Exploring East Honolulu

We explore beyond the cul-de-sacs to find East Honolulu’s friendly personalities, hidden treasures and where your lost fins ended up.


Photo: Elyse Butler

It’s easy to think of everything past Diamond Head as just a sleepy bedroom community, maybe because there are so many different suburban clusters tucked into the valleys along Kalanianaole Highway. But East Honolulu is more than just a collection of cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Jump in a car, on a bike or on a bus and start exploring and you’ll discover all kinds of cool stuff, from scenic outdoor adventures to tasty treats to new agricultural experiments.

Think you know the east side? Holoholo with us to find some roads less traveled.


The Haunting at Waialae Drive-In

Photo: Bishop Museum

So the story goes that, back in 1959, a young woman watching a movie at the old Waialae Drive-In Theater went to the restroom around midnight. Standing in the mirror next to her reflection was another girl combing her long, black hair. She had no face and no feet. The woman ran out of the bathroom screaming and, according to lore, was hospitalized from a nervous breakdown. The drive-in, which was located next to an old graveyard, closed in the ’80s. Jolly Roger Drive-In restaurant was replaced by a Zippy's restaurant, the tale of the infamous faceless woman still haunts the minds of many who venture into bathrooms in this area. Some say the ghost still lingers around the old drive-in grounds, others report having seen the faceless spirit in the bathrooms at the theater in Kahala Mall.

Updated 3/12/14.


Photo: Thinkstockphotos.com


Traveling Sands

You don’t need a Neighbor Island plane ticket to feel the soft sands of Molokai or Kauai between your toes. All you need is a barefoot walk along the beach fronting The Kahala Hotel & Resort. Over the years, the hotel has imported barge-loads of sand from both of those islands to supplement its beach.



The First Mickey D’s

Where it all began!

Photo: Courtesy McDonald's Restaurants of Hawaii

Depending on your feelings toward McDonald’s, you can either thank or blame Maurice Sullivan, founder of Foodland, for bringing the fast-food chain to Hawaii. In either case, the state’s first Mickey D’s opened at the Aina Haina Shopping Center in 1968, with hamburgers selling for 23 cents apiece. Unlike the Mainland McDonald’s at the time, which sported golden arches on their roofs, the Aina Haina restaurant had an unadorned, peaked, shake roof, like the more elegant Hawaii homes of the day. The first Hawaii McDonald’s survived until 2011, when it was torn down and replaced by a First Hawaiian Bank, but not before a brand-new location opened right next door. Glenn Waki, owner of the new Aina Haina McDonald’s, got his start as a manager trainee at the old Aina Haina McDonald’s in 1972. “Back then, I thought the original building was beautiful in terms of the Hawaii motif,” Waki says. “But I think our new building is very nice, too.”

Photo: Elyse Butler


Aloha in a Cone

Anyone who’s stepped into the House of Pure Aloha in the rejuvenated  Aina Haina Shopping Center for a gourmet shave ice will encounter “Uncle Clay,” the smiley fixture in this neighborhood who loves to hug his patrons and seems to remember everything about them, from where they went to school to how long it’s been since the last time they stopped by. Most folks who grew up in  Aina Haina remember Clayton Chang as the owner of the now-defunct Doe Fang, a beloved mom-and-pop crack seed shop in the same shopping center where he sold his popular Icee creations. Today, he runs HOPA with his nephew, Bronson Chang, serving up all-natural shave ice with syrup flavors that include green tea, lilikoi, sweet potato and kalespin (a combination of kale and spinach), then topped with fresh fruits, homemade mochi or the signature Dream Sauce. Since it opened in June 2011, HOPA has served more than 100,000 bowls of this local treat.




Going with the Flow

Photo: Elyse Butler

Wailupe Stream is the last natural stream feeding into Maunalua Bay, meandering its way from the mountains through Aina Haina to the ocean. There was a time when taro and fishponds dotted this waterway, once stocked with young mullet and crayfish. The stream is now a model to which channelized streams in the area are compared. When rain hits unpaved surfaces, such as a natural stream bed, much of the water soaks into the ground and debris is caught in the vegetation lining the stream, leaving far less runoff than hardened streams do. The modern decision to channelize streams has contributed to the decline in the health of the ecosystem in Maunalua Bay, thus making Wailupe Stream an example by which to live and learn.

real estate

Rising Value?

When it comes to prime East Honolulu real estate, it’s all about the ridges. But higher doesn’t necessarily mean better. It might sound counterintuitive, but the more expensive homes on the ridges in this area—think Waialae Iki and Hawaii Loa—are usually not at the very top. “It’s not an exact science, but the more desirable streets are lower on the hill,” says Jaymes Song, real estate agent with Prudential Advantage Realty in Kāhala, who adds that the quality of the home, the size of the lot and the view are much more important. “People don’t like driving to the top and the views are actually better lower.” The majority of the homes in the gated community atop Waialae Iki don’t have any views; the area up there is flat. “There’s a sweet spot on these ridges you have to figure out,” he says.


Urban Agriculture

Photo: Elyse Butler

Tucked away in back of Kalani High School is an old auto shop that had gone unused for years. The 1,500-square-foot building, which housed industrial arts classes until the ’90s, is being converted to a new kind of trade program. Four years ago, two retired educators recruited about 20 students to pilot a program focused on sustainability. Today, about 75 teens are enrolled in the school’s Natural Resources program—a dozen more participate after school—where they learn skills that include repairing electric vehicles and growing herbs using aquaponic systems. “It grew from the idea of engaging all kids—the bright kids, the drifters, the overachievers, the underachievers,” says Ken Kajihara, a retired ag teacher and state Department of Education curriculum specialist. “We want to give every student with an interest a chance to apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world. They build stuff they never imagined building. They’re fixing things they thought were unfixable. It’s been really rewarding.”

Photo: Elyse Butler


That’s a Paddling

One of the oldest canoe clubs in the state resides in Hawaii Kai. Hui Nalu (Hawaiian for “Club of the Waves”) was founded in 1908 by the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, Knute Cottrell and Ken Winter. It was originally based at the Moana Hotel, now the Moana Surfrider, in central Waikiki. While its original focus was swimming, Hui Nalu’s members were often found surfing and paddling in the rolling waves of Waikiki. When the club moved to its current location on Maunalua Bay in 1960s, it was all about paddling. Today, the club boasts more than 500 members ranging in age from 8 to mid-70s, all lured by the family atmosphere and a shared passion for the ocean. “We are a very diverse group,” says head coach Denise Darval-Chang, 52, who’s been a member of the club for 40 years. “We cover every single crew there is, from kids to older guys. We fill every single category.”



Volunteers remove invasive algae from from the bay.

Photo: Malama Maunalua

Malama Maunalua

Back in 2007, a group of volunteers pulled out hundreds of pounds of invasive algae from Maunalua Bay by hand, armed only with gloves, tabis and a passion for preserving the environment. This project, spearheaded by the then-new nonprofit group Malama Maunalua, was the start of a major grassroots effort focusing on restoring the bay, which stretches from Diamond Head to Koko Head, to the thriving habitat it once was. Fast forward six years and the nonprofit has removed more than 28 acres of invasive algae such as gorilla ogo from the bay—much of it recycled—with community huki events held twice a month. “The work conducted by our volunteers helps in developing a sense of kuleana for the environment and helps to perpetuate Mālama Maunalua’s call to action by becoming stewards of the bay and of our community,” says Rae DeCoito, executive director. But the nonprofit doesn’t just work in the bay. In April 2012, it launched a new watershed program, Pulama Wai, to educate the community about watersheds and how they are affected by runoff, channelized streams, sediment and pollution. Since then more than 1,500 volunteers have removed 50,000 pounds of dirt and debris from the streams that flow into the ocean.


The Canoe Shuttle

For local paddlers, the wild eight-mile ride from Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai to Kaimana Beach in Waikiki is sheer joy. Known as the “Hawaii Kai Run,” the trip is all downwind, with the prevailing trades and ocean swells at paddlers’ backs. Paddling back upwind, however, isn’t any fun at all. As a service to the paddling community, Hui Nalu Canoe Club’s head coach, Denise Darval-Chang, bought a trailer and a 14-passenger van, and launched the Ocean Playground Shuttle. For $10 per head, she meets paddlers at Kaimana Beach and returns them and their canoes, kayaks or stand-up paddle boards to their cars at Maunalua Bay. The schedule is dictated by weather and demand. “If the wind is blowing and I get at least five riders, I run the shuttle,” Darval-Chang says. For more information, email oceanplaygroundshuttle@gmail.com.


Heiau in a Cul-de-Sac

Pahua heiau.

Photo: Elyse Butler

Architecturally, Hawaii Kai is defined by its mid- to late-20th-century suburban dwellings, which is why it’s so refreshing to drop by 7142 Makahuena Place. There, nestled between a three-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home built in 1970, and a four-bedroom, four-bath residence constructed in 1991, sits a genuine Hawaiian heiau. Pahua Heiau is believed to date to the 14th century, when the area was better known for fishponds and sweet potatoes than for tract housing. The little heiau may have been dedicated to fishing or agriculture, but nobody knows for sure. If you visit, heed the kapu sign erected by the landowner, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs: “Stay on the pavement fronting Pahua Heiau and stay off the fragile structure.”



The Obama Baby House

Long before the beachfront Kailua vacation rentals and the place at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., President Barack Obama stayed at a home along the busy stretch of highway between Aina Haina and Hawaii Kai. Located at 6085 Kalanianaole Highway, it was the first of the half dozen Honolulu houses and apartments where Obama grew up. Obama’s grandparents rented the property, and the 8-pound, 2-ounce president-to-be is believed to have stayed in a cottage in the backyard. Meanwhile, public records show that Obama’s father, still a UH student at the time, had an apartment in Kaimuki at 625 11th Ave. It no longer exists. Birthers, discuss.



Vegan and Loving It

Jennifer and Christine Hee in the kitchen of Kale's Natural Foods.

Photo: Elyse Butler

A vegan chocolate cupcake made with beets may just be the way Jennifer and Christina Hee convince the world that eating healthy doesn’t have to be painful. The sisters head up the deli at Kale’s Natural Foods in the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center, garnering a devout following for their scrumptious vegan and vegetarian dishes, many of them made with locally grown ingredients. Their offerings, from veggies steamed in a lemongrass-ginger broth with Thai basil over quinoa to a burger made with beets and black beans, have become so popular Kale’s is planning to expand the kitchen and open a second location in Kakaako this year. “We’ve outgrown our home oven,” says Jennifer, laughing. Along with the new store, the sisters will expand their menu, too, and continue their mission to change the way people eat. “I love making food people enjoy that also happens to be vegan,” Jennifer says. “It excites me to slowly and subversively introduce a plant-based and compassionate paradigm of consumption into the public, using beet mochi as the gateway drug.”


Hawaii Kai’s Secret Hip-Hop Mecca

A strip mall is an unlikely place for a world-class recording studio that’s been used by such megastar artists as Beyonce, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, John Legend, Eddie Vedder and Eminem. But, hidden behind a steel door with an electronic keypad next to Long’s Drugs in the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center, right on the marina, is Island Sounds Studio, a highly sophisticated facility boasting two studios outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment for everything from recording to mixing to overdubs. Celebs love the studio’s isolation and privacy. There are no screaming fans or swarms of paparazzi waiting outside L&L Drive-Inn. And its dizzying array of high-tech electronics, like SSL 9000J recording consoles, isolation booths, even instruments, doesn’t hurt, either.


Photos: Hawaii Kai Marina Community Association

Festive Flotilla

The idea of a “parade float” takes on a whole new meaning during the annual Hawaii Kai Festival of Lights Christmas Boat Parade. The boats/floats are elaborately decorated and packed with musicians, dancers and other merrymakers. After motoring past the judges, the boats take a leisurely three-hour tour around the marina, enlivening Christmas parties at many waterfront homes. Although the marina is private, the parade is open to all entrants, just as long as their boats can fit beneath the 13-foot-high bridge separating the marina and sea (sorry sailboats). Since the festival began in 1996, the number of boats has been up and down. Once, 43 boats entered. Another time, there were so few participants that parade organizer Beverly Liddle decorated the marina’s patrol boats to fill out the field. “That led to problems because nobody could tell who was in charge,” she says.


Visit Your Veggies

Fresh vegetables from Otsuji Farm.

Photo: Elyse Butler

In 1954 Kakuji and Fumie Otsuji used their life savings to start a farm in Hawaii Kai. The couple’s youngest son, Ed, now runs the four-acre Otsuji Farm near Kaiser High School. He cultivates a variety of veggies and herbs including kale, anuenue lettuce, mizuna, bok choy and cherry tomatoes. The farm has supplied supermarkets for years and started selling directly to customers six years ago. Some customers buy the assorted veggie box for $11. Ed’s son Jonas diversified further by concocting sushi sliders with kale, eggplant and spicy ‘ahi to sell at farmers’ markets. Recently, the Otsujis added farm-to-table tours at 459 Pakala St. three days a week. Visitors walk through growing greens, then eat a meal prepared by the cooks at Harbor Village Cuisine in nearby Koko Marina Center using ingredients harvested that day from the farm. Lunch tours cost $39, dinner tours $59. Menu items have included spinach soup with tofu and mushrooms, lobster with ginger and Chinese broccoli, choi sum and chicken with cake noodles, and farm-raised tilapia with a shoyu-ginger-garlic sauce.


Photo: Courtesy ExplorationHawaii.com


Koko Crater’s Backside

The StairMaster-from-Hell hike along the old railway track to the peak of Koko Crater is great for both the aerobic exercise and the views. But the nonstop parade of other hikers huffing and puffing their way to the 1,208-foot summit makes this the wrong mountain for those seeking solitude. Unless, that is, you take the back way. A lesser-known route to the top starts along Kalaniana‘ole Highway near the Halona Blowhole Lookout. It’s a steep, three-quarter mile trek over crumbly rock and loose dirt, with a precipitous natural arch to traverse, and a spectacular but not-for-the-faint-of-heart walk along the narrow crater rim to the summit. The Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club traditionally celebrates the New Year by tackling this hike on Jan. 1. If you join them you’ll forfeit the solitude (dozens of people turn out), but you’ll get use of the rope the club strings along the arch for safety.



Koko Crater’s Double Secret Surprise

Out of sight, out of mind. That probably explains why so few people know what’s really inside Koko Crater. For the uninitiated, it’s this: a 60-acre xeriscape garden and horses. The Koko Crater Botanical Garden is the dry-land cousin of the better-known Foster Botanical Garden. It features desert flora from four parts of the globe—Africa, the Americas, Madagascar and Hawaii—planted along a two-mile, unpaved loop trail. The garden is a must for botany buffs, a great spot for quiet strolls through the guts of an extinct volcano, and one of the few places in Hawaii where you’ll encounter a baobab tree. Next door, Koko Crater Stables offers everything good stables should: riding lessons, horse shows, birthday parties with pony rides, and plenty of oats and straw. Emogene Yoshimura, who began riding there as a child in the 1960s, grew up to become a veterinarian, and bought the place in 1990. She’s forever amazed by how many long-time Honolulu residents are clueless about the crater’s horses. “The stables have been around for 50 years,” says Yoshimura, “and people still don’t know they’re there.” Botanical garden admission is free; open from sunrise to sunset. For Koko Crater Stables, call 256-1317.


Photos: Elyse Butler





The Lost and Found of East Honolulu

Anyone who bodyboards at Makapuu will tell you: If you lose your fins there, you’ll likely find them five miles down the coast in Hanauma Bay. There’s no specific current that runs directly between the two spots, but during a high tide rise, the normal current pulls from Makapuu to Hanauma Bay, then moves in the opposite direction during the dropping tide. The result? A stash of lost items from Makapuu gets trapped in Witches’ Brew, a natural catch basin in the bay’s rocky cove.


Save Sandy Beach

As seen in HONOLULU Magazine in 1989.

PHoto: Courtesy Brett Uprichard

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the historic Save Sandy Beach Initiative vote that stopped development of 31 acres of the Ka Iwi coastline on the island’s southeast end and kept the area as a natural green space. In 1987, Kaiser Development Co. got the OK from the Honolulu City Council to build about 200 homes on this rugged stretch of coastline mauka of Sandy Beach. A year later, a very determined group of activists, surfers, students and residents collected 40,000 signatures to spark an islandwide vote to protect this area. The public voted an overwhelming 2-to-1 to stop development. The coastline was preserved even though the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated zoning by intitiative. HONOLULU named the coalition Islanders of the Year in 1989.


The Eight Eyes of Makapuu

Makapuu means “hill beginning,” as well as “bulging eye.” In legend, it’s associated with a supernatural being of the same name. Makapuu was no beauty. She had eight glowing eyeballs. In one story, Pele’s sister Hiiaka travels to Oahu by canoe and is invited ashore by Makapuu, who has prepared a meal. But Hiiaka’s companions are too frightened by Makapu‘u’s appearance to land, and they continue paddling, leaving Hiiaka to hike back to see her fearsome friend. It may be a coincidence, but from atop Makapuu’s 647-foot summit, the mountain offers lovely views in all eight directions of the compass rose (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west and northwest). Today, there’s just one glowing eye there, that of the Makapuu Point lighthouse.

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