Iolani Palace, Keeping the Past Alive


It was really important to me that my children learn something of the history and culture of Hawaii and not just the beauty of the 50th State. When my husband and I lived there I felt particularly annoyed at those who came to soak up the sun while missing completely the reality of the place. You miss so much depth and history and culture and real living when you stay at a fancy resort and do nothing but shop.

Thus it was important that I start our trip with history and culture. We had only 48 hours on Oahu before we joined the family reunion. How could we help our children understand Hawaii in such a short time frame? The beach could wait. (Or, rather, we would visit beaches in addition to these other stops, let’s be realistic.)

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Our family received entrance to the Palace free of charge. Image courtesy of Iolani Palace.

I put Iolani Palace on my short list of cultural sites to visit. When we lived on Oahu I hadn’t been able to peek inside the royal life of the final Hawaiian ali’i. This royal residence is right in downtown Honolulu, making it a convenient stop for pretty much anyone visiting the island. We found easy parking in the back, (which is also the public entrance), under a banyan tree.

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Show kids banyan tree: check.

Our visit to Iolani Palace was timed-entry and led by a docent. I believe there self-guided tours are also available but nothing replaces being able to ask questions.

To protect the artifacts we all wore booties, and kept my youngest contained in a stroller. We also turned off the flashes on our cameras.

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Denim booties over my shoes to protect artifacts like this gorgeous rug. I am in love with this rug.

We were definitely the only ones in our group with children. The Palace staff, however, was prepared and not at all ruffled by my family. In a situation where we could have felt like a nuisance or a potential liability, we were treated as graciously as all the other guests. I knew my children could handle it – they’ve been visiting museums their whole lives – but I understand that people who don’t know them don’t know that. We’ve been making security guards nervous by our presence for about 14 years now. Fortunately they haven’t given anyone true cause for concern.

I was surprised to find so many similarities to other gracious homes I’ve toured over the years. Perhaps I expected something more in-your-face Hawaiian. And while the woodwork was koa and the paintings were of Hawaiians, it felt largely familiar.

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Koa wood piano. What a treasure!

Our tour guide helped me understand that this palace was relatively new in the legacy of the ali’i, long after colonization, and during a period where the Hawaiian kings and queens had regular contact with their counterparts in Europe and Asia. In fact, when King Kalakaua commissioned the Palace he was inspired by the European palaces he saw on his worldwide tour. What did I expect, really? A hale? Even the predecessor to this palace didn’t survive the ravages of nature.

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No termite can have his way with this palace!

King Kalakaua demonstrated his forward-thinking in many ways. Most notably, he had the palace wired for electricity and telephones even before the US White House.

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One of the many stunning chandeliers.

The palace itself tells many stories if you look. You see evidence of the monarchs sharing gifts and alliances with international monarchs. You see a balance between embracing modern advancements and maintaining traditions. I think the throne room demonstrates this well with the gowns on display. I am partial to Queen Lili’uokalani’s peacock gown.

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Can you imagine wearing a gown of peacock feathers?

Fortunately for us, our visit coincided with King Kalakaua’s birthday. His royal bedroom was decorated with the royal standards, kahili to celebrate the occasion.The kahili follow the Ali’i and signify the embodiment of his divine power.

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It was the imprisonment room that touched me the most. The story of Queen Lili’uokalani’s overthrow made me sad. She inspired me with the grace with which she dealt with it. I found the quilt she made especially poignant. She sewed many stories into the stitches.

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Queen Lili’uokalani pieced this quilt from her own wardrobe. She hand stitched it all herself.

Iolani Palace is a special place, forging a vital link to the past. I am so glad we took time out of our very short visit to Oahu to learn more about the Hawaiian monarchs. I can’t wait to return. I’m sure I’d learn even more on my second visit.

You should check it out!

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