As our plane circled, making its descent into the Honolulu airport, the woman in the seat next to me asked, "Which of the outer islands are you going on to?"

When I answered that I planned to stay in Honolulu, on Oahu, she looked at me in disbelief and said, "Oh, I never stay there. I just find it too touristy."

Well, everyone has a right to an opinion, and the outer islands are indeed spectacular, but I couldn't help but think that her comment was akin to saying, "Yes, I'm going to France, but I'm skipping Paris because it's too touristy."

Sure, Waikiki Beach is now known more for its high-rise hotels than its sand; a stroll through the upscale shopping district along Kalakaua Avenue might put one in the mind of New York's Fifth Avenue, and the city has become a hot spot for restaurants, thanks to the fusion cuisine of chefs Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and Sam Choy.

But Honolulu is more than the sum of its parts; it is the heart of the island chain, the "Gathering Place," the scene of King Kamehameha's victory over warring chiefs and subsequent uniting of the islands. It is the repository of Hawaii's history, art and culture, and to miss it is, to me, unthinkable.

An ideal place to get an understanding of Hawaii's history and a sense of its vibrant culture is the Bishop Museum. The fourth-largest museum collection in the United States, it contains 1.2 million cultural artifacts.

Founded in 1889, the museum is Hawaii's answer to India's Taj Mahal, a testimony to the power of undying love. From the first time he set eyes on Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki, Charles Reed Bishop knew there would be no one else for him, and although her parents opposed the match (he was a commoner and a haole, or non-Hawaiian), the couple enjoyed 35 years of wedded bliss. After Bernice's death in 1884, her husband set about building a museum to house her personal belongings and to serve as a monument to their love.

Although today's visitors can marvel at an eclectic collection of objects -- elaborate feather fans, plant and animal specimens, and the restoration of a Hale Pili, the only surviving example of an authentic Hawaiian grass hut -- the real centerpiece of the museum will be the restored Hawaiian Hall, slated for completion this year. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hall houses the most sacred treasures of the Hawaiian people.

A royal palace

Another of Honolulu's iconic structures is Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on American soil. The official residence of King David Kalakaua and Queen Kapi'olani from 1882 until the king's death in 1891, and after that, of his sister and successor, Queen Lili'uokalani. In its heyday, elegant guests danced until dawn to the music of the Royal Hawaiian Band in the Throne Room. Later, Queen Lili'uokalani was held prisoner in an upstairs bedroom after being accused by the new republic's government of conspiring in a plot to restore the monarchy.

Two other sites where visitors can experience the essence of early Hawaii are Queen Emma Summer Palace and the Mission Houses Museum. The summer palace, a modest white cottage in the lush Nu'uanu Valley, was home to the consort of King Kamehameha IV. Built on the East Coast, it was transported around Cape Horn and assembled in its present location in 1848.

The Mission Houses Museum tells the story not of royalty but of the missionaries who came from New England in the 1820s to bring Christianity to the islanders. The Mission Houses complex consists of three houses from the period, authentically furnished and open for public tours.

Hawaii might revere its history as few states on the mainland do, but the island hasn't ignored its arts heritage, either. Venue after venue showcases the art, traditional and contemporary, that makes up what those in the arts like to refer to as "arts with aloha."

20,000 works of Asian art

Visitors can visit the Honolulu Academy of Arts, with a permanent collection of more than 50,000 pieces, including 20,000 works of Asian art, with galleries dedicated to Japan, China, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The Hawaii State Art Museum, whose primary focus is on works by Hawaii artists. The Contemporary Art Museum, whose setting in the lush hills above Honolulu, is as artistic as any of the pieces in its collection.

Perhaps most magnificent of all is Shangri-La, the opulent former home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, now a museum of Islamic art. In a spectacular setting overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head, the museum is a reflection, as the promotional literature says, "of Doris Duke's passion for collecting and living with Islamic art." That passion comes to life in the Indian Mughal garden, the playhouse, modeled after a royal pavilion in Iran, and especially in the 14,000-square-foot main house, built around a central courtyard open to the sky and furnished with 3,500 objets d'art from Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Egypt and India.

My first thought after viewing the property was that Shangri-La was well named, and my second was that the woman on the plane who thought Honolulu wasn't worth a visit had no idea what she was missing.