Hike Oahu’s Diamond Head Volcano then Surf Diamond Head Break in Hawaii

As a guide, one of the top requests I get is to ‘see Diamond Head’ – which is funny, because often when I get the request – it’s in Waikiki where Diamond Head is most visible!  Diamond Head is just one of those monuments that people have heard of but don’t really know what it is – sometimes they know it’s a volcano, sometimes they know it’s a hike, sometime’s they know it’s a surf break – but Diamond Head is that and more. It’s also a neigborhood, a road, a direction, a crater, a park, a National Guard base, a historic military lookout, a lighthouse – and quite frankly – an experience and feeling – a sense of actually being in Waikiki.

Geologically speaking, Diamond Head is a tuff cone volcano that last erupted about 400,000 years ago. The Hawaiians called it Le’ahi which means ‘forehead of the tuna’ and from Waikiki – that’s exactly what it looks like. Western sailors gave it the current name because it was a visible landmark from sea – also known as a ‘head’. The shape of the top is roughly diamond shape which makes sense to me but there are other stories about sailors finding calcite crystals they thought were diamonds and even about the way the light refracted off of it at sunset.  At it’s tallest point, it is 762 feet tall (232 m). Diamond Head was the last gasp of the Oahu volcanos and took place millions of years after the main island-forming eruptions of the Ko’olau and Waianae Volcanos. The Pali Lookout sits at the top of the Ko’olau Volcano rim – sometimes people get the lookouts confused.

In modern times, the crater and nearby areas outside the crater were part of the U.S. Army’s Fort Ruger. Today there is still a National Guard Unit and Hawaii Civil Defense inside the crater. It was used as a lookout point for the U.S. Military in Hawaii during both world wars and the pillboxes at the top of the popular interior hike are the remnants of those bygone days.

Diamond Head is a U.S. National Monument and Natural Landmark – so it is protected. In the 1960s and 70s there were huge Woodstock style concerts in the crater with the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and more.  I would have loved seeing the Grateful Dead in there.

Today, most people who come to Diamond Head want to do the hike. It is less than a mile each direction but with some serious elevation gain (about 560 feet). Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen,  and take breaks if you need to. The trail was built in 1908 by the U.S. Army. In ancient times, there was a Heiau (temple) dedicated to the God of Winds up near where tourists take in the view today. You’ll see why – so hold onto your hat! Admission is $5 per car if driving or $1 per person if walking. It is open every day of the year from 6am to 6pm with last entrance at 4:30 pm daily.

Parking is cheap but you may have to wait for a few minutes. To get there just drive up Diamond Head Road to Kapiolani Community College and turn right at the sign, drive through the tunnel into the crater, and pay for parking at the gate.

After you take the hike, drive back out through the tunnel and continue on around Diamond Head’s exterior. You will find several pullouts where you can take in the view of the surf on one side and the exterior of the Volcano on the other. Between the lookouts and the Diamond Head Lighthouse which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard – you will see a trail that leads down to the surf break. Diamond Head is one of the most consistant and popular surf breaks on the island of Oahu. You will have to hike your board down (and back up) but it will be worth it. If you just want to watch the surfers, the lookout with the Amelia Earhardt memorial is the best spot.

Further down the road, you will enter the Diamond Head neighborhood, one of Oahu’s most exclusive and expensive places to live. Just a bit further and you will be back in Waikiki at Kapiolani Community Park. Don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the beauty and grace of Diamond Head as you enjoy Waikiki.

Kailua on Oahu – The Hawaii Town I Dream of Living In

From the moment I first saw it, way back in 2001, I knew that I wanted to live in Kailua. Who wouldn’t want to live there? Gentle trade winds, sandy beaches, lush picturesque mountains behind, and a laid back beach town atmosphere that seemed to have come right out of the movies. The first time I saw it, I wasn’t a tourist, I was breaking up a concrete driveway for my then boss with a pick and shovel for $10 an hour.

After nearly killing myself to get the job done, my boss suggested that I walk down to the beach and take a swim – her house was just a few blocks away from Kailua Beach Park. I walked down there – saw the picture perfect islands beyond the picture perfect sand beyond the picture perfect grass rimmed with picture perfect palm trees and then I got in the water and it was love love love.

Two years later when I moved back to Oahu from Kauai and decided to stay on Oahu, I rented a storage unit and mailbox in Kailua – my first step towards living there. It took a year of living in my van but finally, I found a good job and an apartment in Kailua – a large studio for the then princely sum of $750/month.  It was three blocks from the beach.

 I dream of my daughter riding her bike in Kailua, I dream of living close to my old studio there, but the cheapest small studio I could find was now in the range of $2000/month and there was no way that I could afford it. The prices in Hawai’i have more than doubled in the last 10 years – for housiing and for everything else- and there is no way to live in Kailua, at least not for now, not as an Oahu Tour Guide  – which is pretty sad, actually.

What changed in Kailua (and Hawai’i for that matter)? I can see several things. First of all, President Obama really put Kailua on the map when he took his family vacations there…next was the extreme concentration of wealth after the great recession- the rich have consolidated their holdings and Kailua is the perfect place for a rich person’s vacation home – finally, and perhaps most importantly – AirBnB and similar peer-to-peer vacation rentals have made renting an apartment or house for the night more profitable than renting it for a year – landlords have converted almost wholesale to hoteliers with managed housekeeping and outsourced concierge.

Kailua is a place where you can live if you lived there before all of this or if you have extreme wealth – but other than that – there aren’t a lot of good jobs there, the commute to jobs in town is longer than necessary, and frankly, the landlord class has determined that temporary residents increase their wealth more than long term. All of this, of course, has driven the real estate prices sky high – not just in Kailua but on Oahu as a whole. Median price for a single family home is in excesss of $1 million and median price for an apartment is over $800k – which means there is a lot of competition to buy the very shitty properties that clock in under those numbers….I don’t have the data on who the owners of real estate are in Hawai’i, but when you take out the military (which owns a huge amount) and organizations like Kamehameha Schools, Bishop Estate, and Campbell Estate – what you are left with is ultra-rich absentee landlords – and they have  priced nearly everyone out of paradise – not just out of Kailua, but out of Hawai’i in general.

We manage to survive on my tour guide wages – but it’s not easy. I sell at the Aloha Swapmeet, sell at the antique shows, cruise garage sales and thriftshops in my off time, and sell on eBay too. I’m always doing something to raise money to pay our bills – and it’s worth it even if we can’t afford to live in Kailua -yet. But my heart still lives there. I go there every chance I can. I still get my mail there with a rented post box. So, my address is in Kailua even if my apartment isn’t. Using my post box, my business is actually based in Kailua as well. I don’t plan on changing that – but I do plan on changing my income at some point and moving my family to Kailua. It will happen.

Aliamanu in Moaunalua – Salt Lake, Honolulu – America’s Densest Asian Neighborhood

I’ve lived in a couple of neighborhoods and towns on Oahu. Waikiki, Kailua, Lanikai, Punchbowl, Punalu’u, Manoa, and since 2017, the Salt Lake neighborhood.

I never thought I would live in Salt Lake – not Salt Lake City, Utah nor Salt Lake – the neighborhood in West Honolulu in which I currently reside. It’s not because of problems in either place – I had a great time in Salt Lake City and made some great friends there – and honestly, I never really thought about Salt Lake in Honolulu much at all – I just drove by it if I was going to the H3 or coming back to town from a North Shore trip. Salt Lake was firmly in my mind as a place intimately connected with ‘the bases’ meaning Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hickam Air Force Base, Fort Shafter Army base, and Camp Smith – a US Marine Corps installation which holds the headquarters of the United States Pacific Command. In addition to those – there is Red Hill – the strategic fuel reserves located deep underground which the Japanese forgot to bomb when they hit Pearl Harbor (it probably cost them the war because if they had hit it, the US fleet would have been paralyzed for much longer).

Up on the hill is the Tripler Army Hospital, home of the VA in Hawaii and nearby are the cities of Aiea (the only town in the US with no consonants) and Pearl City – both of which I always intimately associated with the bases. In my mind – those cities and the Salt Lake and Red Hill neighborhoods were most likely filled with military families, base housing, families who worked on base, and the kind of low rent businesses I used to see around Marine bases – discount furniture, tattoo shops, strip bars, and car lots.  Certainly, there is an element of all of that in the surrounding areas – but in truth – Salt Lake is far different than I expected even if it is surrounded on all sides by military bases, military housing, and freeway interchanges. And we have no shortage of rainbows.

First of all, let me point out that there is nothing touristic about this neighborhood. It sits between the airport on the ocean side and the beautiful pink buildings of Tripler on the mountain side. There is Pearl Harbor to the West and Makiki to the East. I include the Moanalua neighborhood as a part of Salt Lake since the two are intimately connected with Moanalua High School. Salt Lake  is a densely packed high rise neighborhood with golf courses on either side of it –  the Navy Marine Course and the other the Honolulu Country Club. There is one little shopping center with a half dozen unremarkable restaraunts, a McDonalds, a small Safeway, and a Longs drugs. That’s it. A couple of schools and lots and lots and lots of apartments in high rise buildings.

The nearby hill, called  Alia’manu by the Hawaiians (salt crusted bird) and Aliapa’akai (Crusted Salt Lake) was said to have been created by Pele on her first circuit of the islands as she looked for a home. It was a salt crusted pond where prized salt was harvested and traded throughout the Hawaiian Islands – the red dirt and salt were said to have been dropped by her as she rested and her bottom created the lake. The salt was valued so highly by the Chinese for making incense that the lake itself was completely depleted by 1900s and ceased to be even a pond.  Before that time, the shores and bottom of the lake were covered with crystal blocks of salt – it was considered the chief wonder of Oahu and several early visitors even described it as the most remarkable site in the islands. All that is left today is a pond on the golf course of the Honolulu Country Club – not salty at all and no blocks of crystal. A comprehensive history can be found on Peter T. Young’s blog.

Salt Lake had a reputation for high crime in the 1990s and 2000s – a reputation which appears to have been largely wiped away. According to several demographic samplings online – Salt Lake is the most densely packed Asian neighborhood in the entire United States – a fact that I can’t confirm but which my wife assures me must be true. She points out that I’m virtually the only white person she sees here, something I don’t really notice not being able to see myself – actually, I think I tend to think of myself as a brown person and it is usually a bit of a shock to see myself in the mirror or in photos – so perhaps she is right. To be fair though, I do sometimes see white people here when I’m not looking in the mirror, but not very often.

The population here is mostly Japanese with a strong mix of Chinese and Filipino and a sprinkling of Hawaiians, Koreans, African Americans, and haoles like me. People are friendly but keep a respectful distance – there are no welcome wagons of neighbors knocking on your doors when you move in.

To sum up, I like Salt Lake. It’s central to everything and feels safe and comfortable. I like that there is no touristic reason for people to visit. The weather is nice but can get a bit hot at times. There are a couple of nice parks, decent schools (by Hawaiian standards) and we even get an annual homecoming parade from Moanalua High School. The neighborhood is split between the houses and the high rises and it is circled by busy highways and surrounded by base housing and military bases. My one big complaint is that there is no safe way to ride my bicycle to and from our neighborhood without crossing busy highways that lack bike lanes. Actually, I do have another complaint – it would be nice if we had a farmer’s market here but the Aloha Stadium Swapmeet is not far and usually has a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

Kakaako Graffiti – Honolulu Hawaii’s Gritty Urban Chic Neighborhood

Kaka’ako is one of the fastest growing and most vibrant neighborhoods in Hawai’i. This formerly neglected area between the financial district and Ala Moana consisted mostly of industrial and low rent business for most of the 20th century. In the past ten years it has been transformed with seven luxury condo towers going up in the last five years and reports that up to FIFTY more will be going upn over the next decade. What you see today, probably won’t be there in a few years – which is a shame, because it’s beautiful.
Long ago, before white people came to Hawai’i – the area called Kaka’ako which now sits between Honolulu Harbor, Downtown Honolulu, and Ala Moana Shopping Center was a place where Hawaiian royalty lived – it was a rich agricultural landscape of terrace agriculture. There were fishponds, homes, and burial sites. Even Kamehameha the Great kept a home in Kaka’ako.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, Kaka’ako was a place where families lived and where indsutrial businesses existed. The neighborhood fell on hard times in the 1900s – lots of fight clubs and gyms moved into the warehouses and it gained a reputation as a rough place. Then, because of politics in the 1970s it became even further degraded while all around it development thrived. Kaka’ako became an industrial neighborhood of warehouses and mechanic shops. The city even built a huge landfill near the waterfront – in other words Kaka’ako was a dump.

In the 1990s and 2000s that started to change…

The City and County of Honolulu poured a huge amount of money into developing the Kaka’ako Waterfront into three distinct beach parks over the top of the landfill. The result was a 35 acre greenspace that quickly became beloved by residents for family outings, barbecues, and even beach goers due to the proximity of the Point Panic surf break – to be clear, there is no sandy beach at Kaka’ako. Next artists and those looking for cheaper rent began to move into Kaka’ako. Some surprisingly awesome restaurants opened in dark alleyways next to auto body shops. Finally, Kamehameha Schools in concert with Castle and Cooke began to do some serious redevelopment in the early 2000s. The formation of Our Kaka’ako and SALT has brought new life into Kaka’ako centered around art, culture, and community…a big part of that has been the mural projects in the neighborhood.

Today, no trip to Honolulu, Hawaii is complete without a drive through Kaka’ako to admire the many murals there. Below are just a few of them…there are many more…If you’d like to explore Kaka’ako and the cool neighborhood it is growing into – just get in touch. I’d love to show it to you.  In the meantime, here’s a little sampling:

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