“Some people have this idea that Oahu is a guy behind a bar in a flowered shirt who says ‘aloha’ before he mixes you a mai tai,” Manu Boyd says. “OK. I get it. But I’m sorry. That’s not what this island is to me.”
It’s a balmy afternoon in Honolulu, on a busy corner of Kalakaua Avenue, a broad thoroughfare that borders Waikiki. Locals describe Oahu as “town-and-country,” at once upbeat and urban, kick-back and rural, and it doesn’t get much more “town” than where Boyd and I are standing, a block from Hawaii’s most famous beach. To my eye, the scene looks like a picture from a thousand brochures: the white sands and calm waves of Waikiki, flanked by snazzy hotels and upscale retail, all shadowed by the soaring Honolulu skyline. Commerce buzzes around us; skyscrapers tower above us. But Boyd is undistracted, his thoughts trained on the richness beneath his feet.
“You might not realize it,” he says, “but we’re on sacred ground.”
A former hula master and currently a composer and musician who is fluent in Hawaiian and commanding in his knowledge of Hawaiian history, Boyd makes it his business to remind the public of all that once was around Waikiki. That he carries this out as the cultural director of a shopping mall is not the contradiction it might seem. His office is the Royal Hawaiian Center, a gleaming, three-block-long retail complex where Oahu’s tony present mingles with its ancient past.
Today, the Center is your place for a designer watch or a sushi dinner. But 500 years ago, the site would have been your spot for a sit-down with a king. In the 16th century, the land where the mall stands was chosen as the royal seat of government, selected for its fertile soil and its plentiful fresh water. It remained the home of rulers for generations, eventually giving rise to a coconut grove that grew to include more than 10,000 trees and covered most of Waikiki.
How that sacred grove took root is a long story (it involves a Hawaiian chieftain and a folkloric rooster), but under Boyd’s direction, the Royal Hawaiian Center has kept the tale alive, along with other threads of local history.
Leaving the avenue behind, we amble through an outdoor garden (known as The Royal Grove) in the middle of the mall, flush with brightly colored flowers and shaded by the fronds of tropical trees — the Center’s tribute to the grove that used to be. Preserved as open space, newly enlarged and dedicated to the public at a ceremony last fall, this younger grove is a popular local hangout. It’s also a vibrant cultural center, the site of free daily classes on hula, ukulele, lomilomi massage and other traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts, as well as a stage for performances by Oahu musicians and storytellers.