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The tales they tell on Oahu

The Royal Hawaiian hotel sits along Waikiki Beach, where it is said princesses once bathed and Olympian swim star Duke Kahanamoku surfed growing up.

Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe

The Royal Hawaiian hotel sits along Waikiki Beach, where it is said princesses once bathed and Olympian swim star Duke Kahanamoku surfed growing up.

OAHU — A good guest should be a good listener. That’s what my mother always told me, and that goes double for travelers, who are, after all, simply guests in a new place.

I put my listening skills to good use on Oahu, the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiians are full of stories, and every good story needs an appreciative listener.

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My friends and I had barely arrived at the Royal Hawaiian hotel, the aptly nicknamed “Pink Palace,” on Waikiki Beach when the stories began. As we sat at the beachside bar sipping mai tais and gazing at Diamond Head at sunset, a local woman regaled us with tales of Hawaiian princesses who once bathed here and of legendary surfer (and Olympic swim star) Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who grew up surfing these waters.

“We like to ‘talk story,’ ” she told us. “We have a lot of time on our hands. We like to share our knowledge and our wisdom.”

There’s even a Hawaiian word — mo’olelo — to describe the practice of passing down stories to keep them alive. We got another taste the next day over a meal in Chinatown, the downtown Honolulu neighborhood established in the early 1800s. It grew over the decades as more Chinese arrived, including the great-grandfather of chef Glenn Chu.

Chinatown was devastated by fire in 1886 and again in 1900, he told us, but the second time, it was rebuilt with brick and steel. (Ironically, a fire put Chu’s restaurant out of business shortly after my visit.)

An orchid lei on banana leaves.

Getty Images/Perspectives

An orchid lei on banana leaves.

“Chinatown is a time capsule,” he said. “The Chinese who came to the island married other Chinese or native Hawaiians. But they kept to themselves. This is where they could shop and gather to talk.”

Chu told us to check out the granite-block sidewalks as we explored the area. “They came in as ship ballast,” he said. “The ships left with pineapples.” Maunakea Street is the heart of the compact area and, following Chu’s advice, we peeked into tiny shops where nimble-fingered women threaded flowers into fragrant leis and stopped at the Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery for dried fruit. “My mother always got a whole tray,” Chu had told us.

Just as in Boston, there are many “time capsules” embedded in the modern city of Honolulu and I was surprised how often Boston figured in their stories. At the Mission Houses Museum, Dianne Ching was eager to tell me about her trip to Boston. “When I went into the Paul Revere House,” she said, “it reminded me of our frame house.”

One of three buildings that capture the history of the early missionaries, the museum’s 1821 frame house is thought to be the oldest wooden frame structure on the islands. “The timber was pre-cut in Boston and shipped here,” Ching said. “The missionaries had to put it together. Pre-fab is nothing new.” Several missionary families lived in the two-story white clapboard home. Later buildings on the site, a combination home and storeroom and a printing shop, were built from coral blocks cut from ocean reefs, as was the adjacent 1842 Kawaiahao Church, the first Christian church built on Oahu. “It took 14,000 blocks of coral for the church,” said Ching. Sunday services include some songs and scriptures in Hawaiian. “I don’t understand one word,” she said, “but when I leave, I sure feel blessed.”

Alas, the church was closed. “It’s probably a wedding,” Ching said. “A lot of people come here from Japan to get married.” If so, the happy couple was in good company, since Hawaiian kings and queens also married here.

The nearby Iolani Palace was the official residence of the last two monarchs to rule before a provisional US government was established in 1893. The 1882 palace was built for King David Kalakaua (1836-1891), the so-called Merrie Monarch.

“King Kalakaua loved to entertain and introduced a lot of European influences,” docent Zita Choy told our tour group. “The palace had hot and cold running water and telephones. It was wired for electricity before the White House.”

Choy led us past the stunning koa wood staircase in the foyer and into the dining room, with furniture from Boston. “I like to think that we are here for a meal,” she said. “The king liked to network and two- or three-hour meals gave plenty of time for a conversation. The Royal Hawaiian Band would play on the lanai, and music would waft in through the windows.”

Famously wealthy tobacco heiress Doris Duke (1912-1993) built her own palace in the Pacific. Shangri La, a 14,000-square-foot mansion overlooking Diamond Head, was constructed in three years (1936-38). She spared no expense in hiring craftsmen and purchasing art to create her Islamic-style retreat. “Imagine that you have the wherewithal to travel, to see things that you like, and get them for yourself,” said guide Victoria Gail White. “She saw something, and she said ‘I love it, I want one.’ ” The courtyard, with walls covered in Persian tiles, is the heart of the house. Duke, who favored small dinner parties over large gatherings, knew how to make people feel good. “Everyone looks beautiful in this room [the courtyard] at night,” White said. “It shimmers.”

Duke’s home opened for tours after her death, but she continues to guard her privacy. “Miss Duke did not leave a diary,” said White. The curious can only speculate about her lovers — and whether or not she really wore a mink bikini. Of Duke’s relationship with surfer Duke Kahanamoku, White allows that the heiress “did love to surf at Waikiki Beach.”

Oahu’s laid-back North Shore is famous for big-wave surfing. I didn’t catch any waves here, but I did find the essence of the talk story tradition. Tucked away off the Kamehameha Highway, 1,875-acre Waimea Valley is considered a “wahi pana,” or storied place. “Our written history goes back to 1090,” guide Ah Lan Diamond said. “Before that, it was passed down in chants and stories.” Three freshwater streams made Waimea precious land. “It was set aside for priests to rule over.”

Diamond led us through a lush landscape punctuated with burial caves, replica grass-roofed homes, and family shrines until we reached a 45-foot waterfall, where visitors were cooling off after a hot hike. She smiled at the scene. “These are healing waters,” she said.

The site exerts a powerful force. “Sometimes people pull off the side of the road and tell us they don’t know why they are here,” Diamond said. “They come here to leave feeling different because of what they have learned.”

Listen — and Hawaii will do that to you.

Patricia Harris can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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