Hidden Honolulu: Explore the Best Secrets the City Has to Offer
We delve deep into underground passages, secret societies and mysteries—including a few we pass by every day without noticing—to bring you the best secrets the city has to offer.
City & Urban
To spice up your summer, we at HONOLULU put on our headlamps and delved deep into underground passages, secret societies, and mysteries—including a few we pass by every day without noticing. What we found ranges from spooky (a bridge haunted by a real-life killer) to savory (a whiskey club and off-the-menu secrets you can order) to selfless (off-limits areas you can only hike if you join a conservation work crew). Rest assured, we also reveal little-known treats that make life more fun, including free baseball, secret shopping deals and the spots where top Instagrammers shoot their coolest pix.
By revealing these hidden sites and activities, we are in no way suggesting that you do anything illegal or unsafe; and we strongly suggest you respect private property and the sensibilities of those who live and work in any neighborhood adjoining any of O‘ahu’s irresistible attractions. (Also, when you talk about this, whisper; someone might be listening.)
War, fire, disease all played a part in Downtown Honolulu and Chinatown, which makes it the perfect backdrop for tall tales as well as genuine intrigue. For Bob Au, owner of Lai Fong Department Store, the neighborhood wasn’t a den of drugs and prostitution; it was his colorful childhood playground. Au grew up in the neighborhood in the early 1960s while his family managed the iconic antique shop on Nu‘uanu Avenue.
1118 Nu‘uanu Ave., (808) 537-3497; call for appointment.
Bob Au remembers:
“We used to go to school, then I’d come back to the store to help work. I was about 5 years old. Those days, across from Lai Fong were shoe shine boys. The Pantheon was a bar across the street, next to where Restaurant Epic is now. It was the oldest bar in Honolulu. On Hotel Street, there used to be Smith’s Union Bar, [Club] Hubba Hubba, Tradewinds Bar, a swing club. A lot of Chinese restaurants.
“Down the street, Wo Fat was going full blast, it was a well-known Chinese restaurant and a lot of famous local Chinese families would eat down there. Chinn Ho, the entrepreneur, would be down there. Hiram Fong, the late senator, he owned property downtown. This used to be the prime area to buy all your goods.
“My father had shops on Hotel Street, an arcade and a Casino camera shop; he’d sell cameras and watches and jewelry. This was right across from the old Hubba Hubba. When I was a kid and I got bored, I’d get my father’s binoculars and spy into Hubba Hubba and see the ladies. Or I’d visit the tattoo parlors, and see guys tattooed from head to toe. Never got bored in Chinatown.”
That Phantom Bridge
You’ve passed under it, coming or going on the Likelike—a pale bridge deep in Kalihi Valley that appears out of nowhere. A magnet for urban legends, the Burmeister Overpass doesn’t need any help generating mystery or controversy. Built in 1959 when the then-Territory blocked mauka access to the Burmeister Estate while widening the highway, the private overpass brought the Burmeisters nothing but trouble. In the 1960s, private detectives trying to film George Burmeister Jr. threw sticks at the secluded family house to lure him into the open. His father, George Sr., burst out and killed one shamus with a shotgun. After five years of probation for a manslaughter conviction, George Sr. assaulted Christmas tree poachers on the estate in 1971, “in a bloody scuffle involving knives and rip saws,” accounts say. In 1986, he shot out the tires of an employee’s car. His family stood bail but, after a quarrel, revoked it; George Sr. then burned down the home in front of a dozen witnesses. Somehow he avoided jail until 1993, when he attacked an employee’s car, this time with the employee and a girlfriend trapped inside. The former Yamaha motorcycle dealer was, his son George Jr. said, “very much outside of the law.” Last reports placed him traveling abroad, but do you really want to find out if that’s true?
How to be an HPD insider
Hawai‘i’s police union hands out just two SHOPO decals to each officer member. So sporting that sticker on your car has long been rumored to deflect traffic tickets. Who wants to tag a buddy’s mom? Insiders say it helps, but don’t count on it to work magic.
Take the Red-Light Tour
Carter Lee Churchfield and Clinton Attaway run Honolulu Exposed, which offers two walking tours about Chinatown’s past as a hotspot for plague, rats and gambling, as well as a former red-light district. They’ve unearthed some fascinating bits; for example, a police-issued set of rules for prostitutes (nicknamed “the 10 commandments”), which prohibited owning automobiles, sitting in the front seat of taxis or attending dances.
$20-$30, (808) 670-7090, honoluluexposed.com
Local Instagram street photographer @misterver keeps his identity strictly under wraps, the better to capture the funny, weird and beautiful side of Waikīkī. Whether it’s suntanning tourists or odd juxtapositions, this mysterious guy is always at the right place at the right time.
The Mikinola Outlet
Score uber-marked-down goodies from Hawai‘i Kai favorite Mikinola at the shop’s town sale space near Ala Moana. Every Friday, from 1 to 6 p.m., snag deals up to 75 percent off. New merchandise is rotated in weekly.
1311 Kapi‘olani Blvd. Suite 308
Kini Zamora direct
There’s nothing secret about the talents of Hawai‘i designer Kini Zamora, who placed in the top two on Project Runway All Stars. But, you likely don’t know you can buy direct from the fashion powerhouse, from casual pieces to glamorous gowns, at his Hālawa Valley store-showroom.
99-1132 Iwaena St., second floor, (808) 721-6220
Kaimukī > Waikīkī
Instead of trekking into Waikīkī to shop Rebecca Beach’s killer swim- and resortwear, swing by the store’s lesser-known Kaimukī studio. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it stocks goodies marked down 30 to 70 percent, and even hosts special pop-ups.
1120 12th Ave., (808) 772-4150
The Ward surprise
They moved! The Cut Collective gang has relocated. Allison Izu Song and Summer Shiigi now share a new retail space in Ward, where you can find weekly arrivals and sale items. Rumi Murakami also moved shop to Fishcake/Box Jelly. “I love the creative energy of the gallery and for the first time my designs have their own home.”
Ward Village, (808) 591-6219; Fishcake, 307 Kamani St., (808) 593-1231
Whiskey Drinkers Club
Tucked away behind O’Toole’s Irish Pub in Chinatown, around the stage, past the bar and through a little door in the back, is the Celtic Room, a place for small gatherings.
Once a month, O’Toole’s owner Bill Comerford hosts a whiskey tasting for club members and others interested enough to make a reservation to sample six whiskeys, inspired by holidays, special visiting guests, or whatever Comerford fancies.
“When people have questions, I try to answer them. If I can’t, I’ll just make it up anyway,” Comerford jokes. “On any given evening, we usually sample two Irish whiskeys, two that are Scotch, and then two American.”
At Comerford’s back-room tastings, it’s not about telling people what to expect in each sip, but more about teaching how to appreciate on their own. “Think of whiskeys like chocolate chip cookies. Everyone can make their own, but each cookie is different,” says Comerford. “And that’s how I recommend sampling whiskey too; not by pounding a shot but taking a little sip like you’re taking a bite of a cookie. How’s the taste and texture? What’s it like?”
His motto: Drink what you like, whether the bottle costs $200 or just $20. “If it’s $20,” says Comerford, “Hey, lucky you!”
$25 ($20 for members), (808) 521-4712, irishpubhawaii.com
‘Awa or Kava, This Must Be the Place
Nothing against the acai-bowl, latte-centric places that also serve kava/‘awa, but preparing and drinking the root is a cultural experience. If that’s your vibe instead of a sugary Kavaccino, head over to Fiji Kava for a tasting and talk story session with avuncular owner Daya. A hole in the wall across from Honolulu Community College in the back of a Dillingham strip mall, the shop is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 10 p.m., and closed Wednesdays.
1007 Dillingham Blvd., Suite 107B, (808) 295-2450
Club Evergreen is best known for Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi’s big bar tab on the county dime. But if you crave quality sushi after 2 a.m., and if you really aren’t fazed by going to a buy-me-drink hostess bar, sit at the counter in the corner and talk only to the guy with the knives.
1376 Kapi‘olani Blvd.
Skip the supermarket
Want to be the hero of your next barbecue? Venture into Maunakea Market in Chinatown for BM Meat Market’s lemongrass pork sausage. It’s often not on display, so you have to specifically ask for it, but your quest will be richly rewarded by juicy, herby meat that blows supermarket varieties away. This is fresh sausage, not cured, so grill long and low for the best results.
1120 Maunakea St., #139, (808) 541-9835
How do ewe take their coffee?
Already a refuge from UH Mānoa for those who appreciate its strong coffee, tastefully eclectic but cluttered décor and eccentric, sometimes-prickly owner Dennis, Coffeeline hosts a wonderful home-style lamb dinner on Wednesday nights. It’s only for the customers Dennis deems worthy, so be sure to call ahead.
1820 University Ave., (808) 778-7909
Tour Monsanto’s brave new world
Learn from controversial agriculture giant Monsanto where new strains of genetically engineered corn are developed and tested. Besides hearing the other side of the story by diving into operations with a Monsanto employee, you’ll experience the eerie buzz of a high-security agriculture station.
94-520 Kunia Road, Waipahu, (808) 685-8300
Ask for the cold soup
We would never name names, but let’s just say that, if you ever happen to be at a Korean restaurant around the Ke‘eaumoku area, and it happens to be past the 2 a.m. legal cutoff for selling alcohol, and you happen to still be thirsty, well, it’s possible that you might be able to order a cold soup from the server, and it’s also possible that a soda can filled with chilled light beer might arrive at your table shortly thereafter. It’s a late-night blessing, so be cool about it, OK?
Miki’s at midnight
It takes a brave restaurant to cater to the night owls, drag racers and ridiculously early risers of Pearl City. Some say it’s worth staying up just for Miki’s famous teri meatballs. Open 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. (4 a.m. on Fridays).
1001 Lehua Ave., (808) 455-1668
Off the Menu
In this age of social media, it’s a shame how few secret menus are really secret; seems like the whole world knows to order the White Gummy Bear Smoothie from Jamba Juice or Animal Style fries from In-N-Out Burger. Still, there are some local off-the-menu items for those who search:
Mai Lan Vietnamese Restaurant
Mai Lan Vietnamese Restaurant on Ke‘eaumoku Street has a crab curry that’s not on the menu but all over social media. Yes, it’s that good.
Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery in Kaimukī
Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery in Kaimukī cuts off all the corners and sides of its super moist and delicious brownies and sells them separately. For $5 you get all the best parts!
Chart House Waikīkī
If you’re at Chart House Waikīkī and Guy Maynard is working, ask for the Pua Cocktail. It’s his concoction—named after his girlfriend—with elderflower liqueur, sweet and sour, Grand Marnier and lemon.
Kaiwa at Waikīkī Beachwalk has a special ochazuke—not on the menu because it’s a hassle to make—and omurice, a Japanese dish consisting of an omelet made with fried rice and usually topped with ketchup. Here, it comes with a savory sauce, more like tonkatsu or okonomiyaki.
Arancino di Mare and Arancino on Beachwalk
The linguine vongole with Manila clams and tomato concassé from Arancino di Mare and Arancino on Beachwalk in Waikīkī disappeared to make way for new dishes. But if you ask, the kitchen will prepare the not-on-the-menu-anymore dish.
Koko Head Café
Fans buzz about the secret menu at Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Head Café: volcano meatballs, twice-cooked Jidori chicken sandwiches and bananas on sticks. But what’s still under the radar? Her mega hash browns now come in five styles: ohayou, Reuben, mush gravy, lū‘au and volcano.
Paths Less Taken
Waihe‘e Water Tunnels
Deep in a 1,500-foot long tunnel bored directly into lava, the haunting echo of Hawaiian chants mingle with splashing water reverberating off the walls. Where are you? On a Board of Water Supply tour of the Waihe‘e tunnel in Kahalu‘u that supplies more than 40 percent of the water on the Windward side.
Free, (808) 748-5041.
Sneak into a baseball game—legally
A free pass to watch UH baseball over beers at Les Murakami Stadium? Sounds like #luckywelivehawaii. Show up during the seventh-inning stretch and you can walk right in, grab an empty seat and still have the entire eighth inning to order beer before sales shut down. Most games start at 6:35 p.m. and last a little more than three hours, so this is a perfect meet-cute date or screwball nightcap to your evening. There are even a few day games to tempt you away from the office. Check the score before you go to make sure the game is competitive.
Spot a wallaby
Exactly a century ago, a pair of wallabies escaped a private zoo and eloped into the wild. Their romance lives on in the back of Kalihi Valley, where a colony boasts an estimated 40 to 250 members. They’re a shy troupe that stays hidden but Honolulu’s Olin Lagon recently got close enough in his quiet electric Ford Focus to capture one on camera.
Get a Zen bump
Tucked deep in the shadows of Pālolo Valley, the Mu Ryang Sa Korean Buddhist temple exudes tranquility and is free and open to the public. For a boost, try the Broken Ridge Meditation Group that meets every Saturday from 4 to 5 p.m., or join the 1,080 tiny statues peering from a nearby nook.
2420 Halela‘au Place.
Kiss in the Surf
You know how visiting Mainland friends insist on doing something touristy with you and afterward you’re secretly glad? That’s “From Here to Eternity Beach,” also known as, for Generation X, “50 First Dates Beach,” or, for millennials, “Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’ Beach.” On the road between Hanauma Bay and Sandy Beach, near the Hālona Blowhole, this beach also has a secret passage under the highway—nicknamed “Cockroach Tunnel”—to rustle up some Scary Movie-style hugs. We won’t tell anyone you were there.
Do some science on Gilligan’s Island
You don’t have to be a marine biologist or grad student to tour Moku o Lo‘e or Coconut Island, the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology station known for its shark and coral research, as well as the opening shot of Gilligan’s Island.
You can finesse a tour, even an overnight campout, by contacting the Community Education Program at hawaii.edu/himb/Education/CEP/CEP.html; or call (808) 235-9302.
Out of the Past
Brand of Brothers
Sip a Pilot Pale Ale at The Brewseum while poring over the best private World War II memorabilia collection on O‘ahu; the USO-style pub’s treasures overflow walls and ceilings, include a Jeep and running toy train that circles overhead. But a beer won’t get you into the ultimate inner sanctum, the Home of the Brave Museum next door, packed with the stuff of history, including artifacts brought home from battles by veterans themselves. For that, you have to take the ($89) Home of the Brave Tour of Pearl Harbor—but that’s a good thing, because this is the most intimate and informed tour by a wide margin.
909 and 901 Waimanu St., (808) 799-2796, hotbbc.com
Check this out
If you’ve ever been frustrated by the short hours at the Hawai‘i state public libraries, there’s another option hiding in plain sight: Hamilton Library, on the UH Mānoa campus. It’s got a huge collection of books, much larger than any of the public library branches, and it’s open until 10 p.m. most nights when UH is in session, so you can visit after work, and even on Sunday. One catch: It costs an annual $60 to check books out. The price of a dinner for two, we figure, or a couple of new hardcover editions. Not too bad for a library you can actually use.
2550 McCarthy Mall, UH Mānoa campus, (808) 956-7203
Intrigue at the Palace
Take a closer look.
Sometimes, the best hiding place is in plain sight. Say, in the middle of downtown’s civic center where thousands pass daily. History and mystery buffs, though, might recognize the characteristic symbols as they walk alongside historic ‘Iolani Palace. Those in the know remember that King David Kalākaua belonged to the Freemasons, a close-mouthed citizens’ society loosely described in the National Treasure movies. Palace curator Teresa Valencia says, “I know he did participate in the meetings and he was a member.” And Valencia does show us the Masonic tools—trowels, square, level, plumb and the ring of the Merrie Monarch displayed in a basement gallery.
But she demurs on details about insignia or symbols on the building: “There might be components that we at the palace are not aware of.”
She refers us to the lodge where the king was once a member. Well-known storyteller Lopaka Kapanui belongs there now and got right back to us but he, too, was uncharacteristically reluctant to say too much about the palace symbols. He didn’t deny that a row of five Corinthian columns corresponds with the five senses; or that the lion head closely resembles those that stand guard outside the Masonic temple.
And the building tools? Take the trowel? “It symbolically teaches Freemasons the importance of spreading brotherly love and harmony.” Makes you look at buildings a whole new way.
Heiau & Healing Pools
In Waikīkī at Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemahu a Kapuni, The Stones of Life, or Four Wizards, represent four healers from Tahiti who transferred their mana to them before returning home. The stones, quarried in Kaimukī, weigh more than seven tons and would have required a great communal effort to move.
2405 Kalākaua Ave., next to the police station
Cruising the North Shore? For a break from the surfer-centric coastal scene, turn inland at Pūpūkea on Pu‘u o Mahuka Road and head up to the heiau of the same name, the largest on O‘ahu. On 2 acres overlooking Waimea Bay, the stone platform has three enclosures to explore. About 400 years old, it was built as a luakini, or sacrificial temple.
In Kailua for liliko‘i pancakes? Walk them off behind the YMCA paying your respects at the Ulupō Heiau, where chiefly rituals go back to A.D. 1400. The 30-foot walls, of stones possibly transported from Kualoa, measure 140 by 180 feet.
Beneath Mō‘ili‘ili, a maze of karst water caves supplied taro, rice and other crops, as well as adventures to those who dared to go below—by boat, even. Construction has collapsed many passages, but not Kumulae Pond. A favored swimming hole of Queen Kamāmalu, it will be familiar to patrons of The Willows—it’s the koi pond.
901 Hausten St., (808) 952-9200
Great Bombs of Fire
Looking more like warped fishermen’s floats than state-of-the-art firefighting equipment, the colorful glass grenades on display at the Honolulu Fire Museum and Education Center were meant to be thrown on flames. Filled with antique gear, gleaming red trucks and memorabilia, the HFM is open only on the third Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tours are led by real fire fighters.
620 South St., (808) 723-7167
Warbirds of Kalaeloa
Hiding in plain sight out at Kalaeloa Airport, Naval Air Museum Barbers Point impresses with up-close views of fighting machines that include rare Vietnam-era Phantoms and Skyhawks and the M60 Patton tank. For kids, it’s like visiting a movie set, while grownups get chicken-skin.
By appointment only: (808) 682-3982; 91-1299A Midway St.
Downtown Art Sanctuary
Caught downtown? For tranquility and perspective (or just to get out of the heat/rain), duck into First Hawaiian Center at Bishop and King streets for the ever-changing art, curated by the Honolulu Museum of Art, in the lobby and on the second floor. Besides the mix of cutting-edge photography, art and sculpture, simply mounting the wide marble staircase under prismatic rainbows of light will activate your inner Guggenheim synapses.
Shoes of Feathers
The feathered Aboriginal tracker’s shoe featured early stealth technology so hunters could approach their prey on little puffs of eiderdown; at The Honolulu Museum of Art (on rotating display).
A stuffed, mounted thylacine is Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s house oddity, says lead historian and archivist DeSoto Brown. “It looked very much like a large dog, but with stripes on its hindquarters.” A marsupial like a kangaroo, it’s been extinct since 1936. Among its thousands of curios and treasures, the Bishop also has nine of Queen Lili‘uokalani’s diaries, and original clippings and the botanical collection from Captain James Cook’s first contact expedition, many from plants which have since gone extinct.
Unlocking the Forbidden Hikes
Hopping fences and bushwhacking past kapu signs seems as much a hobby for some as the hiking itself, but trespassing has strained the environment and the rest of us, too. Instead, try these four hikes that require a permit or are restricted to the general public, but are available if you talk to the right folks or volunteer to be a steward.
Koloa Gulch, Lā‘iE
Who owns it: Hawai‘i Reserves Inc. (Landholding company for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)
The hike: An eight-mile roundtrip zig-zags Koloa Stream to the back of Hau‘ula Valley where you’ll find multiple waterfalls and pools of water to wade into. One of the waterfalls is said to be over 100 feet—you’ll have to do a bit of swimming and climb a rope to get there, though.
How to access: Permits are available online or in the office in the Lā‘ie Shopping Center, open 9 a.m to 5 p.m., except for holidays. 293-9201, hawaiireserves.com.
Pālehua-Palikea Ridge, Kapolei
Who owns it: Gill Ewa Lands LLC
The hike: A passage through the Pālehua rock tunnel highlights this six-mile trek. Your Sierra Club guide will provide expert commentary on native plant species and photo opportunities.
How to access: The Sierra Club and the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club coordinate hikes up the ridge for members of the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club (htmclub.org); Camp Pālehua guests also have access to trails.
Kawai‘iki Trail, Hale‘iwa
Who owns it: Kamehameha Schools
The hike: On the Leeward side of the Ko‘olaus, the hike leads to serene freshwater pools hikers can swim in.
How to access: Join the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club. htmclub.org
Join a Secret Society
There is a charitable society in Honolulu where you can sit at a gorgeous, private seaside bar overlooking the Pacific all day long, sipping a $6.75 Mai Tai. Located next door to the Outrigger Canoe Club, the Elks Lodge costs $1,300 to join and $310 a year, a sweet deal compared to the Outrigger’s $25,000/$194 rate. Unlike members of the OCC, however, Elks contribute time and money to charitable projects. “Prospective members must be sponsored by a member, and there is a procedure to be welcomed into the fold,” says Robert Kekuna Jr., Past Exalted Ruler of Honolulu Elks Lodge 616.
2933 Kalākaua Ave.; (808) 923-5722
Be a brick
Freemasonry began in the 16th century to allow travelers a social network that assured friendship and connections around the world. Freemasonry also drew men of wealth, and occasionally, intriguers (Google “Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi”). “We’re for the travelling man,” says Lodge spokesperson Gilles Tisseraud. “Most of our applicants are young; some we have to push away because they’re too young. Many members are 25, 26, military men, Marines. One of the advantages of being a Mason is that you can go to France or Africa and right away find friendship.”
Don a fez for charity
Once you’re a Master Mason, you can also set your cap—or, fez—at becoming a Shriner. A fun and games arm spun off in 1870, the Shriners rededicated themselves to charity in the 1920s. Deciding to provide medical care to needy children, the Shriners opened a hospital in Louisiana, followed by one right here in Honolulu. Today, 22 Shriners hospitals continue their global mission.
Our Aloha Shriners chapter has a splendid Waimānalo beachfront estate, which Shriners and their families can enjoy on Sundays (it’s for rent the other 6 days). “It’s sort of like joining a fraternity,” says recorder Gary Liggett. “Right now we’ve got about 800 members, around the whole Pacific Rim.”
1611 Kewalo St., Suite 201; (808) 536-9333
The #luckywelivehawaii movement is going strong, and it’s not hard to see why—especially when you take in all the gorgeous Island imagery peppering your Instagram feed. But how do you hit up these hidden spots IRL? We tracked down some of our favorite snaps so your next pic can compete with the best of them.
“Maybe I’m in Cali”
The underside of the Makai Research Pier near Sea Life Park in Waimānalo is perfect for lookbook and lifestyle shots.
41-305 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, Waimānalo
“Creepy urban ruins”
The white bones of Crawford’s Convalescent Home, and the ruins across the street, make an easy, lurid shot for urban explorers.
58-130 Kamehameha Highway, Hale‘iwa
A photo posted by matt bruening (@mattbruening) on
Graceful dive photos are sure to snag you some likes, and the deep, clear waters of Waimea Bay make the ideal setting.
61-031 Kamehameha Highway, Hale‘iwa
“Carefree in a tree”
You’re whimsical, you’re playful, you’re in a tree. Try this easy-to-climb beauty, hung with fishing floats and overlooking the ocean. Just outside of Hau‘ula, on Kamehameha Highway.
“Look at me jump”
Is there anything more Instagram-baity than a leap off a beam of wood into crystal-blue waters? Alan Davis Beach, near the Makapu‘u Lighthouse Trail.
“Oh, the romance”
You and bae in a treehouse overlooking the entire city—no big deal, your life is just perfect like that. Roundtop Drive.
A photo posted by [ D R E W ] (@drewbikscube) on
Ka‘au Crater’s rugged terrain and lengthy trail means its three photogenic falls are bound to be less crowded than your average waterfall.
2738 Wai‘ōma‘o Road