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.
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.
The Sony Open is being played right now (and every January) at the Waialae Country Club in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kahala on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. It’s not just wealthy golfers who love Kahala – it’s known throughout the islands as the place where old mone, new money, and crooked money goes to retire. The neighborhood has one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the State of Hawaii with an entire street of high multi-million dollar properties and estates – and the fancy front gates to prove it.
Kahala sits on the back side of Diamond Head but before you reach Aina Haina and Hawaii Kai. It’s a flat neighborhood within a 20-minute drive of downtown even with traffic and to get to Waikiki never takes longer than 5-10 minutes. There is a mix of old money and new money with the old time Hawaiian families having been there for up to a century and the newcomers mostly since WWII building bigger and more ostentatious mansions. One of the best things about Kahala is that the State of Hawaii has denied the residents the ability to shut down the Kahala beaches because free public access to all beaches is written into the Hawaiian constitution. Frankly, it’s a nice beach but it doesn’t compare with Lanikai, another beach that the wealthy would love to lock the rest of us out of.
On the far end, just past the country club, is the Kahala Hotel and Resort (hint: free dolphin show) – which used to be the Kahala Mandarin but changes owners from time to time. Kahala is a favorite location for celebrities and business moguls to purchase vacation homes and given the multi-million pricetags on the homes – it’s been a flippers paradise. Homes in Kahala range from $2 million upwards to $20 million with the beach side of the road being where the upper range sits.
There are lots of rumors and stories about movie stars and rich tycoons having places in Kahala – but I haven’t seen a single one of them confirmed by a reputable source. There is however, a bizarre story involving Genshiro Kawamoto, the Japanese billionaire and rumoured gangster. From the 1980s to the 2010s he bought up to thirty properties in Kahala and moved gaudy and bizarre statues to them. When the neighbors complained about his lack of upkeep and ugly statues, he moved three homeless families into three of his mansions. When he was buying, he would roll up in his limo, have his driver knock on the door and offer a 5 day quick title for cash well over the market value. Then he started bulldozing mansions that were perfectly fine, filling in swimming pools with concrete, and essentially trying to drive market values down. He was finally forced to sell, but not before proving himself the worst neighbor ever.
The people who sold were happy, the homeless families were happy, but no one else was thrilled until he was gone. There are many bizarrely vacant mansions that went to ruin during his Kahala hobby time.
There are past stories of Kahala famous people – Time Magazine founder Henry Luce, David Geffen of Geffen Records, and a few other not so well known rich folks. Rich white people started moving to Kahala after World War II. Back in the real old days, however – it was only pigs and cattle that lived in Kahala. It was where Kamehameha the Great landed his invasion from Maui in 1795. Most of Kahala became his descendents property, ending with Bernice Pauahi Bishop who transferred it the Bishop Estate Trust when she died. The Bishop Estate still owns the majority of Kahala – though not the houses along the beach which were converted from lease-hold to free-hold in the late 1960s when the residents sued and forced the Bishop Estate to sell them them land their houses sit on.
One of the prettiest places in the Hawaiian Islands – and thus anywhere in the world – is Kaneohe Bay on the Windward Side of Oahu – oppossite Honolulu. I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t experience the best parts of it unless you are in the U.S. Military in Hawaii or have base access. One more piece of paradise seized by the U.S. after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy. The base itself houses about 12,000 Marines, their families, and contractors. In 1918 it was a U.S. Army Base, then a naval base, finally the home of the 2nd Marine Division. It was bombed nine minutes before Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. Today it is connected to Pearl Harbor by the H-3 Freeway.
What was once a scenic fishing village in a perfect sheltered bay is now a Marine Corps Base which covers an entire city sized peninsula and a town that mostly serves to take care of the servicemen and women who live there. The word kane means man and the word ohe means bamboo – so one might argue this is a ‘straw man’ – but the local story says that an ancient woman who lived there suffered from her husband’s cruelty and compared him to a sharp piece of bamboo.
There are about 40,000 non-military residents with no tourist infrastructure except for a hotel on the base. Also on the base are several beautiful beaches, one of the island’s best windward surf spots, and the ancient Mokapu volcano. Off the base you will find car dealerships, fast food, a pretty decent mall, a couple of golf courses, cemetaries, and a number of strip malls. There is an enjoyable miniature golf course, a small boat harbor, and a couple of mud or rock beaches which locals use for fishing.
In ancient times this was very productive farmland due to the sunlight, fertile soil, and heavy rainfall – today there are some banana patches in the area but not much more. To get an idea of how the Hawaiians saw this area it is essential to visit Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens where specific Hawaiian sections, walking trails and more show you a bit of Kaneohe as it was. Also a visit to He’eia Fishpond is recommended to see why the Hawaiians only had to work 4 hours a day and lived for a thousand years while importing nothing. (Hint, they effectively used the land to provide for themselves).
Starting in Chinatown and then heading towards Waikiki on King Street from Honolulu Will bring you through our financial district (just a couple of blocks, but we’re still proud of our clean and interesting downtown) and then you will suddenly find yourself with Iolani Palace on the left and the fictional Hawaii 5-0 Headquarters on the right. For the next two blocks, you have an intense amount of the history of Hawaii.
First on the left side you will have Iolani Palace, the palace built by King Kalakaua for the monarchs of Hawaii to live in. Oppossite that you have Ali’iolani Palace and the statue of King Kamehameha – popularly known as Hawaii 5-0 HQ – though in truth, Hawaii 5-0 is a fictional crime fighting unit.
Next on the left you come to the Hawaii State Library and the statue garden dedicated to Patsy Mink. Opposite this you have the Territorial Legislature Building.
You will pass an intersection and on the left you will see Honolulu City Hall (Honolulu Hale) – the government headquarters for the City and County of Honolulu – notable for it’s Moorish design and architecture. Directly across from Honolulu Hale – you will seethe Kawai’ihao Church – a magnificent building made of coral bricks and the first church in Hawai’i – the cemetary connected to it has the tomb of one of Hawaii’s King Lunaliho. Next to the Kawa’ihao Church are the Mission Houses – the homes of the first missionaries to come to Hawai’i and first western structures built in the Hawaiian Islands.
Oppossite the Mission Houses you will see a building that looks like it belongs on the campus of Harvard – this was a memorial building built to honor those first missionaries. Finally you will find the lovely Fasi Park where many Honolulu events and festivals are held and next to it the beautiful concrete monstrosity that is the Frank Fasi Federal Building – a stark Le Corbusier style concrete block building that looks like it could be a prison.
Finally, you will come to a lovely sculpture of a Hawaiian Fisherman cleaning his nets next to a full scale waterfall. Each of the architectural attractions is rich in history and can occupy Anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours.
One of the most delightful little villages on Oahu is the surfing town of Hale’iwa. When I say surfing town, I don’t mean the town itself surfs- that would be silly – but the town does revolve around surfing. Once a plantation village where workers lived and bought what they needed to go about their lives, this village transformed into something else entirely when big wave surfing arrived. Today it is filled with boutiques, galleries, great restaurants, shave ice shops like Matsumoto Shave Ice, and plenty of surf shops. In fact, it is the perfect place to spend the day strolling, shopping, eating, and hanging out with friends and family.
Hale’iwa still has much of the slow paced country village feel about it combined with a chilled out surfer vibe which sits on top of a mouth watering culinary destination and an innovative artisanal movement. Hale’iwa epitomizes the Hawaiian ‘country’ scene without being backward or pretentious.
The town sits between the villages of Pupukea to the East an Waialua to the West. Pupukea is little more than a grocery store, a fire station, and some food trucks (which happen to be sitting at the gateway to the world’s best surfing beaches and the amazing snorkeling at Shark’s Cove) and Waialua has died back to mainly farms,the North Shore Soap Factory and old sugar mill complex. Waialua Bay wraps around and comes into Hale’iwa and then turns into rocky shoreline before reaching world famous surfing at Waimea Bay and the sacred temples in Waimea Valley and atop the hills in Pupukea. The small boat harbor in Hale’iwa is where many shark cage dives, dives, and sailing adventures leave from. To the south of Hale’iwa you will find the Dole Plantation and the town of Wahiawa.
The present day location was the site of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village where it was a common destination for the Hawaiian Ali’i (Royalty) to escape the heat of Honolulu or ‘Ewa in the summer months. People have occupied the area for nearly a thousand years. Hale’iwa got it’s first western style building in 1832 but wasn’t founded as a town until 1898 when Benjamin Dillingham, a local businessman who contracted to have the Hawaiian railway built from the sugar and pineapple fields of the North Shore to the shipping port of Honolulu, saw the potential for tourism and built a hotel at the northern terminus. He named the hotel for the nest of the black frigate bird, called the ‘iwa bird in Hawaiian language. Hale is the Hawaiian word for house, so – House of the Frigate Bird.
The hotel is long gone and village residents fight tooth and nail whenever anyone tries to bring a new hotel into the area. The last thing anyone wants is for Hale’iwa to turn into another Waikiki. If you want to stay on the North Shore, you need to either book a room at the expensive Turtle Bay Resort on the Northeast corner of the island or find a vacation rental. There are no other hotel options.
South East of Honolulu are the neighborhoods of Aina Haina and Hawaii Kai. These are upscale neighborhoods that you reach when you pass by Diamond Head and the ritzy Kahala neighborhood and continue on to Koko Head and Hanauma Bay. As a guide I often pass through here, but rarely stop. There are some houses to note as you go by – the wedding cake shaped house on the hill belongs to Keanu Reeves – or at least it used to. As a child, Barack Obama and his mother lived in a non-descript house in Aina Haina. The house used as the family home of Steve McGarrett on Hawaii 5-0 is in Aina Haina too.
Other than that, these are simply suburbs i a very pretty setting. Aina Haina was named after Robert Hind, a local dairyman – it literally means Hind’s Land. Hind owned the Hind-Clarke Dairy which is long gone, but the name remains. There are several pretty beach parks here.
Hawaii Kai is a bit more interesting as it is the former site of a royal fishpond. Prominent local developer Henry Kaiser dredged the Kuapa Pond in 1959 and used the tailings to fill in much of what is there today and create the Koko Marina. Together with the Bishop Estate, Kaiser turned the area into a world class marina and developed the surrounding suburbs.
There are several attractions nearby including Koko Head Crater, Hanauma Bay, Koko Head Stairs, Hawaii Kai golf course, Sandy’s Beach and just around the south shore Makapu’u Point, Sea Life Park, and more.
While it’s probably not what it wants to be known for, the town of Waipahu’s most famous resident is probably Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked large amounts of classified information from U.S. intelligence agencies. Of course, there is much more to Waipahu than just Edward Snowden. Waipahu is a central Oahu town which used to be the heart of the sugarcane plantation industry.
A natural spring gives the town its name. Waipahu means ‘fresh water bursting upward. The spring was so important that Waipahu, now mostly forgotten or unknown by the many tourists who visit Oahu, was once the capital of the island and of the Oahu Kingdom which proceeded the unification of Hawaii by King Kamehameha.
Waipahu became important to sugar in 1897 when the Oahu Sugar Company formed there. Workers from Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Norway and the Phillipines kept the mill going and the sugar growing. The history of the plantation and the plantation workers can be experienced and learned about at Hawaii’s Plantation Village – an often missed attraction located in Waipahu. It was established in 1973 and is a living history museum focused on that time and place.
Waipahu has about 40,000 residents today and includes several suburbs including Waikele where many visitors to Hawaii go to visit the outlet malls. Other suburbs are Waipio, Village Park, and Royal Kunia. The majority ethnic group in Wapahu is Filipino followed by Japanese and Chinese. Pacific Islander’s make up about 12% of the population, Caucasion and African-Americans maku up only about 5% of Waipahu’s population when combined. Waipahu has a growing Hispanic population at about 6%.
Waipahu has a notable Little League Baseball team which won the Little League World Series back in 2008.
Lanikai Beach gets all the glory, but if you ask me, the most beautiful beach in the world is just down the road in the town of Waimanalo. Waimanalo is a little cowboy town on the windward side of Oahu. Less than five thousand people, a large number of them Native Hawaiian. The name Waimanalo means ‘good drinking water’.
If you go across the Pali Lookout and into the town of Kailua but then head south, you will come to Waimanalo. If you are coming from the south side of Oahu you will go past Sea Life Park and then Waimanalo will be the next town you come to. Waimanalo is the longest stretch of sandy beach on Oahu and it would connect to Lanikai if it weren’t broken up by Bellows Air Force Station.
Waimanalo is famous for the cowboys (paniolo) and for Akebono (aka Chad Rowan). Akebono was the first non-Japanese to ever achieve the title of yakuzuna, which translates as Grand Master in the Sumo wrestling world. On the south end is the remains of the Anderson Estate which was used in the original Magnum P.I. series. Waimanalo was also where the first prisoner of war taken by U.S. forces was captured during World War II (after the attack on Pearl Harbor).
Waimanalo is a laid back and good natured place. Don’t be shocked to see a lot of homeless camping in certain areas – Waimanalo is one of the few majority Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander areas on Oahu and they are among the hardest hit with being priced out of paradise. Where do you go when you can’t afford to live on the island in the middle of the Pacific where your ancestors lived for thousands of years? Well, you go to Waimanalo or Waianae and you do what you can to survive. It’s a raw deal. The aloha spirit is alive and well in Waimanalo – but I’m sure that plenty of residents wish that the world had never come knocking on Hawaii’s door – or that they could have kept the door closed. In any event, it’s too late now.
Honolulu, Hawaii on Oahu is my home. It’s the capital of the Hawaiian Islands and the State of Hawaii. It’s the largest city in Hawaii and the second largest city in Polynesia (Auckland is first). It is the most isolated city in the world and has a population of about 400,000 with close to 1 million in the consolidated metro area. Honolulu exists not just as a city but also as a county government – so our mayor is also our county executive. It’s a crazy and down to earth place that is completely different from anyplace else on Planet Earth.
Honolulu has a huge US military presence and hosts millions of tourists each year. It’s a major hub for fligths from Asia, Oceania, and North America with Honolulu International Airport serving as a sort of gateway where East meets West. The city sits on the southern coast of Oahu but actually the boundaries of the City and County of Honolulu extend northwest for nearly 2500 miles and include the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and Midway Atoll.
When I moved here in 2001, I had come from a neighborhood/town called Fairhaven in Bellingham, Washington and I was surprised to learn that Honolulu actually translated as Fair Harbor or Fair Haven – which was pretty cool. The name fits. Honolulu is the safest city in the USA with lowest violent crime rate of any American place of comparable size – if you watch Hawaii 5-0 or Dog the Bounty Hunter, that might be hard to believe – but it’s the truth, not TV fiction. Honolulu is consistantly ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world with a perfect climate and peaceful, educated population. The downside is that it’s damn expensive to live here with the median price of a single family home in the million dollar range and rent ranging from $2,000 to $5000 per month. It is the second most expensive urban rental market in the USA.We have more homeless per capita than anywhere in the USA.
The city is made up of a number of neighborhoods including Waikiki, Chinatown, Downtown, Kaka’ako, Ala Moana, Manoa, Kahala, Kaimuki, Kalihi, Salt Lake (Aliamanu or Moanalua), East Honolulu, and Moiliili. In addition, the city and county administers Kailua, Kaneohe, Waialua, Hale’iwa, Waimanalo, Makaha, Waianae and every other place on this island.
The archaeological evidence shows that Honolulu has been occupied for over a thousand years. King Kamehameha made it his capital after conquering Oahu at the battle of the Nu’uanu Pali in 1809. The first European to come to Honolulu was Captain William Brown – an Englishman who came in 1794. Many more followed. Honolulu became a main stopover for ships between Asia and North America.
Honolulu is the only American City that was once the capital of an independent kingdom and as such it is the only one that has a palace that was home to ruling royalty. Iolani Palace sits in the downtown historic district. There are tens of thousands of hotel rooms and vacation rentals in Honolulu which cater to the tourism industry – the economic lifeblood of modern Hawaii.
Visitors are often struck by how clean Honolulu is – which is a point of pride for residents. People who live here are called locals – although some have tried to make the term ‘Honoluluan’ stick since it doesn’t have the same racial overtone of local (generally locals are brown and haoles are white).
The tallest building presently is the First Hawaiian Center at 438 feet. There are numerous museums, attractions, monuments, and points of interest in Honolulu. Among them are Chinatown, the statue of King Kamehameha, Iolani Palace, the Bishop Musuem, the Honolulu Academy of Arts (Honolulu Art Museum), Hawaii State Art Museum, the murals of Kaka’ako, Waikiki, the Punchbowl memorial, Ala Moana shopping center, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Aloha Tower, Diamond Head, a variety of botanical gardens, beautiful beaches, and much more.
The weather here can only be described as perfect staying mostly in the 70s and 80s (24-35 celsius). It rains every day and is sunny every day so the weather men have it easy. Partly cloudy with a chance of rain…every day. Which means rainbows daily. Lots and lots of rainbows. The water is usually the perfect temperature for a swim.
The population here is roughly spilt with slightly higher female to male ratio. Ethnicty is roughly 55% Asian, 20% Causcasion, 8% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders , 11% mixed race, and the remaining 6% made up of African American, Latino, and other ethnicity. Median age is about 40 years old. The Asian population is broken down into 40% Japanese, 26% Flipino, 20% Chinese, 8% Korean, 4% Vietnamese, 2% being Indian, Thai, Cambodian, and Indonesian. Native Hawaiians make up only about 3% of the total population.
Honolulu ranks highly as one of the most fit cities in the USA. Each year there is the Honolulu Marathon and the Great Aloha Run as well as the Honolulu Triathalon. While we don’t have any professional sports teams here, we are big supporters of the University of Hawaii football, basketball, and volleyball programs as well as high school sports. Honolulu’s Little League team has won the world championship three times…most recently in 2018.
Honolulu has consulates for Japan, South Korea, the Phillipines, Micronesia, Australia, and the Marshall Islands. There are also numerous church and religions headquarters located here.
On a not so positive note, Honolulu often ranks with the worst traffic in the United States. A somewhat controversial rail system is being built to help with the problem but has run into numerous budget and time issues. It remains to be seen if if will help at all. Our bus system is frequently lauded as being very good, but in recent years has degraded and become unpleasant and too expensive for the slow speed of delivery. Lyft and Uber are readily available as well as bike-share and soon scooter share programs. Parking is a big issue in Honolulu and if you have a car but don’t have designated parking expect to spend a significant portion of your time waiting for a parking space at shops and in neighborhoods.
We have three interstates – which is funny if you think about it, but they are there to connect the major bases of Schofield Barracks (Army), Pearl Harbor (Navy), and Marine Corps Base Hawaii (Marines) as well as Hickam and Wheeler Fields (Air Force). The military are those most able to afford living on Oahu with plenty of subsidized housing, tax free and discounted shopping in the commisary and Navy Exchange shops, and discounts for nearly everything. It’s also nice for those military coming here that they are able to have their household goods and vehicles shipped here via tax dollars which living in base housing and shopping on base, they pay less of.
On the whole – Honolulu is a great place to live – if you can afford it. Most people can’t and for those who live here, that means working two, three, or more jobs. It’s a great place to visit, but unless you or being susidized by the US government or are independently wealthy – don’t try to live here.
There are songs and dreams of Waikiki. All over the world there are cafes, restaurants, streets, and shops named for this little slice of paradise on the southern end of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Waikiki is properly written Waikīkī if you use the script that German missionaries created for the Hawaiian people – but mostly it’s really a word and a name you should say. The Hawaiians went for more than a thousand years without a written language and to be honest, written language seems to have brought more problems than solutions – so I don’t get too uptight about the punctuation – but some people do.
Waikiki might be the most famous tropical beach in the world. It is not the only beach in the Waikiki neighborhood though. There are actually seven of them. Queens, Kuhio, Kaimana, Gray’s, Fort DeRussy, and Duke’s (also known as Kahanumoku Beach and named for Duke Kahanamoku .) The name Waikiki means spouting fresh water and while it’s hard to believe today, it was once a swamp – but one without mosquitos (introduced by ship about 1840), snakes, gators, or other unpleasantness. Instead it was a paradise. The beach portion was pretty minor back then…and actually, the beach is almost entirely man made with sand brought from a variety of locations to make it.
The Ala Wai Canal on the ‘back side’ of Waikiki, was built to ‘drain the swamp’ and the emptied wetlands were filled with the dredgings. Prior to that, this was a retreat for Hawaiian Royalty – the literal Kings and Queens of Surf would lounge about in little more than their birthday suits among wetland agriculture, swimming ponds, and some small beaches . In the 1800s there were a couple of guest houses but the first ‘resort’ was at Sans Souci beach (now Kaimana). Many more would follow. And of course the resorts wanted beaches so they built them with sand from the North Shore, California, Maui, Fiji, Australia…an astounding number of places – but the truth is, Mother Nature doesn’t want a beach in Waikiki and she erodes the sand away constantly. If the beach were not ‘replenished’ or ‘nourished’ or more accurately restocked with foreign sand – it would not exist. The sand which washed out has also impacted the reef and changed the surf breaks.
Seawalls, piers, pillows, groins, and sand bags have all done their part to try to protect the commercialy important beach, but you can’t stop Mother Ocean. Still with scores of hotels that charge $500 per night for rooms – there is plenty of money to spend keeping the tide at bay. The first big hotels were the Moana Surf Rider and the Royal Hawaiian – built by the Matson Shipping company but the age of jet travel brought a lot more tourists and the cabanas at Halekulani were upgraded to Hawaii’s poshest hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village was born, and others have kept growing to match the ever increasing number of tourists who fulfill their dreams by coming here. You would think the resorts would pay for all of the beach ‘nourishment’ but actually, that falls on the people who live and work here for the low wages tourism offers. Tax dollars foot the bill and corporate dollars buy the politicians that distribute it.
Still, no one blames the tourists, the hotels, or the government because quite frankly, the beach is nice and even if most locals don’t get to enjoy the beach as much as they would like – we all get down there from time to time. There are surf competitions, a nightly free hula show, the lighting of the torches, and every high end shop or restaurant you can imagine all competing for those coveted tourist vacation dollars.
Waikiki is essentially the neighborhood from the Ala Wai Canal to the beach to the Diamond Head Lighthouse including Kapiolani Park, bequethed by and named for Queen Kapiolani, the wife of King Kalakaua (see statue of her above). The main roads in Waikiki are Kalakaua Avenue (named for King Kalakaua), Kuhio Avenue, and Ala Wai running parallel with the beach along with Kapahulu running inland (which will lead you to Leonard’s Bakery). There are also a large number of smaller cross roads. Kalakaua is the main drag for high end shopping. Kapahulu takes you out of Waikiki and to some great restaurants. Ala Wai takes you back to Ala Moana – and Kuhio is a little bit of a red light district – though not as bad as it used to be.
Waikiki is primarily a place known for surfing with a wide variety of breaks and waves. The statue of Duke Kahanamoku draws admirers and each year there are numerous competitions held there. If you want to learn how to surf, it is possibly the best place in the world to do so. Other attractions here are the Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Aquarium, and the International Marketplace .It is also where most people start and finish their Hawaii vacations…which is a bit of a shame – because with a great guide, it’s easy to realize that Waikiki is just another manufactured tourist destination next to the beach – but Honolulu, Oahu, the Big Island, Kauai, Maui, Lanai, and Molokai are where you will actually discover Hawaii. I’m not saying that Waikiki isn’t great, because it is great, but it’s not the best that Hawaii has to offer – though it is the best place to start and finish your trip here.
I lived in Lanikai once. It’s a bit of a heavenly dream combined with a heavy sadness.
Lanikai is consistently ranked among the top beaches in the world. It’s the only beach in the USA that makes those lists. It’s powdery white sand, the view of the Mokulua Islands, the calm and protected waters sitting like a piece of blue sik encrusted with turquoise jewels. Lanikai is a bit of heaven. The name means Heavenly Sea – but rather than having been named by Hawaiians, this beach was named by savvy haole developer Charles Frazier when he bought the land from Harold Castle and created the Lanikai Subdivision in 1924.
The beach itself is a relatively small strip of sand in a pocket of Kailua town on the windward side of Oahu – while it used to be more than a mile long, erosion and climate change have reduced it to just 1/2 mile of heaven and social media and internet coverage have made it one of the most crowded beaches on Oahu during weekends and holidays – despite efforts by residents and the City and County of Honolulu to discourage people from going there. Those efforts include draconian parking restrictions, fines of $200 and more for illegal parking, and no restrooms, showers, or lifeguards.
Living in Lanikai more than a decade ago was amazing. I’d walk to the beach in the morning or sometimes climb to the famous Lanikai Pillbox before my morning swim. Then home for a shower. Today, the crowds, the parking, the uptight neighbors venting their frustrations at the crowds and the parking – I wouldn’t live there today – even if I coudl afford the $4000/month rent or had the ability to buy one of the median average of nearly $2 million dollar houses in the neighborhood.
The people who live in Lanikai would like nothing better than to make Lanikai a private, residents only, beach. Who can blame them? But Hawaii state law guarantees that all beaches in Hawaii are public access (with a few military exceptions) – so instead they have passed laws that prohibit commercial vehicles or tour companies from dropping off visitors in Lanikai or even stopping on the street for visitors to take pictures of the residence where Barack Obama frequently stays on his vacations to Oahu.
Obama’s stays in Lanikai were at about the same time that Japanese guide books started listing Lanikai as one of the must-see places to visit in the Hawaiian Islands. It wasn’t long before big tour buses began dropping of literal busloads of tourists in the neighborhood. Prior to this, small tour companies and private guides used to bring small groups to Lanikai – companies like Oahu Nature Tours which I used to work for. The small tour groups didn’t bother anyone very much – but the buses and the Obama seeking tourists – it lit a fire under the neighborhood association and since Lanikai is more than a little bit affluent, it wasn’t long before all commercial activity in Lanikai was banned. Not long after, all public parking during holidays and long weekends was banned.
Today, if you want to visit Lanikai – your best bet is to park at Kailua Beach Park and then walk up the hill to the Lanikai Marker (no, it’s not the entrance to the Penis Park) where you get great views of the Mokulua Islands (the Mokes) and Flat Island on the Kailua Beach side. You can also take ‘Da Bus’ into Lanikai from either Honolulu or Kailua.