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What Is The Real Hawaii Anyway?
by Joe Brancatelli

"Developers desperate for coconut trees," screamed the headline in Pacific Business News.

As the story that ran under the headline explained, the developers of Hawaii's latest generation of resorts and golf courses had placed orders for about 100,000 mature coconut trees. But only about 4,500 trees actually were available in Hawaii. Said one earnest landscaper: "You can't grow a 10-year-old tree in one year."

Hawaii's coconut-tree shortage was not the bitter legacy of man's inhumanity to environment. And no one was trying to corner the market on palm fronds. It wasn't even the result of a natural parasite or a rare tree disease.

Hawaii was short on coconut trees because the builders of Hawaii's resorts had used them all in an attempt to make the resorts look like what the developers thought visitors wanted Hawaii to look like!

Oblivious to the ironies, the story went on to report that one particularly rapacious developer had used 4,200 coconut trees just to landscape his three newest hotels. Coconut trees "are part of the look we want to create," the offending developer's landscape architect said unapologetically. "They are synonymous with Hawaii."

Aloha from Hawaii, the only place in the world where life imitates a tourist's fantasy.

Every place a traveler goes these days has been phonied up just a bit to meet the tourist's basest expectations. After all, what would a trip to New York be without one of those nice Jewish bagels that are really baked by a Colombian immigrant? What fun would Munich be if you walked into a beer hall and didn't have your picture taken with the portly fellow who's paid to wear lederhosen? And who among us can honestly say we wouldn't be disappointed if we couldn't take afternoon tea at our London hotel even though there isn't a Englishman alive who still has the time for that silly ritual?

But Hawaii is different: Almost everything about the 50th State, including the fact that Hawaii is a state at all, sometimes seems like a contrivance for the benefit of the tourists. After all, there are volcanoes here, not majestic purple mountains. And forget amber waves of grain. Hawaii's stock in trade is gray-green fields of sugar cane. The sea-to-shining-sea stuff is fine, but only if you can accept that all of Hawaii's shining seas are the Pacific. Don't even try to figure out why Hawaii has built interstate highways. And what other state demands you fill out a declaration form before you get off the plane?

But enough of politics, you say. What of the real Hawaii? Okay, what exactly did you have in mind?

Hula girls in grass skirts? Uh uh, grass skirts aren't Hawaiian. Neither are ukuleles or tiki-torch dancers. How about those great old Hawaiian songs like "Blue Hawaii" and "Tiny Bubbles"? Nope, most of those came from Tin Pan Alley. Well, what about Hawaii Five-O, that legendary crime-fighting team? Sorry, folks, there's no such organization. Nobody's gonna give you a glass of pineapple juice when you land in Honolulu — and no one's gonna wrap a flower lei around your neck at the airport unless you've arranged it in advance and paid for the privilege.

Like it or not, Hawaii as the visitor thinks he or she knows it is an elaborate, prefabricated invention. A series of striking fantasies created and crafted especially to lure the Yankee dollar. For a hundred years, even before marketing was called marketing, Hawaii's tourism industry has promoted the Hawaiian Islands as a tropical paradise. And if some developer has to buy up every coconut tree in Hawaii to meet your expectations once he's got you here, then, by God, he'll do it.

What's most peculiar about all this fantasy-island stuff is that lately the self-absorbed poobahs of Hawaii's "visitor industry" have been duped by their own marketing. Hurt by the Asian recession, which has dried up the supply of free-spending Japanese, Chinese and Korean visitors, and reeling from the consequences of the building boom that caused the coconut-tree shortage, Hawaii's tourist attractions now hope to revive their flagging fortunes by sycophantically rushing to make their product "more Hawaiian."

Everyone involved in selling Hawaii dutifully repeats marketing catch phrases such as "Hawaiian values" and "aloha spirit." Then they go out and revive some hokey image or marketing gimmick created to promote tourism in the 1920's, and they honestly believe they've helped restore something genuinely Hawaiian. And in the cockeyed fantasy world that is the Hawaii tourism business, who's to say they haven't?

Therein lies the metaphysical beauty of Hawaii. It is a place that manages to transcend its own marketing hype. Even though survey after survey reinforces the notion that Hawaii is the most dreamed about place on earth, Hawaii still accomplishes the improbable: It fulfills every visitor's particular fantasy, no matter how unrealistic and pie-eyed that fantasy may be.

On a flight to Honolulu several years ago, I sat next to a 70-ish couple from suburban Chicago who were making their first visit to Hawaii. Like so many of the seven million who visit the Islands each year, they described the trip ahead of them in the rapturous tones of travelers who finally were taking their once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation.

About halfway through the nine-hour flight, the woman had begun to doze. But the man, too excited to relax, let loose his particular Hawaiian fantasy.

"When I was a kid, maybe I was 10 years old, my mother brought home a can of pineapple," he told me. "It had the most beautiful label I ever saw: a drawing of Waikiki Beach and a view of Diamond Head in the background. I think I've wanted to go to Hawaii ever since I saw that drawing."

I didn't have the courage to tell him that Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head may never have looked like that drawing. And I certainly could not bring myself to warn him that Waikiki, crowded as it has become with high-rise hotels and designer boutiques, isn't the best place to catch a glimpse of Diamond Head.

When the flight landed, I helped them with their luggage, directed them to the tour-group liaison — who did give them welcome leis, by the way — and rushed off to deal with my own affairs. As luck would have it, however, I ran into them several days later, sitting in the front window of a McDonald's on Waikiki's main drag.

"Are you enjoying yourselves?" I asked. The woman smiled, nodded vigorously and pointed to a shopping bag. But the man said nothing, and I assumed he had been disappointed to discover Waikiki was a bustling urban resort, not the bucolic, countrified wonderland of his pineapple-can fantasy.

"Waikiki is different than you thought it would be, isn't it?" I heard myself ask lamely.

"It is," the man said. And then he smiled broadly. "How come you didn't tell me that it's more beautiful than that drawing I remembered?"

I didn't know it was more beautiful than the drawing on the pineapple can. Only he could know.

And that's the wondrous thing about Hawaii. After all the marketing campaigns, all the movies and television shows, all the hokey calendars, and all the airbrushed travel brochures, everyone has formed his or her own peculiar fantasy of what Hawaii is, what it looks like, how it smells and sounds and feels.

They may have built their fantasy on nothing more substantial than some photographs in an old issue of Life magazine. What they know of Hawaii may have come from a cockeyed grade-school history book, or a sporting event, or even a novel. Or, maybe, from an Elvis movie. They may even have built an elaborate Hawaiian fantasy from a postcard someone sent them.

However they built them, though, it's a good bet the fantasies have only the most tenuous link to the reality of Hawaii. Yet, somehow, Hawaii always delivers. Thanks to climate, the scenery and the genuinely friendly nature of the Hawaiian people, Hawaii always manages to be whatever it is you thought it would be. In fact, you always go away thinking it was just a little bit better than you thought it could be.

That's probably the one indisputably real thing about the place.

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