The amazing Polynesian paradise

Find heritage and culture in heavenly Hawaii


One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is sitting down with my family every week to watch Hawaii Five-O — the original series, not the 21st-century reboot. The opening credits were enough to send a shiver of excitement through me. That theme tune! Those waves! The catchphrase “Book him, Danno!”

And surely the best turn to camera in the history of television when actor Jack Lord, as Steve McGarrett, swivelled to face the audience from the penthouse suite of a Honolulu hotel.

So it was with positive glee that I learned the hotel where that iconic scene was shot was next to the one in which I was staying during a longed-for trip to Hawaii.

The islands have always been on my bucket list of places to visit and after three years of not going anywhere, the prospect of reaching that tropical paradise far outweighed my reservations about enduring long-haul air travel.

Hawaii may have been my final destination, but I took the long route, arriving via a sea voyage starting in Sydney, stopping off in New Zealand and spending three days in French Polynesia.

En route to Tahiti, the cruise — aboard the Celebrity Eclipse — crossed the International Date Line, which caused much confusion among the passengers. Travelling east, we were adjusting our clocks by one hour forward daily but crossing the date line meant that we suddenly leapt back in time and had two April 27s. (This was lovely for those on board with birthdays or anniversaries, because they got to celebrate them twice.)

Then finally, five days after leaving the Polynesian island of Raiatea, we docked in Maui, one of the most beautiful islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.

The eight main islands are Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Maui, and Hawaii; the last of these, after which the state is named, is often called the Big Island or Hawaii Island to avoid confusion with the state.

Which all means it has a lot to offer visitors. Whereas once the export of pineapples, papayas and sugar cane played a massive part in the Hawaiian economy, tourism now provides the state’s major source of income, with between six and ten million tourists arriving every year.

I hesitate to use the phrase “tropical paradise” as it is such a cliché, but Maui really is a little piece of heaven on Earth. It is lush, with beautiful vegetation and flowers, thanks to the combination of plentiful sun and rain (there are wetter and drier sides of the island).

In the port of Lahaina is the largest banyan tree in the United States. It looks like a small orchard, but it is, in fact, one large tree, planted 150 years ago.

Visitors should also make time for a trip to the Valley of Iao, the site of a bloody battle between islanders in 1790. Where the bodies of fallen soldiers once clogged a stream, there are now beautiful waterfalls and abundant plants.

Jewish history in the islands dates from the middle of the 19th century, when merchants arrived from California. Today, there are around 7,000 Jews living in Hawaii, mostly in Honolulu, the capital city on Oahu.

In total, there are 17 Jewish congregations, associations and organisations dotted throughout the islands, with provision for kosher food (flown in from Los Angeles). The Jewish cemeteries have sections for non-Jewish family members to be buried too, as inter-marriage is common.

There are also four Chabad houses on the islands, providing a friendly welcome for the many tourists who visit.

On our only Friday night in Honolulu, my husband and I walked to the local Chabad for an evening service followed by dinner. There were around 40 of us — mainly young Israelis who have found work in the city — but the mix of nationalities present also included Canadians, French, a convert from Montana… and us. It was good to feel the warmth of community so far from home.

Along Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, hotels line the shore (including the luxurious Ilikai, home to the aforementioned scene from Hawaii Five-O). The city is a shoppers’ paradise; stores along Kalakaua Avenue include Valentino, Gucci, Tiffany and Harry Winston, plus a huge Cheesecake Factory that has long queues spilling onto the street.

But no trip to Oahu is complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor, the site of the surprise attack by Japanese forces that catapulted the United States into the Second World War. The various memorials pay tribute to the thousands of people — both military and civilian — who died on December 7, 1941. There is a lot to see, so allow several hours to make the most of your visit.

The battleship USS Arizona was attacked in the harbour. It sank in a mere nine minutes, with the loss of 1,177 men and leaving 900 entombed in the ship. A short ferry ride takes visitors from land out to a large white memorial, built over the wreckage, some of which remains visible through the water.

It is impossible not to be moved by the hundreds of names engraved on a large wall at one end of the monument. And it is poignant too to see the short list of names of those who have died in the many years since the attack but have chosen to have their ashes placed alongside their fallen comrades. The last man who wished to be interred there died in 2019.

If the sinking of the Arizona represents the start of the Second World War for Americans, then just a few hundred metres away is the ship that marks the end of it; the battleship Missouri, aboard which the Japanese signed the document of surrender.

It is possible to tour this huge vessel and see the exact spot where General Douglas MacArthur presided over the ceremony in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

For those who haven’t travelled to Hawaii via Polynesia, it’s also possible to get a taste of the many islands of the Pacific without leaving Oahu. At the Polynesian Cultural Center, you can enjoy learning about the cultural heritage, arts and traditions of the islands of Polynesia, namely Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The Center is run, curiously, by Mormons — which explains its prohibition on alcohol and the clean-cut look of all the unceasingly friendly staff — and is rather like a giant theme park without the terrifying rides.

Instead, you can watch a Tahitian wedding ceremony, see Samoan men climb trees for coconuts, enjoy a canoe tour, take part in a Hawaiian hula class or, best of all, watch an intimidating “Haka” from Aotearoa.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the various dances from the different islands. Women performing a Maori dance are especially impressive: their hands shimmer like hummingbird wings while they shake their hips in something I can only compare to rapid twerking. An excellent introduction to island life, and a fun day out.

And while our focus was on culture and history, that only scratches the surface of what you can find in Hawaii, including nature at its most beguiling. A limit on both our time and finances meant that Kauai, known as “the garden isle” and the Big Island, and famous for its active volcanoes and Kona coffee, had to remain unexplored this time around. Reason enough for me to return as soon as possible.

Getting There

A ten-night cruise around the Hawaiian islands ending in Vancouver costs from £1,162 with Celebrity Cruises, which also sails from Sydney to islands in the South Pacific.

Flights from Heathrow to Honolulu via Los Angeles cost from around £1,150 with American Airlines

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive