It took four million feathers plucked from 20,000 birds to make Captain Cook’s cloak. In 1779, while the American colonies fought their Revolutionary War half a world away, Chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u draped the yellow and red garment—an ‘ahu ‘ula—over James Cook’s shoulders as a mark of great respect and welcome; the seafaring British explorer was making his fourth visit to the islands and chiefs associated him with the festivals for the fertile god Lono and a time when war is forbidden.
The ‘ahu ‘ula spent decades in British collections before ending up in New Zealand’s national collection. When the artifacts were returned last year in an unprecedented long-term loan back to Hawaii, Honolulu’s Bishop Museum built a light- and climate-controlled case in its stunning three-story hall.
The cloak’s return marks a proud moment in a city with growing pains, on an island balancing rural life with an international metropolis. Here freeways shoot through mountain tunnels and skyscrapers tower over America’s only royal palace. The delicacy of the ‘ahu ‘ula seems out of place in this twenty-first-century city.
It’s a reminder that Hawaii has always been a complex place. Weeks after Cook received the cloak and sailed into the Pacific, his ship’s mast broke and he limped back to Hawaii. The calendar had shifted to a time of war, and Cook tried to kidnap the chief who had given him the exquisite gift. Cook was killed in retaliation. Under the carefully calibrated lights of the Bishop Museum, the cloak is a tangible relic of Hawaii’s first major clash with the Western world. bishopmuseum.org
What to do on Oahu
A. Kualoa Ranch
Large swaths of Hawaii are owned by single families; this one shares its 4,000 green acres with film crews. Tours bike by or zipline over spots like Lost’s famous jungle bunker (really a WWII army installation), while Seattle’s own Renee Erickson (Bateau, the Walrus and the Carpenter) hosts an Outstanding in the Field meal with Andrew Le of the Pig and the Lady on January 10. kualoa.com
B. Koko Head Stairs (pictured at top)
It’s the simplest hike imaginable—you just go up. Up 1,000 or so steps made from railroad ties, up a cratered headland along the tracks of a now-defunct incline tram. The view from atop the state’s coolest StairMaster is spectacular.
C. Jawaiian Irie Jerk Chicken
It’s a hole-in-the-wall eatery in a Honolulu neighborhood that’s evolving, thanks to hipster beer bars and brunch-all-day restaurants. You’ll likely be the only tourist in sight as you chow down on juicy, fragrant chicken. jawaiianiriejerk.com
D. Ilikai Hotel
Famous for its appearance in the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0 (both versions), Waikiki’s midcentury monolith with glass elevators was designed by Space Needle architect John Graham Jr. He also dreamed up a hotel with a rotating rooftop restaurant in Hawaii before bringing that idea to Seattle. ilikaihotel.com
E. The Pig and the Lady
The star of Honolulu’s Chinatown and the entire state’s dining scene was born a farmer’s market stall dishing Vietnamese banh mi but now boasts an exposed-brick, Edison-lamp space that would fit into Brooklyn or Ballard with equal ease. thepigandthelady.com
F. Pearl Harbor
The highlight of a visit to the site is a ferry ride to the water memorial over the sunken USS Arizona, but the Stockard Channing–narrated film that precedes it is surprisingly engaging for a rapid history tutorial. nps.gov/valr
G. Four Seasons Ko Olina Lagoon
As a much calmer alternative to Waikiki, the hotels on Oahu’s western shore surround perfectly circular manmade lagoons for protected recreation, ideal for kids, though Four Seasons’ newly renovated property has a chic infinity pool for a more adult swim. fourseasons.com/oahu
H. Ted’s Bakery Chocolate Haupia Pie
Located on the north shore among surfer’s houses, the bakery is famous for its pie made from coconut pudding and dark chocolate custard. Eat it outside, plastic fork in hand, as traffic inches along the north shore’s single highway. tedsbakery.com