President Obama Has Arrived on O‘ahu—Here’s What We Think He’ll Be Up To
After six consecutive Hawai’i vacations, President Barack Obama is spending Christmas on O’ahu with his family this month once again. Here’s what to expect.
This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of HONOLULU Magazine.
1. Where He’s Eating
There’s a decent list of local restaurants and snack shops Obama has frequented since his youth: Zippy’s, Rainbow Drive-In, The Chowder House (now closed), Grace’s Inn. While the list has dwindled since he became president in 2008, Obama still makes sure to stop by a few favorites every winter. What does it take to be a presidential choice?
Alan Wong’s Honolulu
For the 44th president, it wouldn’t be a Hawai‘i vacation without an evening at Alan Wong’s Honolulu. Obama has been dining at the King Street spot since he was a U.S. senator. Chef/owner Alan Wong says he still gets nervous on those annual December visits. “I want everything to go well,” he says.
Obama’s favorite dish is one of Wong’s classics, the twice-cooked short rib, soy braised and grilled kalbi style with ko choo jang sauce. For dessert, it’s another classic, the “coconut”: haupia sorbet in a chocolate shell, with fruit and liliko‘i sauce.
Wong says Michelle Obama usually orders his most current tasting menu. “She is big on farm to table,” he says, although he’s never been able to talk shop with the couple about locally grown produce. “It’s not like you can do that easily,” he says with a laugh. “You just can’t say you want to have a conversation with the president, and I want to respect his privacy and allow him to enjoy his time with his family and friends.”
Wong says he doesn’t get much advance notice of the president’s arrival, “so it’s business as usual.” While there’s no official taste tester before the president’s food goes out, Wong says, “I have guys in the kitchen; there’s guys all over the place.”
And even though he’s serving the president of the United States, at the end of the night, he still has the server present Obama with the bill. He’s known to tip very well, once leaving a 52-percent gratuity for a server at a New York cafe.
Earlier last year, on Jan. 4, 2013, traffic on Kalia Road, Lewers Street and Helumoa Road was stopped for hours while the president and first lady dined at Nobu Waikīkī with some of their friends. As usual, the press was held at bay, while Secret Service vehicles lined the road outside along with hordes of people hoping to get a glimpse of Obama. Nobu’s assistant general manager declined to share any information about the restaurant’s preparations for the Obamas or their dining experience, respecting their privacy as any other customers’, but it’s impossible to keep everything from us: 2013 was the second year in a row that the Obamas celebrated the New Year at Nobu, with the menu including ozoni soup, oyster shooters, salmon ceviche, seared oh-toro, lobster with curry foam, duck, foie gras and more. While there’s no word on how the president enjoyed the meal, a threepeat doesn’t seem like a long shot—so be wary of four-hour traffic shutdowns in Waikīkī come January.
Nobu isn’t the only spot the Obamas have hit up more than once: Their first meal out after arriving for the past few years has been at Morimoto Waikīkī, where the presidential party dines in a private room while the restaurant remains open to the public. In 2012, customers had to go through a magnetometer and get screened by hand-held wands, but those are minor inconveniences to be able to claim you’ve feasted with the president.
Obama and his family don’t just stick to high-end spots. The Kailua shave ice shop, Island Snow, has been an Obama family favorite for years, and even sells T-shirts with “Obama Kailua” on them. “A lot of people think Obama has helped Kailua town,” says James Kodama, president and CEO of Island Snow Hawai‘i. “We’re really proud to have him come by.” Ever since the year before he became president-elect, Obama has gotten his shave ice fix at Island Snow, ordering the same combination of flavors that has become known as the “Snowbama”—lemon-lime, cherry and passion-guava. (An employee talked him into adding Melona to the mix a few years ago, but he never takes it with ice cream.)
“The sign [that Obama is coming] usually is we see Secret Service and people start to congregate at the center,” Kodama says. “There are also times when that happens and he doesn’t show up. His daughters come many times—they just come and stand in line, Secret Service is with them but it’s not so intense security. They stopped in five times last year.” Some people do recognize Sasha and Malia when they come, Kodama says, but they fit right in with the young crowd that’s already there and they “stand in line like everybody else.”
When Obama comes, though, the roads start to close about 10 minutes beforehand, and Secret Service comes through to check out the store. “In the beginning, Secret Service wouldn’t allow any more customers in, but they’d let customers who were already in stay,” Kodama says. “Lately, the Secret Service comes in and mentions to us just minutes before that they’re already closing off the street. They come in and mention that no more customers can come in the store, and everyone files out. … By the time the cars start rolling in, only employees are in the store.” They also put up barricades outside to keep everyone at a distance, but Kodama says that Obama is very personable and spends a lot of time with the employees, hanging out and making them feel comfortable. Though he didn’t stay for long last year, sometimes he will hang around for up to 45 minutes meeting with people. “Some people come every day just hoping [to run into him],” Kodama says. “Even the Secret Service guys are really nice.”
2. Fitness and Relaxation
Obama may be on vacation, but it’s not all lounging in his Kailua home or lavish dinners. Obama is one of the most-fit commanders in chief in history, reportedly working out for at least 45 minutes, 6 days a week. Also on the schedule: golf.
Susan Duprey has both seen and talked to Obama every year he’s been in town. Duprey, who was born and raised on O‘ahu, is the director of the Windward Choral Society (and the Kona Music Society on the Big Island); her husband, Bryan, recently retired from the Marine Corps.
The first year Obama was in office, Duprey, a self-described gym rat, happened to be pumping iron right next to the commander in chief, who, she says, was just lifting light weights. Duprey is an ʻIolani School alum, and sitting so close to the president from Punahou, she couldn’t pass up the chance to incite a little school rivalry. “He was putting his weights back … and so I said, “ʻIolani no ka oi,’” she says. “He had his iPod in and took out one of his earphones and said, ‘Excuse me?’ And I said, “ʻIolani no ka oi!’ He laughed and said, ‘I got nothing against ‘ʻIolani!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ kind of sarcastically back to him and then we continued on [working out],” she says with a laugh.
As long as you have a military ID, says Duprey, you could be one of a lucky few to sweat it out with the president and first lady. Just leave your phone, camera and change of clothes at home. “You just go in with your workout clothes; you can’t leave stuff in the lockers,” says Duprey, adding that Secret Service agents check over everyone with a security wand before they enter. And there’s no news watching while the POTUS is getting his fitness on, she adds. While the TVs in Semper Fit usually broadcast various news stations, when the president is working out, it’s nothing but sports channels—he is on vacation. On the plus side, says Duprey, “They make the gym spic and span before he comes! It’s great for us.”
Kāneʻohe Klipper Golf Course
When the commander in chief is practicing his backswing at the Klipper, his schedule and safety come before everyone else’s. It’s not unusual for the course’s other patrons to have their tee times rescheduled, even if they booked weeks in advance. Local photographer John Hook went golfing with his dad during one of Obama’s winter visits and the two managed to keep their original tee time. “We were golfing two holes ahead of him [and] Secret Service would come inspect our golf cart, and [security] wand us and our bags,” he says. Hook says he was able to take photos of the president golfing, and even got to shake his hand.
Duprey, who regularly golfs at the course with her husband, has also been at the Klipper course at the same time as the president. Once, she says, they were coming down No. 7, while he was coming up hole 12. “There’s this notorious place where the ball always goes right into the trees and, of course, he hit it right into the trees,” she says. “I heard him say, ‘That was just terrible! Just terrible!’ And everyone was just looking down.”
Olomana Golf Links
In 2008, when Obama was the Democratic nominee for president, he played at Olomana Golf Club. Former Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Gene Park, who was not officially part of the press pool, but a “roving reporter, being somewhat undercover,” he says, was there to witness Obama’s game.
Park stood in line behind Obama at the hot dog stand. “He ordered two cans of Hawaiian Sun Passion Orange, a Powerade, three jumbo hot dogs and a turkey sandwich,” he says, adding that he left a $6 tip. The future president briefly chatted with fellow golfers and a group of visiting kids before hitting the links. Park says Obama made fun of his own golfing ability, or lack thereof. “His game was painful to watch,” says Park. It seems he’s since improved. The big question is: Do you think his friends let him win?
3. The Press?
You’d think political journalists would get special access to Obama. Think again. Park has covered Obama’s Hawai‘i vacations. He was never officially part of the press pool, and he’s glad of it. “Those reporters are smashed into an SUV, and barely ever let out for air as Obama makes his rounds doing what we all know he loves doing,” he says.
4. Presidential Transportation
Oh, the presidential motorcade. Upon first spotting his cavalcade of armored, black vehicles, there’s excitement: Maybe I’ll get a glimpse of the president! But that elation quickly turns to frustration as his motorcade routinely gums up traffic, sometimes for hours.
When the POTUS is on the island, a good portion of his time is spent at Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i, working out, golfing; he and the first family even frequent Pyramid Rock Beach across the airfield runway. All this activity requires a large convoy of armored cars, flanked by the military police (MPs) when he’s on base, and by HPD when he’s not. All these cars are bound to create traffic.
“They close the roads on base and they also shut down the gates,” says Tricia Prestridge, who lives on base with her husband and two sons. “If he’s getting ready to come on [base] or leave, they shut everything down.” Luckily, she was only stuck in traffic for 15 minutes one time, and 30 minutes another day. But you can get stopped even if you’re not in a car, she adds. “I also got caught in [traffic] when I was out running. The MPs came on four-wheelers and stopped everyone that was on foot on Mokapu.”
5. Secret Service
The Secret Service wouldn’t give us any information for this story (understandably), but all the folks we spoke with had nothing but nice things to say about the men and women who would lay down their lives for the president and his family.
“You’d think they’d get tired of their job, wanding people. They’re so kind about it, and they’re not pushy or arrogant,” says Duprey, who has interacted with the Secret Service every year the president has been in town. “They are so gracious. I’ve been impressed by running into them.”
Duprey says that, while on O‘ahu, you’ll see agents in sport slacks and high-end aloha shirts, such as ʻIolani and Tori Richard. Still, they don’t exactly blend in. “On Christmas morning, I was walking my dogs on Kailua Beach and there were all these guys who were trying to look like surfers on Kailua Beach, but you know that they’re Secret Service and they’re all talking into their watches,” says Duprey with a laugh.
6. An Obama Christmas
It wouldn’t be Christmas for the Obamas without a few family holiday traditions (one of them being presidential pie after dinner). For Michelle, the season of giving begins on Christmas Eve when she fields calls for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Tracks Santa program. The FLOTUS answers phone calls from children all over America wondering where Santa is on his gift-giving expedition. As she follows NORAD’s online tracking of Saint Nick and his sleigh, she asks kids what they want for Christmas and tells them to go to sleep early. “And you know how many gifts he’s delivered already?” she asked a 5-year-old boy from North Carolina last year.
“More than 3 billion gifts he’s already delivered. Isn’t that something?”
Kids and parents who get to speak to Michelle for a few minutes are elated. The president then calls U.S. armed-forces members around the world, thanking them for their service and wishing them happy holidays.
Kailua home, while the afternoon is spent with friends and the troops at MCBH. Obama poses for photos, signs autographs and speaks to them over their dinner before having his own with the first family. The White House often releases the Obama Christmas dinner menu, and it always includes pie. “There is no holiday dinner that does not end with pie, be it sweet potato, apple, pumpkin or banana cream,” said Sam Kass, a White House assistant chef, in an email interview with Politico. Kass often accompanies the Obamas on their holiday vacations, preparing their meals when they’re not dining out.
7. The Neighborhood
A surefire sign that Obama’s in town is the gunboats that appear in Kawainui Canal. For the duration of the presidential vacation, the U.S. Coast Guard sets up a security zone in the waters around the Paradise Point Estates peninsula, the exclusive Kailua neighborhood where the president has stayed for the past five years. This keep-out area includes about a half mile of the canal, a waterway popular among paddlers and a small slice of Kailua Bay, including part of a surfing area once known as Castle’s but now called Obama’s. (Where can you not surf when Obama’s here? Obama’s.) Violators face a $40,000 fine, up to 10 years in prison and, according to one Kailua resident who lives along the canal and hasn’t quite come to terms with the firepower that accompanies the leader of the free world, “possible death.”
Security within the Paradise Point neighborhood has gotten tighter since Obama first stayed there as president-elect in 2008. Initially, neighbors gathered on the sidewalks to greet Obama’s motorcade as it passed, and gawkers routinely drove into the neighborhood to see what they could see. More recently, the neighborhood has been closed to all but its residents and their registered guests, and nobody’s allowed on the sidewalk when the motorcade drives by.
The last hundred yards or so at the north end of Kailua Beach are also closed, with congenial Secret Service officers in khakis and aloha shirts turning away beach walkers, whose numbers always swell when the winter White House comes to O‘ahu. A handful of Obama haters inevitably grumble about traffic backing up when the motorcade passes and how “Obama closed the ocean.” But Kailua, for the most part, takes it all in stride.