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Hidden Honolulu: Explore the Best Secrets the City Has to Offer

We delve deep into underground passages, secret societies and mysteries—including a few we pass by every day without noticing—to bring you the best secrets the city has to offer.


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Photo: Aaron Yoshino


Mermaid Cave

Starting just after the Kahe power plant and before Nānākuli Beach Park, a short scramble across sharp lava drops you in an ethereal cave, complete with a shell-and-coral-spattered beach and a small pool of powder-blue sea water—perfect for graceful rolling while warbling “Under the Sea.”


City & Urban 

To spice up your summer, we at HONOLULU put on our headlamps and delved deep into underground passages, secret societies, and mysteries—including a few we pass by every day without noticing. What we found ranges from spooky (a bridge haunted by a real-life killer) to savory (a whiskey club and off-the-menu secrets you can order) to selfless (off-limits areas you can only hike if you join a conservation work crew). Rest assured, we also reveal little-known treats that make life more fun, including free baseball, secret shopping deals and the spots where top Instagrammers shoot their coolest pix. 


By revealing these hidden sites and activities, we are in no way suggesting that you do anything illegal or unsafe; and we strongly suggest you respect private property and the sensibilities of those who live and work in any neighborhood adjoining any of O‘ahu’s irresistible attractions. (Also, when you talk about this, whisper; someone might be listening.)


Chinatown Confidential

War, fire, disease all played a part in Downtown Honolulu and Chinatown, which makes it the perfect backdrop for tall tales as well as genuine intrigue. For Bob Au, owner of Lai Fong Department Store, the neighborhood wasn’t a den of drugs and prostitution; it was his colorful childhood playground. Au grew up in the neighborhood in the early 1960s while his family managed the iconic antique shop on Nu‘uanu Avenue.  

1118 Nu‘uanu Ave., 537-3497; call for appointment.



Bob Au remembers:

“We used to go to school, then I’d come back to the store to help work. I was about 5 years old. Those days, across from Lai Fong were shoe shine boys. The Pantheon was a bar across the street, next to where Restaurant Epic is now. It was the oldest bar in Honolulu. On Hotel Street, there used to be Smith’s Union Bar, [Club] Hubba Hubba, Tradewinds Bar, a swing club. A lot of Chinese restaurants.


“Down the street, Wo Fat was going full blast, it was a well-known Chinese restaurant and a lot of famous local Chinese families would eat down there. Chinn Ho, the entrepreneur, would be down there. Hiram Fong, the late senator, he owned property downtown. This used to be the prime area to buy all your goods.


“My father had shops on Hotel Street, an arcade and a Casino camera shop; he’d sell cameras and watches and jewelry. This was right across from the old Hubba Hubba. When I was a kid and I got bored, I’d get my father’s binoculars and spy into Hubba Hubba and see the ladies. Or I’d visit the tattoo parlors, and see guys tattooed from head to toe. Never got bored in Chinatown.” 


That Phantom Bridge


You’ve passed under it, coming or going on the Likelike—a pale bridge deep in Kalihi Valley that appears out of nowhere. A magnet for urban legends, the Burmeister Overpass doesn’t need any help generating mystery or controversy. Built in 1959 when the then-Territory blocked mauka access to the Burmeister Estate while widening the highway, the private overpass brought the Burmeisters nothing but trouble. In the 1960s, private detectives trying to film George Burmeister Jr. threw sticks at the secluded family house to lure him into the open. His father, George Sr., burst out and killed one shamus with a shotgun. After five years of probation for a manslaughter conviction, George Sr. assaulted Christmas tree poachers on the estate in 1971, “in a bloody scuffle involving knives and rip saws,” accounts say. In 1986, he shot out the tires of an employee’s car. His family stood bail but, after a quarrel, revoked it; George Sr. then burned down the home in front of a dozen witnesses. Somehow he avoided jail until 1993, when he attacked an employee’s car, this time with the employee and a girlfriend trapped inside. The former Yamaha motorcycle dealer was, his son George Jr. said, “very much outside of the law.” Last reports placed him traveling abroad, but do you really want to find out if that’s true?


How to be an HPD insider

Hawai‘i’s police union hands out just two SHOPO decals to each officer member. So sporting that sticker on your car has long been rumored to deflect traffic tickets. Who wants to tag a buddy’s mom? Insiders say it helps, but don’t count on it to work magic.


Take the Red-Light Tour

Carter Lee Churchfield and Clinton Attaway run Honolulu Exposed, which offers two walking tours about Chinatown’s past as a hotspot for plague, rats and gambling, as well as a former red-light district. They’ve unearthed some fascinating bits; for example, a police-issued set of rules for prostitutes (nicknamed “the 10 commandments”), which prohibited owning automobiles, sitting in the front seat of taxis or attending dances.

$20-$30, 670-7090, honoluluexposed.com


Stealthy Snaps

Local Instagram street photographer @misterver keeps his identity strictly under wraps, the better to capture the funny, weird and beautiful side of Waikīkī. Whether it’s suntanning tourists or odd juxtapositions, this mysterious guy is always at the right place at the right time.


Shopping Secrets 

The Mikinola Outlet 

Score uber-marked-down goodies from Hawai‘i Kai favorite Mikinola at the shop’s town sale space near Ala Moana. Every Friday, from 1 to 6 p.m., snag deals up to 75 percent off. New merchandise is rotated in weekly. 

1311 Kapi‘olani Blvd. Suite 308


Kini Zamora direct 

There’s nothing secret about the talents of Hawai‘i designer Kini Zamora, who placed in the top two on Project Runway All Stars. But, you likely don’t know you can buy direct from the fashion powerhouse, from casual pieces to glamorous gowns, at his Hālawa Valley store-showroom. 

99-1132 Iwaena St., second floor, 721-6220


KaimukĪ > Waikīkī

Instead of trekking into Waikīkī to shop Rebecca Beach’s killer swim- and resortwear, swing by the store’s lesser-known Kaimukī studio. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it stocks goodies marked down 30 to 70 percent, and even hosts special pop-ups. 

1120 12th Ave., 772-4150


The Ward surprise

They moved! The Cut Collective gang has relocated. Allison Izu Song and Summer Shiigi now share a new retail space in Ward, where you can find weekly arrivals and sale items. Rumi Murakami also moved shop to Fishcake/Box Jelly. “I love the creative energy of the gallery and for the first time my designs have their own home.” 

Ward Village, 591-6219, Fishcake, 307 Kamani St., 593-1231


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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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