!" choruses the bus and a discussion now breaks out between two white-headed couples as to whether it was language or literature.
But we're soon back to food, with Mitch pointing out Mr Burger. "Now this was another place where the Punahou basketball team used to eat after a game. It was also the first place in Hawaii to sell Tater-Tots. Does anyone know what Tater-Tots are?" I'm worried to learn that my wife used to eat them in front of the TV.
At 2334 University Avenue we stop to look at the house where Barry lived with Toot and Gramps before he and his mother moved to Indonesia. Mitch announces a "comfort break" and asks those who want to take photos to stay on the opposite side of the road as this sweet little bungalow is still lived in. I can imagine the new owners getting fed up of gawpers. While waiting for those who are still seeking "comfort" in the local park's restrooms, Kate has a go on what might have been Obama's swing. There are two in the park. Political aficionados may want to note that both have rubber tyre seats.
Now we head up towards Punahou School as Mitch waxes lyrical from the front sea about the island's hibiscus plants. Evidently, you can use every bit of a hibiscus. "And people live longer on Hawaii than anywhere else in the US," he informs us, continuing this sociological commentary by adding that Hawaii has some of the worst public schools in the US, which is why there are so many private schools.
We are now approaching Punahou School. In 1971 Anne Dunham sent her 10-year-old son back to Hawaii so he could attend this 3,600-pupil fee-paying school. It's interesting that there's no stigma attached to that over here. The alii (Hawaiian royalty) were educated at Punahou, as were the children of missionaries. From the road it looks more like a university to me, with sweeping lawns and gracious roofs.
"My mother taught here," announces Kate who has been saving this up.
"Yes, when she was first married. My parents were stationed on Hawaii in the mid-60s. But that was before Obama was a student."
I can tell our standing has suddenly risen several notches and Kate sails on a wave as we pass the Kapiolani Medical Center (named after the Hawaiian queen who founded it) now known as the hospital where The One was born. It's not far from Punahou Circle Apartments, where Toot, Obama's grandmother, lived on South Beretania Street till the end of her life.
"She died before he was elected president," says Mitch. "But she told friends once he got the nomination that she knew he'd be president. Oh, and now we are just passing Checkers Autoparts. It used to be the cinema where Barack Obama – he was Barack by then – remembers queuing to see Star Wars."
Funny, I can remember where I queued to see Star Wars. It was in Carmarthen of all places, and it was raining. Will this be the defining question of our lightweight generation? Never mind where one was when the news came through about Kennedy in Dallas, can you remember where you queued for Star Wars?
Next we pass the Baskin Robbins where Obama had his first high-school job. "When this parlour opened it was the busiest Baskin Robbins in the US," says Mitch "This was a prestigious job for a high-school kid."
"Though he now hates ice cream!" shouts some know-all from the back.
"Absolutely," says Mitch. "And on your left on South King Street you can see Alan Wong's Restaurant. Does anyone know the last time Obama was in Hawaii what he ate and drank at Alan Wong's?"
We are all stunned. This is real Mastermind-level stuff.
"It was pepper and mustard-crusted ahi and he drank a dry vodka martini."
I am beginning to wonder if Michele Obama was wrong. Are we really understanding Barack any better or just his digestive tract? That said, we are seeing a side of Hawaii that has never been on the tourist trail before. And we've got off the beach. Maybe we are seeing the Real Hawaii, as lived by Hawaiians (and not just those who go on to be president).
As we drive up to Punchbowl, the military cemetery where Gramps was buried, Mitch develops an impromptu quiz for Obamaphiles.
"Why was Gramps buried here?" (He'd been a colonel in Patton's Seventh Army.)
"What is Barack's favourite Dylan song?" ("Maggie's Farm".)
"Which film did he and Michele see together in their first date?" (Do the Right Thing.)
It's alarming how many of people on the bus get 100 per cent. I'm glad to say that my wife doesn't. Her admiration stops short of idolatry, for the moment anyway.
Now people are asking where you can buy the best Obama T-shirts in Hawaii and I'm beginning to tune out. Actually, I'm looking forward to getting back to the beach for a mai tai and watching the Japanese brides trying to avoid the surf. You can have too much of a good thing, and maybe the Barack Obama carbo-loading mystery tour is just that.
How to get there
Virgin Holidays (0844 5573 860; virginholidays.com) offers seven nights in Hawaii from £979 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Heathrow via Los Angeles and hotel accommodation in Honolulu. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; holidayautos.co.uk) offers a week's fully inclusive car hire from £129.
Mitch Berger (hikingoahuhawaii .com) run Obama tours on Oahu. Tours are 90 to 120 minutes long and cost $40 (£28) per person, including collection from your hotel.
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (gohawaii.com/uk).
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
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