25 Reasons We Go Kapolei
If you haven’t been to the West Side in a while, it might be time to pay a visit.
White Plains beach
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams and Aaron K. Yoshino
First envisioned for development in 1955, designated as O‘ahu’s second city in the ’70s, the ‘Ewa Plain has continued growing. With more than 100,000 people living there now, its population is three times the size of Hawai‘i Kai’s and more than twice Pearl City’s. It’s relatively well-off, too, with a median household income more than a third higher than O‘ahu’s as a whole. For those of us who stick to our townie ways, the current state of Kapolei may be eye-opening.
While I was Skyping in my hotel room with our granddaughter in Brooklyn, I heard a train whistle.
“Hey, Vivienne,” I said to that 4-year-old who really likes railroading. “Remember that train you rode with Grandma and me? It’s going by our window right now.”
My hotel room was in a new Hampton Inn in Kapolei. My wife, Joy, and I—who live in Hawai‘i Kai—were taking a two-day New Year’s staycation.
If you are surprised there is a train in Kapolei (the Hawaiian Railway Society operates the O‘ahu Railroad & Land Co. on restored tracks) or that anyone would take a vacation there, well, you’re in for more surprises about present-day O‘ahu as well as about Kapolei itself.
This Kapolei vacation began almost as a joke. Before the holidays, Joy and I drove west to check out the new Ka Makana Ali‘i shopping center and spotted a new Hampton Inn right there.
A hotel in Kapolei? Really? “Why would anybody stay at a hotel in Kapolei?” Joy asked me. We laughed a little, but then, a couple of days later, we decided to find out for ourselves. Call it a mix of curiosity, no New Year’s plans, free time for a staycation. Hey, why not?
Hampton Inn pool
So we spent the last night of 2016 and the first night of 2017 in a fourth-floor room at the Hampton Inn, the finest and, right now, the only Kapolei hotel (an Embassy Suites plans to open this fall).
When I told friends our plans, most shook their heads. Others rolled their eyes, adding, “Only you would do this.”
Unless you live in or near this part of the island, you’re likely among those on O‘ahu who barely think about Kapolei beyond the vaguest of impressions:
It’s out there somewhere, a terrible commute to anywhere important or interesting.
It is not a “real” Honolulu neighborhood—neither known for down-home nostalgia like Kapahulu, Kalihi or even nearby ‘Ewa Villages, nor lush, wealthy and historical like Nu‘uanu and Mānoa. Not a place anyone writes songs about.
It’s a work in progress, some long-promised Second City, whatever that is.
Kapolei is flat and dry, with homes manicured in a new-suburbany way. Outside the tidy streets, surrounding foliage is mostly dry, barren scrub. The hotel sits alongside a parking lot between the shopping center and a new 24 Hour Fitness. Nothing particularly distinguishes the Hampton’s architecture. The place does what it’s supposed to do. There is a nice swimming pool, a better-than-average workout facility and no restaurant, but an airy dining room that serves an ample free breakfast, pretty much the same as at any Hampton Inn in America.
Ōlino by Consolidated Theatres
Our room still had that pleasant new-room smell and feel. From our small lānai, we could see the mountains over Makakilo, the new Department of Hawaiian Homelands subdivisions, along with scrub land—plenty of scrub land.
All in all, Kapolei isn’t the traditional on-island vacation getaway you’d plan for the North Shore, Waikīkī or even Ko Olina, Kapolei’s neighbor to the west.
But that’s a good thing. A Kapolei stay is a different kind of adventure that challenges expectations and preconceived notions. It’s about the pleasure of small surprises, the beauty and power of the ordinary, but only if you open up to the possibilities.
Kapolei gave us a chance to do ordinary, everyday things in nonordinary ways. It also taught us something about what living in today’s Honolulu is like.
Maybe you discover something you understand in your head but haven’t accepted in your heart. O‘ahu is in a continual process of being redefined. You may not like the idea, but may be curious to find out more.
The answer to that initial wise-ass “Who stays there?” question? All sorts of people do and for all sorts of reasons, most counterintuitive, at least if that intuition comes from the usual expectations about Hawai‘i.
First, lots of people have already discovered this hotel for staycations. Over New Year’s, we met other local O‘ahu families with children, as well as visitors from the Neighbor Islands. Plenty of kids loaded up at the breakfast buffet with waffles and bowls of cereal.
The Hampton Inn also caters to a lot of tourists, and not because some slick travel agent was trying to stick a bunch of naive travelers out on the plains. Tourists like this place because it’s convenient, with shops and restaurants next door. For them, Waikīkī is less tourist friendly—too crowded, too noisy and less convenient to many of the places they want to go, including the North Shore and the Windward Side.
A guest on the hotel elevator told me she had felt hemmed in during her two days in Waikīkī, so the Kapolei stay proved a welcome relief. “I’m from Alaska,” she said. “I need the space.”
Wait! A place in the middle of nowhere is more convenient and family friendly than that visitor mecca, Waikīkī? Can there be tourist life on O‘ahu without a slew of chain restaurants?
In fact, Kapolei offers a sense of spaciousness you can’t find in dense urban Honolulu.
You know that feeling of deep-breath roominess you get when you explore the Big Island? Kapolei gave me a little of that—not as dramatic, yet still a feeling of relieved openness. Breathing space. To get that anywhere else on O‘ahu, you need to find a deserted beach or hike off the beaten path.
Coral Crater Adventure Park
Kapolei has large tracts of vacant land and streets that, by O‘ahu standards, are wide and empty. And there’s wide-open eating space as well. Many of Ka Makana Ali‘i’s restaurants have spacious outdoor seating, something that is almost totally missing from the rest of our island.
Looking out from Ka Makana Ali‘i, a mile of open fields with the gleaming white, curvy, completed but still unused elevated tracks for Honolulu’s long-planned rail shimmers in the distance. It’s as if the rail structure is waiting for the rest of Kapolei (and the money to pay for it) to catch up.
Kapolei is catching up, and more. There is nowhere else on this island growing as fast: 60 percent more people live there than 15 years ago. In terms of size and scale, Kaka‘ako isn’t even close: Kapolei’s population is four times as large. And this growth makes each visit to Kapolei an adventure.
Go looking for one or two new shopping centers and movies and you’ll likely find a whole lot more. Blink and you miss the sleek new FBI headquarters building, which would look right at home in Silicon Valley. It sits all alone and mysterious, surrounded by open fields of stubble and desolate government land. Boom! It suddenly emerges as you drive by Enterprise Street and Roosevelt Road. There is no sign identifying the place as FBI and I’d tell you how I know, but I can’t reveal my source.
How did Kapolei charm us? While Joy and I did a lot of things we regularly do at home, the surroundings and atmosphere made it feel different—more novel and relaxing, less mission-oriented.
We went out to dinner and the movies and worked out in the new 24 Hour Fitness that shares the shopping center’s parking lot. We did some big-box-store shopping.
Magnolia Ice Cream
We went to Target twice, not because we needed anything, but, well, just because. I am definitely not much of a shopper. But this did not feel like shopping. It felt like exploring—wandering and watching.
Doing small things felt really good, even luxurious. We lingered over the free hotel breakfast and later helped ourselves to free coffee in the lobby. One afternoon, totally on the spur of the moment, we decided to drop our plans and watch an old movie on TV. We snacked and drank coffee as we watched James Stewart in Rear Window for the umpteenth time.
On New Year’s Eve, we took a five-minute drive to see Fences at a new movie theater with cool reclining seats. It was a 10 p.m. show. Ten o’clock at night! Five hours later than our normal movie time. After the movie, we watched hundreds of illegal aerial fireworks burst across the sky from our hotel window.
Early New Year’s morning, I took a long walk alone along Roosevelt Avenue, the road bordering the railroad tracks. Because of the holiday, the normally busy street was quiet. I walked past the houses of Kalaeloa as far as the FBI building, then strolled back along the tracks. It’s been a long time since I walked on a railroad track.
The walk triggered my small-kid-time Milwaukee memories from when train watching was one of my favorite pastimes. When I was very young, my family lived close to the tracks. We would drive to a long viaduct over the Menominee Valley to watch dozens of freight trains cut through the industrial heart of the city every day.
That New Year’s Day walk along the tracks also reminded me of the great fun Joy and I had with Vivienne on that noisy, wonderful Hawaiian Railway train the last time she visited. Just the three of us—creaking along at 15 miles an hour through open fields, deserted homesteads and dozens of new homes on lands that not all that long ago were the cane fields of ‘Ewa Plantation.
Hampton Inn breakfast
Yes, a trip to Kapolei shows us how much the island is changing and how much that potentially modifies our Honolulu sense of place. It is a powerful visual representation of new-school O‘ahu.
When you open your eyes and mind, Kapolei presents an intriguing new version of the evolution of a modern-day O‘ahu neighborhood. You may like this version or you may not, but you need to experience the place firsthand before you decide.
No, it’s not Kaimukī or Kailua, it’s Kapolei, and worth exploring for its own quirks and charms. Go see for yourself.
24 Hours on the West Side
Save yourself the traffic trouble and spend some time in your own backyard.
By Natalie Schack
One downside of living in the 96707 used to be that all your favorite townie establishments were a couple of dozen miles—and an hour in traffic—away (sob). But that’s changed and now there’s easy access to oodles of restaurants, shops and things to do. Give us 24 hours, and we’ll give you a to-do list that will keep you so busy, you won’t even miss city life.
Start your day at Da Cove Health Bar and Café (1) in Ka Makana Ali‘i for an on-the-go breakfast of an indulgent, totally fresh smoothie. You’ll feel like you’re getting a taste of the locavore Diamond Head surf scene.
Now that you’ve got some energy, head to Coral Crater Adventure Park (2). You could really spend an entire day zip-lining, climbing and adventuring to your heart’s delight with obstacle-course-style attractions exciting enough for adults and safe enough for kiddos, but pick one or two of your favorites for a quick thrill before taking to the road again.
Hop over to Kapolei Commons for lunch at the trendy La Tour Café (3). This little coffee shop has expanded in recent years, and it’s not hard to see why people love it: macarons in an array of fun flavors, flatbread pizzas and luxe paninis.
Wave to the tourists in Waikīkī as you soar above the south side of the island in the seat of a U.S. Navy SNJ-5C, a World War II aircraft, taking in views of Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Air Force Base and Kahuku, too. Ensign’s Warbird Experience (4) is $375 for a 30-minute flight from Kalaeloa Airport, so make sure to arrive 45 minutes early for the 3 p.m. takeoff.
If you’re lucky enough to be bopping around on a Wednesday, stroll through the farmers market (5) for fresh fruits, veggies and goods, and entertainment that often includes hula and music performances. Then zip back to Ka Makana Ali‘i for rustic home goods and darling little gifts, stationery and trinkets at SoHa Living (6) and Red Pineapple (7).
Ready to go big? Save yourself a trip into the concrete jungle of Waikīkī and step into H&M (8) for affordable, trendy pieces that you’ll see on everyone from VIP celebs abroad to Honolulu hipsters. Take some time to visit Torrid (9) as well, one of Hawai‘i’s few brick-and-mortar versions of the online plus-size (finally!) boutique.
Phew. Now that was a day. Put up your feet, lay down your shopping bags and go for a treat-yo’self dinner at Kapolei Commons’ Eating House 1849 (10) by local culinary icon Roy Yamaguchi. Enjoy the restaurant’s take on high-end, plantation-inspired cuisine with charming touches and a local-first policy on ingredients—with no battling Kūhiō Avenue traffic.
Catch a Flick
The day’s not over yet. You’d be remiss if you didn’t take in a film at the much-talked-about ‘Ōlino by Consolidated Theatres (11), with its luxurious recliners, giant-screen format and (for days when you haven’t already stuffed yourself silly) a café menu that beats normal hot dog movie fare.
Finish the night by chatting and showcasing your day’s purchases over soju cocktails at DB Grill (12), an upscale sister restaurant of Café Duck Butt. The Asian-influenced bistro offers Duck Butt’s famous watermelon soju, served in half a watermelon, as well.
End the night outdoors with a clear view of the stars and planets, thanks to Stars Above Hawai‘i (13) at Ko Olina. Astronomer Greg McCartney and his telescope will teach guests about deep space, Polynesian voyaging, constellations and more. Open to the public weekdays except Wednesday. Adult tickets are $39, but parking is free.
After a jam-packed day yesterday, take it easy with breakfast at Koa Café (14), starting with Guava Lava Mochi Waffles and Butter Mochi Pancakes (both made with mochiko flour). Pro tip: Get them to go, and tote your treats along for a picnic at the next spot.
We think you deserve a little beach time. Thankfully, White Plains Beach (15) is only a quick 10-minute drive away. This former military property has plenty of public parking, a picnic-perfect grassy area, picnic tables and lifeguards. Bonus: It’s known as a pretty sweet surf spot. Eat, catch a few waves and veg out on the shore for a bit.
Nice and full? How about really relaxing with some Zen time at Ho‘āla Salon and Spa (16)? Get a massage or a pedicure, the perfect antidote to spending yesterday on your feet.
Get the Scoop
Make a quick stop at Magnolia Ice Cream (17) for a treat for the road. This creamery has refreshingly tropical flavors that include lychee, halo-halo and ube—just the thing to tide you over on the long (jk!) drive home.
See you when we see you, Honolulu.
1. Da Cove Health Bar and Café
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 424, dacove.com
2. Coral Crater Adventure Park
91-1780 Midway St., coralcrater.com
3. La Tour Café
Kapolei Commons, 4450 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 530, latourcafe.com
4. ensign’s warbird experience
Kalaeloa Airport, 300 Midway St., pearlharborwarbirds.com
5. Farmers Market at Ka Makana Ali‘i
Every Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m., Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Center Court, kamakanaalii.com
6. SoHa Living
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 1102, sohaliving.com
7. Red Pineapple
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 205, redpineapple.net
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 317, hm.com
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 709, torrid.com
10. Eating House 1849
Kapolei Commons, 4450 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 540, eatinghouse1849.com
11. ‘Ōlino by Consolidated Theatres
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 600, consolidatedtheatres.com
12. DB Grill
Kapolei Commons, 4450 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 560, dbgrillhi.com
13. stars above hawai‘i
Ko Olina Resort, 92-1480 Ali‘inui Drive, starsabovehawaii.com
14. Koa Café
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 425, koacafe.com
15. White Plains Beach
16. Ho‘āla Salon and Spa
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 915431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 204, hoalasalonspa.com
17. Magnolia Ice Cream
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 418, magnoliaplease.com
The Estate of James Campbell’s “‘Ewa Master Plan” describes a balanced range of urban land use, including agricultural, commercial, industrial and residential.
The City & County of Honolulu designates the ‘Ewa area as O‘ahu’s second city to accommodate O‘ahu’s future growth.
Campbell Estate breaks ground on the City of Kapolei.
Kapolei Elementary School welcomes its first students in September.
‘Ihilani Resort & Spa at Ko Olina opens.
Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park, Hawai‘i’s first water park, opens (now Wet ’N’ Wild Hawai‘i).
City & County of Honolulu’s Kapolei Hale opens. In addition to city hall services, Kapolei Hale also houses the departments of Human Resources, Information Technology, and Parks and Recreation.
Kapolei High School opens.
Kapolei’s first big-box retailer, Big Kmart, opens.
Island Pacific Academy, Kapolei’s first private college-preparatory school, opens.
The Honolulu Advertiser opens its printing and production facility in Kapolei.
Kapolei Commons opens with tenants including Target, OfficeMax, Petco and Sports Authority.
University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu (formerly West O‘ahu College) breaks ground on a permanent campus in East Kapolei after decades of being housed in temporary locations.
The 20-mile Honolulu Rail Transit breaks ground in East Kapolei. It will connect Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa at Ko Olina welcomes its first guests at its Hawaiian-themed family resort.
University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu opens in East Kapolei with 2,000 students.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation completes its new Kalaeloa field office for the FBI’s Honolulu division.
The Queen’s Medical Center—West O‘ahu opens, restoring hospital and emergency services to the region.
Regal Kapolei Commons 12, Hawai‘i’s first “deluxe” move theater, opens, with comfy electric-reclining seats, new food options, and state-of-the-art picture and sound quality.