When I found myself with a free morning in Waikīkī a few years ago, I decided to do a bit of exploring to visit the places Robert Louis Stevenson had been to during his sojourns in Hawai’i, and to see if there was any lingering sense of the man.
Tracking Stevenson through Waikīkī is best done on foot, partly because the distance between destinations is not terribly far (just over a mile to a mile and a half, depending on how many detours you make); partly because you can see other interesting things along the way, since you will at times be following the Waikiki Historic Trail; but mostly because, unless you are very familiar with street locations and one-way traffic patterns, driving in Waikīkī should be avoided if at all possible.
If you’re not much of a walker, you can buy a hop on/hop off pass on the Waikiki Trolley. The green line stops at the Duke Kahanamoku statue, the Zoo, and the Aquarium (not far from your final destination in Waikīkī). The distance between these stops is a matter of only a few blocks, but it helps get you off your feet a bit. Even better, at the Duke Kahanamoku statue you can switch over to the red line, which takes you to ‘Iolani Palace and other sites downtown. For more information, go to the Waikiki Trolley’s website.
I recommend starting at the corner of Ka’iulani Avenue and Tusitala Street. (If you are a Stevenson aficionado, which you probably are or you wouldn’t be traipsing through Waikīkī this way, you’ll know that Tusitala is the Samoan nickname he adopted, and translates roughly to “Storyteller” or “Teller of Tales”.) Here you are standing on a part of ‘Ainahanu (Land of the Hau Tree – hau being the Hawaiian name for the hibiscus).
This 10-acre estate in Waikīkī was given to Princess Ka’iulani at her christening by her godmother, Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani. Ka’iulani’s father, Alexander Cleghorn, was quite the horticulturist, and he planted the grounds with hundreds of palms, hibiscus, bananas, and other exotic plants, including a banyan tree.
The Cleghorn house, where Stevenson visited Princess Ka’iulani, stood in the block between Tusitala and Cleghorn Streets. The house burned down in 1921, and the estate was torn up in 1955 in preparation for the building of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel and other real estate projects. All that remains of the estate today is a small triangular park, which you can reach by walking two blocks seaward/makai along Ka’iulani Avenue until you reach Kuhio Avenue. Turn right/heading Ewa on Kuhio and go one block to the continuation of Ka’iulani; you’ll come to the corner of the park where a statue was placed in 1999 in remembrance of Princess Ka’iulani.
If you happen across a banyan tree in the area, you can pretend it’s the one Robert Louis Stevenson used to sit under with Princess Ka’iulani while they chatted and read poetry.
Now you have a choice. You can either continue beachward/makai on Ka’iulani Avenue and then on to Sans Souci Beach, or you can retrace your steps along Kuhio Avenue and visit the area where Queen Lili’uokalani once had an estate. Retracing your steps and making this detour will add about half a mile to your walk.
If you choose the detour, go back along Kuhio Avenue in the direction of Diamon Head. Walk past Kapuni Street and cross over Lili’uokalani Avenue and Ohua Avenue. The next street is Paoakalani Avenue. Go left/mauka on Paoakalani and walk two blocks to Pualani Way. Turn right/heading Diamond Head on Pualani, go one block and head left/mauka on Wai Nani Way. Go one block to where Wai Nani ends at Ala Wai Boulevard.
For the last few blocks, you have been walking through Queen Lili’uokalani’s estate, which she called “The Queen’s Retreat”. From the corner of Wai Nani Way and Ala Wai Boulevard, look to the right where the Ala Wai Canal ends.
In this approximate location was Paoakalani, one of two houses on the queen’s estate; the other was closer to the beach. Of course, the Ala Wai Canal didn’t exist in the 1890s. The area was largely given over to agriculture.
As you walk back along Wai Nani Way, you’ll pass Liliuokalani Gardens, luxury apartments built over where the queen once had her gardens.
Retrace your steps to Paoakalani Avenue, turn left/makai, and go four blocks to Kalākaua Avenue. You’re ready to continue on to Sans Souci Beach.
If you skip the detour to Queen Lili’uokalani’s estate and head straight for the beach, you’ll find the route along Kalākaua Avenue gives plenty of scope for appreciation of the beauty and history of Waikīkī. From the Princess Ka’iulani statue, walk two blocks seaward/makai and you’ll come to King’s Alley, at the corner of Ka’iulani and Koa Avenues. King Kalākaua had a residence here. But nothing of it remains.
Continue along Ka’iulani for one more block and turn left/Diamond Head on Kalākaua Avenue. As you venture forth into this block, you will find yourself in a lush jungle of hotels and shops, with the accompanying songs of traffic and tourism. It only lasts for half a block, though, and soon the makai side opens up onto Kuhio Beach.
Just before you reach the next cross street (Uluniu Avenue), you’ll come to a little plaza with a commemorative statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the Father of International Surfing. Kahanamoku popularized surfing all over the world in the early 1900s. Appreciative surfers and others hang leis on the statue in homage to this great man, who was much more than just a surfer.
As you continue on Kalākaua Avenue, you’ll pass an actual banyan tree growing between the sidewalk and the beach. It is not the banyan tree Robert Louis Stevenson and Princess Ka’iulani sat under.
Just under three blocks farther, and after you have passed Kealohilani Avenue, you’ll see the statue of Prince Kuhio, after whom this stretch of beach is named. Prince Kuhio once had a house here, located across the street from the statue, and he left his property to the city after his death. Leis are placed on his statue in remembrance of this man who so diligently served the people of Hawai’i.
Enjoy the beach views for the next two and a half blocks until you come to Kapahulu Avenue. Across the street on the inland/mauka side is the Honolulu Zoo. You might be able to distinguish it by the odor. On the right/makai is the Waikik Wall and Slippery Wall. These retaining walls create a safe swimming spot and the area is therefore popular with families and with young children. You can take a little detour and walk out Waikiki Wall, which is paved, and look back at some beautiful sights of Waikīkī and Diamond Head. It’s also a great place for watching the sunset. The slippery part is not recommended for exploring.
Just past the wall, the road splits, with Kalākaua Avenue continuing next to the beach and Monsarrat Avenue heading out to Diamond Head. Stay on Kalākaua. You now have Kapiolani Regional Park on the mauka/inland side and San Souci Beach Park on the makai/seaward side.
As you pass the statue of a surfer, you’ll notice a walkway splitting off from the sidewalk and going diagonally toward the beach. This path goes through Sans Souci State Recreational Park, a hint that you are getting close to your final destination.
Follow the path for about .4 miles – past any number of non-Stevenson banyan trees, a restroom facility, and the back side of the Waikiki Aquarium. At length you’ll come to the War Memorial Natatorium, the largest seawater swimming pool (100 m long and 40 m wide) in the US. This memorial, completed in 1927, was built to honor the men from the Hawaiian Islands who died during World War I. On the other side of the road from the Natatorium entrance, a plaque embedded in a stone lists their names.
Once a popular site for locals and tourists, the swimming facility was unfortunately not well maintained after World War II and it entered a period of decline. It was officially closed in 1963. There was some restoration done in recent years, and the restrooms are open to the public, but the pool itself remains closed. Beyond the Natatorium is Sans Souci Beach. You have arrived.
The beach was more rocky and less sandy in Stevenson’s day. And the original hotel with its thatched bungalows is long gone. The New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel is approximately on the site where George Lycurgus’ resort once stood. There is a building called Sans Souci, but these are condos and are a little farther down the road.
So, where is Robert Louis Stevenson to be found? I’ll admit I nearly despaired of finding any trace remaining, until I walked around the New Otani Kaimana to the beach side and saw the hotel’s lanai.
Shaded by ancient hau trees that have been here since Stevenson’s time – if not before – the lanai possesses an atmosphere of simple elegance and, indeed, an air of sans souci. It is said Stevenson sat beneath these trees, relaxing and writing. He also went swimming here. I suggest you do the same. The water is usually smooth and gentle and inviting. Afterward, you may spread your towel under the overhanging branches of the hau trees and, although it may be subtler than the fragrance of suntan lotion wafting through the air, you may capture a sense of Stevenson in Hawai’i.
PS: Some suggested reading includes Travels in Hawaii and Island Nights’ Entertainment, both by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson, His Best Pacific Writings, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Robinson, and Albert Wendt, and Stevenson in Hawaii, by Martha Mary McGaw.