“I’ve had enough fun on this vacation,” my husband Stanley told our teenagers on Tuesday, our final afternoon in dear, sweet, balmy Honolulu. “So let’s let Mum decide what we’re going to do today.”
The implication there was clear -- “fun” was not Mum’s bailiwick. Mum was in charge of the oatmeal porridge quotient of the trip. This was the dreary, good-for-you portion of the holiday that would require everybody to trudge around some culturally significant edifice in the wake of a nerdishly over-enthused docent, then mill about in the gift shop waiting for Mum to buy a lot of stupid postcards.
And so it came to pass -- I fulfilled the prophecy by dragging them all to a fusty historic Summer Palace that had once been owned by the island’s Queen Emma Na’ea, the wife of King Kamehameha IV. My 16-year-old son preferred to spend the time grumpily skateboarding around the parking lot in the heat, but no matter. Those of us who did pay $6 apiece to look at somebody else’s uncomfortable old furniture and towering feather-topped stanchions would surely be uplifted and informed by the experience. And isn’t that what a person wants from a Hawaiian holiday?
Personally, I can’t get enough of these glimpses of how the other half once lived. I figure my family should be forced to share my fascination, just as I weakly pretend to appreciate theirs in things like barbecue, Jersey Shore and gel skate wheels. Over my own lifetime, I’ve clomped through the houses of authors Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, etc.), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women, etc.), poet, philosopher and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the “White Witch,” Annie Palmer. In the 19th century, the White Witch owned a Jamaican plantation house called Rose Hall, and she slew a few of her husbands in it for no reason I could figure out. According to the guide who showed me around, old Annie used to sit on her balcony of an evening and, for entertainment, watch her slaves get flogged. She was also a huge fan of crewel embroidery.
Even the homes of more placid and obscure figures from the distant past have proved intriguing. Stanley and my parents and I once toured New Orleans’ Longue Vue House, a Classical Revival domicile built in the early 1940s by a couple named the Sterns. Its 20 rooms included one entirely devoted to cutting flowers, and another to the wrapping and mailing of gifts. Just imagining living in a place like that gives me pleasure.
Stanley and I and some friends also spent an afternoon in New Orleans trailing after a tour guide through the mansion at Oak Alley Plantation, on the outskirts of the city. This splendid place provided not just a look at how a rich sugar planter lived in the mid-1800s but also a peek into the hard existence of his 113 slaves. Some poor child, for example, had to sit on the floor at the edge of the dining room during every meal served there, pulling the rope that operated the ceiling fan. Looking at the set-up, one could picture a bunch of white Southern windbags tellin’ tall tales for hours around that lavish table while some sweating urchin built biceps and fantasized about rebellion. Then along came the Civil War.
I’m no history buff, but I eat this stuff up. It’s especially engaging to visit historic homes in tropical locales, and observe how the best architects and builders of their era responded to climate in their designs through high ceilings, thick walls and deep verandas, and how well they equipped gracious homes with cross-drafts and other cooling elements. What? You don’t find that topic enthralling? Well, I suppose you have to have been there to appreciate it.
The family members who came along with me on Tuesday seemed to like seeing the portraits of Queen Emma’s many homely relatives, the astonishing Koa wood and glass cabinet built to resemble a cathedral, and the handsome egg-shaped regal cradle.
Whether they were truly enjoying the tour or just humouring me, the quiet elegance of the Summer Palace served as a refreshing contrast to the cheap condo we had rented online. Situated about 10 minutes from Waikiki beach, it had seemed like a steal. We certainly felt as if a crime had been committed against us when we saw how rapidly the sofa bed fell apart when our son tried to sleep on it, how water poured out of the kitchen sink pipe when we tried to wash the dishes, and the size of the holes in the bedroom curtains.
Queen Emma wouldn’t have liked it. Neither would the New Orleans plantation owners. For their slaves, of course, it might have felt like an upgrade – after all, it featured both running water and freedom. As I keep trying to remind my kids, life is all about context.