Honolulu, Hawaii is an incredibly diverse place to live. With more than a dozen languages spoken by significant communities, a wide diversity of religions, and a culture that spans the globe. When you consider the fact that Honolulu is not just a city but actually a combined entity of the City and County of Honolulu all run from as jurisdiction with one mayor, one city council, and one police force – it really changes the way Honolulu looks both geographically and demographically.
Over the past year, I’ve written a large number of posts that detail the different neighborhoods, cities and towns of Honolulu – which includes the entire island of Oahu. I have not included the outer islands that are part of Honolulu City and County which stretch all the way up to Midway Island but not including it (or Johnston Atoll). Thousands of uninhabited little islands, atolls, reefs, etc are included but since they have no people, they have no neighborhoods. This post is an attempt to share all of those neighborhood articles in a bit of an orderly way. My purpose in writing these articles has been so that I can share more than just the names when I write about places, activities, attractions, restaurants, or beaches on Oahu.
Neighborhoods in ‘Town’ include those places formally inside the metro city limits. East Honolulu goes from Diamond Head to Koko Head. Windward Side stretches from Waimanalo up to Kahuku on the east side of Oahu. North Shore is from Kuhuku to Mokuleia. Leeward is the ‘West Side’ and goes from Yokohama Bay down to Ko’olina. Central Oahu includes areas from Ko’olina to Salt Lake and all the towns upwards to Wahiawa in the center of Oahu between the two mountain ranges of Ko’olau and Waianae.
I’ve combined some areas that made sense to me and have yet to write about some neighborhoods like Chinatown, Ala Moana, Black Point, Portlock, Kalihi, Moili’ili, Waipio, Barber’s Point, Nu’uanu and the many many many Military Bases and Housing Complexes on the Island.
Oahu is an island in Hawaii, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are amazing beaches here – but even knowing that Hawaii is paradise and exists in this perfect tropical zone, people are still often surprised by the beauty of our beaches. Here are five of the most beautiful beaches on Oahu – not just the most beautiful on this island, but in the world. None of them is more than a forty minute drive from Waikiki.
Voted as the most beautiful beach in America over and over again – this sweet little Windward Oahu community beach in Kailua literally means “Heavenly Water” in the Hawaiian language. Powdered sugar sand, the view of the Moku Lua Islands, calm waters filled with fish for snorkeling and the color blue in that incredible tone that is nothing short of, well, heavenly. Go to Lanikai Beach.
It’s only separated from Lanikai by a point of land and a military base on Oahu, but it might as well be a hundred miles for the difference in crowds and conditions. Where Lanikai is filled with Japanese tourists and haole people, Waimanalo is filled with local people – if there is anyone there at all. It still has the views of the Mokes, but the surf can pound at Waimanalo Beach and the sand is a bit less powdery but still pretty divine. Waimanalo Beach is great for body surfing, getting away from the crowds, and enjoying paradise.
A whole different world awaits you at Sandy’s on the South Shore of Oahu. Also known as ‘Breakneck Beach’, this is where President Obama likes to go to bodysurf when he’s in town. Sandy’s has much larger sand particles that tend towards the color we think of sand being – tan. It’s filled with local body boarders, surfers, bikini beauties, and adventure lovers. The sun can pound down on you at Sandy’s and there isn’t anyplace to hide from it. Also, don’t snake a wave or ‘drop in’ onthe locals or you might get a different kind of pounding.
Waikiki Beach is one of the best beaches in the world. It’s actually made up of five different beaches and stretches from near the Waikiki Acqaurium all the way down to Hilton Hawaiian Village. It’s awesome. Yes, it’s almost always filled with people but never in the way that beaches in California, Florida, New Jersey, Italy or other beachy destinations are. Waikikik has thick, course sand and waves that range from beginner to pro. What could be more jaw droppingly beautiful than sitting on Waikiki watching the sunset with Diamond Head on your left, the pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel on your right, and a strong Maitai in your hand? Not much.
I almost didn’t include this beach on the list, because I hate sharing my favorite spots with the internet, but the truth on this one is out and frankly, I’m not the one spilling the beans here. Just across from Sea Life Park – at the point where the South Shore and the Windward Side are still sort of merged – you will find Makapu’u Beach Park. Great body surfing, great surf, nice sand, and plenty of beauty with Rabbit Island and the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse and the jagged cliffs above. This is a very local place, so be respectful. Also, as everywhere, don’t leave any valuables in your car.
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?
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.
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.
First let’s look at that title. I can’t stress this enough because I hear it all the time. You are never IN an island unless you have crawled into a cave ON an island. Just like you would never say “We stayed ON Waikiki” or “We stayed ON Honolulu” (because you don’t stay ON districts or ON cities, you stay IN them) – so the same thing with islands – If you are talking about the STATE OF HAWAII then you can say you stayed IN Hawaii, but if you are talking about the ISLAND OF HAWAII (aka Big Island) then you stayed ON Hawaii. So, it’s possible to stay ON Hawaii and IN Hawaii at the same time but as far as I know, it’s never possible to stay IN Oahu because it’s the name of the island and not a town, city, county or state. So – hopefully that makes sense – it’s one of those things that really can get under your skin if you live here…which I do…but – now that the lecture is over – let’s look back to the first day I returned to Oahu with my family back in 2017. We played tourist for a couple of days and we stayed at the beautiful Hilton Hawaiian Village.
I knew we were going to need a hotel the first few nights because even though we had an apartment – it was empty – so I booked us a room far above the crowds in the Kalia Tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village – Waikiki’s most well known tourist resort. Yes, I could have booked longer in a room a bit farther from the beach and I could have gotten us a full week in a hostel private room – but I wanted my wife and daughter to know what it’s like to be a tourist and to stay in a big, nice, well appointed hotel room in a luxury resort with waterslides, five pools, and no need to go anywhere else. You never get to come to Hawaii again for the first time.
About a month before moving I’d gotten three new credit cards – a Hilton Honors American Express, a Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard, and an Alaska Airlines Visa. I knew that moving would be expensive and each of these cards offered generous sign up bonuses if you spent a certain amount in the first few months.
WARNING: TRAVEL HAWAII PRO-TIPS AHEAD!!!
Using the Hilton Honors American Express, I got a discount but then using the interenet. I found a cheaper rate than Hilton had sold me and I was given that price and a 25% discount as part of Hilton’s price guarantee. When we checked in, they had a Hilton Honors express check-in – so I was able to zip us right past the massive crowds lined up to check in at 3pm and get us settled right away – at the express check-in, I asked for any available free upgrade (part of the card benefit) and was upgraded from a partial view on a mid-floor to a full ocean view on a top floor. So, all told, I got the room for less than a third of the rack rate which was right aroung $625 – our room rate was $176 – which almost made me regret not booking more nights – except that $176 is still a lot of money to pay for a hotel room – at least for my income level.
The lines of people checking in were horrifying and I was incredibly grateful for the express check-in. Our room was absolutely lovely. The view was wonderful, the wi-fi was complimentary (again part of Hilton Honors). From this point forward we didn’t leave the resort until we checked out.
We swam in three of the five pools, ate Japanese breakfast at the little Japanese restaurant downstairs, and explored the grounds which had a water slide pool, lots of beautiful Hawaiian plant landscaping, koi, tropical fish, tropical birds and more. I’d been telling Sophia about the penguins that lived there and she didn’t believe me and it turned out that she was right, the penguins had been moved to a mainland zoo. But they used to be there – it’s probably best for the penguins that they are not there any longer.
We swam and played in the lagoon, had ice cream, went to the beach, paid way too much for sunscreen, swam in the waterslide pool, enjoyed the sun and heat with rain and rainbows while swimming in a different pool, and finally went back up to our beautiful room and enjoyed the view from the balcony before sleeping wonderfully in the big plush beds with big fluffy pillows in a perfect climate controlled room.
It felt wonderful to be back in Waikiki and it felt even better to have my family back here with me.
I have a friend in Toronto, Canada named Henry. He’s a second grader (like my daughter) and as a project for his class – he was suppossed to send Flat Stanley – a character from a book his class is reading – on a trip to somewhere. Henry’s family and I became friends when they visited Oahu several months ago. I spent a lovely day showing them around Oahu and by the end of it, we were all fast friends. Henry and my daughter have the same birthday, lost their first baby teeth at the same time, and are both amazing 7-year-old dancers – so of course, when he asked if I would show Flat Stanley around Oahu and Honolulu – I agreed.
Flat Stanley arrived and we decided to hit all the best spots. First, we went for a morning swim at Ala Moana Beach Park.
We went up to the North Shore and visited Kaena Point, the Westernmost point on the island where Stanley got all crazy on the ‘mana’ emanating from such a powerful point and he grew huge and began jumping on cars with the Waianae volcano in the background. Luckily a friendly pohaku (stone) calmed him down.
After that we went to the world famous Banzai Pipeline where we watched surfers on some decent sized waves and saw a deflated unicorn on the beach.
We then drove all the way down the Windward side of the island and I stopped to get a coffee at my favorite Kaneohe coffee shop ‘Muddy Waters’ – the coffee gave me energy and we stopped at my daughter’s school and then headed down to the South shore of the island where we watched dolphins at the Kahala Hotel – we made sure Flat Stanley was safe and wore a life jacket.
From there we drove back to the center of Oahu where we visited the Dole Plantation – Flat Stanley was excited about the train and the pinapple maze – but mostly he loved the Dole Whip!
We were going to take Flat Stanley snorkeling at one of our favorite spots…but it started to rain and it was getting a little late. So with that, we packed Flat Stanley back up, said goodbye, and put him on his way back to Toronto! We wished him Aloha and A Hui Ho! And also send the same wishes to Henry, his brother Charlie and their Mom and Dad. We’ll see you next time! ALOHA!