Afterthoughts: Pizza Beach

Time to call places by their proper Hawaiian names.

When I was growing up, my family lived on the northeast side of Maui, in Huelo. If you’ve never been down that particular dirt road, it’s on the way to Hāna, far enough out that you could safely call it the boonies.


Now, my parents dug the country lifestyle, but, every once in a while, they’d get a craving for pizza. Fat chance getting delivery in Huelo, so they’d call the nearest pizza joint, Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon in Pā‘ia, order a couple of pies for pickup, and we’d all pile in the truck and make the half-hour drive to, ahem, “town.” The pizza would have gotten cold if we drove all the way back home to enjoy it, so we always stopped off at the nearest beach outside of Pā‘ia and ate sitting on the sand. It would often be dusk, and I still remember the chilly ocean breeze as the sun faded away, and the salty burn of the anchovies. We never called this spot by its proper name—it was always Pizza Beach to us.


Pizza Beach


It wasn’t until embarrassingly recently that it finally occurred to me to wonder about the real name of Pizza Beach. Of course, it was obvious once I did look it up: Ku‘au Beach, facing Ku‘au Bay, in Ku‘au, between Pā‘ia and Hāmākua Poko/Ho‘okipa. We used to grab snacks at the nearby Ku‘au Pit Stop (these days the Ku‘au Store). I mean, duh.


Ours was a private family nickname, but it’s a natural human tendency to rename the world around us, claiming local landmarks for ourselves by christening them with witty new monikers. You can see evidence of it all over O‘ahu: Diamond Head, so named after British sailors got overly excited at the sparkling calcite crystals they found in its sand in 1825. Tantalus, the cinder cone and ritzy neighborhood named by early Punahou School students after the Greek god who, legend has it, was punished for eternity by a pool of water that would recede before his reach, never quenching his thirst. (That must have been a rough hike those kids went on.) Then there’s Chinaman’s Hat, named for, well, maybe I don’t need to spell that one out.


The thing is, all these places already had names: Lē‘ahi, Pu‘u ‘Ōhi‘a, Mokoli‘i. What was wrong with those ones? Why can’t we go back to those original, Hawaiian names? It’s going to take some effort, sure. How long did it take us all to start saying Macy’s instead of Liberty House? Or Don Quijote instead of Daiei (or even Holiday Mart)? But this is one of those cases in which a name isn’t just a name, it’s a sign of respect for the Hawaiian culture and language. And that makes it worth some effort.


I’m far from the first person to make this suggestion. Very, very far. But, in an era of Hawaiian-language immersion and ever-strengthening Hawaiian identity, let me at least add to the growing chorus of Hawai‘i residents who feel the urge to give primacy to the Hawaiian place names that have been pushed aside for a while.


I’m not suggesting we overwrite history. Hawai‘i’s development has been continuous, and there are plenty of new neighborhoods, subdivisions and streets that didn’t exist in precontact times. Pearl City was O‘ahu’s first planned community in the 1890s and, when its first lots were sold, it was advertised as “Pearl City,” to play off the adjacent Pearl Harbor, or, as it’s known in Hawaiian, Wai Momi, waters of pearl. Bishop Street, Isenberg Street, Alencastre Street—all were constructed in modern times, and named after influential business and community leaders. No need to invent new, Hawaiian names for any of those.


Place names are a communal thing—all it takes is a little momentum, a little agreement and, suddenly, you’ve got something.  


One last note: It might properly be called Ku‘au Beach, but we’re still talking about a beautiful little cove just down the road from Charley’s, which bakes a mean pizza. If you’re ever in the area, try the combo.