Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi Hawaii’s
Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Dancing boats among
sights at isle harbor’s
annual festival

"We were just outside the reef, and near enough to hear that deep sound of the surf which, through the ever serene summer years girdles the Hawaiian Islands with perpetual thunder. ... The surf ran white and pure over the environing coral reef, and as we passed through the narrow channel, we almost saw the coral forests deep down under the Nevada's keel; the coral fishers plied their graceful trade; canoes with outriggers rode the combers and glided with inconceivable rapidity round our ship; amphibious brown beings sported in the transparent waves; and within the reef lay a calm surface of water of a wonderful blue, entered by a narrow, intricate passage of the deepest indigo."


Those were Isabella Bird's impressions as she sailed into Honolulu Harbor aboard the steamer Nevada on Jan. 26, 1873. Taking the advice of her physician, the well-bred Englishwoman was hoping to alleviate her frequent back pain and bouts of depression through travel. She planned to spend six months in the Sandwich Islands, which wound up being the title of the book she authored based on her experiences in Hawaii.

Honolulu Harbor Festival

Place: Honolulu Harbor between the Hawaii Maritime Center and Aloha Tower Marketplace

When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Call: Hawaii Maritime Center, 523-6151

Admission: Free. Parking for a flat rate of $2 will be available at lots within walking distance, including Mark's Garage, Harbor Court, Harbor Square, the Pacific Guardian Center and the TOPA Building.

Web site:

At the time of Bird's visit, the harbor was the heart of Honolulu. In her book, she documented the waterfront scene in vivid detail: "Rich brown men and women ... with wavy, shining black hair, large, brown lustrous eyes, and rows of perfect teeth like ivory.

"Wreaths and garlands of flowers, carmine, orange, or pure white, twined round their hats, and thrown carelessly round their throats, flowers unknown to me, but redolent of the tropics in fragrance and colour." "Piles of fruit for sale -- oranges and guavas, strawberries, papayas, bananas (green and golden), coconuts, and other rich, fantastic productions of a prolific climate, where nature gives of her wealth the whole year round.

"Fishes, strange in shape and colour, crimson, blue, orange, rose, gold, such fishes ... living light through the coral groves of these enchanted seas were there for sale."

Some 30 years earlier, recognizing the importance of the harbor to local commerce, King Kamehameha III had moved the capital of Hawaii from Lahaina, Maui, to Honolulu. After Capt. James Cook put the islands on the map of the world in 1778, Honolulu had become an increasingly important stop for ships traveling between America and Asia.

First came fur traders, who made fortunes exchanging otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest for teas, spices and silks from China. Later, fragrant sandalwood became such a prized commodity, island forests were nearly stripped clean of it. Then came the whalers, who plied the seas relentlessly in search of the gentle giants that were the source of rich oil.

Honolulu Harbor still bustles today. Fishing boats, tugboats, tour boats, container ships, cruise liners and barges berth at its piers. Its centerpiece, Aloha Tower Marketplace, is a trendy shopping, dining and entertainment complex that sprawls over 11 waterfront acres.

This year's Honolulu Harbor Festival will feature a Boston Tea Party re-enactment aboard the Falls of Clyde.

On Saturday, the fourth annual Honolulu Harbor Festival aims to draw 7,000 people for a day-long celebration of Hawaii's colorful maritime history. "The Honolulu Harbor Festival was started by a small group of people who believed there was a need to educate people about all that the maritime industry provides for Hawaii," says Randy Grune, the festival's president.

"The general public really has no idea about what happens makai (seaward) of Nimitz Highway along the waterfront. Honolulu Harbor is an essential part of Hawaii, and we are proud to share its story through this festival, which celebrates the harbor's vibrant past and provides a great opportunity for residents and visitors to experience what makes the waterfront work."

Event highlights include the Sand Island Canoe Race Challenge, in which two dozen teams from Oahu paddle their canoes in a 5-mile loop from Aloha Tower, around Sand Island, through the harbor channels and back; an exhibit entitled "On the Waterfront," featuring rare images from Bishop Museum's collections, among them a 40-foot panoramic photo of Honolulu Harbor; and children's activities such as storytelling, face painting, a scavenger hunt, making nautical hats, tying knots and entertainment by jugglers and magicians.

Also planned are boat tours of the harbor; a re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party; demonstrations by the University of Hawaii's sailing team and a U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue crew; and open houses aboard a variety of vessels, including a fishing boat that will display mahimahi, ono, marlin and other fresh Island catches.

The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) Fisheries Council, Matson Navigation Co., USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, Battleship Missouri Memorial Association, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Norwegian Cruise Line are among the organizations sponsoring information booths.

Sure to be a hit is the tugboat hula, which Grune describes as "just that -- tugboats doing the hula. They're dressed up in hula skirts and decorated for a demonstration of their ability to shake their hips. It's amazing to see a tugboat weighing hundreds of tons move quickly back and forth and turn around on a dime, all set to Hawaiian music."

Participants also will be able to visit historic waterfront attractions such as 10-story, 184-foot Aloha Tower, which was the tallest structure in Hawaii when it opened in 1926; the Hawaii Maritime Center's Falls of Clyde, which dates to 1878 and is the only fully rigged four-masted ship in the world; and the center's Hokule'a, an authentic re-creation of a traditional double-hulled Hawaiian sailing canoe that has made numerous trips between Hawaii and the South Pacific since it was launched in 1976.

One of the highlights of the annual Honolulu Harbor Festival is the Tugboat Hula competition, featuring Honolulu Harbor tugs dressed in grass skirts and swaying to Hawaiian tunes.

"The Honolulu Harbor Festival's objective is to remind the community of the harbor's presence and importance economically, culturally and historically," notes Grune. "Because Hawaii is an island state, the harbor is our lifeline. All of life's necessities, from food and medicine to clothing and building materials, come to us via cargo vessels. We don't often think about it, but our lives depend on the harbor."


Harbor fun starts
the night before

On Friday, Bishop Museum will host the Hawaii Maritime Center Fish Fry from 6 to 8 p.m. The event, benefiting the center's educational programs, will feature an array of fresh Island fish and live entertainment by the Makaha Sons and Kanilau.

Individual tickets are $100; corporate packages are available. For more information or to purchase tickets, call Marge White at 847-8281.

Schedule of events

8:45 a.m.: U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Band performs, Pier 9 stage

9 a.m.: Opening ceremony, Pier 9 stage

9:20 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.: Boat tours of Honolulu Harbor

9:30 a.m.: Sand Island Canoe Race Challenge, Pier 9

10 a.m.: Backyard Paina performs, Pier 9 stage. There also will be open houses until 2:30 p.m. aboard the fireboat Moku Ahi; USS Paul Hamilton, a Navy vessel; tugboats; and fishing vessels, Piers 9 and 10. For security reasons, pre-registration is required for those wishing to tour the USS Paul Hamilton. Call the Hawaii Maritime Center at 523-6151 for preregistration information. Children's activities (until 3 p.m.) will be sponsored by Bishop Museum and the Hawaii Maritime Center.

10:45 a.m.: Tugboat hula performance, Pier 9; with Kanilau performance on the Pier 9 stage

Noon: Reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, Falls of Clyde

12:15 p.m.: Maunalua performs, Pier 9 stage; University of Hawaii sailing team demonstration, Pier 9

12:30 p.m.: Kailua Jazz Hounds perform, Hawaii Maritime Center

2 p.m.: Kaala Boys perform, Pier 9 stage

2:45 p.m.: U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue demonstration, Pier 9

3 p.m.: Weldon Kekauoha & The Tapa Groove perform, Pier 9 stage; Halau O Apelina performs at Hawaii Maritime Center

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.


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