Doris Duke’s Shangri-la

Billionaire philanthropist Doris Duke’s former home, called “Shangri-La,” opened up its Damascus Room to visitors this month.

This room had been off limits for visitors for the duration of its several year-long renovation . As such, I never had the opportunity to see it when I visited a couple of years back. The Damascus Room dates from the late 18th Century and is elaborately decorated with ornate ceiling reliefs, gold calligraphy,  Turkish ceramic plates, silk velvets and Iranian glassware.

That the room is called the Damascus Room prompted the house/museum’s director to say to the Honolulu Weekly “Especially given the current civil unrest in Syria and reports of damage to cultural sites, we hope the Damascus Room will open a window on the country’s extraordinary cultural heritage,”

The house/museum was one of my favourite day trips when I lived on O’ahu. Although the house is open to the public, you must go as part of a small group tour. You can book the trip online (early: it sells out weeks, even months in advance) then make your way the the Honoulu Academy of Art from where you are driven to the house.

The house is stuffed with one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic art, collected over Duke’s years of traveling through Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Egypt, and India. Duke was captivated by Islamic cultures and, in her will, created the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic art, to promote the study, understanding and preservation of Islamic art and culture.

Duke purchased the home, which lies on the ocean and beneath Diamond Head, while honeymooning in Hawaii in 1935. The distinctly Hawaiian surrounding landscape is as stunning as the art inside.

Following photographs all by author.

Pool at Doris Duke’s house, O’ahu
Black Point , O’ahu
Black Point, O’ahu

A Walk through Downtown Honolulu

“In Honolulu’s lawless hive, where vessels of all flags and nations arrive and depart daily, a man may change his name and history between entrée and dessert.”

— David Mitchell; Cloud Atlas

Read more about Honolulu’s Chinatown:

Chic Chinatown

Honolulu’s Chinatown Bars

Around O’ahu with a Sweet Tooth

Dessert is my favorite meal, as if that were not quite obvious already. O’ahu was good to me in this respect; the variety of sugary tasty goodness comes in many forms and is widely available. Here’s my recommendations for a sugar fix on O’ahu.

1. Shave Ice

Shimazu Grocery Store

I talk a lot about shave ice and firmly stand behind my claim that Shimazu cannot be beaten

What it is: Finely shaved ice soaked with syrups (preferably home-made) and topped and filled with your choice of mochi balls, azuki bean or haupia cream. Just don’t call it “shaved ice.”

For a different (even sweeter) take on the traditional Hawaiian-style ice, try a Taiwanese shave ice that makes use of brown sugar and condensed milk. I recommend City Cafe on Makaloa Street.

Where to eat it: Hands-down Shimazu has, in my opinion, the best shave ice on the island. The servings are huge; the consistency strikes just the right balance between fluff and crunch, and the syrups are home-made and inventive — think mojito, crème brûlée, red velvet, even durian.

2. Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream at Shirokiya

What it is: Japanese pounded rice cake filled with ice cream. Traditional flavors include matcha (green tea) and strawberry.

Where to eat it: Bubbies is probably the most famous purveyor of mochi ice cream in Honolulu. I am going to admit, however, that I preferred Shirokiya. Maybe it is just the ambiance of the Japanese grocery store, or maybe it was the delicate handling of each mochi ball by the counter staff, but selecting a piece or two at Shirokiya, wandering around the store just long enough for it to melt just enough, was one of my favorite food-related rituals in Honolulu.

3. Cake

What it is: Yes, cake. But not any old cake; cake that makes use of those distinctly Hawaiian flavors: lilikoi, haupia and, if you go to Otto Cake, “Big Island Honey Cheesecake.”

Where to eat it: The afore mentioned Otto Cake specializes in cheesecakes; (more that 80 flavors) Ted’s Bakery on the North Shore is home of the famous Haupia Pie, and Hokulani Bake Shop has cupcakes in flavors like strawberry-guava. Little Oven supposedly makes the most amazing cakes in Honolulu but is this place ever open? If you manage to eat here, you are luckier than me.

4. Malasadas

What it is: Mmmmm mmmmalasadas; originating from Portugal and traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday, these little deep-fried balls of goodness most closely resemble the humble donut — a Portuguese donut, if you will. Malasadas arrived on Hawaii alongside the 19th century laborers that came to work the sugar plantations.

Where to eat it: Leonard’s Bakery; crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and available in a multitude of seasonal flavors — mango, pineapple, coconut, chocolate… And they have the best retro-neon sign.

5. Cream Puffs

What it is: A choux pastry ball filled with cream. That’s it.

(Empty) Box of Liliha Cream Puffs

Where to eat it: Liliha’s Bakery sells around 5,000 of these things a day — for a good reason. Liliha’s fills the pastries with chocolate pudding and tops it off with chantilly frosting. They start baking at 2am every morning.

6. Halo-Halo

What it is: Halo-Halo is a a Fillipino dish that features shave ice, condensed milk, and various toppings that can include fruit, kidney beans, rice, flan and yam.

Where to eat it: Shimazu makes a good halo-halo but, I think, only on certain days. Try Mabuhay Cafe and Restaurant in Chinatown.

7. Drinkables

What it is: In a place with year-round high temperatures, sometimes your thirst needs more quenching than your sweet tooth. You don’t need to compromise though, O’ahu offers some delicious frozen slurpable treats that will satisfy all cravings.

Where to drink it: Rainbow Drive-In‘s strawberry slush float is the perfect blend of sweet and refreshing: a blended strawberry juice topped with a huge heap of vanilla ice cream. Yum.

The Best Shave Ice on O’ahu (According to Me)

Here it is: the definitive list.

A topic of this importance is not to be taken lightly, so I can assure you that I have done some very thorough research before posting this list.

If you visit O’ahu, you will probably be told that Matsumoto’s is the place to visit for your shave ice because, well, that’s where everyone goes. I think, however, that a visitor who only tastes the shave ice at Matsumoto’s is cheated. There’s just so much better out there.

Number 1: Shimazu

Red Velvet with Haupia topping

Shimazu’s cups come big, bigger and huge (get the smallest; believe me it’s enough). They have a size known as “The Larry,” but no-one I know of has ever attempted it. The flavors at Shimazu are the most inventive I’ve come across: they have creme brulee, mojito, red velvet, even durian (though you may be ordered to eat it far outside the store).

The texture is fluffy like cotton, with just a little crunch, and optional fillings and toppings include standards like mochi and red bean, as well as haupia (coconut cream).

My favorite is the sour apple li hing mui, with mochi — although Shimazu’s mochi could be better, and I don’t like that it is cubed.

The only cons are the usual: almost no parking: long lines.

Number 2: City Cafe

Taiwanese Shave Ice with Mochi, Tapioca and Taro

At City Cafe you can choose from regular Hawaiian-style or Taiwanese-style shave ice. This was the first place I ever tried Taiwanese shave ice, and, although Sweet Home Cafe is good, I think it is still the best.

The ice is shaved fine and covered in brown sugar and condensed milk. Toppings include taro, tapioca, pudding and big, firm mochi balls — I think the mochi here is the best.

It’s a small space but I’ve never had a problem finding seating or parking. The owners are quite lovely too.


3. Waiola

Waiola

Wailoa was my favorite for a long time. Their ice is shaved to the finest consistency I have found on the island. The selection of syrups and toppings is small but adequate — I usually get the li hing and lilikoi with mochi. The cups are pretty small for the price and service can be brusque, otherwise there’s not much to fault Waiola.

Honoray Mention: Matsumoto’s

Matsumoto's, North Shore

It’s definitely not the best, I find the ice too thick and crunchy, but you have to visit Matsumoto’s at least for the atmosphere. A North Shore institution, it’s been in the same spot since 1951 and is almost always packed with tourists. Braving the long line and finding a spot on the bench outside is just one of those things you have to do on the North Shore.

King Kamehameha Day: Lei Draping Ceremony

It seems to me that barely a week goes back without a festival or celebration of some kind going on on Oʻahu. I do try my best, but still only make it to about half of them.

I thought twice about heading downtown to the King Kamehameha statue opposite Iʻolani Palace, wondering how interesting a lei draping ceremony could be.  But those leis donʻt get up there without fanfare; no way, Hawaiians are no slouches when it comes to ceremony. This was a gathering, by turns reflective, solemn and celebratory, filled with colour, dance and music from the Royal Hawaiian Band. A quiet respect was tangible as descendents of the king spoke of his legend, triumphs and even hinted at what today we might call faults. Dignified men and women stood to attention in ceremonial robes, suits and feather cloaks while I sweated and burned in shorts and a tank top. A slight woman with a gorgeous smile performed first hula and then a war dance while the fragile leis were being hoisted with the aid of a fire truck; a scene of both strength and beauty.

Burly days

As a long time citizen of the underworld, I like my entertainment to run from the bawdy to the downright obscene. Honolulu, mixed-up trickster that she is, is happy to indulge with a festival devoted to Spam and a vaudeville production of Alice in Wonderland on the same day.

The annual Spam festival, Spam Jam, blocks off the stretch of Kalakaua in front of the Royal Hawaiian Center to create a space for fans to unashamedly indulge in the canned pork product. It is a carnival of the lowbrow; low-taste. Surrounding restaurants dream up new Spam-heavy dishes and sell them at street stalls. You can buy Spam hats, Spam t-shirts, Spam slippers and Spam toys. And, on my visit, there was a live band playing Journey songs too.

Cherry Blossom Cabaret’s variety show was an ambitious mix of burlesque, music, film and aerial dance. The show was an all-knowing referential take on Alice called Alice in Chinatown. Cherry Blossom’s Alice falls down the rabbit hole and has to navigate her way through Chinatown bars–Mercury, 39Hotel, Soho–to gain entry to the Red Queen’s party. The show only ran for two weekends, which is a shame because I would love to see more of this brave, inventive theatre.

Hawaii Music Monday: Bari Bari 13

On my last visit to Tokyo it seemed like the rockabilly-guys-in Yoyogi-Park phenomenon was fading. Well, there was just this guy one time:

…So I was delighted to find out that Japanese Rock ‘n’ Roll is not dead, it lives in Honolulu and it’s name is Bari Bari 13!

Tommy (Lead Guitar and Lead Vocals), Shingo (Bass Guitar and Vocals) and Kenji (Drums and Vocals) dress in black leather and dark sunglasses, even in dark, sweaty Anna Bannanas where I saw them last, exhort the crowd to Rock ‘n’ Roll while their cute-enough-to-eat girlfriends and wives throw pre-arranged dance moves in the front row. Shingo also tends to take his top off after a couple of numbers.

Bari Bari 13 at Anna Bannanas February 13th

Bari Bari 13! Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever!!!!

Hawaii Music Monday: GRLFRNDS

GRLFRNDS at Anna Bannanas 2/26

“It’s a long and complicated story about how the punks took over the dance floor and the dance floor took over the punks.” So says the blurb on GRLFRNDS’ Myspace page, which also lists some very tasty influences: The Clash, Joy Division, New Order, M83 and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Anyway, GRLFRNDS are Nick Ross (guitar), Alex Kaiser (vocals), Jake Achitoff (synth), Nate McCurdy (drums), Ryan (bass) and, I think, one of the most exciting bands playing in Honolulu right now. Their synth-heavy, high-energy, dancey, punky sound brings to mind the neon-saturated days of British post-punk, New Wave–the lead singer even adopts a convincing British accent when he sings. GRLFRNDS’ live shows will make you want to dance. They will dance. Alex throws some moves on stage while wrapping the mic cord around his neck and Ryan looks like he might hurt himself he’s bouncing around so furiously. Nick plays so hard his fingers bleed (see above photo) but Jake, well, he just chills with his synth by the side.