Field Notes: This Little Park Below Diamond Head Road is a Hidden Outdoor Gem
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Mākālei Beach Park.
As a vog-tinted sunset silvers the sea off Mākālei Beach Park, Cristal Mortensen and Glenn Rostron eye the lineup at Suicides before heading out to surf. A king tide almost covers the narrow strand, which sees continual use from dawn till dusk, ocean permitting, by sunbathers, swimmers, mothers with small children and, lately, a 600-pound beachgoer named Kaiwi (a monk seal). It’s hard to imagine that only three years ago the park was considered unsafe by many; for more on its restoration—and the quiet neighbor who kicked in a very large donation.
Photos: David Croxford
What it is
Located across from Mākālei Drive and below Diamond Head Road is a little gem consisting of a slope of lush green grass, a huge spreading banyan and a seawall. About three-quarters of an acre in size, it has two concrete picnic tables and a bench, a small bike rack and a shower. A narrow strip of beach on the ‘Ewa side is popular, but is not part of the park.
“Since the 1970s, the city has tried to make or acquire or secure public access to the ocean at about every half mile of coastline,” says Jason Woll, Kapi‘olani regional park manager of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Mākālei Beach Park was one of the 1970 acquisitions, assembled by gift and condemnation, he adds, from “three residential properties and a right of way from Diamond Head Road to the ocean.”
The view from Diamond Head Road.
Who’s here—and when
The park is a morning coffee spot for some, including former Matson captain Chris Cooper, 71, and a green flash favorite for others, such as Steven, 47, who grew up across the street and lives nearby. Starting before dawn, surfers head out in shifts timed to their jobs. Hammocks and yoga mats make appearances midmorning. Some days slackliners tightrope between palms as digital nomads sit cross-legged in pastel-colored bubble tents, Skyping London and Prague on their laptops.
Beachgoers prefer middle-to-low tides, while fishermen like a rising one. “I fish all over, but here, last five years,” says Kapahulu-born Ross (“No last name, please”), watching his pole in its bracket. He starts his day netting ‘oama in Waikīkī for live bait, then spends a couple of hours here hoping to land a pāpio for dinner. “I like imu them.”
A scooter arrives sporting a surfboard like a roof. “Call me Suicides,” the shirtless driver says, pointing to the reef break straight offshore. “I surf here three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”
The easygoing atmosphere is a result, says Woll, of the lack of parking and restroom facilities, which keeps the crowds away. “Without those, we can’t issue a permit for a picnic or some kind of function.” No one can reserve the park—officially, anyway.
Peak Sunday: Easy does it.
Still, after the 2008 economic downturn the park came close to being taken over by homeless people. “I remember that it was getting really bad. We regularly found drug syringes, beer bottles, broken glass,” says Debbie Millikan, whose family has rented a nearby duplex for 14 years. “There were people hanging out in the park, whether they were houseless or on drugs or whatever, it wasn’t fun. Coming in from surfing I didn’t feel safe alone.”
In 2015, with a fellow mother, a friend and the newly formed Hibiscus-Coconut neighborhood association, Millikan and others led a daylong cleanup. But the grounds were still in bad shape and there was a nasty sinkhole. The homeless population came right back, camping out and taking over the showers, picnic tables and the shaded area under the tree.
Then a homeowner living on the oceanfront decided to step up: Jay Shidler. “This is his neighborhood, he lives here,” says Woll, of the business leader and philanthropist. “He doesn’t want any publicity, but he put in over half a million dollars to renovate Mākālei,” and Le‘āhi Park, just up the road. “It’s the biggest-ever cash donation to the parks department.”
The monthslong renovation included new landscaping, grass and irrigation, a pathway that curves around the banyan tree, a new rock wall along the road and the relocation of smaller trees. Since the 2016 reopening, Shidler has continued to pay for private maintenance; everybody still pitches in.
ELLE UYEDA, 19, CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY STUDENT; KIMI CASWELL, ORTHODONTIST; AND ZOE UYEDA, 17, PUNAHOU SCHOOL STUDENT
Elle: “We’re always down here!” Zoe: “It’s very family oriented, safe and convenient.”
Kalae Millikan, 13, ‘IOLANI SCHOOL SUSTAINABILITY SPECIALIST and Debbie Millikan, 48, ‘IOLANI SCHOOL STUDENT
Debbie: “Look at all the people here—they never used to do this!”
Cristal Mortensen, 45, pilates and movement practitioner
“Every day the park would fill with rubbish. We wished somebody would do something. Then Debbie and I said: ‘Why not us?’”