The sleepy town of Hilo is glorious after an early morning rain. The sun shines on green lawns as the storefronts along Waianuenue Avenue begin opening their doors for another day of business.
I head up the street past the place where my grandmother's family house stood for 90 years, to be replaced, in the 1950s, by a Dairy Queen. On Kaiulani Street I wait on one side of the old wooden bridge that connects segments of the river-laced town. Only one car can pass at a time, and a man in a car on the other side has stopped to talk to a neighbor. But I am more patient than usual because I am mind traveling into my childhood, growing up among these palms and breezes and slower, more relaxing times.
Across the bridge, I wind through an old neighborhood of some of the finest homes in Hilo. The yards are a tangle of tropical foliage: royal palms, hibiscus hedges and moss-covered curbs. The air outside my air-conditioned rental car is warm and moist and smells of ginger and plumeria. I catch my first glimpse of Shipman House Bed & Breakfast.
Friends had originally told me of the restored Shipman House, one of a handful of small inns that are housed in renovated 19th and early 20th century buildings and popular with the local people. They are aslo gaining followers among tourists from the mainland. Such places are unusual for Hawaii, where there really isn't a strong preservation movement. The lodging mentality has been that new is better, and on the beach is best. Over the past few years I've stayed in perhaps eight restored inns and loved most of them. Recently, I decided to revisit four of my favorites: Shipman House Bed & Breakfast on the Big Island, the Lahaina Inn and the Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, both on Maui, and the Manoa Valley Inn on Oahu. I was delighted by what I found.
Shipman House sits elegantly perched on a gently sloping hill above the street. Royal palms line the U-shaped driveway that sweeps up to a wooden porte-cochere. You can see fruit trees on the back side of the hill that melts into dense jungle behind the inn.
Just a few blocks from downtown Hilo, Shipman House is a 1899 Victorian mansion. Willie Shipman, a successful cattle rancher and the son of Christian missionaries, bought the three-story house in 1901 for his beautiful part-Hawaiian wife, Mary.
Mary came from a long line of Hawaiian royalty and the house was frequented by Honolulu society. Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani, who was Mary's friend, came often for lunch and gossip. In the 1920s, Jack London and his wife, Charmian, stayed in a bedroom that opened up to a wide veranda that embraces the house.
The Shipmans' great-granddaughter, Barbara Ann Andersen, and her husband, Gary, have painstakingly restored the structure. Barbara Ann, who spent childhood summers visiting her aunts here, remembers riding wheelbarrows down those sloping lawns, making plum jam from fruit trees in the yard and bathing in the claw-foot tubs.
The Andersen's located and reinstated a good selection of original family furniture, much of it fashioned from koa, the beautiful red-hued Hawaiian hardwood.
The guest rooms in the main house are named for Barbara Ann's aunts Flossie, Clara and Carrie (there are three rooms in the main house and two rooms in the guest house next door). Most rooms have private baths, small refrigerators and queen-size beds, and cotton kimonos hang in the bedroom closets. The flowers are freshly cut from the garden and views through the windows of wavy 19th century glass are spectacular.
One of the most alluring aspects of Shipman House is its island breakfast of homemade macadamia nut granola, local fruits in season, baked bananas, taro hash browns (like purple-hued hash brown potatoes) and freshly brewed Kona coffee, grown and processed on the other side of the island.
In the afternoon, cold lemonade is served on the veranda. You can cozy up in the library with a good book or play on the family's 1912 Steinway concert grand piano.
Not all Hawaiian inns recall gracious living. The Lahaina Inn, in the middle of Maui's 19th century whaling port of Lahaina, was once so seedy it rented by the hour. Now it is an oasis financed by Hawaiian multimillionaire Rick Ralston, founder of Crazy Shirts, a chain of T-shirt shops.
Guest rooms at the Lahaina Inn are tucked above storefronts along Lahainaluna Road and Front Street. (Although the area is noisy, I found the inn to be quiet.) Ralston had the inn restored in 24 months and filled it with turn-of-the-century antiques from his private collection. He replaced all of the wiring and plumbing and installed air-conditioning. The inn reopened in 1989.
Nineteen rooms in the original Lahainaluna Hotel were transformed into nine rooms and three suites. There are no televisions in any of the rooms, and the lighting, high on romance, can sometimes be impossible to read by.
Still, the Lahaina Inn is in the center of town, near art galleries and fine restaurants. And one of the best restaurants in town, David Paul's Lahaina Grill, is in the same building, directly downstairs.
At the Lahaina Inn you feel as if you've walked back into the 19th century. In the morning, stroll down the hall to the sideboard set with rolls, coffee, juice and fruit. Stock up and pad back to bed to sip, munch and relax, as I like to do, and you'll have the start of a great day.
On the other side of Maui, in the county seat of Wailuku, the Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono is a newer inn that opened last fall. Wailuku is off the tourist route--well away from the beach resorts on Maui's southern side--but it's a good location from which to visit other parts of the island: nearby Iao Valley, renown for its natural beauty, and the Wailuku historic district, site of the Bailey House Museum, a compelling step into 19th century Hawaiian culture.
After breakfast one recent morning, as my husband and I sat on the front porch enjoying the lush, tropical garden, we both thought of our childhoods. The Old Wailuku Inn is like that, authentic Hawaii, the way people lived in the islands before condominiums and mega hotels arrived.
It was built in 1924 in a neighborhood shaded by tall monkey pod trees on High Street, once the place to live if you were a well-to-do Maui merchant. Today the neighborhood is a mixture of restored houses and newer buildings.
The proprietors, Janice and Tom Fairbanks, were both born and raised in the islands and have experience in the hospitality industry. It shows. They understand comfort and convenience and provide it through small gestures such as herbal shower gels, extra pillows and lamps where you need them.
Each of the seven rooms has its own bath, king-size bed, air-conditioning, telephone and television. You feel as if you are a guest in an islander's home.
Breakfast at the Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono is among the best you'll get anywhere on the islands. Served in a sunny, enclosed porch, it is fresh, healthy and beautifully presented. A lovely tart with greens and tofu was the delicious offering the day I dined.
I'd heard about the Manoa Valley Inn on the island of Oahu for years. It was restored in 1982--another project of T-shirt king Rick Ralston--and named the John Guild Inn at the time, in honor of a former occupant.
Built in 1919, the Manoa Valley Inn has the look of California's Arts and Crafts houses. You arrive at its buttressed eaves and gables by a side street near the University of Hawaii.
I was in Honolulu alone on business and it seemed like the perfect time to visit. I reached the Inn's host, Herb Fukushima, on the phone for directions and he warned me of the construction going on next door. I was late in calling and the inn was full, except for a room with a shared bath down the hall. I balked, but took it anyway.
Fukushima was charming when I arrived with my shopping packages and overnight bag. He remained charming even after helping me lug them to the third floor, to a room that reminded me of a visit to my grandmother's house in the 1940s.
That bath down the hall had the same separate hot and cold water faucets as my grandmother's. The old cast-iron bathtub with surround-the-tub shower curtain was the same. The mirror and wall sconces were of the same era too. It wasn't going to be bad. In fact, it was downright comfy.
There was fresh fruit, cheese and wine downstairs on the porch, he said. But I declined after seeing the other guests enjoying each other's company and the sunset over Honolulu. Instead, I headed out for dinner at my favorite noodle shop on King Street.
After dinner, I wandered back to the inn. Someone was watching television in a small parlor off the front hallway, so I walked out onto the back porch. The lights of Honolulu were dazzling, and I felt removed and calmed.
In the morning I awoke to squawking myna birds in the neatly trimmed kiawe trees outside my window. No one was up yet, and I dressed, went downstairs quickly and out again onto the porch with my coffee and croissant.
There were no tour buses, no eager concierges or front desk clerks to greet me. The morning staff consisted of one person who had cheerfully made up the quick continental breakfast in the kitchen and left me alone.
Historic inns can be that kind of travel experience. They take you closer to the people and the islands. And when you stay in small inns, you come away with a different impression of the islands. Quite simply, it's a feeling of authenticity that's hard to duplicate.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Where to stay: Shipman House Bed & Breakfast, 131 Kaiulani St., Hilo, HI 96720. Rates: $140 per night for a double; telephone (800) 627-8447 or tel./fax (808) 934-8002.
Lahaina Inn, 127 Lahainaluna Road, Lahaina, HI 96761. Rates: in high season (February through March and Dec. 16 through Jan. 4) $99 to $169 per night for a double; in off-season, $89 to $159, with the sixth night free; tel. (800) 669-3444, fax (808) 667-9480.
Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, 2199 Kahookele St., Wailuku, HI 96793. Rates: $120 to $18O per night for a double, including breakfast; tel. (800) 305-4899, fax (808) 242-9600.
Manoa Valley Inn, 2001 Vancouver Drive, Honolulu, HI 96822. Rates: $99 to $120 for double rooms with shared bathrooms; $140 to $190 for double rooms with private bathrooms; tel. (800) 634-5115, fax (808) 946-6168.
Hawaii's Best Bed & Breakfasts, P.O. Box 563, Kamuela, HI 96743; tel. (808) 885-4550.
Where to eat: In Hilo, try Cafe Pesto, 308 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo (in the S. Hata building on Hilo Bay); tel. (808) 969-6640. Excellent pasta, pizzas and creative salads.
In Lahaina, try David Paul's Lahaina Grill in the Lahaina Inn, 127 Lahainaluna Road, Lahaina. The Tequila shrimp is a signature dish; tel. (808) 667-5117.
Local food guru Sam Choy's new Sam Choy's Kahului (Maui), 275 Kaahumanu Ave., Kahului (in the Kaahumanu Center); tel. (808) 893-0366.