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?
Honolulu is a city of neighborhoods. It can also be argued that each on Honolulu’s neighborhoods are actually small towns and cities and they all get thrown together as the City and County of Honolulu. One of the unique neighborhoods of Honolulu is Makiki. It’s where Barack Obama and Bruno Marw were both born and it’s where deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marco lived and died.
Makiki could be described as central Honolulu – it stretches from the Tantalus neighborhood above and skirts Manoa on one side and to the Nu’uanu neighborhood on the other and goes seaward until it meets downtown Honolulu and the Ala Moana neighborhood. Makiki doesn’t include any beachfront areas – which is why it is largely off the radar of most visitors to Oahu.
There are older houses, churches, a hospital, library, schools and a community center. The closest thing to tourist attractions would be the Punahou School and the Punchbowl memorial cemetary located in the extinct Punchbowl volcanic crater which last erupted nearly 100,000 years ago. The Punchbowl was actually a place where ancient Hawaiians are said to have practiced human sacrifice but today it is home to the Memorial Cemetary of the Pacific since 1948.
There are hiking trails that wind through the mountains above and the Tantalus (Pu’u Ualaka’a) overlook and Hawaii Nature Center both lie within the boundaries of Makiki.
Makiki is home to a beautiful Victorian mansion that was once owned by Claus Spreckels, a Californian known as the ‘King of Sugar’. (Interesting side note – Spreckels wife, Alma Spreckels was the model for the Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square and she started the Salvation Army).
But back to Makiki….It is home to the Central Union Church, several schools, and many of Honolulu’s residents. The hills above the city, called Tantalus, were home to many of the families who came here from the U.S. Mainland during the kingdom period. They enjoyed the cool, picturesque seclusion. As did Ferdinand Marcos.
The Hawaiian word for delicious is ‘Ono’. There are no shortage of ono restaurants in Hawaii and most of them are located in Honolulu or on the island of Oahu. The following are five places where you can get an ono meal that you will tell your friends about for as long as you are still able to talk and remember eating there…
Waioli Poi Factory – Midway up the windward side of Oahu you will find a tinroofed shack with delicious Hawaiian food for reasonable prices. The crowds have been growing at this local favorite – so I’m not going to post the address or hours – you’ll just have to find it on your own. Make sure you order the poi, the kalua pork, and the haupia!
Foodland Poke Bowls – Yes, there are lots and lots and lots of places to get fresh poke in Hawaii. We have hidden gems we won’t tell you about – but the thing that surprises a lot of people is that the best poke isn’t found at fancy restaurants – it’s found in local grocery stores, liquor stores, and side of the road markets where people go for lunch. Grab a spicy ahi poke bowl from any foodland seafood counter. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you’ll probably go home and tell everyone it was the best poke you ever had!
Mike’s Huli Chicken I haven’t been to Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken since they left their Kahalu’u location a few months ago and moved to Kuhuku with all the other food trucks – but I’m sure that the food is just as good as it always was. Maybe it’s even better.
Fumi’s Kuhuku Shrimp There is a reason why Fumi’s is my favorite of all the Hawaiian Shrimp Trucks on Oahu – it’s because they cook it right, raise it right, and keep their sanitation on the obsessive compulsive side in their kitchen. They pull the shrimp from their family owned ponds and serve them with aloha (and lots of garlic).
Nico’s Pier 38 I’m jaded about Nico’s – because it used to be so much better than it is today. The truth is though , Nico’s Pier 38 is still one of those places that you have to go and you will remember forever as long as you order the swordfish or the furikake crusted ahi.
Downtown Honolulu often gets overlooked by visitors to Oahu. It’s not surprising given that there are so many great places to visit when you come to Hawaii. Most visitors come to Waikiki and then if they are a bit adventurous they had to the North Shore, Kailua, or go to see the South shore sites like Hanauma Bay or the Halona Blowhole – but by not heading into Honolulu’s downtown they are missing a vibrant part of Honolulu and in a way – not seeing the beating heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Our downtown isn’t big. You can walk most of it in an afternoon. The downtown financial district is bordered by Chinatown on the West, Vineyard Boulevard on the North, the Historic District on the East, and Honolulu Harbor and Aloha Tower to the South. All told it takes up about four big city blocks. One thing that visitors from the mainland always remark on is how clean it is. There are statues lovingly placed at the corners, a couple of historic buildings, and what you would expect of any financial district of a city of a million people – banks and high rises.
Running right through the center of it is Fort Street Mall – a pedestrian street filled with cheap eateries, convenience stores catering to office workers, and benches for them to have their lunches on. Hawaii Pacific University has it’s campus on the former Aloha Tower Marketplace, so there is a collegiate element which adds to the feel along with plenty of trees, an outdoor farmers market, and a couple of department stores for those who need to grab things before they head home.
There aren’t a lot of residential units in downtown and there are no real tourist attractions – but there are some great restaurants, a couple of cool shops, and great people watching. The Hawaii State Art Museum, the Aloha Tower, and the Hawaii Theatre are the only big attractions in downtown – but there are plenty of historic buildings, and photo worthy spots to capture while you are there…and did I mention all the little eateries that cater to office workers looking for cheap and fast lunch? Every ethnic food you can think of…but mostly just for lunch.
Fort Street Mall is a pedestrian road through the center of the Financial District…mostly it works because of the proximity to Hawaii Pacific University…but there are a lot of little lunch restaurants and some interesting sculptures there. Opened in 1968, it takes about ten minutes to walk and will take you from HPU on one side to HPU on the other. On the mall you will find the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace…the olderst Cathedral on Oahu – built in 1843. It’s beautiful and off the beaten path.
There’s an old metal gate and a cannon along the mall…they’ve been there since 1899…I’m not sure why.
Usually you can find vendors and open market on Court Street Mall during the weekdays. It’s a good place to buy veggies and flowers and bread. The big problem with downtown and all of Honolulu, actually, is the huge numbers of homeless who are there. A recent study concluded that 1 of every 10 homeless in Honolulu has recently come here from a mainland city. The new arrival homeless congregate in the downtown area along with Chinatown, Iwalei, and Kaka’ako. More recently, large numbers of them are moving to Kailua and Kapolei. The truth is, if you are going to be homeless it might as well be in Hawaii – but the problem is that the more homeless who come here, the less enjoyable this is as a place where if you don’t want to be homeless – you have to work harder and harder to survive.
Hawaii is filled with great spots to surf and snorkel, dive and hike. In fact, there are so many great snorkel spots on Oahu that it’s easy to miss the best ones – and, unfortunately – it’s also easy to wander into areas where the water isn’t safe, the snorkeling isn’t that good, or you are putting yourself in some other kind of danger. With that in mind – I want to share my three favorite snorkel spots on the island of Oahu. One of them is in Waikiki, one of them is on the North Shore, and one of them is on the wild South Shore. All three are generally safe and depending on conditions, are almost certainly awesome places to see lots of fish. As with anywhere you are going to get in the water – check with lifeguards or locals to find out the conditions, make sure someone knows where you are going, and make sure you know how your equipment works before you head out of the shallow water. One last note – do not feed the fish and make sure that you are wearing reef safe sunscreen – both things help preserve our beautiful ocean so that many generations can continue to enjoy it.
I’ve never seen a shark at Shark’s Cove, but I’ve seen many other kinds of fish. This is a reef protected inlet with some amazing fish viewing and a variety of snorkel areas that are suitable for everyone from brand new beginners to seasoned scuba divers. To get there, go to the North Shore and drive until you see the Foodland shopping center at Pupukea – Shark’s Cove is right across the street. I recommend Sharks Cove during spring, summer, and autumn…though it can get a little crowded during summer weekends.
During the winter months, Sharks Cove isn’t usually a great place to go – not because of sharks but because of something that has caused many more deaths…big surf. The North Shore gets anywhere from 10′ to 60′ waves in the winter and this can not only cause crushing death…but also create dangerous currents, riptides, and undertows…as such during the winter, I usually keep my snorkeling at either Hanauma Bay or the Waikiki Fish Preserve
A volcanic crater filled with coral reefs and fish…what’s not to like about that? Even though it is one of the best known tourist attractions in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay is still worth visiting. Bring your own gear or rent it before you go because if you choose to rent it at Hanauma Bay…it will cost you almost as much as if you were buying it new at Costco or Target. Closed on Tuesdays. Here are more details on Hanauma Bay
Waikiki Fish Preserve
I generally don’t like to give away my secret spots – but this one should be okay. If you go towards Diamond Head on Waikiki Beach and pass the statue of the surfer across from the Honolulu Zoo – you will walk along an area where there isn’t really a beach – just a walkway next to the water. You will reach the Waikiki Aquarium and the Natatorium, the crumbling WWI memorial and then Kaimana Beach. If you are in the water, that entire stretch is known as the Waikiki Fish Preserve and it is absolutely teeming with marine life. You can enter the water at Kaimana’s or at Queen’s Beach. There are no lifeguards here and you are on your own, so make sure you can swim and know how to use your equipment. Be sure not to harass the fish.
There are no shortage of amazing hikes on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. While the main tourist routes tend to be teeming with busloads of visitors – if you want to get a real sense of what Oahu is like – you have to get off your butt, leave the road, and get some excercise. The following five hikes will have plenty of visitors on them – but not nearly the same numbers as you’ll find at places like the Dole Plantation, Waikiki Beach, or your favorite commerical luau. I’ve listed these hikes from most busy to least busy – though the last two may flip from time to time.
Less than a mile from your Waikiki hotel room you will find yourself inside a volcanic crater. Diamond Head is almost always a bit of a crowded hike, but it’s worth it. Once inside you can wind your way up the trail, through the tunnels, and finally enjoy the absolutely epic views of Honolulu and the South Coast of Oahu. Don’t forget to bring water and make sure your camera batteries are fully charged before you go. The guy selling ‘I climbed Diamond Head’ shirts at the top was one of the first tourists I took up there back in 2001 – when we got up there he said ‘Someone should be selling shirts up here’ – later he took his own advice. The state has been unsuccessfully trying to shut him down ever since.
You won’t find nearly as many people at Makapu’u Point as you do at Diamond Head, but it’s still a pretty crowded hike because the state has paved the path and increased parking due to heavy demand. Why do people want to hike around this point? Easy – the views of the lighthouse, the contrast of the dry south coast and the wet windward side, and the epic views of Lanai, the Pineapple Island just twenty-two miles to the Southeast. There is no entry fee and this is an easy stroll.
Koko Head Stairs
The Koko Head Stairs are part of a city and county park complex. You shouldn’t attempt this one unless you are in at least decent physical condition. You are climbing a WWII era railway track that goes straight up the side of a volcano. Take plenty of water and make sure that you take breaks along the way. Unless you are a complete fitness master, you will get passed by marathoners, yoga masters, and other type-A athletic types all heading toward the amazing views of Hawaii Kai, Hanauma Bay, and Maui off in the distance.
There are three reasons you won’t find big crowds on the Kapena Falls hike. None of those reasons have anything to do with a lack of beauty or interest. Kapena Falls is a gorgeous rainforest waterfall with a trail that offers ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, tropical flowers, and a very close proximity to Honolulu. That last bit is why there aren’t crowds on the trails. Parking is in a cemetary and commercial vehicles are banned. Also because it is close to town and populated areas it isn’t uncommon to come across homeless encampments on the trail to Kapena Falls. You may find local kids swimming and leaping off the cliffs into the falls – but you will also find health department signs warning that the water may be polluted.
Koko Head Crater
Koko Head Crater should be a more crowded hike than it is. Essentially it’s a beautiful dryland botanical garden filled with flowers and interesting plants inside an extinct volcanic crater. There is no entrance fee and no parking fee. I’ve never figured out why the crowds don’t go to Koko Head Crater – but their loss is your gain. Bring water, wear good walking shoes, and take your time. You can learn a lot about Hawaii in this crater.
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.
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.
This is the story of me living in a van on Oahu in 2004. You can read a bit about it in a letter I wrote to the Honolulu Advertiser at the time – Down and Out on the Island of Oahu
A bit of context here so that my Hawaii timeline makes sense. I arrived for the first time in Hawaii in October of 2001. 16 months later, I moved from the Polynesian Beach Club Hostel to Punalu’u on the Windward Side of Oahu for a failed experiment that ended up like a modern and less deadly Lord of the Flies. I fled from that mess to Kauai where I bought a rustbucket VW van and lived on the beach in Kapaa for thirteen months before going to the Philippines for three months after which I came back to Kauai until October of 2003 when I sold my rust bucket and followed a flight attendant I’d fallen for to Portland, Oregon where I tried to impress her by showing that an island boy could become a stock broker – it turned out that I liked being an island boy better and she knew enough drunk miserable guys in suits anyway – during that time I wrote my first book Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond – my publisher suggested that I do a promotion tour (and all the promotion) so I took my old VW van (not the rustbucket), left the brokerage, and spent the next five months drinking heavily and shilling my book to anyone who I talked to. It turned out my efforts led to a lot of interest – unfortunately, this was the early days of e-books and my publisher hadn’t protected the book and it ended up on a number of free download sites where it was downloaded tens of thousands of times while providing no revenue to me – the print version sold about a thousand copies which yielded me about $500 in the inequitable publishing deal I’d signed. I found myself in a lonely relationship with a girl who was gone more than she was home (not the flight attendant, by the way) – I tried my hand at commercial salmon fishing in the Puget Sound made enough money to book a flight back to Oahu, traded my VW van for a laptop and $500 (one of the stupidest decisions I’ve made but at the time it made sense) and came back to Honolulu where I bought another shitty van and was determined to write my first novel – which eventually became Slackville Road. Here is the excerpt from my Blogspot blog of the time.
June 25, 2004 Alright…I can’t resist. I’m living in a van again. This time on the island of Oahu. I got the van for $175. It’s a plymouth voyager and it seems to have fuel injection problems. It gets me where I need to go though, so far. I’m having a hard time sleeping at night. maybe because it’s an island, it’s a littel different than my old VW days.
The main annoyances….there are no parking signs everywhere mostly 10PM to 7AM, Hawaiians love to play loud music and have impromptu parties in marinas and parks without no parking signs. I tend to avoid drunken gatherings of big Samoans, Hawaiians, Tongans, and Filipinos. People in neighborhoods are so fucking healthy, they wake up at 5AM and start raking leaves, running, watering plants, etc) which makes it hard to sleep in a van undetected.People actually know each other in neighborhoods here, so I stand out…people look and say “Who is that guy in the van?” not like the mainland where no one knows anyone else.
Despite all of that, I’m figuring it out. I generally sleep in two stages, moving at least once during the night. In the day, I make coffee in the van, swim, shower at the beach, go for a sunrise run (yeah, I’m healthy too!), read for a while, then go to the library where I work on my novel. One very cool thing is wifi…I can use peoples internet from my van with my laptop. Very cool. I usually buy what I want to eat and then cook it. Why have extra. All in all. Life is pretty good. Hopefully, I can get my van fixed soon, the fuel injectors seem to be going out…crapola.
This van phase lasted for a couple more months before it became too depressing and awful. During my time living in a van in Hawaii, I explored constantly and found plenty of great spots to string up my hammock. I worked odd jobs with a lot of them being in labor, construction, and television. I found a niche in the growing reality TV market as a productions assistant, location scout, and casting assistant. I’m ashamed to admit that I got several paychecks from The Apprentice. No one ever knew that I was homeless unless I told them. Towards the end of 2004 though, it had become too much. It was time for me to rent a place of my own. I had briefly rented a basement room in Portland while I was a stockbroker, but other than that, I hadn’t paid rent in nearly three years.
I found an awesome little studio in Kailua for $900/month and got hired as a private tour guide by Carey Hawaii, a high end limousine company. I had to have a suit for the job and (true story) found one that almost fit me in a thrown out suitcase next to a storage unit dumpster. It was close enough to my size that I had it tailored for $50. The tailor told me it was an $800 suit and admired the quality. From that time forward, I’ve had my name on a lease whenever I’ve lived in Hawaii. Hawaii might sound like a great place to be homeless, but it’s not. I got lucky on Kauai with an amazing place to park where no one would harass me, but on Oahu – it was awful.
A few years later when Twitter came along in 2007 (I’ve always been a very early adopter), I was regularly using the hashtags #vanliving and #vanlife as I promoted my books. I was among the first to use those particular hashtags, maybe even the first.
Since I’ve given the rest of my timeline in Hawaii, I might as well finish – in 2006, my girlfriend (then fiance) and I rented a lovely little cottage in Lanikai and then for work and school we moved to a place on the Punchbowl. When our relationship fell apart – I found a perfect little 1-bedroom in Manoa where I lived until I graduated in December of 2008. After that, I left Hawaii to wander around the world until mid-2013 when I moved myself, my wife, and our 18 month old daughter from Morocco to Reedsport, Oregon. We were there until 2017 when we moved to Honolulu and have been living in the Salt Lake Neighborhood.
I enjoyed most of my time living in vans in the Pacific Northwest and on Kauai – but I never want to live in a van again unless I own a piece of property I can park it on. The sad reality is that when I was living the #vanlife, there weren’t many people doing it and it was possible to blend in – at least a little. It’s not the case today – there are so many older folks and people without options who have moved into their vehicles – they are all a half step from being on the streets with no shelter – all it takes is a breakdown, an impound, or too many tickets. I love seeing all the nomadic millenials living the van lifestyle with their $20k Westphalia vanagons and their Mercedes Sprinter vans – the truth is – van living is a great thing when you are in your twenties. It’s great when you are young and beautiful and able to do yoga in the park at sunrise each day – but there’s nothing beautiful about a person in their forties living in a vehicle.
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.
There are no shortage of delicious treats hidden away on Oahu and yes, many of them are tourist traps designed to capture Hawaii tourist dollars by getting you in the door with the hype that has grown around them. When you go to these five locations you will wait in line, you will be joined by hundreds of other tourists, and you will be happy that you went because your taste buds will be singing glorious hapa-haole chants.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Forest Gump where he goes on and on about shrimp this and shrimp that – it would be easy to substitute pineapple and have him talking about the Dole Plantation – pineapple Candy, pineapple dolls, pineapple bread, pineapple wine, pineapple magnets, pineapple t-shirts, pineapple cookies, pineapple books – everything pineapple happens at the Dole Plantation – plus a pineapple garden, a pineapple maze, and a pineapple railroad trip. And of course, the famous pineapple ice cream – Don’t forget the Dole Whip!
Leonards hasn’t gone into merchandising on the scale of the Dole Plantation, but they’ve still done an amazing job of branding themselves with the pink boxes, thier iconic Kapahulu signs, and of course the red and white malasada trucks they park all over the island. What’s the draw? The magical malasadas waiting inside! Always hot, light, delicious and so good that this little bakery usually has a huge line waiting outside of it! The record on my tours was a lady who ate seven of them – but one or two is perfect for most people.
Ted’s Bakery is a North Shore institition. The food tastes best after a day battling the surf at Sunset Beach or Banzai Pipeline – but let’s be honest – the food is only so-so but the pie! You go to Ted’s for the pie. Specifically the Chocolate Haupia Cream Pie. You might have to wait in line – but it’s worth it.
There aren’t a whole lot of attractions that offer your freebies in Hawaii. Tropical Farms is one of them. Offering free samples of their locally grown macadamia nuts and free macnut coffee for weary tour drivers (or anyone else). This is a great local, family owned and operated tourist trap with plenty of local products, local handicrafts, and of course, the tasty macadamia nuts. Go in the back and smash a raw one on a lava rock or go with the tasty caramel, garlic, or honey roasted variety. Any way about it – you’ll be glad you stopped at Tropical Farms.
Matsumoto Shave Ice is one of those places you need to go at least once. It gives you a solid baseline for what a Hawaiian Shave Ice is. Plus, you can buy one of those t-shirts with the cartoon version of Stanly Matsumoto on it. The general store is filled with a wide variety of tourist items but you know why you are there – shave ice with ice cream on bottom, sweetened condensed milk on top, and organic cane sugar syrups giving you a mind-blowing sugar rush.
The North Shore of Oahu is known mostly for surfing but there are those who head there just for the Chocolate Haupia Pie from Ted’s Bakery too. While the North Shore’s 7-mile-miracle of surf breaks draws crowds, dont’ be surprised to find crowds also lining up at Ted’s. It’s easy to whiz past it when you drive up the Windward Side, pass the Turtle Bay Resort, and are tantalizingly close to Sunset Beach. Ted’s doesn’t look like much – it’s a little plantation style complex with an awning and some tables in front.
Ted’s serves up breakfast and plate lunches as well as the famous Haupia Chocolate Cream Pie – and yes, they are a full bakery so you can buy other types of pie, donuts, breads, and more – but if you are like most people – one bite of the signature pie will convert you for life.
For those unfamiliar, haupia is a traditional Hawaiian coconut milk desert – almost like coconut jello. Ted’s brilliant innovation was to put it between layers of chocolate, whipped cream, and a perfect flaky crust. If there is a dessert in heaven, this is probably it.
The bakery started (like most things on Oahu) with the sugar cane industry. Ted’s grandfather worked on the North Shore in the sugar industry and eventually bought land from the Kuhuku Sugar Plantation that was too rocky for cultivation. A couple of decades later, his son, Takemitsu Nakumura opened the Sunset Beach Store in 1956. In 1987, Takemitsu’s son, Ted, opened Ted’s Bakery and the rest is history. His pies were a hit all over Oahu. Today Ted’s sells pies to restaurants and stores all over the island of Oahu. So, you can get the pies anywhere – but they always taste best at Ted’s.
My recommendation is that you buy the pie by the slice unless you have at least six people to help you eat a whole one – because otherwise, you will be tempted to eat it yourself!
No trip to Oahu is complete without a visit to Hanauma Bay on the south shore of this beautiful Hawaiian Island. Whether you are going to snorkel or simply look down at one of nature’s wonders from the lookout point above – this is a definite must see natural attraction in Hawaii.
To get there, head south from Honolulu and Waikiki. You will go around Diamond Head, through the neighborhood of Kahala, and on through the neighborhoods of Aina Haina and Hawaii Kai before reaching the turn just as you are passing Koko Head. Hanauma means ‘curved bay’ in Hawaiian languange and this is a beautiful coral filled bay in the remains of a tuff cone volcano. Not your average snorkel spot.
Hanauma Bay is a Nature Preserve and Marine Life Conservation District. It is open to the public six days per week with the seventh day reserved for park maintenance – or as we say in Hawaii – to let the fish rest. To enter the bay, you will need to attend a short environmental presentation that teaches you how to respect and appreciate the beauty of nature in the bay. Visitors are not allowed to touch fish, marine life, or walk on the corals in Hanauma.
Hanauma Bay is home to Hawaiian green sea turtles and over 400 species of fish including parrotfish, rasses, and even the famous humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Global warming has exacted a terrible cost on the bay and nearly half of the corals in it have died as a result.
Hanauma Bay itself was born about 32,000 years ago. It was one of the last eruptions on this island. A crater was formed and eventually waves broke through and flooded it creating the perfect environment for corals and fish. Hawaiian Kings and Queens frequented the bay and one possible interpretation of the name is that there were a variety of sporting and wrestling events held there each year at makahiki. The bay belonged to the Bishop Estate until the 1930s when it was purchased by the City and County of Honolulu. It became a protected area in 1967. In the 1970s white sand was brought in from the North Shore to create the beach you see there today.
The area was overused and suffering greatly up until the early 2000’s when the city enacted an entrance fee, closed the park on Tuesdays, and began requiring visitors to attend the educational presentation. The city has also restricted how many vehicles and how visitors can come to the bay. Commercial vehicles are strictly regulated.
Hanauma Bay can still be crowded with nearly 3000 visitors each day. If you are going, bring reef friendly sunscreen, water, and it is recommeneded that you bring your own snorkel gear as the rentals on site will cost you almost as much as buying a new set of gear.
In ancient times, Hawaiians harvested more than 2-million pounds of fish and shellfish each year – much of that came from fishponds. It’s estimated that there were more than 750 major fishponds in the islands at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival here. Hawaiians were one of a handful of civilizations who had mastered aquaculture. So, it’s great that aquaculture continues to this day – one of the best places to see and taste that is near the North Shore of Oahu in the little town of Kuhuku. Kuhuku was a sugar town until 1971 when sugar left.
In 1975, the State of Hawaii directed funding and research to develop oyster, fish, and shrimp farming in what had been taro patches, rice paddies, and small fish ponds. Today, the terms shrimp pond and shrimp trucks are almost synonyms for Kuhuku (which doesn’t mean shrimp or prawn, it means point).
Back in 1993, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck was among the first to start selling the now famous garlic shrimp near Kuhuku and within a couple of years it was so popular that imitators had followed. Today there are literally dozens of shrimp trucks on Oahu. Some good, some bad, and some with bizarre stories. I will focus on the most popular ones here – Fumi’s, Giovanni’s, and Romy’s. There are others but you are taking your chances with them. Some of the names are Korean, Famous, Big Wave, Blue Wave, Garlic Shrimp, etc.
Fumi’s is my favorite – hands down. On a busy day they serve up to 2000 pounds of fresh shrimp caught from their ponds. Their menu has a wide variety of options, the best of which (in my opinion) are the butter garlic, spicy garlic, breaded coconut, boiled, and salt and pepper fried. There are actually two Fumi’s trucks – I prefer the blue building over the truck – rumor has it that there was a schism in the family and they parted ways – which is why there are two locations with two different menus on two different sides of the family shrimp ponds. Expect to wait in line 10-15 minutes and another 10-15 minutes for your food to cook. They have a lot of people working and they are incredibly efficient without sacrificing taste. 5-8 large shrimp with two scoops of rice, a scoop of cold canned corn (wierd), and a slice of pineapple.
Romy’s is also delicious but the wait is much longer and the prices are higher than Fumi’s. Expect a minimum of 20 minutes wait in line and 20 minutes or more for your food on an average day.Personally, I find their shrimp harder to peel and not as delicious as Fumi’s. They are also owners of the ponds behind them so the shrimp are guaranteed fresh.
Giovanni’s is the wierd one. Even though they started the whole thing – I almost never go there. Their prices are higher and the shrimp are not cooked to order – personally, I’m not a fan of the quality. The original owner’s Giovanni and his now ex-wife – sold the business in 1997 – and then split up. Apparently, the ex-wife wasn’t happy with the sale and tried to buy it back from the new owner who didn’t want to sell – so she hired a couple of thugs who kidnapped him and forced him to sell at gunpoint! She was arrested and the sale was nullified. At some point people began signing the truck and finally in 2006, the current owners bought the land the truck sits on. Since that time, the whole area around Govanni’s has become a sort of food truck mecca with everything from Fijian Indian curry to funnel cakes, Hawaiian BBQ, Da Bald Guy, Cheesus Crust Pizza, and more. Giovanni’s has built a pavillion and continue to sell buttery garlic scampi just like in the old days but without the kidnapping and extortion. If shrimp just isn’t your thing and you don’t like the vibe in Kuhuku, just keep heading down the coast until you reach Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken
In 2001, I came to Hawaii with $100 and no plan. Through good fortune and good luck, I somehow became the manager of the most rocking backpacker hostel in Waikiki. The Polynesian Hostel Beach Club in Waikiki. It was a terrible time for my liver, but the rest of me enjoyed it immensely as I made friends from all over the world, fell in love with Hawaii and beautiful people from everywhere on the planet, and somehow managed to survive it all over the course of the next two years. These are some of the pictures I took during that time. I will leave it to facial recognition and people who know to identify those in the pictures. I am grateful to the former manager who stole a bunch of money and left the owner in the lurch needing a manager, I’m grateful to the owner who trusted me to become that manager, and I’m grateful to the people who came as strangers sometimes became staff and with a few glaring exceptions left as friends.