Traveling with writers in the Pacific Islands

For nearly two centuries, Hawaii and the islands of the South Pacific have attracted famous writers who have savored the exotic tropics. The early chroniclers were the explorers who left a rich history of the South Pacific in their published ship logs and accounts of first encounters with Polynesian culture.

As tourism developed in Hawaii and Tahiti in the late 19th century, more authors and artists discovered the romance and beauty of the islands. Somerset Maugham crafted a career writing novels about English adventurers in Tahiti and colorful Singapore. Hawaii lured celebrity writers Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway.

I will focus on the four novelists, compulsive travelers with an eye for curious sights and people to write about, in a compilation of their personal observations of Hawaii and other areas in the South Pacific. My inspiration came from the Spirit of Aloha airline magazine that I read while flying to Maui. The accounts ranged from Twain’s visit in 1866 to Hemingway’s stopover with his third wife in 1941 before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.

Samuel Clemens had just adopted his pen name of Mark Twain when he was sent to Honolulu as a correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union. The year was 1866 when the 31-year-old arrived for four months to write essays about native life on the islands. Many of these articles were repeated in Twain’s 1872 travel memoir, “Roughing It.”

During a visit to the Big Island, Twain was impressed with the rainbows at Kealakekua, which he compared to a cathedral’s bright stained-glass windows. Displeased with the name Sandwich Islands (named after the English Lord Sandwich by Capt. Cook), he wrote, “Why did not Captain Cook have taste enough to call his great discovery the Rainbow Islands?”

In another article he described riding a mule over the lava fields of Kilauea to gaze over the crater and the steam from the vents. As he sniffed the air, he wrote, “The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.”

Another observation describes a visit to the market in Honolulu. “Passing through the market place we saw that feature of Honolulu under the most favorable auspices … in the full glory of Saturday afternoon which is a festive day for the natives. The native girls by twos and threes and parties of a dozen … went cantering up and down the neighboring street astride fleet but homely horses and with their gaudy riding habits streaming like banners behind them. Such a troop of free and easy riders … makes a gay and graceful spectacle.”

Twain’s column reflected a simple but descriptive vision of Hawaii. In later years, the cruise ships and airlines brought hordes of visitors who will never witness native customs among the high-rise hotels and boutiques along the strip of Waikiki.

London, a 31-year-old adventurer arrived at Pearl Harbor in his yacht in 1907 and discovered his “sweet land.” That became his second home for the few remaining years of his short life. He found Hawaii the antithesis of his early days in the frozen north. While enjoying the sand and surf at Waikiki, London predicted that the beach would someday be one long hotel. What a visionary.

The famous author and his wife, Charmian, traveled all over the islands by car, horseback, kayak and on foot. Their visit to Molokai produced a book about the horrors of leprosy. London joined with local supporters for Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. As guests at the Parker Ranch on the Big Island, they saw their first rodeo and became fascinated with the study of volcanoes.

Whenever London found his writing a chore, he returned to Hawaii for fresh and original inspiration. Some of his best essays were about the islands, including “The House of Pride,” “The Sheriff of Kona,” “The House of the Sun” and “The Art of Surfing.” On his last trip, an eight-month visit in 1915, he was introduced to Duke Kahanamoku, Queen Lili’uokalani and Prince Jonah Kuhio. London’s last magazine piece before his death in 1916 was “My Hawaiian Aloha.” His unfinished novel, “Eyes of Asia,” was also set in Hawaii.

Between the Twain and London visits was Stevenson, who landed in Hawaii in 1889 with his family aboard his yacht. He was on a voyage to the South Pacific as a prelude to his eventual settlement in Samoa. King Kalakaua immediately boarded the ship to meet the famous author of “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Stevenson was royally entertained by the royals and the prominent citizens of Oahu. However, he soon tired of the Americanization of Honolulu and spent a week on the Big Island at Kona.

Stevenson’s writings and letters during the long Pacific voyage were compiled into a book, “In the South Seas.” He visited the leper colony at Molokai shortly after the death of Father Damien. The visit was the inspiration for one of his best stories, “The Bottle Imp.” Stevenson visited Hawaii one more time in 1893, but his stay was cut short with failing health. The author was tubercular most of his life and had great empathy for the people at the leper colony.

The celebrated Scotsman made his permanent home in Samoa, where he died. He was buried at the top of a hill overlooking his tropical estate, with the town of Apia in the distance. I visited the home in 2002 on a stop in Samoa during a South Pacific cruise. It is a large, gracious structure filled with Stevenson’s collections of Polynesian crafts. The tapa cloth wall hangings are particularly impressive.

Hemingway and his wife stopped in Waikiki on their way to Hong Kong in 1941. Staying in a cottage at the old Halekulani Hotel, they savored the gentle hospitality of the Old Hawaii just before World War II brought destruction to Pearl Harbor.

Sharing these impressions of the four authors created a memoir of my visits to Hawaii over 65 years. My first taste of Polynesian paradise was a trip to Hawaii in 1947 with my parents for a Christmas holiday visit with relatives on naval duty at Pearl Harbor. It was a perfect introduction to the tropics. The old Halekulani Hotel at Waikiki reflected a gentler island lifestyle before the mass tourist traffic and high-rise development of today.

The war years were barely over for Hawaii, the major naval base for the Pacific, so the pre-war atmosphere carried on. Those soft strains of traditional Hawaiian music in the evening breeze and an open Waikiki Beach devoid of Asian tourists are still strong memories.

Another early trip included a tour of the Big Island, where I saw the volcanic black-sand beaches, tropical forests, and an overnight volcano tour out of Hilo. On later trips to the outer islands I discovered two retreats from the bursting post-war tourist rush on Oahu to seek the Old Hawaii.

The first visit to Lahaina on the island of Maui in 1966 was an adventure. The single daily flight from Honolulu landed us on an old naval airstrip in Wailuku with a Quonset hut terminal. The drive out to Lahaina was a narrow two-track road through pineapple and cane fields. There was no Kihei, no golf courses or condos, just a dingy whaling village full of saloons and curio shops dominated by the faded but picturesque Pioneer Inn on the quay.

Driving on to Napili Bay (there was no Kaanapali or Kapalua luxury resorts in those days), across the slopes of pineapple, I discovered Napili Bay, where today there is still a glimmer of how I remember Waikiki in the early post-war years,

Another trip to the past is the island of Molokai, where nothing much has happened since the 19th century. Mauna Loa (population 376), features a historic plantation village on the slopes of a dormant volcano just above the resort at Kaluakoi. I shopped there at the company store and bought aloha wear at the funky kite shop. A big developer took over the huge Molokai Ranch and built an upscale fitness resort for affluent boomers who want to rough it in luxury. Fortunately, they retained the rustic charm of the village and avoided a sprawl of condos.

Because of severe water shortage on the west end of Molokai, it is limited to few residences and golf courses that attract resort developments. That may be the salvation of a small part of Hawaii to keep a piece of traditional island life. A Japanese syndicate owned the Kaluakoi resort, but abandoned it during the recession. However, private condos still offer accommodations in secluded waterfront clusters.

The rural environment of West Molokai assures its charm. The longest beach in the Hawaiian Islands offers several locations for body surfing or snorkeling with few other visitors. A day’s trip from the harbor to the east of the island follows a reef coastline great for snorkeling and ends in a tropical jungle full of orchids and waterfalls.

Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kauai is another retreat from tourist overload. Popular for cinema sites, the island was the background for the films “South Pacific” and more recently “The Descendants.” Condos are available at Princeville, but many cottages along the beaches of legendary Bali Hai are listed on the Internet. Here is where you find Hawaii as those authors saw it over a century ago. With a little effort, some of that Polynesian magic can still be discovered in rural areas.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at

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