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.
Snorkeling is one of the activities that visitors coming to Oahu, Hawaii or other tropical island destinations want to experience. There’s nothing quite like stripping down to the bare essentials and lowering your body into water that feels just right and then swimming around with ease while marveling at the beauty and diversity of the undersea world.
Most visitors end up either snorkeling in Waikiki – which has some decent spots but in general isn’t all that great in most places, or they join the busloads of tourists and head to Hanauma Bay – which is a spectacular place to snorkel but has an entry fee, is always busy, and is closed on Tuesdays.
Personally, I prefer heading up to the North Shore and checking out Sharks Cove. Open daily every day (though sometimes closed due to high surf in winter), has a wide variety of fish and different levels of snorkeling suitable for beginner through expert, and finally – has great food trucks and a grocery store just across the street.
The protected areas inside the tall reef are a perfect place for beginner to intermediate snorkelers and for those with more experience you can go to the deeper portions where you will find caves, a wider variety of corals and fish, and more. Please be aware of the conditions and watch out for the ‘salt water waterfalls’ where big surf hits the exposed reef and washes down the inside.
Sharks Cove is part of a Marine Life Conservation District and so there is no fishing or spear fishing allowed. You’ll also see scuba divers going 15-25 feet deep to explore the many underwater caves in the area.
There are also many tide pools in the vicinity and a lovely, but small beach for those who don’t want to snorkel. A few notes –
Entering can be a bit tricky as there is sharp lava/reef throughout, you may want to wear water booties or reef shoes.
Reef extends up to and above the surface in areas – careful not to scrape your chest/belly
Kids need to be supervised – there are some tricky areas and places where the reef opens up to the open ocean, so don’t just turn them loose – this ain’t the hotel pool, Martha
Parking is limited, so it’s best to come early or late
If the surf is up, the visibility will be terrible and the conditions can be dangerous
Finally, I’ve never heard of anyone seeing a dangerous shark inside sharks cove, but there are some outside – so be aware. You might see some small white tipped sharks – but they are harmless, if thrilling. The reason it’s called Sharks Cove though is because the outline of the reef is said to resemble a shark – plus, it scares away some of the visitors!
Kapolei is primarily built on the old sugar and pineapple lands that were serviced by the little planation town of ‘Ewa back in the territorial days. From about the 1950s onwards, Kapolei has been the focus of a whole lot of government efforts to create a second major urban center on Oahu. The population today is in excess of 100,000 making it the second largest town on Oahu – and in actuality, making it Oahu’s second city – though because of the governmental structure of City and County of Honolulu covering the entire island – technically, Kapolei and everywhere else on Oahu are actually neighborhoods in the city of Honolulu. It’s a little weird.
‘Ewa means crooked though most locals think it means ‘in a westward direction’. The ‘Ewa Sugar Plantation which ran from 1890 to 1970 played a significant role in the history of Hawaii in the 20th Century. It was one of the most prosperous plantations on Oahu and had a major role in shaping policy and governance of the state. Today there is a small rustic plantation town and a nice little beach park but for the most part ‘Ewa runs into Kapolei and Waipahu. There are about 15,000 people who call ‘Ewa home. There is a significant military population as well as a number of manufactured ‘neighborhoods’ like Ewa Gentry, Ocean Point, and ‘Ewa Villages. The nearby military resort housing base at Iroquois Point is lovely but off limits to civilians.
Kapolei has government offices, an FBI field office, a water park (Hawaiian Waters), plenty of restaurants, shops, and well ordered streets, parks, and festivals. What it doesn’t have is much in the way of tourist infrastructure. There is a hotel there now and nearby at Ko Olina there are plenty of tourist resorts including Disney’s Aulani, Four Seasons, and Marriot. A large portion of the future growth of Oahu is slated to take place in Kapolei and nearby Waipahu and Millilani.
Kapolei is the home of the University of Hawaii, West Oahu campus and Hawaii Tokai International College as well as a local high schools and grade schools.
The Honolulu Area Rapid Transit Rail project is going to make a big impact on Kapolei – once it’s all done and figured out. Many of the stores and restaurants in Kapolei are franchise locations of local Oahu businesses from Kailua, Waikiki and more – so don’t be surprised to find Lanikai Juice or Kalapawai Deli on both sides of the island.
So here’s the thing – Kapolei – right now – has many of the same restaurants and shops as you find in areas where there are a lot of tourists – but without the tourists. I’m sure this will change before too long. The outlet malls, the resorts at Ko Olina, and the new Makana Ali’i Mall are all starting to draw people. Mostly though – this is all just getting ready for when the rail opens up this part of the island to all the tourists who have been so far, mostly contained in Waikiki and Honolulu.
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.
Oahu is an island in Hawaii, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are amazing beaches here – but even knowing that Hawaii is paradise and exists in this perfect tropical zone, people are still often surprised by the beauty of our beaches. Here are five of the most beautiful beaches on Oahu – not just the most beautiful on this island, but in the world. None of them is more than a forty minute drive from Waikiki.
Voted as the most beautiful beach in America over and over again – this sweet little Windward Oahu community beach in Kailua literally means “Heavenly Water” in the Hawaiian language. Powdered sugar sand, the view of the Moku Lua Islands, calm waters filled with fish for snorkeling and the color blue in that incredible tone that is nothing short of, well, heavenly. Go to Lanikai Beach.
It’s only separated from Lanikai by a point of land and a military base on Oahu, but it might as well be a hundred miles for the difference in crowds and conditions. Where Lanikai is filled with Japanese tourists and haole people, Waimanalo is filled with local people – if there is anyone there at all. It still has the views of the Mokes, but the surf can pound at Waimanalo Beach and the sand is a bit less powdery but still pretty divine. Waimanalo Beach is great for body surfing, getting away from the crowds, and enjoying paradise.
A whole different world awaits you at Sandy’s on the South Shore of Oahu. Also known as ‘Breakneck Beach’, this is where President Obama likes to go to bodysurf when he’s in town. Sandy’s has much larger sand particles that tend towards the color we think of sand being – tan. It’s filled with local body boarders, surfers, bikini beauties, and adventure lovers. The sun can pound down on you at Sandy’s and there isn’t anyplace to hide from it. Also, don’t snake a wave or ‘drop in’ onthe locals or you might get a different kind of pounding.
Waikiki Beach is one of the best beaches in the world. It’s actually made up of five different beaches and stretches from near the Waikiki Acqaurium all the way down to Hilton Hawaiian Village. It’s awesome. Yes, it’s almost always filled with people but never in the way that beaches in California, Florida, New Jersey, Italy or other beachy destinations are. Waikikik has thick, course sand and waves that range from beginner to pro. What could be more jaw droppingly beautiful than sitting on Waikiki watching the sunset with Diamond Head on your left, the pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel on your right, and a strong Maitai in your hand? Not much.
I almost didn’t include this beach on the list, because I hate sharing my favorite spots with the internet, but the truth on this one is out and frankly, I’m not the one spilling the beans here. Just across from Sea Life Park – at the point where the South Shore and the Windward Side are still sort of merged – you will find Makapu’u Beach Park. Great body surfing, great surf, nice sand, and plenty of beauty with Rabbit Island and the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse and the jagged cliffs above. This is a very local place, so be respectful. Also, as everywhere, don’t leave any valuables in your car.
There are no shortage of great things to do on Oahu. When you visit Hawaii, it’s perfectly fine to bring the kids with you and most activitives are great for the whole family. Things like swimming, snorkeling, having beach time, hiking in the rainforest, or just doing some shopping in Waikiki. Sometimes though, you might want to do something that will make the little ones squeal with delight – for those times, I offer the following.
The Dole Planatation is great for everyone but the little ones get a special thrill. All the bright colors, the pineapple ice cream aka Dole Whip, getting lost in the world’s largest pineapple maze, and taking a train ride through the old plantation days. The kids will love this one.
Sea Life Park
Sea Life Park is a blast for the kids. Sure, there are controversies and real concerns about the way that marine animals and animals in general are treated, but in Hawaii, the legislature, businesses and every day people take those concerns seriously, so why not go and watch a dolphin show or check out the sharks in the big aqaurium. Visit with the penguins and see Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles in an environment where they are safe and protected (from tourists).
The Honolulu Zoo can be a lot of fun with the kids – during the summer months there are concerts inside and great after dark programs where the kids (and adults) can explore the zoo grounds, learn about the nocturnal behaviours of the animals that live there, and more – but don’t discount going to the zoo during the day. I think that mornings right around feeding time are the best time, but there’s always something going on – especially with the gibbons.
The Waikiki Aquarium is a blast – especially if you hit one of those days when it’s raining or you don’t want to be outside very much. Head to the Waikiki Aquarium. You can spend hours or minutes there but spend at least enough time to see the sea horses and sea dragons! Also the touching zone is a favorite with kids of all ages. For those looking for a more psychedelic vibe…spend a bit of time zoning out on the jellyfish under blacklights!
Matsumoto Shave Ice
Every child should get to experience a very good shave ice. You’ll find that in many places but one of the most fun is Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. This is one of the most family budget friendly treats in the Hawaiian Islands. Go whole hog and you aren’t going to spend more than $5 on a mountain of sweet delicious local flavors. Don’t forget to get the snowcap! It might sound unnecessary…but you’re not buying the kids shave ice because it’s necessary, right?
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.
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.
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.