Most visitors to Oahu end up making at least one trip into the Pearl City, Waimalu, and Aiea neighborhoods – they do so when they visit Pearl Harbor. Another reason to visit might be to go to the Aloha Stadium Swapmeet. Beyond those two major draws however, there isn’t much to draw visitors to these three neighborhoods. All three are mostly local redisential demographics with slightly higher than Oahu median age and considerably lower median income than Oahu median. Those demographics shift if you include military families and personnel in the criteria – as all three areas have large military populations – more than a few entire neighborhoods in this area are military housing. The total non-military population of the three combined comes to about 75,000 people.
Pearl City is the area east of Waipahu and streching down from Waipio and Millilani to the North. Bordering Pearl City are Waimalu and then Aiea. East of Aiea is the Salt Lake/Moanalua Neighborhood (West Honolulu). Pearl City, Aiea, and Waimalu are lumped together on many neighborhood maps as Pearl City. Residents of Aiea though, take issue with this, as Aiea has it’s own attractions, history, and zipcode.
Pearl City is essentially, a city built around a sprawling military base. Aiea on the other hand is a city that grew around a sugar cane plantation. Waimalu is caught between the two. In ancient times, the whole area was part of the Aiea ahupua’a – the Hawaiian way of designating chief controlled land – essentially a pie slice going from the ocean to the mountains.
From the late 1800s to World War II, it was the sugar industry that was the main driver of the economy in this area. When the U.S. moved the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor at the dawn of WWII, the economy of the area shifted to that of military dependency. The closing of the sugar mill and plantation after WWII accelerated this process. Much of the former sugar cane lands are now military owned neighborhoods. C & H Sugar closed the last mill in the area in 1996 and it was torn down in 1999.
Today, Aiea is home to the Aloha Stadium where the University of Hawaii Warriors play their home games. It is also home to the largest enclosed mall in the state, Pearl Ridge, and the Sumida Farm – Hawaii’s largest watercress farm – located in wetland fields between highways and the Pearl Ridge Mall – which creates an interesting contrast. There are several nice hikes in the hills around this area but no beaches due to the waterfront land being controlled mostly by the military.
The current Governor of Hawaii, David Ige comes from Waimalu. Former Lieutenant Governor, Duke Aiona is from Pearl City, and Bette Midler, the actress and singer was born and raised in Aiea.
The major US Military bases in the area are Camp Smith, Pearl Harbor, Hickam, and Fort Shafter.
There are no shortage of great things to do on Oahu. When you visit Hawaii, it’s perfectly fine to bring the kids with you and most activitives are great for the whole family. Things like swimming, snorkeling, having beach time, hiking in the rainforest, or just doing some shopping in Waikiki. Sometimes though, you might want to do something that will make the little ones squeal with delight – for those times, I offer the following.
The Dole Planatation is great for everyone but the little ones get a special thrill. All the bright colors, the pineapple ice cream aka Dole Whip, getting lost in the world’s largest pineapple maze, and taking a train ride through the old plantation days. The kids will love this one.
Sea Life Park
Sea Life Park is a blast for the kids. Sure, there are controversies and real concerns about the way that marine animals and animals in general are treated, but in Hawaii, the legislature, businesses and every day people take those concerns seriously, so why not go and watch a dolphin show or check out the sharks in the big aqaurium. Visit with the penguins and see Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles in an environment where they are safe and protected (from tourists).
The Honolulu Zoo can be a lot of fun with the kids – during the summer months there are concerts inside and great after dark programs where the kids (and adults) can explore the zoo grounds, learn about the nocturnal behaviours of the animals that live there, and more – but don’t discount going to the zoo during the day. I think that mornings right around feeding time are the best time, but there’s always something going on – especially with the gibbons.
The Waikiki Aquarium is a blast – especially if you hit one of those days when it’s raining or you don’t want to be outside very much. Head to the Waikiki Aquarium. You can spend hours or minutes there but spend at least enough time to see the sea horses and sea dragons! Also the touching zone is a favorite with kids of all ages. For those looking for a more psychedelic vibe…spend a bit of time zoning out on the jellyfish under blacklights!
Matsumoto Shave Ice
Every child should get to experience a very good shave ice. You’ll find that in many places but one of the most fun is Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. This is one of the most family budget friendly treats in the Hawaiian Islands. Go whole hog and you aren’t going to spend more than $5 on a mountain of sweet delicious local flavors. Don’t forget to get the snowcap! It might sound unnecessary…but you’re not buying the kids shave ice because it’s necessary, right?
Honolulu is a city of neighborhoods. It can also be argued that each on Honolulu’s neighborhoods are actually small towns and cities and they all get thrown together as the City and County of Honolulu. One of the unique neighborhoods of Honolulu is Makiki. It’s where Barack Obama and Bruno Marw were both born and it’s where deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marco lived and died.
Makiki could be described as central Honolulu – it stretches from the Tantalus neighborhood above and skirts Manoa on one side and to the Nu’uanu neighborhood on the other and goes seaward until it meets downtown Honolulu and the Ala Moana neighborhood. Makiki doesn’t include any beachfront areas – which is why it is largely off the radar of most visitors to Oahu.
There are older houses, churches, a hospital, library, schools and a community center. The closest thing to tourist attractions would be the Punahou School and the Punchbowl memorial cemetary located in the extinct Punchbowl volcanic crater which last erupted nearly 100,000 years ago. The Punchbowl was actually a place where ancient Hawaiians are said to have practiced human sacrifice but today it is home to the Memorial Cemetary of the Pacific since 1948.
There are hiking trails that wind through the mountains above and the Tantalus (Pu’u Ualaka’a) overlook and Hawaii Nature Center both lie within the boundaries of Makiki.
Makiki is home to a beautiful Victorian mansion that was once owned by Claus Spreckels, a Californian known as the ‘King of Sugar’. (Interesting side note – Spreckels wife, Alma Spreckels was the model for the Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square and she started the Salvation Army).
But back to Makiki….It is home to the Central Union Church, several schools, and many of Honolulu’s residents. The hills above the city, called Tantalus, were home to many of the families who came here from the U.S. Mainland during the kingdom period. They enjoyed the cool, picturesque seclusion. As did Ferdinand Marcos.
The Hawaiian word for delicious is ‘Ono’. There are no shortage of ono restaurants in Hawaii and most of them are located in Honolulu or on the island of Oahu. The following are five places where you can get an ono meal that you will tell your friends about for as long as you are still able to talk and remember eating there…
Waioli Poi Factory – Midway up the windward side of Oahu you will find a tinroofed shack with delicious Hawaiian food for reasonable prices. The crowds have been growing at this local favorite – so I’m not going to post the address or hours – you’ll just have to find it on your own. Make sure you order the poi, the kalua pork, and the haupia!
Foodland Poke Bowls – Yes, there are lots and lots and lots of places to get fresh poke in Hawaii. We have hidden gems we won’t tell you about – but the thing that surprises a lot of people is that the best poke isn’t found at fancy restaurants – it’s found in local grocery stores, liquor stores, and side of the road markets where people go for lunch. Grab a spicy ahi poke bowl from any foodland seafood counter. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you’ll probably go home and tell everyone it was the best poke you ever had!
Mike’s Huli Chicken I haven’t been to Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken since they left their Kahalu’u location a few months ago and moved to Kuhuku with all the other food trucks – but I’m sure that the food is just as good as it always was. Maybe it’s even better.
Fumi’s Kuhuku Shrimp There is a reason why Fumi’s is my favorite of all the Hawaiian Shrimp Trucks on Oahu – it’s because they cook it right, raise it right, and keep their sanitation on the obsessive compulsive side in their kitchen. They pull the shrimp from their family owned ponds and serve them with aloha (and lots of garlic).
Nico’s Pier 38 I’m jaded about Nico’s – because it used to be so much better than it is today. The truth is though , Nico’s Pier 38 is still one of those places that you have to go and you will remember forever as long as you order the swordfish or the furikake crusted ahi.
Downtown Honolulu often gets overlooked by visitors to Oahu. It’s not surprising given that there are so many great places to visit when you come to Hawaii. Most visitors come to Waikiki and then if they are a bit adventurous they had to the North Shore, Kailua, or go to see the South shore sites like Hanauma Bay or the Halona Blowhole – but by not heading into Honolulu’s downtown they are missing a vibrant part of Honolulu and in a way – not seeing the beating heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Our downtown isn’t big. You can walk most of it in an afternoon. The downtown financial district is bordered by Chinatown on the West, Vineyard Boulevard on the North, the Historic District on the East, and Honolulu Harbor and Aloha Tower to the South. All told it takes up about four big city blocks. One thing that visitors from the mainland always remark on is how clean it is. There are statues lovingly placed at the corners, a couple of historic buildings, and what you would expect of any financial district of a city of a million people – banks and high rises.
Running right through the center of it is Fort Street Mall – a pedestrian street filled with cheap eateries, convenience stores catering to office workers, and benches for them to have their lunches on. Hawaii Pacific University has it’s campus on the former Aloha Tower Marketplace, so there is a collegiate element which adds to the feel along with plenty of trees, an outdoor farmers market, and a couple of department stores for those who need to grab things before they head home.
There aren’t a lot of residential units in downtown and there are no real tourist attractions – but there are some great restaurants, a couple of cool shops, and great people watching. The Hawaii State Art Museum, the Aloha Tower, and the Hawaii Theatre are the only big attractions in downtown – but there are plenty of historic buildings, and photo worthy spots to capture while you are there…and did I mention all the little eateries that cater to office workers looking for cheap and fast lunch? Every ethnic food you can think of…but mostly just for lunch.
Fort Street Mall is a pedestrian road through the center of the Financial District…mostly it works because of the proximity to Hawaii Pacific University…but there are a lot of little lunch restaurants and some interesting sculptures there. Opened in 1968, it takes about ten minutes to walk and will take you from HPU on one side to HPU on the other. On the mall you will find the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace…the olderst Cathedral on Oahu – built in 1843. It’s beautiful and off the beaten path.
There’s an old metal gate and a cannon along the mall…they’ve been there since 1899…I’m not sure why.
Usually you can find vendors and open market on Court Street Mall during the weekdays. It’s a good place to buy veggies and flowers and bread. The big problem with downtown and all of Honolulu, actually, is the huge numbers of homeless who are there. A recent study concluded that 1 of every 10 homeless in Honolulu has recently come here from a mainland city. The new arrival homeless congregate in the downtown area along with Chinatown, Iwalei, and Kaka’ako. More recently, large numbers of them are moving to Kailua and Kapolei. The truth is, if you are going to be homeless it might as well be in Hawaii – but the problem is that the more homeless who come here, the less enjoyable this is as a place where if you don’t want to be homeless – you have to work harder and harder to survive.
Hawaii is filled with great spots to surf and snorkel, dive and hike. In fact, there are so many great snorkel spots on Oahu that it’s easy to miss the best ones – and, unfortunately – it’s also easy to wander into areas where the water isn’t safe, the snorkeling isn’t that good, or you are putting yourself in some other kind of danger. With that in mind – I want to share my three favorite snorkel spots on the island of Oahu. One of them is in Waikiki, one of them is on the North Shore, and one of them is on the wild South Shore. All three are generally safe and depending on conditions, are almost certainly awesome places to see lots of fish. As with anywhere you are going to get in the water – check with lifeguards or locals to find out the conditions, make sure someone knows where you are going, and make sure you know how your equipment works before you head out of the shallow water. One last note – do not feed the fish and make sure that you are wearing reef safe sunscreen – both things help preserve our beautiful ocean so that many generations can continue to enjoy it.
I’ve never seen a shark at Shark’s Cove, but I’ve seen many other kinds of fish. This is a reef protected inlet with some amazing fish viewing and a variety of snorkel areas that are suitable for everyone from brand new beginners to seasoned scuba divers. To get there, go to the North Shore and drive until you see the Foodland shopping center at Pupukea – Shark’s Cove is right across the street. I recommend Sharks Cove during spring, summer, and autumn…though it can get a little crowded during summer weekends.
During the winter months, Sharks Cove isn’t usually a great place to go – not because of sharks but because of something that has caused many more deaths…big surf. The North Shore gets anywhere from 10′ to 60′ waves in the winter and this can not only cause crushing death…but also create dangerous currents, riptides, and undertows…as such during the winter, I usually keep my snorkeling at either Hanauma Bay or the Waikiki Fish Preserve
A volcanic crater filled with coral reefs and fish…what’s not to like about that? Even though it is one of the best known tourist attractions in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay is still worth visiting. Bring your own gear or rent it before you go because if you choose to rent it at Hanauma Bay…it will cost you almost as much as if you were buying it new at Costco or Target. Closed on Tuesdays. Here are more details on Hanauma Bay
Waikiki Fish Preserve
I generally don’t like to give away my secret spots – but this one should be okay. If you go towards Diamond Head on Waikiki Beach and pass the statue of the surfer across from the Honolulu Zoo – you will walk along an area where there isn’t really a beach – just a walkway next to the water. You will reach the Waikiki Aquarium and the Natatorium, the crumbling WWI memorial and then Kaimana Beach. If you are in the water, that entire stretch is known as the Waikiki Fish Preserve and it is absolutely teeming with marine life. You can enter the water at Kaimana’s or at Queen’s Beach. There are no lifeguards here and you are on your own, so make sure you can swim and know how to use your equipment. Be sure not to harass the fish.
There are no shortage of amazing hikes on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. While the main tourist routes tend to be teeming with busloads of visitors – if you want to get a real sense of what Oahu is like – you have to get off your butt, leave the road, and get some excercise. The following five hikes will have plenty of visitors on them – but not nearly the same numbers as you’ll find at places like the Dole Plantation, Waikiki Beach, or your favorite commerical luau. I’ve listed these hikes from most busy to least busy – though the last two may flip from time to time.
Less than a mile from your Waikiki hotel room you will find yourself inside a volcanic crater. Diamond Head is almost always a bit of a crowded hike, but it’s worth it. Once inside you can wind your way up the trail, through the tunnels, and finally enjoy the absolutely epic views of Honolulu and the South Coast of Oahu. Don’t forget to bring water and make sure your camera batteries are fully charged before you go. The guy selling ‘I climbed Diamond Head’ shirts at the top was one of the first tourists I took up there back in 2001 – when we got up there he said ‘Someone should be selling shirts up here’ – later he took his own advice. The state has been unsuccessfully trying to shut him down ever since.
You won’t find nearly as many people at Makapu’u Point as you do at Diamond Head, but it’s still a pretty crowded hike because the state has paved the path and increased parking due to heavy demand. Why do people want to hike around this point? Easy – the views of the lighthouse, the contrast of the dry south coast and the wet windward side, and the epic views of Lanai, the Pineapple Island just twenty-two miles to the Southeast. There is no entry fee and this is an easy stroll.
Koko Head Stairs
The Koko Head Stairs are part of a city and county park complex. You shouldn’t attempt this one unless you are in at least decent physical condition. You are climbing a WWII era railway track that goes straight up the side of a volcano. Take plenty of water and make sure that you take breaks along the way. Unless you are a complete fitness master, you will get passed by marathoners, yoga masters, and other type-A athletic types all heading toward the amazing views of Hawaii Kai, Hanauma Bay, and Maui off in the distance.
There are three reasons you won’t find big crowds on the Kapena Falls hike. None of those reasons have anything to do with a lack of beauty or interest. Kapena Falls is a gorgeous rainforest waterfall with a trail that offers ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, tropical flowers, and a very close proximity to Honolulu. That last bit is why there aren’t crowds on the trails. Parking is in a cemetary and commercial vehicles are banned. Also because it is close to town and populated areas it isn’t uncommon to come across homeless encampments on the trail to Kapena Falls. You may find local kids swimming and leaping off the cliffs into the falls – but you will also find health department signs warning that the water may be polluted.
Koko Head Crater
Koko Head Crater should be a more crowded hike than it is. Essentially it’s a beautiful dryland botanical garden filled with flowers and interesting plants inside an extinct volcanic crater. There is no entrance fee and no parking fee. I’ve never figured out why the crowds don’t go to Koko Head Crater – but their loss is your gain. Bring water, wear good walking shoes, and take your time. You can learn a lot about Hawaii in this crater.
Maui is one of those places it would be easy to stay forever – ust rip up your return ticket and never look back. Maui is slightly larger than Oahu but still quite a bit smaller than the Big Island – which makes it the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands. It is a wonderland of outdoor activities, tourist stops, and has plenty of family friendly accomodations, events, and tours.
If you are looking for luxury, you don’t have to look far on Maui. Luxury resorts by Fairmont, Four Seasons, Hilton and other hoteliers abound in all the islands most desirable areas. Mid-range hotels fill up fast and budget options are extremely limited. Your best option is to book a vacation rental, but be warned, they fill up quickly and sometimes must be booked a year or more in advance – especially during the peak seasons – which generally coincide with the times kids are out of school (think Christmas, spring break, summer break, and Thanksgiving)
Road to Hana
Two pieces of advice regarding the Road to Hana. First, if you want to see it – hire a driver because it is a winding and twisty road and as the driver you need to keep your eyes on the road and will miss most of the beauty. Second, make sure to take the time to stop and hike away from the road in a few places. Not only does this keep you and the occumpants of your vehicle from getting car sick, but also you come across some amazing waterfalls, beaches, and tropical wonders just steps from the road that you will never see if you don’t stop and stretch your legs.
If you want to delve into the whaling history of Hawai’i, there is no place better to do that than magical Maui. Lahaina is one of the few places on the planet where you find a fusion of nautical, missionary, and Native Hawaiian cultures – along with plenty of tourism. The block sized Banyan tree, the whaling museum, and the adorable old time boardwalk all offer instagram worthy shots and hours of idle enjoyment.
See Turtles and Whales
While some might argue that the best place to see turtles and whales is on the Big Island of Hawaii, it’s a hard arguement to win when the Valley Isle enters the conversation. In addition to snorkeling cruises to Molokini and the absolutely epic diving that Maui offers – there are a great variety of whale watching, dolphin watching and turtle tours available. Whales in particular love the waters around Maui during the January to March months and it’s not uncommon to see both mothers and calves on a whale cruise.
Goats, Gardens and Fish
Surfing Goat Dairy is a real dairy farm where you can sample delicious gourmet cheeses and if you are traveling with children, they can feed goats and watch them get milked. It used to be that the kids could even try their hand at milking the goats, but health and safetly concerns have taken that option off the table.
Maui also offers a world class aquarium at the Maui Ocean Center Hawaiian Aqaurium. Exotic ocean animals, more than seventy exhibits and even a huge under tank tunnel where visitors can watch sharks swimming all around them!
On the island there are lots of opportunities to visit farms and ranches. One long time favorite is the nose and eye overwhelmimg Ali’i Kula Lavender farm, while the lavendar fields are the big attraction here, the farm also has other herb gardens, an small bakery and a gift shop. Don’t forget to try the lavendar scones!
Maui looks like a small island on a map but it’s not so tiny after all! Make sure that you bring reef safe sunscreen, swimming gear, and a huge sense of adventure. Don’t be surprised if you see famous movie stars, Buddhist monks, or world leaders walking around in flip flops!
Hidden just a bit off the beaten path from most visitors is the Manoa Neighborhood which houses such treasures as Manoa Falls, the Manoa Heritage Center, Lyon Arboretum, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The neighborhood itself has a small shopping center which hosts a weekly farmers market as well as a handful of restaurants, coffee shops, and businesses that serve local residents.
Manoa – which means ‘thickness’ in Hawaiian language – is a valley that sits about three miles east of the downtown historic district of Honolulu and about a mile inland from Waikiki. Like many Oahu neighborhoods, Manoa fills a valley and gets more rain than the beach areas and thus has more rainbows. On the back side of the valley is Manoa Falls and moving forward, it widens out until you reach the University of Hawaii at Manoa and then the Punahou School, the expensive private school (formerly the Missionary Children’s School) which President Obama attended.
Manoa Stream carves it’s way from the waterfall, past the cultural restorations of the Hawaiian Studies buildings of the University of Hawaii – which include some traditional wetland agriculture – kalo ponds, called lo’i in Hawaiian language – and then into the Manoa-Palolo drainage canal and onwards to the Ala Wai Canal. The Manoa Valley was an important agricultural area in ancient Hawaii and later housed the first western style plantations in Hawaii with both coffee and sugarcane being grown there from 1825 onward.
In 1907, the University of Hawaii at Manoa was established as the College of Hawaii. The school includes the John A Burns School of Medicine, the William S. Richardson School of Law, the Shidler Business College, and the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. It also houses the East-West Center, the Korean Studies Center, the Hawaiian Studies Center and the Japanese Tea Garden and Koi Pond. It has an enrollement of about 20,000 students and a beautiful campus of more than 320 acres. It is an NCAA school and part of the Big West Conference.
In the back of the Manoa Valley, the University of Hawaii administers the Lyon Arboretum, one of the most respected tropical botanical gardens in the United States. In addition, there are nice parks, a public swimming pool, and some hidden gem hikes for those willing to get off the beaten path and do a little research.
Hawaii is very different from anywhere else in the United States of America. This is not just true in the climate (60-90 F, year-round), the population demographics (only majority Asian state), or the location (not located in North America) – but also in terms of the religious beliefs and practices.
The ancient religion of the Hawaiians is mostly gone, though some practitioners practice something similar. The top religion in Hawaii wavers between Buddhism and Christianity depending on which data you look at. In the case where Christianity is defined as any religion that views Jesus as the son of God – it is a clear majority. Buddhism is defined as any religion that considers the teachings of the Buddha as the main source of inspiration. So, Christianity based religions will include Mormons, Jehovahs Witnesses, Protestants, Catholics, Quakers, and many other small sects. Buddhism will include Mahayana, Thereveda, Soka Gakkai, Zen, and secular Buddhist organizations.
Interestingly, on the most recent census data I was able to find where religion was a question – close to 60% claimed no religion – making ‘none of the above’ or ‘no answer’ or ‘no religion’ the dominant choice. So, when looking at the Buddhist/Christian majority, it is good to keep in mind that in general this is no more than 20% of each.
As a guide, the breakdown that I usually share is the following – among those who claim a religious faith (40% of the population) – roughly
10% Pagan, Indigenous, & Other (including B’ahai, Sihkism, Zoroastarianism
It’s important to note that the breakdown above does not include 60% of the population who claim no particular religious affiliation. So, when looking at the true breakdown:
60% No religious preference
22% Christian based religions
18% Non-Christian based religions
There is no other state or city in the USA which has demographics like that. When you come to Hawaii, you can visit Buddhist temples for morning chanting, have lunch in a Hindu temple, visit the Kauaihao Church (protestant), and then go to evening mass at the Saint Damien church and then head to Laie to go to the Mormon temple the next day.
Waikiki is an incredibly fun place, but one complaint that I’ve often heard is that it lacks ‘authenticity’. I don’t agree, because while it is indeed touristic, commericial, and manicured – Waikiki is perfectly authentic as a post 20th century urban & tropical mid-high-end tourist beach destination. There is no place more authentic than Waikiki in that regard!
But still, I understand what people mean. They want to see a place where people live, work, and actually invest their time in businesses – not a tourist destination where less than 10% of the people you see actually live, but a place where people hang out, work, live, and enjoy life.
Allow me to introduce Kaimuki, Waikiki’s hip and much more ‘authentic’ Honolulu neighbor. Situated between Kahala, the University district of Manoa, and Waikiki – Kaimuki has what you are looking for. Funky shops, great restaurants, a very walkable main street and plenty of hidden gems. Kaimuki is the Honolulu version of the Haight in San Francisco, Hawthorne in Portland, or (on a much smaller scale) New York City’s Brooklyn.
Back in the day, the neighborhood was the personal farm of King Kalakaua. He had a flock of ostriches that roamed over the green hills – so it’s no surprise that Kaimuki still has a flavor that is anything but boring. Kaimuki is a Hawaiian name and it means “Ti Root Oven” which refers to the ancient bakers who made a delicious candy from the roots of the native ti plant (the same plant used to make the hula skirts and rain cloaks of the day).
Kaimuki is the neighborhood on either side of Waialae Avenue from where it meets Kapahulu Ave to where it ends at the Kahala Mall. Kaimuki retains the ‘funkiness’ that Waikiki lost more than a decade ago when every retail space turned into a high end shop or restaurant.
Which is a little bit ironic because in the early 1900s – Kaimuki was THE high class neighborhood on Oahu, while Kahala was still mostly pig farms and Lanikai was still part of a cattle ranch. There’s not much left from those days except for the Crack Seed Store which opened about 1940. This is one of the best places to pick up all kinds of Hawaiian snacks (some of which aren’t covered in Li Hing Mui).
Wander the streets and you will find junk shops, surf shops(Surf Garage) , bakeries (Pipeline) shave ice, plate lunch places (Okata! Cheap and yum), thrift shops, boutiques (Superette), great little coffee (Coffee Talk) and breakfast joints (Kokohead Cafe), bars, hole in the wall restaurants (Kaimuki Chop Suey) , and even the old historic Queen Theatre which opened in the 1930s, closed in the 1980s as a theatre and became a music venue for a while before becoming a plumbing warehouse and then being abandoned. Locals hope that something will someday happen with the Queen, but so far, it is simply becoming a target for grafitti.
I love Oahu. Have no doubt about it – this island is one of my favorite places in the world – but, unfortunately, there have been some negative changes from the time I fell in love with Oahu during 2001-2008 and my current residency here from 2017 to the present. Rents have gone much higher making it only possible for subsidized military or wealthy one percenters to survive in anything but subsistancy, the cost of homeownership and rent has skyrocketed thanks to military subsidies and illegal vacation rentals, the numbers of homeless in every public place have gone up dramatically making it feel unsafe to go to parks or libraries, accessibility has decreased while crowds have increased, traffic and food prices have both gone up so much as to make life almost unsustainable, and meanwhile wages and employment opportunities have stagnated. I love Oahu but there are some massive issues that are ruining this place. Nowhere exemplifies that more than Chinatown.
I love Chinatown in Honolulu. I really do. The fresh produce in the mornings, the fun exotic food and bathing products from other countries like the Vietnamese instant 3-in-1 Coffee (that’s coffee, cream, and sugar all in one pouch) and the Japanese Ding Dong cracker snacks as well as the seemingly questionable meat market and the fish that range from still moving to probably on the edge of toxicity.
When I first moved to Hawai’i back in 2001, Chinatown was a place no one recommended you go to. Chinatown was still the haven of prostitution, drug users, and low rent housing above illegal gambling operations – I probably wouldn’t have been able to survive without my weekly trips to Chinatown – not for the reasons above but because it was also home to rice for next to nothing, $1 pineapples, and other cheap vegetables. I arrived here with $100 and was staying in a shared dorm room in Waikiki – I got a job painting and lived on Pineapple fried rice I cooked in the communal kitchen. While I waited for that first check – I had fifteen dollars to live on – lucky for me, I spent it in Chinatown and not in a grocery store. I bought rice, pineapple, cilantro, onions, coffee, and a couple of cans of Spam back before it was expensive. So, I love Chinatown.
Even as it began to change in the early 2000s, I still loved it. I had mixed feelings about the gentrification of Chinatown, but loved seeing things like First Friday Art Walk and The Arts at Mark’s Garage, Bar 35, and great blues acts showing up at hole in the wall Chinatown bars like Hanks or the Dragon Upstairs. My friends and I were frequent visitors to Little Village and our entire Burning Man group would meet in Chinatown bars for drinks and planning. Yes, the prices went up, but so did the quality of experience.
When I came back with my family in 2017, I led my wife and daughter to Chinatown. We parked in the Maunakea parking garage and got out of the car and were overwhelmed with the smell of urine. As we went into the stairwell leading to the surface streets, it was even worse. We had obviously picked a public urinal and not a staircase! The smell of urine stuck with us through the day. Chinatown had pushed out much of the gentrification but only in terms of it still being peed on a lot. Prices and the rents had gone up just like everywhere on Oahu. Totally unsustainable – and that was refelected when I saw the prices on things $850 for a buddha statue, $10 for a bag of rambutan, $6 for two bunches of parsley. The prices are no longer cheap – (although they can be a bit less if you look deeper, but I didn’t have time). My wife and daughter were wondering why I loved Chinatown so much – but I couldn’t really take them into Hanks to hear a throaty blues gal singing sultry songs and we weren’t hungry enough to venture to Little Village.
Chinatown wasn’t very fun so we drove up to Haleiwa where the lines for Matsumoto Shave Ice were simply too long to contemplate in the bee filled courtyard. So we drove onward to the Dole Plantation a place designed to deal with crowds and we had a delicious Dole Whip before heading home. We stopped at Costco on the way home and had to drive around the parking lot looking for a spot for almost a half hour. Once we got inside, it was astounding to see the sea of shoppers flowing in and out like the tides. There was a constant flow that was so thick it took us five minutes to get across so we could get into the store and do our shopping. There was a two hour wait for Costco whole cooked pizzas…which I’ve never run into before. So we got what we needed, waited in line and went home where there was no line but just outside in the street there were people waiting to find a coveted street parking space. Parking is a big big problem on Oahu.
One of the things that has changed most in Hawai’i since 2008 is a lot of favorite ‘local knowledge’ places have exploded with popularity. I suppose that’s a good thing in some cases – at least for the business owners. A good example is Nico’s Fish House at Pier 38. When I left it was a hole in the wall plate lunch place at an industrial pier – I was excited to take my wife there – when we got there, I thought maybe I’d come to the wrong place – I had to get on my phone and Google it. Nico’s changed from a counter with plate lunches to a huge (three times larger) dining establishment with those vibrating buzzer things to let you know when your order is ready. The prices had gone up of course, but not terribly but the quality of the food just wasn’t what it once was, how could it be? It was still good, but it wasn’t anyplace I would go out of my way for – it was just a better than average tourist joint.
I haven’t been to Jackass Ginger Falls since getting back, but the line of tourist’s hiking down Old Pali Road and the badly parked cars at every available space tells me that it’s probably a crowded hike and a crowded waterfall. So – I wasn’t surprised that the Kuhuku shrimp trucks had lines when we drove up to the North Shore the other day…but I was suprised by the size of the lines. I shouldn’t have been – I mean I’ve seen them on the Food Network, I see them regularly in social media posts, and I’ve seen them on the Travel Channel and in nearly every travel magazine with a story about Oahu. The lines were two hours long – hot sun, no shade, standing next to the highway – two hours. The wait once you ordered was between two hours at the longest and 45 minutes at the shortest. So, people were willing to spend four hours of their lives to get a plate of garlic shrimp from Romy’s Truck? Apparently so – but not me. We moved on and went to the Korean Shrimp Truck which was cheaper, faster, and not very good. I can’t recommend that move – nor can I recommend spending four hours of your Hawai’i time (or your lifetime) standing in line for a dozen shrimp.
It’s a theme I’ve returned to again and again – the lines on Oahu have grown to unbelievable sizes. There’s a good reason for that – the places where you get true value have grown few and far between. Also – the tourists all read the same books and see the same stories and read the same blogs and follow the same instagram accounts and hashtags – so they all go to the same places. And that, I’m pretty sure, is really good. There are places on this island where you don’t find crowds. There are still great hole in the wall restaurants, there are still great beaches where you won’t find a dozen umbrellas in the sand, there are still great local secrets. And this may be disappointing to you, but when I find them, I’m not going to tell. I’m sure that someone will, but it’s not going to be me. I’m going to share my adventures, I’ll continue sharing my instagram photos, and writing about the known and little-known and well-known treasures on this island of Oahu – but the un-known ones – I’m going to keep them unknown.
I love being back in Hawaii but I’m not wild about the uncontrolled growth of tourism here, the massive favoritism played with the military personnel in terms of housing, the out of control numbers of cars and lack of parking, or the draconian rules that nieghborhoods have felt compelled to put in place to protect themselves from aforementioned uncontrolled growth of tourism. And yet, it’s still one of the best places in the world.