Visiting the Kamaka Ukulele Factory – A Family Business with 101 years of Experience in Hawaii Ukuleles

The Kamaka Ukulele is the gold standard in fine ukulele quality and there is a reason for that. The Kamaka family has been making the best ukes in the world since 1916 when Honolulu resident Sam Kamaka Sr began making the instruments in his Kaimuki basement. Since then the Hawaiian ukulele has made it’s way around the world in the hands of celebrities, musicians, comics, vaudeville stars, visitors, and Hawaii residents. Four generations of the Kamaka family have kept the Kamaka Ukulele factory running with the guiding principle of quality first.

Sam Sr and his two sons Fred Sr and Sam Jr are all three inductees into the Ukulele Hall of Fame. The elder Sam was the inventor of the ‘pineapple’ ukulele – it was 1918 and he just liked the idea of making the body a little more round – turns out it made the sound a little more rich. Sam Kamaka Sr. said to his sons, “If you make instruments and use the family name…don’t make junk,” and lucky for all of us, they listened. Fred Kamaka Sr and his brother Sam Kamaka, Jr –  still run the Kamaka Ukulele Factory where  twenty-five employees – mostly family members – continue to make the world’s best ukes.. The factory produces a maximum of 17 ukes per day…

As a long time ukulele fan, it was awesome to get to meet Fred Sr. (And Fred Jr.) and get to talk story with them and learn about the history of my favorite istrument…the true Hawaiian Ukulele.  I also met Sam Jr’s son Chris Kamaka. He is the quality control officer and rejects one out of every five ukes produced in the factory because of inferior grain, sound defects, or other imperfections that would be invisible to the rest of us.

If you would like to visit the Kamaka Ukulele factory and meet some of the family, see how these beautiful instruments are made, and maybe even learn how to play a simple tune – it’s still possible. The factory, located in downtown Honolulu near Kaka’ako is open several days a week. 

The Hitachi Tree in Honolulu’s Moanalua Gardens

On the west side of Honolulu, just near the big pink building (Tripler Army Hospital)  – just on the edge of the Salt Lake Neighborhood but before you reach Aloha Stadium – is one of the most famous trees that you’ve seen but never heard of (unless you are Japanese). The tree is located in Moanalua Botanical Gardens, a privately held garden which is open to the public with a small admission fee.

The Hitachi Tree – the symbol of the Hitachi Company – a large monkeypod tree with a distinct umbrella shape that is so important to Hitachi that they have paid a license fee to use it since the early 1970’s.Currently the annual fee is about a half million US dollars. The tree is a huge draw to Japanese tourists, though most Americans or other nationalities have never heard of it.

The Hitachi Tree first originated through a TV commercial that aired in Japan in 1973. It symbolized the “comprehensive drive” and the “wide business range” of the Hitachi Group. It continues today as an image of the Hitachi Group’s working for communities through leveraging of its collective capacities and technologies, and the dedication of the individuals that the Group comprises. The tree is widely recognized, especially in Japan, and has become an important symbol of the Hitachi Group’s reliability, and earth-friendliness. It also enhances Hitachi’s brand value as a visual representation of its corporate slogan: “Inspire the Next.”  Over the past 35 years, the Hitachi Tree has become a valuable Hitachi Group asset as a familiar and respected image in Hitachi’s expanding messages globally.

It is a magnificent tree – but the gardens around it are also worth visiting. The Moanalua Gardens contain the Hitachi Tree and the summer cottage of King Kamehameha V of Hawai’i  which was moved from it’s original location up Nu’uanu Ave and Old Pali Road.. There are beautiful refelction ponds, a stream running through the gardens, a lovely visitor center, and large grassy areas that are perfect for picnics, days playing frisbee, or just lying under a huge trees and reading a book.

One word of advice though,  don’t try to relax under the Hitachi tree – about once an hour a bus full of Japanese tourists will pull in and crowd the area to get a picture with the most famous tree in Japan.

To get there, take the H-1 Freeway West from Honolulu, when the freeway splits into the H-1 or the H-201, stay to the left on the H-201 and take the Moanalua/Pu’uloa Road exit. The entrance to the garden will be on the right side before you get off the ramp. It’s tricky, but you can do it. Watch for the sign that says Moanalua Gardens about midway down the ramp and turn right directly after it.

Kapena Falls – Free, Beautiful, Not Crowded, Easy Oahu Walk with Petroglyphs

It always amazes me that there aren’t crowds of people at Kapena Falls – I really can’t figure it out. Manoa Falls has a bizillion people on the trail even when it’s raining or the falls are a drizzle – people go past the ‘don’t go past this sign’ signs and wade into the shallow water of Manoa Falls with thousands of others each day – but Kapena Falls – most times I go there, no one is there – or just local kids enjoying the pool there and jumping off the cliffs into it.

I’m not giving away any sort of secret by writing about Kapena Falls – it’s well known. It’s in the guide books, it’s been written about by plenty of other Hawai’i travel websites – but it’s almost always serene, quiet, and uncrowded. Maybe it’s the dogs….

First of all, let me tell you how to get there. From downtown Honolulu, take Nu’uanu Ave towards the Pali. Turn into Memeorial Cemetary on the right side – the one with the huge pagoda. Drive through the cemetary all the way down to the maintenance shed where there is parking. Don’t leave valuables in your car – ever.

The trail starts to the left of the maintenance barn.

A few steps in, you are awarded with a set of waterfalls in Nu’uanu Stream. That is Alapena Falls. Take a few more steps and you will see a rebar cage on the left side with some rubbish around it (it’s always there, I think that some people think the cage is a rubbish bin) – take a moment and let your eyes become accustomed to the jungle light – you will see ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs. There are people and dogs. I’ve always heard that they are Madam Pele’s dogs, magical beings that act as guardian spirits to the area – there are other stories, but that’s the one I like.

Don’t be surprised to find homeless campers on the other side of the stream. Homeless people are everywhere on Oahu except for the rich neighborhoods and the tourist areas like Waikiki. They won’t hurt you. The mosquitos on the other hand – make sure you have plenty of bug spray on. There are a lot of mosquitos on this trail.

A few minutes walk and you will find yourself at the base of the beautiful Kapena Falls. The trail ends at the shoreline of the Alapena pool. The Hawai’i Department of Health advises to not swim here because of Leptospirosis and urban pollution – so, do so at your own risk. The cliffs are a favorite summer jumping spot for local youth – if you join them, be sure to swim in the area you plan to jump first because there are rocks in certain areas that people have jumped and landed on – and then been injured.

It’s said that Queen Emma, who had her Summer Palace not far away – used to cool down in this pool on days when the trade winds were still. I certainly can’t blame her.

Sea Life Park – Oahu, Hawaii – Dolphins, Sea Lions, and Sharks – Oh My!

Sea Life Park on the island of Oahu in Hawaii is a must see destination for families with young children. We loved it. Open 7 days a week with tickets starting at $25 and offering reasonably priced specialty programs like dolphin encounters, educational programs, and more. Sea Life Park is located on the South Shore near Makapu’u Point.

I grew up in California during the 1970s and 1980s. We went to zoos, circuses, wildlife safari parks, and rode around in the back of pick-up trucks when driving to huge water parks. We also went to Sea World and Marine World and as a child – there are few memories that can compare with watching a show with the Orcas Kandu and Shamu (not the original Shamu, but a different Shamu) – I know that the view on keeping whales and other animals in captivity has changed – and I get it – but those memories were profound and life changing. Wildlife parks of both the marine and land based types – gave me a deep love of animals and ecology. I’m happy that Sea Life Park, here on Oahu, offers me the chance to share that with my daughter. No, there are no whale shows – there is no Free Willy or Feel Bad situation, but there are dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks and more. The entry fee is a very reasonable amount – and the shows were fun (even if a little hokey). Sea Life Park was a hit with us. Most importantly, our 6-year-old left with that same excitement I remembered from visiting those 1970s and 1980s California adventure parks.

 

Jurassic Park Movie Tour at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu

 

People seem surprised that when we have time off,  we choose to do tourist activities in Hawaii. People expect I want to get away from tourism but the truth is – I generally like tourists, I like tourism, and I like tourist activities. The reason people come on vacation and do this stuff is because it is fun.

Back in 2003, I worked as a guide for Kauai Movie Tours. It was a fun job. I knew that taking a movie tour on Oahu would be fun too.

Kualoa Ranch is 4000+ acres on the windward side of Oahu – it was gifted to Doctor Garret P Judd  by King Kamehameha V during the Kingdom of Hawaii period. The ranch remains in the same family, still has about 500 head of cattle and engages in some agriculture – but mostly, it’s a super awesome theme park with ziplines, horseback riding, snorkel tours, and movie tours. We plan on doing everything there eventually but this time we did the movie tour with George ( @ZenTourGuide ) as our guide. He was great – you should take his tour.

And hey…don’t forget to tip your guide. We watched the majority of people leave the tour bus without giving him a dollar. Guides survive on tips and work hard to make sure you have a good time…appropriate tips for guides are 20% or more of total cost for an outstanding guide, 10-15% for an average to good guide, 5% if you have no complaints but can’t say anything really good, and no tip if they aren’t at least trying to be friendly. Like a great guide, George thanked everyone with a sincere smile and warm aloha whether they tipped or not – but come on folks….I know Hawaii vacations aren’t cheap but $20 isn’t going to break you.

Some of the movies and TV shows filmed on Kualoa Ranch include the Jurassic Park franchise, Lost, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii 5-0, 50 First Dates, Kong Skull Island, Journey to the Mysterious Island, Godzilla, and much more. It’s a great tour and we’ve been enjoying watching the movies since taking the tour. I won’t spoil the tour by telling you more – you should check it out.

 

The Lowdown:

Address: 49–560 Kamehameha Highway, Kaaawa 96730, USA
Hours: Open daily, closed Christmas and New Year’s Day
Admission: From US$21

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