Chasing Matson lines’ ‘aloha’ ideal amid skyscrapers of modern Honolulu

October 26, 2015

Rowers in the late afternoon sun on Oahu, a quiet, gentle scene away from the center of Honolulu.

HONOLULU — What happened to the watercolor dream?

That’s the dream that Matson built. Matson, the passenger and shipping company, practically invented Hawaii tourism.

In 1908, the first Matson passenger vessel joined its fleet, and the elegant white ships were soon sailing people from Los Angeles and San Francisco to this new tourist destination called Hawaii.

From the moment the Aloha Tower, the Hawaiian Gothic clock and light tower at Pier 9 winked into view, you could feel the excitement. Suddenly, bronzed boys and men were diving for quarters and half- and silver dollars tossed from the ship; you could hear the strains of the Royal Hawaiian band, and when you disembarked, you’d be draped with leis so fragrant you’d swear you were in heaven.

In many ways, you were.

You could stay at a Matson-owned hotel. When it was time to go home, you reboarded a Matson liner and threw your lei into the ocean, perhaps promising yourself you would return.

If your memory of the trip began to fade, you had only to look at the gloriously decorated menus from the Matsonia or the Lurline or one of the other ships in the fleet, menus you had framed and then hung on the wall of your rec room. The light never dimmed.

But look at Honolulu today and you wonder whether paradise has disappeared. The boulevards’ high-end shops mimic those in Vegas, as does the traffic; Honolulu’s ranks among the worst in the nation. Northeasterly trade winds blow about 80 fewer days a year than they did 40 years ago, according to a 2012 University of Hawaii study, leaving the city hot and sticky.

Honolulu is "hugely cosmopolitan," said Theresa Papanikolas, who curated the recent exhibition "Art Deco Hawaii" for the Honolulu Museum of Art, which featured some works commissioned by Matson.

Although aspects of the city she now calls home are relaxing, Honolulu has "the same problems as anywhere on the mainland," said Papanikolas, a former L.A. resident who worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And yet …

You can still find the stuff of dreams. On a recent 48-hour trip, I revisited some of the cornerstones of that early vacation vision, found some new favorites and, as always, delighted in the people and places that keep the light on for us.

Thelma Kehaulani Kam, director of cultural services for Starwood hotels, including the Moana Surfrider and the Royal Hawaiian, soothed my troubled soul at the end of a tour of the Royal, which was once owned by Matson. When people say "aloha," she said, the meaning is deeper than hello or goodbye.

" ‘Alo’ is the physical part of what the person sees — the smile, the nod — it’s the person coming close to you," Kam said. " ‘Ha’ means breath.

"When you put that word together, what you are telling that person is ‘Take all of me … .’ You are giving all of yourself without the expectation of anything in return."




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