Off the Beaten Path: See the Light
Former Secretary of State and First Lady and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton likely wasn’t the first celebrity in Waikiki to be bowled over by the region’s iconic torch lighting ceremony.
A video of a half-clothed Hilton Hawaiian Village torchbearer named Chester Centino whizzing past the heavily protected Clinton at the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation quickly went viral. To date, the video of Clinton laughing in delight as her first glimpse of Centino brightening her political appearance has drawn nearly one million views.
While Clinton was caught off-guard by the young torch lighter performing his nightly duties, the ceremony actually has deep historic roots in Waikiki, which was inhabited by ancient settlers around 600 A.D. and eventually became the home and playground of Hawaiian Royalty and other celebrities like famous surfer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku.
While the brightest lights in Waikiki today come from the mega hotels that line the crescent beach, there was a time, actually not that long ago, when torch light cast the widest glow. Today’s sunset torch lighting ceremonies, which can be found at the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound and various retail centers and hotels up and down the strip, recapture the magic of Waikiki’s early days and the romance of a simpler time made all the more beautiful by the ambient flare.
“The torch lighting is really important to us because of its cultural and traditional history. In the old days, it was used to light the way and paths between the houses when they would walk between the villages and districts,” says Jerry Gibson, area vice president of Hilton Hawaii. “Today, we do it as a continuation of what the ancestors used to do.”
Hilton is so committed to shining a light on this historic connection to old Waikiki that over the past three decades it has expanded the number of torches that it lights to 150, which surround the entire resort, which is bordered by Kalia Road, Paoa Place, Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon and Kahanamoku Street. Gibson says the resort also recently added 17 fire bowls, which will illuminate its main Rainbow Drive thoroughfare.
“Come dusk, it’s going to be even more dramatic here,” Gibson says. “We think this will really ingrain a sense of place, which is really important to us. We want to do the right thing for the culture and the people.”
While most of the hotel and retail torch lighting ceremonies are easily accessible to the public, the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound located by the Duke Kahanamoku statue near Uluniu and Kalakaua Avenues provides another option. Since 1994, the site has been the setting for a nightly torch lighting ceremony, which begins at 6 p.m. in the winter months and starts at 6:30 p.m. the rest of the year. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, the lighting also features an hour-long cultural show, which includes a conch shell ceremony, followed by authentic Hawaiian music and hula dancing from some of the state’s finest halau. Best of all, in the true spirit of Waikiki hospitality, the show is free since the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, the City and County of Honolulu, the Waikiki Improvement Association, the neighboring Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa and other private partners like Hawai’i Gas have generously donated to its support.
“The torch lighting and hula show presents authentic Hawaiian hula, history and culture to the visitors, and is very popular with local hula fans and kama’aina, and with guests,” says Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association. “The program also offers hula students an opportunity to share their hula and interact with the tourists in Waikiki. It’s become the signature event for Waikiki.”
Egged says Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Royal Hawaiian Center and other spots also run their own torch lighting, which help them illuminate the $4 billion investment that has been made in Waikiki over the last 10 years.
A three-time national award winning reporter, Allison Schaefers serves as the Waikiki Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Based in Waikiki, she covers Hawai’i tourism and Waikiki issues. Contact her at email@example.com.