One of the most visually striking tourist attractions on the Windward side of Oahu, is the Byodo-in Temple. While it looks like it has been peacefully sitting there for a thousand years, the temple is actually just fifty years old. Built in 1968, it was commissioned and designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Japanese residents to Hawai’i.
Part of the reason the temple looks 1000 years old is that it is a half-scale replica of one of Japan’s most famous temples, the 900 year old Uji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture. So, your eyes and sense of time are not deceiving you. The temple is a non-denominational Buddhist temple and houses a golden Buddha nearly twenty feet tall.
At the entrance of the temple is a large brass bell (fun fact #1 , I close all of my Vagobond podcasts with a gong sound that is actually this bell ringing). Ringing the bell is a way to clear bad karma and quell negative energies. The beautiful manicured grounds, tranquil koi ponds, and the staggering beauty of the inner wall of the ancient Ko’olau volcano in the background all come together with the 11,000 square foot temple to create a powerful monument.
Byodo-in is not a working monastery (though it often plays one on television). It is a non-denominational Buddhist temple. The entrance fee has risen over the years but is still a very reasonable $5 per adult as of 2019.
Fun fact #2: Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was entombed at Byodo-in until 2016 when his body was moved back to the Philippines where it is currently buried (and strangely to my mind) refrigerated.
There are many reasons to love Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. Watch here as he breaks his own Olympic swimming record in Antwerp, Belgium. Or maybe you’ve seen him in one of his starring Hollywood roles back in the 1930s. Maybe you’ve eaten at Duke’s restaurant, or surfed at Duke’s beach? Maybe you know that he was the Sheriff of Waikiki or that he was the guy who gave surfing to the world!
Or maybe you don’t know all that.
Surfing: The Ancient Sport of Hawaiian Kings
Ancient Hawaiians perfected board riding. Tahitians did it in a way, but the Hawaiian people, who descended and became very distinct from the Tahitian people changed it. They made longer boards, they developed style and technique, and they made it the exclusive sport of the ali’i. The high ranking or royal people of ancient Hawaii. For nearly a thousand years, this amazing sport belonged to the Hawaiian people alone. When Captain Cook came to Hawai’i in 1793, he and his men witnessed it and wrote about it. When missionaries came and gained too much control in the next century – they tried to ban surfing all together – but with no success. The main reason seems to have been that they were scandalized by nude Hawaiian surfers (they also created mumus to cover the Hawaiian women). In the 1870s, King Kalakaua made a determined effort to bring back surfing, hula, and other Hawaiian traditions that the uptight missionaries had tried to ban.
Surfing Gets Some Fans – Duke Goes Olympic
In the early 1900s, a few visitors would try their hand at board riding. It’s said that both Mark Twain and Jack London gave it a try. It’s also probable that King Kalakaua got Robert Louis Stevenson to give it a try a bit earlier. In the early territorial days, the visitors who came to Waikiki would mostly watch the locals ride the waves. One of the best surfers at this time was also one of the best swimmers – Duke Kahanamoku. His full name was Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, and Duke wasn’t a title. Duke surfed Waikiki on a 16 foot board that weighed 114 pounds. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swim team in 1912 and proceeded to break nearly every world record for events he competed in. There was only one swimmer who ever beat him – Tarzan – the actor Johnny Weismuller.
Duke Gives Surfing to the World
From this time until his passing, Duke traveled the world for swim meets and surfing exhibitions. He introduced surfing to California and the Gold Coast of Australia. It took off in both spots. Duke moved to Newport Beach, California where he worked as a lifeguard and popularized the sport further. While he was there, he acted in film and television. He didn’t have big speaking roles, but he was a heart throb none the less.
Sheriff of Waikiki
We like to say that Duke was the Sheriff of Waikiki – but actually, he was the Sheriff of Honolulu. He served 13 consecutive terms in the elected role. He died in 1968 but his memory lives on forever. Surfers today still pay homage to him at statues and monuments dedicated to him around the world. In Waikiki, his statue on Duke’s Beach off of Kalakaua Avenue is nearly constantly draped in leis put there by admirers.
Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to ride a surfboard, owe’s a debt of gratitude to Duke Kahanamoku.
Most people head to central Oahu with one thing in mind – Pineapples and the Dole Plantation. Personally, there’s a better destination that I like to stop at – it’s not as old, not as touristy, and is all about one of life’s essentials – COFFEE!
Hawaiian Coffee is kind of a big deal. Everyone has heard of Kona Coffee. Kona is famous around the world for being a deep, rich, and tasty coffee. What makes it so are the perfect growing conditions on the island of Hawaii. Well guess what? We have perfect growing conditions on Oahu too. Our climate is ideal on the central Oahu plateau. Our soil is rich volcanic soil filled with nutrients (though mellowed by a few million years from the Big Island. Also, we have old, great coffee stock.
Green World Coffee opened up about a decade ago with the idea of creating a small family run operation that would give Oahu coffee some exposure to the world. It was started by Howard Green. The Waialua Estate coffee sold by the Dole company is pretty well known, but Green World decided to go small business style. They planted their coffee, they began their roasting operation, and they opened their doors.
Green World offers a small coffee garden on site, a great little cafe where they know how to make a good cappucino, and an absolutely lovely little gift shop. You can sample a half dozen coffees from different islands and blends from the world over. They also have their famous ‘Sex and Chocolate Tea’ which is delicious but a little disturbing if you stop to wonder what is in it. Green World roasts all of their own coffees on site so when you walk in, you will feel like you have entered coffee heaven.
Ask the people working about the coffee! They love to share information about the roasting, growing, harvesting, the various stages of the coffee and much more. You’ll find these are all incredibly friendly folks who truly embody the aloha spirit.
Green World Farm is just seven acres and about three thousand coffee trees. Open daily from 7am to 5pm with extended hours on weekends. The farm is located at 71-101 Kamehameha Hwy in Wahiawa.
If you are heading North afterwards – choose now whether to get a Dole Whip at the Dole Planation or to head on up to Haleiwa and get a shave ice at Matsumotos…or just get both…nobody is going to judge you for it.
One of my favorite places to take guests and visitors on Oahu is to the world famous North Shore of Oahu. A day up there usually includes visiting the famous surfing beaches like Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay – but it also includes stops such as a Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa and a trip to the old Wailua Sugar Mill which for more than a decade now has been home to the North Shore Soap Factory.
My friends Jerry and Deb saw that sugar was never coming back and when there was talk about tearing down the historic old sugar mill (the last to close on Oahu) – they knew they had to do something – so they moved their home-grown soap and botanicals operation into the old drying cone. Jerry is a surfer, builder, and tinkerer and over time he converted the old rust bucket building into a full blown soap factory.
Since that time, other businesses have moved in. Some of the best surfboard shapers, glassers, and designers in the world occupy the run down buildings around the property. A coffee roaster moved in. A surf shop moved in next door. Eventually, the Waialua Farmers Market started operating on the grounds.
The great thing about the North Shore Soap Factory is that it is so much more than a soap factory. It’s a museum, because during the course of building the soap works, Jerry and Deb saved all the memorabilia they found from the old sugar mill. It’s also a place to rest and have a free cup of coffee. You can try out the soaps and rubs in the showroom – and it’s one of the best places on the island to find the miracle kukui nut oil – which will help you recover from a sunburn…and which, by the way, is the basis for all their soaps. No nasty chemicals or pig fats used in these soaps.
People have fun at the North Shore Soap Factory – even if they don’t think they will. Sometimes when I have a group of married couples – the women (or the men) might get excited but the rest of them roll their eyes or talk about how they want to see the ‘real’ Hawaii and not take some factory tour. The funny thing is that you can’t really get any more authentic than the Waialua Sugar Mill and once you get there you realize this was a place where men and women worked and supported their families. This was the lifeblood of these islands. Sugar was king.
I grew up watching television and one of the most iconic commercials was always the C&H Pure Cane Sugar from Hawaii commercials. This is where some of that happened. Even better – today it is where something is still happening. This isn’t one those tours of places where people used to work but now tourists are the only work…Deb, Jerry, and their crew are actually creating something
And I don’t mind telling you – I’m a big fan of their products. After you buy a bar (or six) don’t forget to stamp your soaps with the old canoe paddle stamps Jerry created in his workshop. And by all means…take some photos.
I’ve always thought that the Halona Blowhole, and blowholes in general, are very unfortunately named. They should instead be called ocean geysers or lava tube spouts – but blowhole? Really? Oh well, there’s nothing I can do about it. The unfortunate name doesn’t change the fact that the Halona Blowhole is one of Oahu’s most exciting natural wonders. Like Diamond Head– people come to Hawaii with seeing ‘the blowhole’ on their bucket list – often without knowing what to expect.
Halona is a stretch of rocky and wild coastline on the South shore of Oahu. The word Halona means overlook in Hawaiian language and as descriptions go, it’s pretty apt. Sitting between Breakneck Beach (Sandys) and Hanauma Bay – this rocky overlook provides views of whales, Maui, multi-colored water, and of course, the aforementioned blowhole. So, just what is the blowhole?
Several hundred thousand years ago, the Koko Head volcano was active and lava flowed from it to the ocean below. Surface lava cooled quickly and hardened into stone, but under the surface rivers and streams of molten rock made their way to the ocean. As the streams dried up, they left tubes behind – sometimes large, other times small. Most of them collapsed from the weight of the rock above but some of them (in particular smaller ones) remained as small tunnels. One such lava tube formed at Halona and was left just below the high water mark. Tens of thousands of years of wave action eventually broke the surface of the tube so that incoming waves would burst through the rock after traveling some distance in the lava tube – if the pressure was (or is) strong enough based on direction of the waves, volume of water, and tidal conditions – the water spouts skywards and sometimes causes visitors to get wet!
On the right day, at the right time, in the right conditions – the Halona Blowhole goes as high as 30 feet! Other days you are lucky to see a little mist coming out. Nearly every visitor to Oahu makes the trek to Halona – the parking lot can be crowded – but on the right days – you won’t even notice the people. Don’t forget to look behind you at the Kokohead Volcano.
There are strict rules in place and visitors are not allowed to go down to where the blowhole erupts. In the past there were no fences or barriers and adventure seekers would get close to the blowhole to feel the power of nature…and some of them died. There have been a handful of fatalities from people making bad decisions and the result is that no one is allowed to go near the blowhole. On one tragic day, a teenager got blasted by the spray and then sucked into the blowhole and died in front of visitors.
The Halona Blowhole parking lot is also where you park if you want to visit Eternity Beach – but I’ll tell you about that in another post.
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.
One of the most spectacular viewpoints in the world lies just a few miles from Honolulu and Waikiki. The word ‘pali’ in Hawaiian language means cliff – and the Pali Lookout won’t disappoint you as you get an amazing view up the Windward Side of Oahu and down into the beautiful towns of Kailua and Kaneohe. The lookout itself is a magnificent section of cliff which sits at the top of the Nu’uanu Valley and just on the town-side of the Nu’uanu tunnels (Route 61) which go straight through the walls of the ancient Ko’olau volcano. The tunnels date back to 1958, before that the road went up and over the lookout.
From the lookout you can see Kualoa Mountain, Chinaman’s Hat, Coconut Island, and Kaneohe and Kailua Bays.
Driving from Honolulu, you will take the Nu’uanu Pali Highway and turn off at the Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside – don’t forget to pay for parking- the attendants are vigilent! If you wear a hat, hold onto it because there are often strongtrade winds barrelling through the pass. Before the tunnels, this was the main road across the Ko’olau connecting town-side with windward side. The road up from the town side has always been important and today there are consulates, church headquarters, Buddhist missions, a synagogue, and nice neighborhoods. The Nu’uanu valley has been inhabited for more than a thousand years. Hawaiian royalty built their summer homes in the valley to avoid the higher temperatures from June through September.
Historically, the lookout is celebrated as the site of the unifying battle of the Hawaiian Islands where King Kamehameha the First brought ten thousand warriors and slaughtered the defenders of Oahu – who were mostly conquering Maui warriors. He forced Kalanikupule to the edge of the cliff and then threw him from the edge along with four hundred of his soldiers. This happened in 1795.
Fifty years later, the first road crossed the Pali. Hawaiian legends abound about the Pali – there are ghosts and goddesses and magical dogs and enchanted lizards – but mostly you will see chickens and cats.
One of my favorite of the stories goes that you should never have pork in your car when you cross the Pali – mainly this is because Pele, the goddess of the Volcano had a terrible relationship and bad breakup with Kamapua’a – the pig god. Since that time, she won’t let any pork or pigs come across the Pali and if you try…your car will break down until you remove the pork from the vehicle. So you better not pack ham sandwiches for lunch!
King David Kalakaua was the last king of the Hawaiian Kingdom. His sister, Queen Liliuokalani was the last monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, overthrown by American sugar planters and American military interests. King Kalakaua built the palace as a symbol to the people of Hawai’i and a message to all the nations of the world that Hawai’i is an educated, civilized, and advanced society ready to take the place as one of the biright lights of advanced human civilizations.
King Kalakaua had met Thomas Edison and arranged to have electric lighting installed into ‘Iolani Palace as early as 1887. After meeting Alexander Graham Bell, he had a telephone installed in the palace. Indoor plumbing (with flush toilets) was original in the palace when it was completed in 1882. ‘Iolani Palace had a telephone, indoor plumbing, and electric lighting before the White House had any of the three.
To tour the interior of the palace you must first visit Hale Koa aka the ‘Iolani Barracks – this is on the palace grounds and should not be confused with the Hale Koa Hotel (House of Warriors) in Waikiki which is for U.S. servicemen and women. ‘Iolani Barracks was moved from the Diamond Head side of the palace grounds to where it currently sits. It was built in 1870 for the household royal guards of King Kamehameha V. Today it is where the gift shop, the ticket office, and a small video theatre are located. It was designed by Theodor Hacek, a German architect who also designed Queen’s Hospital.
On the ocean side from ‘Iolani Barracks is the Coronation Pavilion built in 1883 for the coronation of King Kalalkaua and his wife Queen Kapi’olani. On the grounds are large banyan trees originally planted as saplings by Queen Kapi’olani and a large kukui nut tree (candle nut) planted by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
‘Iolani means royal hawk in Hawaiian language. The palace itself is built a a unique architectural style called American Florentine. The tour is a poignant reminder of all the Hawaiian people lost. Their kingdom, their monarchs, their self rule, and for many years – their heritage. There are docent tours in the morning but later in the day you can take the self guided audio tours provided. Tour and admission is $27 for adults and $6 for children (5-12). Babies and toddlers under five years old get free admission and there are discounts for kama’aina and military. You can also download the Iolani Palace app here. This is a surprisingly kid friendly tour and our seven-year-old had fun seeing where the real King and Queen of Hawaii lived. She was also livid when she found out that the conspirators charged Queen Liliuokalani with treason and imprisoned her in her bedroom after the kingdom was overthrown. Plan on spending 2-3 hours and if you bring a picnic, you can eat your lunch on the palace lawns after (or before) your tour.
A trip to Hawai’i is not a cheap adventure. You are going to be paying for everything and let’s face it – nothing is cheap. Your hotel is expensive, your rental car, your food, your drinks, your sunscreen…and if you live here…well, you already know…every day is expensive.
Isn’t anything in Hawai’i cheap? Isn’t anything in Hawai’i free?
Well, as a matter of fact, the answer is yes. In fact, if you know where to look, there are lots and lots and lots of free attractions, events, and activities in the beautiful state of Hawai’i and nowhere is that more true than in my hometown of Honolulu.
Check out the following…how much would you expect to pay to see this?
$30, $40, $100? That’s what I would think. And then add into it that you can explore a private beach, a beautiful waterfall, pools filled with tropical fish, a sting wray and even sea turtles…and the price is $0, nothing, nada, zip, zero, zilch.
So here is a great secret I’m going to share with you. If you want to swim with dolphins, you are going to pay $800 to $1500 for the experience at the Kahala Hotel and about half of that if you want to do it at Sea Life Park… but if you want to watch a dolphin show, you can go to the Kahala Hotel on the south side of Oahu and you can park at the beach park nearby, then walk down the beach to the Kahala. A beautiful beach, a swimming float, and everything mentioned above.
Are you suppossed to be there? I can’t really answer that. I suppose the hotel would prefer that only their guests are there – but as long as you aren’t making problems, the chances are you will be able to stay and enjoy the show…
My wife works during the week and rarely gets to have time by herself at home on the weekends – so I’ve taken to giving her a few hours each weekend in which she can luxuriate in a bath, catch up on her favorite series, or chat with her friends on the phone. It makes her happy and one of the best pieces of advice I was given before marriage was the simple “Happy wife, happy life”. It’s not just me that needs to find something to do though, we have an intelligent and active 7-year-old that usually wants to get involved in whatever her mama is doing – so the two of us will frequently head out on adventures together to give Mama a break. It’s a win-win-win. My wife gets some much-needed time to herself, my daughter gets to get outside of the house on her weekend and I get to spend time with my daughter having fun on Oahu.
Back in February, I decided it was time that Sophia learn how to golf. I had fond memories of mini-golfing with my father when I was a kid in the 1970’s, so I was almost as excited as she was when I told her my plans. Oahu has four putt-putt courses. Tiki’s Family Fun Center in the Dole Cannery offers a small glow putt course; there is another small glow-putt in the Windward Mall; Bay View in Kaneohe has a standard outdoor miniature golf course; and then there is Tropics Miniature Golf near Pearl Ridge Mall in Aiea which offers 9-holes in the great outdoors. We opted to go to Tropics because it was rainy on the Windward side and sunny in Pearl City.
There are a couple things you should know before you go. 1) This is an old course and while it is fun, it’s not a fancy-pants working windmill or flashy designed course. Many of the holes are falling apart and some of the trick shots (for example, the challenging hole on the volcano) don’t give you any advantage if you hit them. 2) There is a lot of foliage around the course and we got bit by a few mosquitos, so bug spray is a good idea. 3) Most of Tropics is shaded but it can still get pretty hot because of the lack of a breeze – make sure you bring water or go in the evening.
The facility is clean and all the people who work there are very friendly. This is cheap family fun with admission at $9.50 for adults and $6.50 for kids 3-7 years old. Kama’aina and military save a buck off the general admission and kids under three play for free. Admission is good for unlimited play on the day you go – so this is really one of the best bargains going on Oahu. The food at Tropics is good and fairly priced but nothing to rave about – still, it’s nice to be able to get a hot dog, slider and tater tots, or a variety of snacks on site. There are bathrooms on site, located right behind the food/ticket booth.
As I mentioned before, it’s an old course and not everything works exactly like it is supposed to but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. We played two rounds for a total of 18-holes. Par is either two or three but we both managed to hit a hole in one at least once and both dogged it on the challenging 6th hole to end up well over par (our house rule is five is the maximum you can score). We lost one bright pink ball somewhere in the jungle rough but the girl in the booth gave us a new ball with a smile and no problems. Since my wife wasn’t with us, we were able to have hot dogs, chips and a soft drink for lunch (Mama doesn’t let us get away with that kind of junk food when she is with us!)
When we got home, my wife was happy to see us and insisted that next time we bring her along when she heard how much fun we’d had. We have been back many times since…and Mama enjoyed it too.
Not long ago, I took my wife and daughter to the Ice Palace and we skated. We had some falls, we used the cheater carts, and we had fun. It was surprisingly hard physical work and it was cool inside on a particularly hot day in Hawaii. We had a blast until a particularly hard fall took my wife down. At that point the fun was over and we headed on to do something else. But not before I had the chance to introduce my daughter to the Zamboni! Everyone should meet a Zamboni at least once…
When I was working as a guide in the early 2000s, I passed the Ice Palace hundreds of times and never went in – I made jokes about it during the ice (crystal meth) epidemic back in the noughts, and I always wondered how it would be to ice skate in Hawai’i.
Bizarre Personal Remembrances that Having Nothing to Do With Hawaii But Something to do with Ice Skating
I grew up in Big Bear Lake, a ski resort in the mountains of Southern California – we had skiing, but even though the lake froze over every winter – people never seemed to ice skate on it – if they did, I never saw them do it. We had a roller rink and as an adult I had ice skated once in Memphis (which is another strange place to ice skate) and once in New York City which was pretty iconic. In neither place did I acheive anything resembling proficiency. The truth is, ice skating is difficult! It looks easy but it’s not. At least not for me.
I once lived in a squat with a strange 40-year-old virgin who drove an Iowa cab with Indiana plates (and we were in Bellingham, Washington) – he dreamed of being a figure skater and one early morning he forgot to take out the garbage and chased after the truck in his pink tights…it was surreal, but that’s another story too.
Location and Hours
The Ice Palace is located at 4510 Salt Lake Blvd and to get there from Waikiki you just head West on the H-1 and follow the signs for the stadium. Admission is $10.50 per person regardless of age and the hours are posted here.. And, if you are interested in actually learning how to skate – there are pretty reasonably priced classes available.
When I first moved to Hawai’i back in 2001, I lived in Waikiki where I was managing a hostel. It was a good life, but when you live in a hostel, you have to find places where you can get away from the backpackers. For me, it was the Honolulu Zoo. I used to grab a book, pay my kama’aina admission and go sit in front of the chimpanzees (and yes, I found it funny that I’d leave the monkeyhouse of the hostel to go hang out in the monkeyhouse at the zoo).
I’d wander the paths of the zoo, sit in the grass, try to psychicly link up with Rusty the Orangutan (who was in a much smaller enclosure by himself in those days) or see if I could spot the lions, wild African dogs, or other shy predators in their world class enclosures. The Honolulu Zoo was magnificent.
I was excited to go back and visit old friends – in particular, I wondered if Rusty would still be alive. The good news is that he is. The bad news is that he was hiding in his enclosure and wouldn’t come out. The other bad news was that the zoo is sadly a bit dilapidated. There were still crowds of people in the zoo – attendance isn’t the problem.
I doubt that those crowds will be going back though. The chimp enclosure has closed several times in the past few years. Once, because a wily chimp named Pu’iwa managed to put holes in the concrete, scale the wall, and jump over the two electric wires back in May of 2017.
Rusty’s newer, more expensive, bigger enclosure has sort of slipped into being about the same as his old enclosure and his much fan-fared mate, Violet, who was brought so that he wouldn’t be alone – she was on one side of the enclosure and Rusty was all the way on the other – not nubial bliss – that’s for sure – more like ten years of unhappy marriage in a cage.
Granted, we were there on a hot day and after about 10 a.m. most of the animals were hiding – but it wasn’t just that. The grounds appear to be less well kept, the grass less watered, the overall feeling of the zoo was kind of – let go. The aviary was far from the spectacular exhibit it once was, the reptile house was closed along with the chimp cage and other exhibits (a new ectotherm outdoor reptile exhibit has since been opened, but I haven’t seen it yet).
Louise the Hippo was alone and seemed depressed which isn’t surprising after her friend Rosie died suddenly amidst complications arising from construction of a new enclosure – hint – new enclosures shouldn’t kill the animals they are built for. The petting zoo had been updated and the zoo probably spent a lot of money to do that – but there were fewer animals and frankly, it wasn’t as good as before. In short, the Honolulu Zoo is a bit of a mess and to compound things – they actually raised the price of admission ($19 general admission/ $12 kama’aina or military) while closing exhibits – I felt a tiny bit cheated. That’s not a good thing. My daughter – who is six – had a great time – but honestly, she has a good time anywhere we can buy her Dippin Dots and see some animals. My wife couldn’t wait to leave – she found it depressing – and couldn’t understand why I had talked about it so fondly.
Sadly, not only did the Honolulu Zoo not live up to my stories, but it lagged behind smaller, less well funded, less interesting (well, less interesting before) zoos. A look at Trip Advisor reviews shows that it wasn’t just us feeling the dilapidation…words and phrases like ‘disappointed’ ‘eh’ ‘small’ ‘didn’t see any animals’ ‘too expensive for what we got’ pop up again and again.
It doesn’t make me feel good to write this, but I can’t recommend the Honolulu Zoo as a place to visit any longer. The price just isn’t worth what you get for it. I hope that changes. I hope that the city and the zoo administration can figure out how to solve the problems. Here’s a good start – water the grass as much as your average golf course on Oahu and maybe hire a golf course grounds keeper, post the feeding times of the animals, lower the admission price by three dollars until all the exhibits are reopened, reopen the exhibits, get more baby goats and other baby animals in the petting zoo, put out a call for volunteers to help with feeding, groundskeeping, animal care, and more. And probably this is the biggest piece of advice I can offer – stop trying to earn more money and instead try to give more value – that’s the biggest issue with the zoo right now – there seems to be no one trying to give value and unless that happens – attendance and revenue will continue to plummet, enclosures will continue to degrade, accredidations will continue to be taken away, and eventually the zoo will just be another natatorium waiting for a developer to turn it into a resort.
If you decide to go to the Honolulu Zoo anyway…here are some tips 1) Go early or catch one of the concerts in the zoo or twilight specials 2) Set your expectations low 3) Don’t go on a rainy day as it often floods and visitors are forced to leave and 4) If you have military or Hawai’i ID, be sure to bring them since the discount is worth it. 4) Go to the zoo first and then go to the Waikiki Aquarium – the fish don’t care about the time of the day or the heat!