Want to see how the royals lived? Go to Honolulu.
The Iolani Palace on King Street is the only royal residence in the 50 states that was actually used by a reigning monarch. This beautifully restored historic building was home to the last two monarchs of the Kingdom of Hawaii, King David Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani.
To tour the palace, start at the Iolani Barracks, which looks like a miniature fort. It used to house the Royal Household Guard — now it houses the palace ticket office. With ticket in hand, I climbed the steps to the palace. They gave me booties to wear over my shoes to protect the floors and said no photos (which I expected). I got the audio tour so I could listen when I wanted to, whenever some item or room caught my fancy. Guided tours are also available.
The interior is simply gorgeous, full of beautifully polished wood and architectural details. King Kalakaua was a world traveler — the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe — and he brought back ideas from Europe and the U.S., but was also dedicated to preserving Hawaiian culture. He had the ability to look to the future without scorning the past. You can see it all in the Iolani.
I fell in love with the koa wood staircase. The palace had been state office buildings for years, so the floors had all been replaced, but the staircase was original. These were the stairs that King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani had walked on. (Also all their servants and all their guests, because it was the only staircase in the palace.) Now visitors go up to the second floor in a small elevator. Usually a grand staircase has two wings going up to a landing and then one continuing up, but this is reversed, with one flight going to the first landing and then splitting to two. And the wood, the prized native Hawaiian koa wood, is beautiful.
Construction began on the palace Dec. 31, 1879, and it was completed three years later. King Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Kapiolani, took up residence in December 1882.
I admire how forward-thinking Kalakaua was. He had one of the first telephones and an indoor bathroom. He installed electric lights just seven years after Thomas Edison invented them.
The palace has been in the process of restoration since 1969 and was mostly completed in 2011. You can see the throne room and the state dining room, but I liked the smaller private rooms, like the king's library with its early telephone and the music room with its golden upholstery and patterned carpet.
The basement gallery includes an exhibit of treasures from the royal collection, including the Hawaiian crown jewels, an exhibit about the restoration of Iolani Palace and an exhibit of historic photographs.
The story of the palace is a sad one. The king fell ill and sailed to California to get treatment but died there. When the ship sailed back, the Hawaiians saw it coming with the flags lowered and knew their king was dead. The people elected the king's sister, Queen Liliuokalani, to lead them, but American businessmen (not the government) staged a coup and essentially stole the islands. They kept the queen confined in one room of the palace with just one serving woman who had volunteered to stay with her. In that room now, you can see the quilt the queen and her helper embroidered to pass the time of their confinement. They also have letters she wrote protesting the illegal acts, but eventually, to save her people from a war they couldn't win, she abdicated.
The U.S. president at the time, Grover Cleveland, protested the coup, but the businessmen just waited until there was a change in administration and then applied for Hawaii to become a territory. That came about in 1898 during William McKinley's administration.
After the overthrow of the monarchy, the palace served as government offices for 80 years. It was the state capitol building and the face of Five-0 Headquarters in the original Jack Lord TV series. All those years of use and neglect left the building in sad shape. When the government moved out in 1969, the restoration began. It opened to the public in 1978 and, room by room, the restoration continued. Most of the rooms are open for viewing now, though restoration is an ongoing process. A recent act of vandalism broke one of the etched glass windows on the front lanai. It is being replaced by a Southern California glass artist, Patrick Mackle of Decorative Glass Processes in Monrovia, who is an expert on 19th century glass etching.
The Iolani Palace is in the downtown capitol district with the State Capitol behind it and Ali'iolani Hale (Five-0 Headquarters in the current TV show) with the famed statue of King Kamehameha across the street. Within a few blocks are Kawaiaha'o Church, the first Christian church in Hawaii, the Mission Houses Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Hawaii State Art Museum and other historic sites. A history lover could easily spend a day or two in this neighborhood alone.
But farther away from downtown is another museum not to be missed, the Bishop Museum.
Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is the Hawaii State Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It has several buildings, and there was just too much to do in one visit. We tried to get into a hula presentation, but there wasn't even standing room left. So we wandered through a display of kahili, feathered standards that represented Hawaiian royalty.
Then we went to the museum's Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center — via the native Hawaiian garden — to see a lava melting demo. I know, right? Melting lava! They had a loudly roaring furnace going and the demonstrator put lava rock in it (the porous stuff you find in barbecues) and really melted it. Then, looking like a space alien in her silver suit, she poured it out on a metal plate and let it cool. Meanwhile, she passed around different kinds of lava and talked about volcanoes. It was an interesting program.
In addition to volcanology, the science center features oceanography and biodiversity and has many hands-on exhibits that will appeal to the kids. The museum has a planetarium, too, with shows about Hawaii's skies.
We walked across to the museum's Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame and found a few familiar faces in the photos, including Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic swimming gold medalist and surfing pioneer, who grew up where the Hilton Hawaiian Village is now. Also Olympic swimming champion turned actor Buster Crabbe (I didn't know he grew up in Honolulu) and baseball pitcher (and former Dodger) Sid Fernandez.
We also walked through the Bishop's newest gallery, the Pacific Hall, which is all about the people of Oceania. There are some really neat models of Polynesian canoes and some really scary-looking carved masks.
Because we had a bus to catch, we only got a glimpse of the three-story Hawaiian Hall with a whale hanging from the ceiling. There are lots of local artifacts and creatures. Each floor has a different story to tell, about the legends and gods of early Hawaii, the natural history of the islands and Hawaiian history. I did see a beautiful collection of shells in a side gallery. (If you like shells, there will be a special exhibit of Niihau shell leis through April 14.)
With several buildings and all kinds of nooks, crannies and balconies, the Bishop is made for wandering. I'll be sure to wander that way again next visit.