10 Places You Can’t Go in Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i is full of amazing places. Most of them you’re free to visit, but there are a few where you’re just not allowed. Here’s a peek into Hawai‘i’s coolest off-limits corners.

The Inner Workings of the Tetsuo Harano Tunnels

The H-3 Freeway is the kind of road that turns a normal drive into an epic experience, particularly approaching the Tetsuo Harano Tunnels cutting through the Koolau Mountains.


Not many people get to see what’s behind the imposing portal buildings guarding the tunnels, but there’s a lot going on. There are about 30 full-time employees stationed at the H-3 control center, half of them monitoring traffic conditions, and the other half maintaining and repairing the tunnel and freeways.


“Just like the airports have a traffic control tower, this is the brains of the freeway system. The operators here are the first to get notified by the police or the fire department in an emergency,” says Tammy Mori, spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation.


The whole place is Disneyland for fans of hidden tunnels and outsize machinery, with a maintenance tunnel about three stories below the freeway, and huge, 250-horsepower fans that suck out carbon monoxide and push in fresh air. Our favorite feature: the improbable door at the top of each building that opens up into wide-open nothingness. (The doors allow access to landscaping on the outside of the buildings, but they also give a hell of a view.)


Moiliili’s underground caves

People drive through Moiliili every day without realizing it, but the entire neighborhood sits over an amazing system of limestone caverns, pitch-black and in many cases filled with water.


This 1897 photo shows one of Moiliili's cavern pools.
Photo: Bishop Museum


Laura Ruby, who edited the history book Moiliili—The Life of a Community, visited the caves in 2003. “There are a few places you can stand up straight, but in most areas you’re hunched over and cramped,” she says. “I could see the water percolating up from the bottom of the pool, and, in a couple of places, I could see it bubbling. I also saw a catfish, about six inches long, swimming around my ankles, which suggests to me that it was blind.” Other people have seen blind spiders, blind shrimp and other blind fish in the caves.


The caves are still accessible, but good luck getting anyone to tell you where the entrance is. In addition, Ruby says that the air and water quality underground can potentially be dangerous, especially since the floods of 2004. “You don’t want to go in there, seriously,” she warns.


Photo: David Croxford

The Bankers Club

The Bankers Club, on the top floor of the First Hawaiian Center, is the kind of place where everyone knows your name. That’s because it’s only open to Center tenants and their guests, and the name of the game is service. We spoke with someone who’s been to the club several times for breakfast (“the power meal”), and he says that while the food is great, and the 30th-floor view impressive, the real attraction is the conversations that take place here.


True to its name, it’s more club than restaurant, and exists to facilitate the business at hand: meetings, conversation, relationship building. There are no prices on the menu, no check at the end of the meal, and the servers are willing to accommodate just about any request.



Photo: Olivier Koning

The USS Hawai‘i

It’s just 377 feet long, but the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Hawai‘i is the densest collection of death-dealing/peace-keeping machinery you’re likely to find in the state. Not only is it powered by a nuclear reactor that never needs refueling, and equipped with a fearsome array of Tomahawk land-attack missiles and Mark 48 advanced-capability torpedoes, the Hawai‘i is specially fitted for today’s new, weird world of warfare. Covert intelligence, special ops, search and rescue—if it needs getting done, this sub can do it.


The corridors are cramped, and the bunk beds ridiculously cramped, but otherwise everything about this sub is light years ahead of what you might have seen in movies such as U-571, or aboard the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum.


As you might expect, entrance onto this boat is restricted to a privileged few. “The level of performance here is extremely high,” says commanding officer Stephen Mack of the 134 officers and enlisted crew who call the Hawai‘i home for as long as six months at a time. “When you earn your dolphins [a uniform breast pin worn by qualified Navy submariners], you’re joining an elite crew.”


The Hawai‘i is permanently stationed here in Pearl Harbor, but soon heads out for a six-month mission in the West Pacific.



Want to golf at the 18-hole, Tom Fazio-designed golf course at Kukio on the Big Island? You’ll have to own one of the private, gated residential community’s multimillion-dollar homes—or get invited by someone who does. If you manage that, though, paradise awaits. Not only do you not need a tee time at this private equity golf club, you’ll be accompanied by a uniformed caddy, and have access to “comfort stations” on the course with all kinds of snacks and drinks. There’s also a 10-hole short course available if you’re not up to the full championship experience.


Once you’re done golfing, Kukio also boasts a private oceanfront clubhouse, a beach bar and an open-air dining pavilion with employees who will cater to your every need. (If you happen to catch a fish offshore or bag a boar while hunting, for example, Kukio’s chefs can prepare and serve it to you in proper fine-dining style.)


Kukio’s staff wouldn’t give HONOLULU any access to their golf course or club, or even speak to us about their exclusive amenities, which is odd, since the company offers an informative website complete with photos, at kukio.com.


Photo: David Croxford

The Highest Roof in the State

At 30 stories—438 feet, 111/2 inches, to be exact—the First Hawaiian Center is the tallest building in Hawai‘i. Its roof is generally open only to building managers, window washers and other utility workers, but those few people who make their way up that final shaky metal stairway to the top are treated to one of the best views around. This is no place for anyone afraid of heights; peering over the edge of the building’s distinctive jutting prow onto the tiny cars and people on Bishop Street will give you an instant case of vertigo.


Fun fact—the large holiday star that the First Hawaiian Center erects atop the building every December actually lives on the roof year-round. It’s just folded down, out of sight, waiting to be winched into place.



Photo: Builders For Battle, David O. Woodbury

The Red Hill Underground Fuel-Storage Facility

It’s one of Hawai‘i’s most audacious feats of engineering—a series of 20 reinforced concrete fuel tanks, each roughly the size of the 23-story Ala Moana Building, buried deep underneath Red Hill. Designed during World War II as an impenetrable, bombproof reserve of fuel for the military, the facility can hold 252 million gallons of diesel and jet fuel. The facility is connected via a tunnel to Pearl Harbor, and can supply fuel to Pearl Harbor, Hickam Air Force Base and even Barbers Point Naval Air Station.


The very existence of Red Hill’s hidden guts was a closely guarded state secret from the date of completion in 1943 until the early 1990s, when the facility was declassified. C. S. Papacostas, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UH Manoa, got a rare chance to tour the place in 1995. “It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “The tanks are incredibly huge [height: 250 ft. diameter: 100 ft.]. We visited the inside of an empty tank, walking on scaffolding near the top, and it was so deep that you could not see the bottom. The effect was overpowering.”


Papacostas was lucky to have visited the fuel tanks when he did—since Sept. 11, 2001, the facility has been locked down tighter than ever, and today virtually no civilians are granted access.


Photo: Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, ©1999 David Franzen

Doris Duke’s Bedroom, Shangri-La

Update: The Shangri La officially opened to the public in October 2014

It’s one of the most magnificent properties in all of O‘ahu—Doris Duke’s old oceanfront Diamond Head estate. The place is filled with priceless Islamic antiquities, and since 2002, has operated as a museum, open to the public.


But there’s an entire wing of the mansion that remains off-limits, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Included are Duke’s palatial marble bedroom suite, a guest room that she furnished with an authentic 18th-century Syrian interior, and a Moroccan Room she used as her study. Deborah Pope, director of Shangri-La, says the private wing is partially dismantled at the moment, but could potentially be as breathtaking as what’s already on display. Turns out it’s a question of funding. “We’re not trying to deny people access,” she says.


“Opening each of these rooms would cost in excess of $1 million, when you add in the building preservation issues and the conservation of the collections inside. My annual capital budget is about half that, and while it allows us to stay abreast of regular, mundane repairs, it’s not enough to start large new projects right now.”


For now, you can check out photographs of the forbidden areas on Shangri-La’s website. But it’s hard not to imagine what it would be like to walk through these amazing rooms in person.


Puuwai, Niihau

It’s known as the Forbidden Isle, but if you really want to set foot on Niihau, all it takes is a chartered helicopter tour. Where you can’t go, at least not without the explicit permission of the Robinson family, which owns the island, is the village of Puuwai, population fewer than 200. Former Honolulu Star-Bulletin photographer Ken Sakamoto is one of the few to have gained access to the community, and says his visit was a memorable, if brief, experience. “There’s a school, and a church, and a playground, and that’s about it,” he recalls. “Bicycles are the primary form of transportation. Everyone was so friendly.”

Photo: Ken Sakamoto


It’s one of the last places in which an entire community speaks Hawaiian fluently, and is also home to the greatest concentration of pure Hawaiians. The Robinsons have been legendarily protective of this traditional way of life, and it doesn’t look like this is going to change anytime soon.



Bank of Hawaii staff wouldn't tell us exactly how much cash was stacked up here. They also wouldn't let us take any home as a "souvenir."
Photo: Rae Huo

The Bank of Hawai‘i Operations Center

It doesn’t look like much from the outside. In fact, people pass by this unmarked building every day without thinking twice about it. But on any given day, Bank of Hawai‘i’s operations center processes millions of dollars in cash, including shipments of new currency from the Federal Reserve, and deposits from Bank of Hawai‘i branches and local businesses.


With so much lucre on hand, security is almost unimaginably tight. The place is protected by bulletproof glass, torch- and tool-resistant barriers, sensitive alarm systems, highly trained security personnel. Trust us, you’re not getting in here without permission.


Once inside, the reason for the fuss: dozens of automated money-counters whirr through all the cash of your dreams. Stacks of freshly bound currency, in every denomination, sit bagged on tables, near carts loaded with enough coins to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault.


Not that anyone’s doing any diving. The atmosphere is calm and vigilant, and the room is filled with more security cameras than a casino. Everyone wears a smock, color-coded according to their job titles. Not only does this help the ever-watchful security personnel keep visual track of everyone, but as Brian Ishikawa, director of corporate security, puts it, “It removes the temptation of pockets.”