Hula Yule : A Waikiki-style Christmas means lights in banyan trees, exotic fare, surfin' Santas

Kennedy is travel editor of the Honolulu Advertiser

It was Christmas morning a couple of years ago. The day dawned warm and cloudless. From the open lanai came the smell of hibachi smoke--sure sign of a holiday in our neighborhood.

Then my wife got a phone call from her work: She had to go into Honolulu, 20 miles away, across the Koolau Mountains. No time for presents beneath the tree, no time for an island-mainland--hape haole--Christmas meal.

I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself when our 10-year-old daughter said: "Maybe there's still a way to have Christmas together. Maybe we could go to Waikiki."

Christmas in Waikiki? I hadn't considered it. The holidays are busy with tourists; the beaches fill with pale visitors from Wisconsin and Toronto. I hadn't been in Waikiki on Christmas Day in years.

But if Christmas at home was going to be a bust, listening to "Jingle Bells" through the surf at Waikiki Beach was a good alternative. So my daughter and I decided we'd be tourists in our own backyard. We packed up the presents and headed for the city.

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Like nearly everything in Hawaii, Christmas is a cultural mix. In department stores, kids in swimsuits and zoris line up for Polynesian Santas. Rows of fake reindeer ride among sprays of orchids and frangipani. Many visitors find the pace here gentler than on the mainland, and the smart ones slow down and celebrate the holidays to the island rhythm. With a little planning, travelers can book rooms during the holidays. Except for Christmas week itself, December is not the highest season for Hawaii. "These come in February and August," says Erik Kloninger, with PKF-Hawaii, a management and hotel consulting firm that tracks occupancy and rates of Hawaii hotels. (High season rates--about 10% more--for hotels tend to kick in about Dec. 15.)

The Honolulu holiday season begins semi-officially with the City Lights Festival (Dec. 7 this year) and the lighting of a giant Christmas tree in front of Honolulu Hale (city hall). Then the mayor throws a switch, illuminating the monkey pod and banyan trees around Iolani Palace and the city and state buildings.

Honolulu Hale is filled with Christmas trees decorated by different city departments and a Christmas wreath exhibition that shows off the work of Hawaiian craftsmen. Food booths dot the grounds between Honolulu Hale and the state capitol building. Hawaiian entertainers mix traditional Hawaiian music and Christmas songs--such as "The Little Drummer Boy" accompanied by Hawaiian drums. The party is about four miles from Waikiki. Beginning Dec. 9, you can tour the downtown lights by motorized trolleys, which run from the center of Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center on Kalakaua or at Ward Warehouse, a popular shopping center located just across from Ala Moana Park at the edge of Waikiki. The Ward tours run from Dec. 8 to 30.

During the first two weeks of December, towns around Oahu sponsor many Christmas parades. They're filled with marching Boy Scouts and Girl Scout Brownies dressed as reindeer. Many of the homemade floats have Christmas scenes adopted to Polynesian themes, such as Mary dressed in a traditional Hawaiian kikepa (a wrap-around, one-piece dress) with hibiscus blossoms in her hair.

One of the better parades is in Kaneohe, on the windward side of the island (Dec. 7 this year). It's a good opportunity to experience a part of the Hawaiian Christmas season like the locals.

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Holiday craft fairs, associated with many of these parades, can be great places to pick up gifts for the family you left back home. Probably the best is the Pacific Handcrafters Guild Fair scheduled for Dec. 7 and 8 at Thomas Square, an elegant little park about halfway between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. This year's fair will feature about 130 booths with all locally made crafts, ranging from Hawaiian basketry, to finely carved koa wood sculptures, to handmade ukuleles and intricate shell creations. (For more information, telephone [808] 254-6788.)

As Christmas approaches, Waikiki's big hotels get festive. There is caroling in the lobbies and Santa Claus arrives by canoe or surfboard off Waikiki Beach. One of the most popular arrivals is at the Halekulani Hotel. Santa usually wears bright red swimming trunks along with his bag of goodies. This year, he is scheduled to paddle in at 4:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. All the children who show up will get a gift.

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Honolulu also offers two Christmas shows that have achieved some local fame. "Scrooge," a musical based on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," features one of Hawaii's most popular comedians, Frank DeLima. The show, now in its seventh year, runs from Dec. 6 to 22 at Diamond Head Theater and takes a look at Dickens' classic from a decidedly local slant (tel. [808] 734-0274.)

The other popular show is staged each year by music teacher Ronald Bright, the "Mr. Holland" of Hawaii. Bright, who has been staging public-school reviews for more than 20 years, has become so well known, the state built and named an auditorium after him. He will stage his annual Christmas show Dec. 6 to 8 at the Castle Performing Arts Center in Kaneohe. It will feature 60 school kids ages 10 to 13. (Tickets are only $6 and sell fast; tel. [808] 233-5626.)

But the thing that makes Hawaii really special around Christmas is the food. Hawaii has such a wide cultural and ethnic background, it's almost impossible to define a traditional holiday dinner.

Before my wife was called away to work that Christmas, our family had been looking forward to a feast of lau lau (banana leaves stuffed with fish, pork or steamed taro), tasty haupia (coconut pudding), hot malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) fresh out of the oven and dusted with sugar, steamy bowls of chow mein and creamed sweet potatoes from Molokai.

Generally, hotels and restaurants will always feature turkey and stuffing, but it might be served with mango manapua (a Chinese stuffed pastry) or litchi cream pie and a guava frappe.

Orchids, the pricey Halekulani hotel's classy beach-side restaurant, will be offering a "Celebration of Christmas" from Dec. 1 through New Year's. This food festival features a selection of menus from each of Hawaii's six main islands.

Last year the menu featured Blue Lobster in black bean sauce, a salad of Puna goat cheese and eggplant from the Big Island; from Molokai and Lanai, venison and Molokai sweet potato vichyssoise; from Oahu, chicken breast with a shiitake mushroom relish; from Maui, roast duckling and Kula tomatoes and Maui onions; from Kauai, sesame crusted uku (a kind of snapper). Similar meals will be featured this Christmas season.

Another good spot for Christmas in Waikiki is the Hilton Hawaiian Village down at the town-side end of Waikiki Beach. The Hilton has numerous holiday meals and programs scheduled, beginning Dec. 13 with the lighting of the hotel's Christmas tree.

Through New Year's, the hotel features special holiday programs by local musical and choral groups. The Bali-by-the-Sea dining room provides an open-air view of the Ewa end of Waikiki Beach (away from Diamond Head) and each year features a special Christmas menu.

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If you're staying in a Waikiki condominium or suite with a kitchen, you might consider the Hyatt Regency Waikiki's "Turkey to Go" program. Begun four years ago to save islanders the hassle of preparing a holiday dinner from scratch, the service has grown so popular you need to order your turkey by early December.

Hyatt's dinner serves groups of four to six. It includes a 10- to 12-pound turkey, corn chowder, chestnut and sage dressing, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, buttered corn, dinner rolls, cranberry relish, candied yams and pumpkin pie. All you have to do is heat and serve (everything's precooked). Cost is about $65 and includes recipes for leftovers.

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Two of the best bets for Christmas in Waikiki are two of the oldest: the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and its sister, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider.

The Moana is the oldest hotel in Waikiki (it opened in 1901). It's now the setting for some of the most Christmasy activities on the beach. Each year its entrance is covered with holly and ribbon, making the entire hotel look gift-wrapped. The Moana's tea service (about $16.50 per person), on the lanai overlooking its Banyan Tree Court, is particularly enjoyable at Christmastime. It's open-air, and each afternoon about sunset, the hotel offers special Christmas entertainment. It's a very civilized break from shopping: sitting and enjoying tea and scones (and even cucumber sandwiches) while listening to a local chorale or classical quartet perform Hawaiian songs of the season. The program begins in mid-December

For Christmas Eve at the Moana, I'd recommend the meal at W.C. Peacock & Co. The restaurant has a row of candle-lighted tables that run along a small lawn just a few feet from the sand off Waikiki Beach. Diners can enjoy the evening while eating turkey or salmon. The hotel's Ship's Tavern will be serving steamed onaga (a highly prized local fish), tenderloin of beef or turkey.

Before having a Christmas Eve meal, visitors should visit Kawaiahao Church. Located just across the street from Honolulu Hale, the Kawaiahao opened in 1842 and the first Christmas service was held that same year. This year's candlelight service begins at 6 p.m. Much of the church service is held in native Hawaiian.

When my daughter suggested Waikiki, my first thought was the Royal Hawaiian's Monarch Room. Each Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, diners at the hotel are entertained by the Honolulu Boy Choir. It's a tradition since the choir--featuring amateur singers ages 7 to 13 from all over Oahu--was formed in 1974.

Dressed in pinks and starchy white-linen tablecloths, the Monarch Room is one of the loveliest, open-air dining rooms in Hawaii. It has a '30s and '40s ambience that harks back to a time of Sunday tea dances and Big Band music. If you're already too stuffed to eat another big meal, each evening also offers a cocktail show, so you can enjoy the choir's Christmas program. But when I called the Royal Hawaiian, a young woman said, "Oh, sir, they've been sold out for weeks. You should have made your reservations in November."

Ah, well, I thought. There goes our Christmas.

"But why don't you try our buffet on the beach?" she said helpfully. "In the Surf Room."

So we did. The Surf Room is just steps from the ocean and we could hear the harmonies of the Honolulu Boy Choir wafting along the beach from the Monarch Room, which was just across a courtyard. My wife, who had finished her work in Honolulu, met us at our table and we discovered a table of friends sitting nearby.

We ate a huge Christmas buffet that went on and on--and to which we went back and back. The presents were unwrapped as a trio of Hawaiian musicians sang such songs as "Hamau e Na Kanaka" ("It Came Upon a Midnight Clear").

When we finally left, after more than three hours of munching and singing and talking and mingling and caroling, we were tired, stuffed, happy and ready for bed.

As we walked in the warm December night beneath a clear "hula" moon, my daughter said, "What more would you want for a Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas)?"

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GUIDEBOOK: Wreath Around Waikiki

Getting there: United, Northwest, Continental, Hawaiian Air, Delta, American, American Trans Air all offer nonstop flights from LAX to Honolulu. Restricted advance-purchase fares start at $368 round trip.

Holiday meals in Waikiki: Halekulani, 2199 Kali Road. Orchids Restaurant features dinner menus from six islands. Dec. 1-Jan. 7; 6-10 p.m. Each menu around $50 per person. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day brunch, $37. Telephone (808) 923-2311.

Sheraton Moana Surfrider, 2365 Kalakaua Ave. Banyan Veranda offers a Christmas Eve menu, 5-9 p.m., $42 adults, $21 children, and a Christmas Day brunch, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., $33 adults, $16.50 children; The Ship's Tavern offers a Christmas Day dinner, 5:30-10 p.m., $68 per person; W.C. Peacock & Co. Ltd., has Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, 5-10 p.m., $35 adults, $17.50 children. Tel. (808) 922-3111.

Royal Hawaiian, 2259 Kalakaua Ave. Surf Room offers a Christmas Eve Champagne Brunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., $22.50 adults, $16.25 children; the Christmas Eve Surf Room dinner buffet, 5:30-10 p.m., $39.95 adults, $26.75 children. Christmas Day Surf Room Champagne Brunch, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m., $36 adults, $23 children; Christmas Day Surf Room dinner, 5:30-10 p.m., $39.95 adults, $26.75 children. The Monarch Room presents the Honolulu Boy Choir, Dec. 24 and 25; dinner package, $65 adults, $46 children; 6:30-8:30 p.m.; cocktail package, $36 adults, $18 children, from 8 p.m. Tel. (808) 931-7194.

Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2005 Kalia Road. Bali-by-the-Sea offers Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, 6-10 p.m., $80 per person. Tel. (808) 949-4321, Ext. 43.

Hyatt Regency Waikiki, 2424 Kalakaua Ave. "Turkey to Go" holiday meal for 4-6, ready for heating, around $65. Pick up at Hyatt, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Tel. (808) 923-1234.

--E.K.

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