Most people travel to Hawaii for the beaches but there is plenty to see when you head into the rain forests and mountains of Hawaii too. If you want to sample wild tropical fruit, explore the rain forest, swim in beautiful falls, and see indigenous Hawaiian birds – here are five hikes on Oahu you don’t have to go far from Honolulu for.
Maunawili Falls – If you drive twenty minutes out of Honolulu towards the mountains, you will reach the other side of the island near Kailua. To get there you have to pass over the Ko’olau Mountains and go to the Pali Lookout. From there the trail winds downwards to scenic windward views, through gorgeous rain forest, and finally to one of the best swimming waterfalls in Hawaii. A friend tells me the Obamas were there not long ago!
Manaoa Falls – Even closer to Honolulu, just head up Manoa Road past the University of Hawaii to the top of the valley. The road forks at Lyon Arboretum and stay right. You may need to park further down the valley if it’s a sunny day. A short hike with the beautiful 100 ft Manoa Falls as the payoff.
Aihualama Trail – For those looking for more challenges, about 100 yards before Manoa Falls, the Aihualama trail veers off to the left. This is a rain forest ridge hike that will take you through wild bananas, lush bamboo, and more. Watch for the Hawaiian Honey Creepers!
Lyon Arboretum – If you go left where the road forks to Lyon Arboretum you will find yourself among more than 8000 tropical plants, extensive botanical gardens, and numerous hiking trails. This is one of the most rewarding rain forest hiking areas near Honolulu because of the incredible diversity.
Hawaiiloa Ridge – This is the most challenging hike in our list and recommended only for those who are experienced and confident. The trail is not maintained and will require you to drive to the trailhead. Drive towards Aina Haina and go left on Puuikena Drive. Park near the water tank and then enjoy this moderate hike to the summit for astounding views. Expect to pull yourself up some inclines with the help of ropes that friendly hikers have left behind.
A few weeks ago, it was the last week of summer vacation for my 8-year-old daughter (and it was her birthday week) so I took some time off and we made an awesome week of it. We filled the days with boogie boarding in Kailua, shave ice on the North Shore, pizza, and doing crazy things she suggested like playing Yahtzee while we ate cereal for breakfast.
One of those great things we did was taking a long awaited hike to Kaena Point on the North Shore of Oahu. I hadn’t hiked to the point since 2008 when I did my 9-day walk around Oahu. I’d done it a few times since then – but not since I got back here in 2017. I’d been wanting to do the hike with her.
Drive to the North Shore of Oahu, make a left at Haleiwa and drive until you can’t drive any more. That will bring you to the westernmost point you can drive to on Oahu. That’s where we went. We parked the car, grabbed water bottles, and made sure we had on plenty of sun screen. You can reach the point from the Wai’anae Coast (West Side of Oahu) but we came from the North.
In Hawaiian, kaʻena means ‘the heat’. We were ready for the heat – but still – it was hot. The hike is about 7-miles round trip and except for a couple of off road vehicles that went by us – we didn’t see anyone else on our way out. The State of Hawaiʻi has designated the point as a Natural Area Reserve to protect nesting Laysan Albatrosses and wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Hawaiian monk seals, and the fragile (to vehicular traffic) native strand vegetation that has been restored there.
Along the trail we passed plenty of naupaka kahakai, ilima, Hawaiian cotton plants, hinahina, and other endemic and native plants. The beautiful lava karsts and tide pools along the way are spectacular. I’ve heard that there is some amazing snorkeling in this area – but this wasn’t on our agenda. During the winter months – the massive surf that hits the north shore makes Kaena Point extremely dangerous – with waves that have been reported as big as 80-feet!! Part of the reason I wasn’t going to take my daughter snorkeling there is because the area is known for undertows, rips and other deadly ocean conditions – year round. There are no lifeguards there and you are on your own if something goes wrong.
When we got nearer the point – we found the massive predator proof fence that was put up in 2011. It is a bit of an eyesore but has helped the endangered bird populations quite a bit. It cost almost $300k to build. The lighthouse at the point is just a beacon and the old concrete one is more of a canvas for graffiti artists than anything else. We found a few people out at the point and encountered quite a few on the way back.
It’s a longer trek back than it is to the point – so make sure you don’t drink all your water.
I’ve already written so much about Honolulu and Oahu that I don’t really feel like there is much to say beyond our personal journey since we arrived here three years ago. Hawaii has always been an expensive place to live, but until we arrived and had boots on the ground – I had no idea just how expensive it had become. Mind-blowingly expensive.
We pay $1700/month for a small 2-bedroom apartment in a decent building but in a neighborhood that is inconvenient to the beach, Waikiki, or Honolulu. We live in the Salt Lake Neighborhood. It’s clean, generally safe and friendly. Once we arrived and I began working – I quickly realized that earning $15/hour as an archaeologist wasn’t going to pay our bills. Archaeologists don’t earn much in the first place, but that was a particularly crappy wage. The three month raise they had promised me only brought my wage to $16/hour. I asked them to give me a raise that would at least cover my monthly living expenses but they offered weak excuses about how I was doing a dream job in paradise and shouldn’t expect much. Pretty lame. I was qualified, had the right degree, and had a family to support and the bottom line was that archaeology wasn’t going to work.
I found a far better paying job in tourism and offered my two-weeks notice. My wife was going through a bit of culture shock and still didn’t understand why I had made us move from Reedsport, Oregon. I’d kept a lot of the racism and xenophobic stuff from Reedsport to myself while we were there. When I told her, she didn’t seem to believe me. In any event, it was up to me to take care of us.
I sold my antique shop for a fire-sale price. My best inventory wasn’t in it when I put it up for sale. That inventory came to Hawaii with us in a box trailer along with our possessions. I began learning the ins and outs of antique dealing in Hawaii. Most of the stuff I had brought with me was premium goods in Oregon but hard to sell in Hawaii. It’s a very different market here. I was still selling things on Ebay and began using the Aloha Swap Meet, selling at antique shows, and any other venue I could find.
I started working on forming my own tour company and once again became seriously interested in tech. I co-founded a cryptocurrency (which failed without making any money) and then started looking at finding a job in tech again. It was a bit like archaeology – the pay was less than the cost of living. It’s a common problem in Hawaii which is why most families have three, four, or five jobs to make ends meet. Since I couldn’t afford to work for start-ups, I decided to start my own. That process has been going on for about ten months now. I’ve founded two companies ZguideZ and Iwahai. It’s been an amazing learning process so far. Iwahai is launched and ZguideZ is still a work in progress. I still do tours – and that is what pays the bulk of our living expenses.
My daughter is in school. She’s thriving and loves living in Hawaii. She wants to learn how to surf but we’re still getting the swimming skills up to speed – though she and I do love body boarding together. My wife is also thriving and works as a special needs teacher (RBT). We have friends, we have a nice, safe place to live, and we somehow manage to pay our bills every month. We managed to scrape enough together so that last year the two of them were able to go see my wife’s parents in Morocco and her sisters in Belgium. We have taken a couple of short family trips to the neighbor islands of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is where we are. We live in Honolulu. I’ve founded a couple of small tech companies. We scrape by in one of the most expensive places to live in the USA – but it’s beautiful, safe, and a good place to live.
I still dream about the Aegean in Turkey and Greece. I’d love to live in Europe again. I’m still drawn to my home state of California and as a tech founder – the San Francisco Bay Area has a huge draw. My siblings are now both on the California coast. It would be nice to have our families closer to each other.
I suppose it’s all on me – where we end up in the world – and where we have ended up. Honolulu is a good place to be. It’s not perfect (it’s crowded, expensive, remote, has too much military, and a lack of tech opportunities and high paying jobs) but it’s among the best places I have been – so I feel like we are doing alright. This is the end of Places I’ve Lived ….. for now, but I still don’t have any moss on me. I’ll do one more post where I rank the places I’ve lived from best to worst and then we’ll move on to something else.
Honolulu, Hawaii is the capital city of the State of Hawaii. It has a population of approximately 1 million people. It 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.
When I moved to Hawaii – I had $100. I booked a dorm bed into the Polynesian Beach Club Hostel in Waikiki for seven nights and bought some rice and cheap veggies in Chinatown. During the next week, I ate rice and beat the streets looking for a job. I found a job painting houses and then moved into a longer term hostel down the road called the Beachside Hostel. I got a discount for waking up early and cleaning up the common areas.
Painting houses wasn’t very fun and while the owner of the hostel I was in was giving me a discount, she wasn’t a particularly nice woman – so my life wasn’t the Hawaii dream I’d been expecting. I’d made friends with some of the people who worked at the Polynesian Beach Club Hostel and was down there when the owner came in and told everyone that the manager had stolen a bunch of cash and left the island. I’d talked with the owner a few times in the past and had a friendly relationship – I volunteered to be her new manager. She agreed. I quit the painting job and moved into the manager’s apartment. My Hawaii dream life was taking shape.
A little over a year after I started, she took a month long vacation and left me to handle everything. It all went good except I’d gotten a dog while she was gone. She told me to get rid of it. I’d grown attached and honestly, I don’t respond well to orders. During her absence a shady character who was opening a new hostel on the windward side had been trying to recruit me to come help him build his place. She gave me the ultimatum about the dog and I resigned and moved to the new hostel “Countryside Cabins” in Punalu’u.
Punalu’u was AWESOME. We built this amazing country Hawaiian hostel where our guests regularly decided to skip their flights home and stay longer. We had bonfires every night, we had an outdoor kitchen we cooked communal meals in every night, we integrated with the local Hawaiian community and they taught us how to cook in an imu, spearfish, hunt pigs, catch prawns, and much more. It was like a Hawaiian dream. Then it became a little like ‘The Beach’. The owner was older and single and all of us young guys were regularly hooking up with our guests and he wasn’t. He started drinking more, getting sort of abusive to the staff, and frankly, being a dick. People stopped staying longer. It was unpleasant. Some of the locals had developed some heavy ice habits (smoking meth) and there were a couple of scary incidents. The owner kept driving away our guests and then when I took issue with it – he drove me away. We’d made a gentleman’s agreement – I would come, help him build, recruit a staff, and set up tours and activities. I would be paid a salary and the tour revenue would be mine. He renegged. When I complained he said “What are you going to do? You have a dog and you don’t have anywhere to go?”
I gave my dog to a local guy who liked him and I put my things in a storage locker at Kailua Mini Storage. Then I bought a ticket to Kauai where I hiked out the 22 mile trail to Kalalau where I set up a camp in the jungle and stayed in solitude for a couple of weeks before I met some of the other outlaws out there and began to take part in the Spiritual Pizza parties, pakalolo sharing, and heavenly communal living in the valley.
When I finally hiked out of Kalalau, I was in love with Kauai. I got a job at the Blue Lagoon Hostel in Kapa’a and then got hired as a kayak river guide at Paradise Kayaks. I bought a VW van and lived on the beach in Kapa’a next to the Kayak shop. For the next two years, I was a river guide – then I fell for a flight attendant and went to Portland where I published Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond before coming back to my senses and returning to Kauai. After that I took a trip to the Philippines and when I returned I decided to live in Kailua on Oahu and write a novel. I bought another van (I’d sold the one on Kauai) and wrote my first novel, Slackville Road. When the book was finished I was ready to do something else. I got a job as a tour guide and limo driver and rented a studio in Kailua. It was one of the best places I’ve ever lived. I began blogging and creating an online used bookstore and everything empire. I was the Chairman of the Fukn Bored and CEO of Fukn Books, Fukn Records, and Fukn Clothing. I met an amazing woman, we fell in love, we got engaged, and she went to Africa to help the people of Sierra Leone. Then we mutually fucked everything up. For the next couple of years we tried to fix things but were unable. We lived in Lanikai and then on the Punchbowl. Finally, I enrolled at University of Hawaii and rented a studio in Manoa. Our relationship never recovered – which is a pretty huge bummer. She was one of the most awesome people I’ve ever known – and today, we’re not even in contact. I miss her friendship.
Anyway, I did my best to make myself important but school took all of my energy and the Fukn Empire began to fall apart. I put my energy in becoming the managing editor of Ka Leo, the University of Hawaii student newspaper, the president of the Honor Student Organization, an Osher Scholar, the President of the UH Sierra Club Chapter, and a dozen other things. I made student films, wrote an undergrad thesis, and graduated with honors. That was December of 2008 and the economy was fucked. So I gathered what money I could, sold all of my possessions, and decided to take trains across the USA and then go travel the world – that’s when Vagobond.com was born.
Kapa’a is a small town on the East side of the island of Kauai. It’s beautiful and not really a big tourist destination – at least it wasn’t when I lived there, mainly because there were few hotels there. The population is about 10,000 today – to the south is the Wailua River and the once famous Wailua Beach – home to the destroyed Coco Palms Hotel that was devastated by the 1992 Hurricane Iniki. The Coco Palms was where Elvis loved to stay in Hawaii, many movies were made there. Frank Sinatra stayed there too. The Wailua River is a popular kayaking destination. There are waterfalls, a Hindu Temple, some surprisingly tasty restaurants, and large empty stretches of beach nearby.
Man…that was so cool. It hardly feels real. The climb to altitude in the Cessna. The moment of going out the door of the plane. The freefall..man oh man…the freefall was awesome. Below is the link to the company I went with. Totally fukn cool man. I highly recommend it and I will definitely go again. Hawaii Sky Diving.
I wrote the little blurb below about the experience but I didn’t include it in the original post….my tandem diver told me how depressed he was before we jumped. I’ve never figured out if he was just messing with me or if I narrowly dodged a bullet. The night before had been his 50th birthday and he was unhappy at the turns of his life. Still single, no kids, and generally unhappy. He smelled like alcohol still. We were the last out of the plane and the first on the ground – meaning we pulled the rip cord way after everyone else….
A Suicidal Skydive Instructor’s Stream of Consciousness
That’s crazy. I would never do that. Somewhat disturbing to think about what it would be like to do it though. It wouldn’t really be hard. I mean, it wouldn’t haunt me because I would be dead. Right? I mean, that’s what it is.
But to not pull the cord. The strength it will take to not pull the ripcord. To not choose life at the last moment. There really can’t be much more difficult than that. I have my doubts about whether I could really do it.
Fuck, I’m late. Fuck it, today will be my 1000th dive. Cool. Shit. Gotta go. I’m sick of working. Sick of having to be anywhere. I’m fifty and I don’t have anyone who gives a shit about me. No wife, no family, no kids. My life will only get worse from here on .
It’s a cool job though. I do have that going. I’ve got to be there, but it’s pretty cool. I just hate strapping myself to strangers and pretending to feel the thrill of their first airplane jump as if it is my first time too. Life is most difficult when you are insincere. Suddenly the world begins to appear as full of shit as you are. I really wonder if I could do it.
High on the list of many visitors to Honolulu, Hawaii is the chance to visit the USS Missouri, the last of the great American battleships – which is permanently anchored as an attraction at Pearl Harbor as part of the Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
The ‘Mighty Mo’ was the last American battleship commissioned (1944) and the last of the great ships to be decommissioned (1992). The ship still serves, but now it is as a monument to those who have served on American Navy ships.
To get to the Missouri, you will first need to go to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center where you can purchase a ticket if you haven’t already bought one online. The entire complex contains the Missouri, USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. From the visitor center you will take a military operated bus to Ford Island.
Don’t be surprised by the size of the ship. It is huge! At more than 18 stories tall from top to bottom and over three football fields long, be ready to climb lots of stairs and do lots of walking- there are elevators available for those who are mobility challenged.
The ship is kept in a state of what seems perpetual readiness and the smell of diesel fuel and paint is strong wherever you go. The passageways, galleys, and chambers on the ship feel ghostly alive with the sounds of the crew that no longer serves on board, recorded in the past and piped in on speakers in the present. Most of the ship feels as if you have arrived just as the crew is taking a break and has gone elsewhere – it’s eerie to look into the empty medical offices, machine shops, galleys, berths, mess halls, and quarters and not find a soul there (except for other tourists)
The Missouri is most famous as the site where the formal Japanese surrender happened. That and the site where Japanese kamikaze pilot smashed into the ship are both memorialized. The kamikaze display below decks, where the faces and final letters of the young men who committed suicide by smashing their planes into American ships is perhaps the most disturbing of the many museum displays on board the ship. It’s important to remember the high cost of war while you visit this huge machine of death – World War II killed an estimated 88 million people of which as many as 55 million were children, women, senior citizens and other civilians and non-combatents.
If you are not a patriotic American or a true fan of war machines or history, the first part of the tour can be a bit rough. You are required to take a docent guided tour where patriotism and gushing anthropomorphic descriptions of the ship are shared from a well memorized script. This portion can run from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the tour you book and your guide’s enthusiasm The guides always refer to the big ship as ‘her’ or ‘she’. After the guided portion, you can wander through the ship at your leisure – watch your head and don’t trip as you crouch through the hatchways.
There are two tours available – the standard guided tour (Mighty Mo) – which shows you the main decks and the nearly three times as long ‘Heart of the Missouri’ which takes you to below decks and through some of the museums and displays.
As with most attractions in Hawaii, Kamaʻāina and military members with photo I.D. get discounted prices. Visitors cannot bring purses, backpacks or bags into the entire complex. There is bag storage available or just leave it behind.
The Valor in the Pacific Memorial and Pearl Harbor Historic Sites are located at
1 Arizona Memorial Place Honolulu, HI 96818
Open daily. 8 am- 4 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day
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.
My first trip to Japan was too short but wonderful. I visited Osaka and Hiroshima. On my last day, I woke up and had Japanese breakfast before walking to Osaka Castle and visiting the temple which honors the patron of the city on the way. The castle was stunning and huge – much more than I expected – mostly though, I was impressed by the moat. After this I took the subway back to my hotel and checked out. Then I walked to Namba Parks, a building with a forest built on it and bought a hard to find toy for Sophia at Japanese Toys R Us. Then I shopped in various malls and ate a nice tempura and sashimi lunch before I caught the electric train towards the airport. I had far too much time before my flight, so I got off the train early in a small looking town and had a coffee, walked through some shopping centers and went to a grocery store. I may have been the only foreigner to visit that town on that day…no one spoke any English at all. It was nice. Then to the airport, still feeling I had too much time but actually, with customs and check in and other stuff – I only had about an hour waiting past the check in and customs. I made a friend in line and we chatted at various times through the travel process. On the flight, I slept and then arrived back home in Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s always nice to come back to Oahu, but I’ll miss Japan.
Since 1950, Liliha Bakery has been one of Oahu’s brightest gems. This neighborhood coffee shop, diner, and bakery will provide you with some of Oahu’s tastiest treats or a well cooked sit down meal for a reasonable price. There are two locations – one at the original spot in the Makiki neighborhood on Liliha street and the other on the Nimitz Highway between downtown and Honolulu International Airport.
A couple of items from Liliha Bakery stand out for me. First, the signature Coco-Puffs – sweet chocolate filled cream puffs with a dab of mocha creme on them. Second are the Poi Mochi Donuts – these are chewy donuts made with rice gelatin and pounded taro (which gives them their purple color). Starting at 2 am each day, Liliha makes fresh and delicious treats better than any other bakery on the island.
One of the best things about the original location is the diner bar. If you want to feel what it was like to grab a meal at the diner in the 1950’s just sit down and wait for one of the waitresses to take your order. Watch the cooks dish your food in the kitchen and enjoy some thick coffee. Some of the cooks have been there for more than thirty years and the coffee may have been there with them. The diner food is classic local recipes like loco moco, saimin, Portuguese sausage and rice and pancakes. Open for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
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?
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.
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.
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.