50 fun facts about Hawaii as 50th star hits 50

San Fran Chronicle
50 fun facts about Hawaii as 50th star hits 50
Jeanne Cooper, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, August 28, 2009

It’s Hawaiian custom to wear a lei for special occasions…. Kids get a dance lesson at the Polynesian Cultural Center… Although most live in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, mon… Iolani Palace is called the nation’s only royal palace, b…

Sure, you know that a luau features a whole roasted pig, that Mount Waialeale on Kauai is the wettest earth on Earth and that humuhumunukunukuapuaa is not only the state fish, but also is fun to say.

In the 50 years since Hawaii became a state and jet travel to the islands began, much about this former Polynesian kingdom has become familiar territory for travelers.

But the joy of visiting these spectacular specks in the ocean – the most remote in the world – is that there’s always something new to learn. Ancient Hawaiian culture and modern multiethnic life, the enticing yet fragile environment and enduring man-made attractions: All reward a closer look.

When your job – writing Hawaii Insider, a near-daily blog about travel and culture for SFGate.com – is all about a closer look, it’s surprising what you might uncover. What follows is a pupu platter with 50 morsels of trivia (and a little vicarious travel) celebrating the half century since the 50th state became the 50th star.

Polynesia’s two biggest petroglyph fields – carvings in hardened lava – are found on the Big Island. The Puu Loa Petroglyph Field in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park contains more than 15,000 of the enigmatic etchings, while closer to the tourist hotels, the Puako Petroglyph Field has about 1,200. Both contain many puka (holes) designed to hold piko (umbilical cords), tying children to the land of their ancestors.

Until the late 19th century, Hawaiians called a festive feast a paina (“dinner party”) or ahaaina (“feast”), but the common inclusion of luau – young taro tops baked with coconut and chicken or seafood – on the menu gave rise to the newer moniker: luau.

Fire-knife dancing, the climax of nearly every luau, is believed to have been created in 1946 by a Samoan man – in San Francisco.

Just two commercial pineapple growers remain in Hawaii: Dole Foods on Oahu and Maui Pineapple Co. Among the attractions at the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa: a pineapple maze.

Only one precinct voted against statehood for Hawaii: the all-Hawaiian enclave of Niihau, where the natives almost a century before had also protested the sale of their island to the Sinclair family. In 1897, nearly 22,000 Native Hawaiians – more than half of the full or part Hawaiians counted in a census that year – signed a petition opposing annexation by the United States.

6 A U.S. flag with the Union Jack on it? Hawaii’s is the only one, although unlike most of the mainland, it was never part of the British Empire. King Kamehameha I commissioned the flag, ostensibly to reflect his friendship with the British – or his desire for protection by them.

7 Today, flying the Hawaii state flag upside down is a way to show support for the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

8 Honolulu’s best civil service jobs may be the 40 positions of the Royal Hawaiian Band, the country’s only full-time municipal band. Founded in 1836 by King Kamehameha III, it’s also the oldest brass band in the Pacific. Free concerts include regular gigs at Iolani Palace (Fridays at noon) and Kapiolani Park Bandstand (Sundays at 2 p.m.).

9 The National Park Service calls the fur-ball-like Hawaiian hoary bat – the only native land mammal in Hawaii – “the teddy bear of bats.”

10 Tsunamis have killed more people in Hawaii than any other natural disaster: an estimated 221 since 1900. Most recently, an offshore quake in 1975 caused rocks to tumble from cliffs at a Big Island beach park, forcing campers toward the ocean – only to face tsunami waves of 5 feet and 26 feet high. Two died and 19 were injured.

11 Early residents thought Hawaiian tree snails, which can spend a lifetime on a single tree eating fungus, sang as they climbed up and down. They named them pupu kani oe, “shells of long sound.”

12 While the taro plant (source for the ubiquitous gray matter poi) is used in other traditional dishes, you won’t find taro crudites. Raw taro has oxalic acid crystals that irritate the mouth (and sometimes your hands) if they’re not dissolved by cooking.

13 The Polynesian Cultural Center, opened in 1963 in Laie, bills itself as Hawaii’s most-visited paid attraction – and that’s without being open Sundays or serving alcohol (activities frowned on by founder and staff provider Brigham Young University-Hawaii.)

14 The most popular free attraction? The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

15 Singer Clara Haili adopted her popular name from the song that made her famous in the late 1930s: “When Hilo Hattie Did the Hula Hop.” She appeared in the 1942 movie “Song of the Islands” with Betty Grable, kissed Elvis Presley as an airport greeter in “Blue Hawaii” and popped up in two episodes of “Hawaii Five-O.”

16 What Hilo Hattie didn’t do: Sell aloha shirts or chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. Shortly before she died in 1979, at age 77, she sold the rights to her name to a clothing manufacturer that was adding a factory in Hilo.

17 The first Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill was opened at the Kahului airport in 2008 by rocker namesake Sammy Hagar, who donates his profits to local children’s charities.

18 Official flowers for each island were established by law in 1923 – except for arid Niihau, which is represented by its tiny shells in lieu of hard-to-find flowers. Kauai’s emblematic mokihana is really the fruit of a shrub that grows only on the Garden Isle.

19 Each island has an official color, handy for telling apart contingents in the Aloha Festivals parades. Uninhabited Kahoolawe has the only color not usually found on aloha shirts: gray.

20 The island of Kahoolawe is probably the only site in the National Register of Historic Places to be used for bombing practice – for nine years after being honored. The shelling didn’t stop until 1990.

21 Kalawao County on the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Molokai (home to the former leper colony that’s now a national historical park), is the second least populated county in the United States, according to the 2000 census, with 147 residents. The rest of Molokai – and several other islands – fall within Maui County. (The nation’s least populated county is Loving County, Texas. Population: 67.)

22 Built in 1901, the Moana Hotel, now part of the Westin Moana-Surfrider, is the oldest hotel on Waikiki Beach.

23 Still under construction, the newest hotel is the Trump International Hotel & Tower® Waikiki Beach Walk®. At 38 stories, however, it falls short of being the tallest. (Hyatt Regency Waikiki’s two towers squeak by at 39 floors each.)

24 Five kings ruled Hawaii under the name Kamehameha, meaning “the solitary one,” but none was given it at birth. The first, Kamehameha the Great, was originally called Paiea, literally meaning “hard-shelled crab.”

25 While Hawaii has the largest percentage of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (22 percent), the largest “NHPI” population is 2,400 miles away – in California. (The approximately 200 full-time residents of the privately owned island of Niihau are all of Native Hawaiian descent.)

26 Of the roughly 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals left, one of only two native mammals in the islands, more than 90 percent live in the uninhabited Northwest Hawaiian Islands. (The pair at the Waikiki Aquarium are the only two you can get close to without being fined $25,000.)

27 Iolani Palace is called the only royal palace in the United States, but the legacy of Hawaii’s overthrown monarchy includes two other palatial residences that can be toured: Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, in Honolulu’s upland Nuuanu neighborhood, and Hulihee Palace, on the Kailua-Kona waterfront.

28 The biggest earthquake in Hawaii’s recorded history occurred on the Big Island in 1868, with an estimated magnitude of 7.9 and an epicenter in the southern Kau District. In addition to widespread destruction of homes and stone walls, 46 people died in the resulting tsunami at Keauhou and 31 perished in a landslide almost 2 miles wide at Kapapala.

29 What Hawaii lacks in native reptiles (roughly, zero), it makes up for in more than 10,000 species of insects that are either indigenous or endemic (found nowhere else). Up to 30 percent are extinct, though, and up to 50 percent more are endangered – though none has made the federal list.

30 About 98 percent of Lanai is privately owned, including the island’s sole campground. Unlike the two luxurious Four Seasons hotels, the six beachfront campsites come cheap: $5 per person per night (plus $20 registration).

31 Father Damien, the Belgian priest who worked in Molokai’s leper colony and eventually died of Hansen’s disease (as leprosy is now called), will officially become a saint in October. Mother Marianne Cope, a German-born American nun who arrived several months before Damien died, was beatified in 2005 for similar service.

32 Father Damien’s body was originally buried at Kalawao on Molokai, but was later disinterred and shipped to his homeland. However, Belgium sent back the ash and bone of his right hand as a relic when he was beatified 14 years ago. For his canonization, Honolulu’s Our Lady of Peace Cathedral will receive his right ankle.

33 The only navigable rivers (boats can easily pass along them) are found on Kauai, where some consider only the Wailua River worthy of the adjective.

34 The only alpine lake in Hawaii is on the Big Island, Lake Waiau, which lies near the top of Mauna Kea at an elevation of 13,002 feet. Held sacred in traditional Hawaiian beliefs, the shallow lake would trump Colorado’s Pacific Tarn (13,435 feet) as the nation’s highest if the undersea portion of the mountain – some additional 19,000 feet – counted.

35 Talk about ocean-front property. The cheapest real estate being sold in the islands is on Loihi, the volcanic seamount slowly rising from the ocean floor southeast of the Big Island – still 3,100 feet underwater, and possibly 10,000 years from surfacing. Online pranksters, however, began offering lots at “Loihi Seaview Estates” for $39.95. Lay claim to yours at www.petroglyphs.com/loihi.

36 While statues of Elvis Presley can be found in Memphis; Shreveport, La.; and Kobe, Japan, Honolulu may have the only statue of Elvis with a, um, heftier physique. The bronze sculpture in front of Blaisdell Arena commemorates his 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” televised concert, said to be the first TV program shown around the world via satellite.

37 Elvis filmed three movies in Hawaii: “Blue Hawaii” (1961), “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (1962) and “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” (1966). The first two were shot mostly on Kauai, while the last includes scenery from Oahu, Maui and the Big Island – as well as Elvis’ version of the song “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya.”

38 According to the U.S. Census, Hawaii is the nation’s only Asian-majority state, as of July 2008, with 54 percent of the population of Asian descent. Honolulu County, which includes Oahu and the uninhabited Northwest Hawaiian Islands, is the only Asian-majority county in the country.

39 The 6-ton statue of King Kamehameha in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, where every state is allowed two figures, is among the heaviest. It was placed in 1969, along with a lighter one of Father Damien.

40 Queen Kaahumanu, a favorite wife of King Kamehameha, helped overturn the kapu belief system after he died by sharing a meal with King Kamehameha II in 1819. Previously, men and women had not been allowed to eat with each other, and most of the food found at today’s luaus would have been off-limits to women.

41 Inside the lava rock and coral mortar Mokuaikaua, the oldest church in Hawaii (founded in 1820 on the Kailua-Kona waterfront), is a wooden model of the Thaddeus, the ship on which the first missionaries arrived. One of their first converts: Queen Kaahumanu.

42 The first Hawaiian to convert to Christianity was Henry Opukahaia in 1815 – five years before the first missionaries arrived in the islands. The Protestant New Englanders were spurred by the conversion of Opukahaia, who had left Hawaii for Connecticut in 1808 but died before he could return.

43 The only Hindu temples are on Kauai, in the uplands of Kapaa. The new Iraivan temple is being built of stone quarried in India – the first such outside of that country – close to the original Kadavul Hindu Temple, founded in 1973.

44 Celebrity landowners on Kauai include Bette Midler and AOL founder Steve Case, both of whom grew up on Oahu, as well as Graham Nash, Pierce Brosnan and Ben Stiller.

45 Its construction halted by Hurricane Iniki five years earlier, Puakea Golf Course on Kauai opened in 1997 with just 10 holes. The final eight holes didn’t arrive until 2003.

46 The nine-hole Moanalua Golf Club in Honolulu, built in 1898, is the oldest – but not the oddest. The 18-hole Volcano Golf Course opened in 1921 on the rim of the Kilauea Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

47 The only hotel in Hawaii Volca noes National Park, Volcano House, is also Hawaii’s oldest, although it’s several iterations away from the original 1846 grass shack. The first wooden building, erected in 1877, burned down in 1940. Embers from its fireplace were preserved, allowing the hotel to claim a continuously burning hearth for more than 130 years.

48 The Mormon church in Laie, on Oahu’s Windward Side, used to hold a weekly hukilau, or large net-fishing party, in Laie Bay. Now you know whom to blame for “The Hukilau Song.”

49 It’s illegal to grow genetically modified taro on the Big Island. Traditional genealogy holds that the first Hawaiian was stillborn and, after his burial, became the plant that nurtures them today.

50 The last sugarcane farm on Kauai, where the industry began in 1835, will harvest its final crop in August 2010. Gay & Robinson Plantation, which offers field tours and a scenic excursion to Olokele Overlook, is planning to convert to ethanol production.

Jeanne Cooper, a former travel editor for The Chronicle, writes Hawaii Insider, a blog about travel and culture for SFGate.com.


This article appeared on page M – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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