Over the Rainbow in Hawaii

Kevin Mark Kline READ TIME: 8 MIN.

Long a destination for weddings, Hawaii extended the aloha spirit this year to civil unions and wedding planners are anxiously awaiting the stroke of midnight on December 31 when LGBT couples take advantage of the new law, which was signed by Governor Neil Abercrombie (D) in February.

On New Year's Eve, if all goes according to plan, hundreds of LGBT couples will say, "I do," on Waikiki Beach as fireworks ignite in the sky over Honolulu. Arlei Patterson and her business partner Nancy Wilder of Arlei Style, an event planning business, are organizing Union of a Lifetime, which they've been working on for a year.

The three-day event will begin with a sunset rehearsal dinner featuring Hawaiian barbeque. Couples will honeymoon New Year's Day before finalizing official paperwork January 2 and celebrate with a reception afterwards, said Patterson.

"I'm a romantic at heart. It's just the sweetest thing," said Patterson, 52, a lesbian.

Hawaii has a long history when it comes to same-sex marriage. The state Supreme Court first legalized same-sex marriage two decades ago, but voters overturned it with a constitutional ban five years later. Since then Hawaiians have struggled to gain some sort of legal recognition for LGBT relationships. Each attempt, until this year, was squashed by legislators.

"I think that it will be great for our economy," said Patterson. "It's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

Wedding planners are ready to extend the aloha spirit.

"We will bask in the wonderfulness and love it. I'm absolutely ecstatic," said wedding planner Sharon Ortiz, proprietor and officiant of Rainbow in Paradise, a lesbian-owned business specializing in small weddings in Oahu. "I feel like we climbed a mountain worth climbing and we are now at the top."

"Hawaii is going to be a huge destination," added Kevin Rebelo, who owns Gay Hawaii Wedding in Maui with his business and life partner Frank Miholer.

Maui has been voted the best wedding destination island for the past 14 years and nabs 60 percent of all of Hawaii's wedding business, according to Miholer and Rebelo.

The gay couple knows firsthand about Maui's romantic glow. They fell in love on the island 18 years ago and celebrated their own Maui union. Unable to find anyone to plan their commitment ceremony they coordinated it themselves and turned the experience into a business.

They've performed more than 1,000 weddings in nearly 20 years, they said.

Same-sex couples can find a variety of civil union options for different budgets, from the small to the extravagant.

Paradise calling

Hawaii, of course, offers more than civil unions. It has long been a popular destination for LGBT travelers, from gay urbanites looking for island culture to adventurers seeking a thrill to couples taking romantic beach strolls.

But in recent years Hawaii often hasn't been on U.S. LGBT couples' radar as a vacation destination. The state, beyond the work of openly gay Keli'i Brown, director of public relations and promotions at the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, hasn't reached out to the LGBT tourism market.

It slipped to 19, tying with Denver, Key West, and Phoenix, according to Community Marketing Inc.'s 15th annual Gay and Lesbian Tourism Report, published in 2010. Some tourism economic studies estimate that by not reaching out to mainland LGBT travelers Hawaii's coffers are losing an estimated $50 million a year.

In spite of poor marketing there has always a rainbow over Hawaii, according to LGBT locals.

"It's more open here than in most places because of the Hawaiian culture," said Patterson, a native of Oahu.

Mahu, Hawaiian slang for gay men, has been accepted and honored in the community since native times, said Patterson, talking about historical accounts of some kings and warriors who were thought to be possibly bisexual. The warriors believed that sleeping with fellow warriors meant that they would "fight harder to save your life," she said.

Charlie Palumbo, founder, curator, and tour guide of the Waikiki Historic Trail Tour, agreed that Hawaiians have a long history of LGBT culture. A straight ally, he pointed out the Kapaemahu Stones (which translates into transsexual in Hawaiian) are now protected in a garden surrounded by a Victorian fence. Legend has it that four soothsayers from Tahiti - Kapaemahu, Kahaloa, Kapuni and Kinohi - who were well known for their healing powers, transferred their powers to the stones before vanishing long before the 16th century. The sacred stones were moved to their current location across the street from the Hyatt Regency years ago.

Fun in the sun

My girlfriend and I recently escaped the Bay Area ready to unwind for two weeks in Oahu and Maui, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

We embraced the sunshine, hopping onto a red scooter provided courtesy of Hawaiian Style Motorcycles and Mopeds. The scooter shop is located a few short blocks from the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, where we were being hosted.

Scooter and motorcycle travelers will immediately notice that Hawaii doesn't currently have a helmet law for adults, but it is against the law for motorcycles to split lanes.

We headed into the Oahu hills toward the famed North Shore, taking a leisurely drive before heading back for dinner and a night out in Waikiki.

Waikiki has an active gay nightlife with Hula's bar, which looks out toward Queens Surf, known to locals as the "gay beach," and is one of the most popular hangouts, with a DJ and dance floor. Rum Fire Waikiki, the only bar located directly on the beach, hosts the Phoenix Party, a gay night on Sundays, at the Sheraton Waikiki Resort.

On any given weekend night Honolulu's six gay bars are as crowded as any Castro Street bar. Honolulu also has an emerging foodie scene that ranges from classic romantic settings, such as Chef Mavro's, a French-Hawaiian twist of artfully designed food that takes your taste buds on an exquisite journey, to the Veranda at the Mona Surfrider Hotel. Casual chic diners might prefer Indigo or funky Uncle Bo's, which serves up a variety of spicy dishes.

Hula's Gay Saturday Catamaran Cruise is a great deal at $20 per person and $5 drinks. Spinner dolphins often put on a show chasing the catamaran and leaping out of the aqua water. Whales sometimes make an appearance. We happened to be lucky the day we went out on the water. It was the first time dolphins and whales were readily putting on a show together, according to the captain and crew. Tickets are only available at Hula's bar, located on the second floor in a hotel across from the Honolulu Zoo and sell out fast to the locals. Lucky vacationers might be able to snag one of the 45 tickets by calling the bar or hanging out drinking any number of concoctions created by Mike Lunde, also known as Mr. Aloha, the bartender, on Saturdays before the 2 p.m. boarding.

Hawaiian spirit

Honolulu is the cultural center of Hawaii as the state capital and longtime home to Hawaii's royal family, who reigned over the string of 132 islands that made up the kingdom. Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959. Individuals interested in Polynesian art and history can tour a number of art museums, historic sites, and other palaces of interest.

We took a day to tour the North Shore, where there is an all-women's surf school, Kelea Surf Spa and School, the historic town, and the Dole Plantation. While driving north we stopped off for lunch at Sweet Home Waimanalo Cafe and Market, one of the restaurants catching the sustainable food movement.

We took another day to scooter around the southern part of Oahu and Diamond Head, where there is hiking.

Oahu has the art, culture, and cosmopolitan nightlife, but Maui has the best food and wine experience from the flavors to the atmosphere and scenery.

Maui is the Sonoma of Hawaii, rich in agriculture with eye-popping scenery and a diverse climate that ranges from about 40 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit of Haleakala volcano to 74 degrees at the beaches.

Upon touching Maui's soil, we felt the tensions from the hustle and bustle of urban life immediately lift away to reveal a warm inner class=st> glow.

We headed southwest from the airport for 30 minutes through the sugar cane fields and other agricultural crops to Wailea, where we enjoyed our first Maui sunset at the bar at the Hotel Wailea, part of the gay-friendly Aqua Hotels and Resorts family.

Maui maintains a small nightlife scene, but the night is really for lovers. The daytime is playtime with outdoor activities and tours at O'o Farm, Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, Tedeschi Vineyards at Ulupalakua Ranch, and golf and surf schools, among other activities.

My girlfriend was excited to play a round of golf in Maui after hearing from other golfers that there isn't a bad golf course on the island. Ka'anapali is one of the best with its Royal and Kai courses and it caters to women golfers. Every third Thursday of the month, an estimated 85 women hit the green for fun, themed events and to improve their golf with the help of professional golfers at the Ladies League. The Ladies League is open to guests and is $50 per tee time.

Waiehu Golf Course, a public golf course in central Maui, also hosts several women's golf clubs.

I was more excited about our trek into the mountains to O'o Farm, an organic farm that provides produce for Aina Gourmet Market, Feast at Lele, I'o Restaurant, and pacific'O. It's owned by chef and restaurateur James McDonald and his three business partners, who brought the slow food movement to Maui. We arrived early enough to tour the neighboring Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm class=st>.

Farm manager Richard Clark encouraged us to get our hands dirty and select the vegetables we wanted to eat with our lunch. We bent down selecting spears of asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables that were turned into a savory lunch by chef Caroline Schaub.

Later that evening our farm experience continued at I'o Restaurant where we were shown a tuna caught fresh from the ocean that then ended up on our plate as an appetizer moments later.

Night in paradise

Queer travelers still wanting a bit of a nightlife in western Maui have two options, Lahiana's historic Front Street or the popular gay-friendly hangouts at Ambrosia Martini Lounge, South Shore Tiki Lounge, and Three's Bar and Grill in Kihei located near the Maui Sunseeker. The nightspots are 45 minutes away from each other by car.

The Maui Sunseeker is Hawaii's only LGBT resort located right on its western shores. It recently expanded, joining two other buildings with the original and has 25 suites and two penthouses in addition to a new spa and pool, along with other amenities.

The resort is also offering group travel, with its first Bear Break, March 24-31. The seven-day vacation package is produced by Bears in Paradise.

The resort is also an easy 15-minute drive to the Little Beach at Makena State Beach, a popular nude beach that is also a favorite for gay men.

Lesbian travelers looking to stay at a lesbian bed and breakfast might consider Tutu Mermaids.

Maui doesn't appear to suffer from a lack of LGBT travelers wanting to experience its delights, especially queer women vacationers. It seemed like it was a lesbian paradise as my girlfriend and I spotted other queer women couples dining beside us at restaurants or noticed a couple playfully teasing each other as they headed out for a romantic night at the Fairmont Kea Lani.

by Kevin Mark Kline , Director of Promotions

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