O‘ahu Walking Tour: Take a Journey Back to When Waikīkī Was Home to The Ali‘i

We try walking tours that uncover O‘ahu’s rich history and culture.
Walking Tour Waikīkī
Photo: Thinkstock


We walk through our neighborhoods every day, but do we really know about the history and culture that shaped and molded them? I didn’t, that is, until I got a glimpse into O‘ahu’s past by trying historic walking tours in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown, Waikīkī and Hale‘iwa, all offered by established nonprofits. With old buildings, untold stories, cherished traditions and timeless architecture, these tours (plus a few extras) will give you a better sense of this place we call home. We’ll be publishing an article every Thursday in July. We started with downtown Honolulu and then headed to Chinatown. Our third stop: Waikīkī.


SEE ALSO: O‘ahu Walking Tour: Eat (and Explore) Your Way Through Chinatown


It’s pretty easy to spot longtime Waikīkī entertainer and historian Joe Recca in a crowd. He’s the guy wearing a crisp white dress shirt, tan long pants and a bright yellow kīhei (fabric tied together around your shoulders) in the middle of a hot summer day. He’s also the one with a portable microphone strapped to his belt to project his soft, raspy voice. Recca, 73, has led tours of Waikīkī for two decades.


Joe Recca
Joe Recca
Photo: courtesy of Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association



SEE ALSO: O‘ahu Walking Tour: Explore Downtown Honolulu’s Most Famous Buildings


Royal Hawaiian Hotel

The tour takes you on a journey back to a time when Waikīkī was home to the ali‘i. A few interesting things to note: The painting near the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, entitled “Kamehameha Landing,” is actually unfinished. The artist died before he could complete the portrait of Kamehameha’s trek to O‘ahu to unify the Hawaiian Islands, with Diamond Head in the background. What we don’t see, Recca says, are all of the details and finishing touches that the artist wasn’t able to complete: animals in the water, the rifts in the waves and more. At the front of the U.S. Army Museum on Kālia Road, you’ll find five tiki statues, designed by renowned Hawaiian artist Rocky Jensen. They pay tribute to fallen Hawaiian warriors.


We hit sites along the way including the Moana Surfrider (the oldest hotel in Waikīkī, built in 1901), the Hale Koa Hotel and the Alfred Apaka statue at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Recca stops to point out native plants that Hawaiians used for everything from thatching homes to spear making. He also spots a group of Manu O Kū (white birds with long black beaks) that ancient Hawaiian navigators would follow to get to land.


Moana Surfrider
Moana Surfrider
Photo: Courtesy of Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa


Recca has a knack for weaving his personal stories into the history of Waikīkī and is constantly joking and poking fun at himself. (Side note—our group was always at least a few feet behind him during the entire tour. The man is a fast walker.)


At our last stop, the three hula dancer statues (two women and one man) at the front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, he pointed to the male figure (you know, the one with the toned physique) and joked, “I used to have a body like that, and then I woke up.”


Recca’s tours are a great way to learn more about Waikīkī’s rich history. Plus, he’s one of the most entertaining tour guides I’ve ever met.


What You Need to Know

  • When it happens: Tours are offered through the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, also known as NaHHA, and are booked by appointment (you’ll need between 15 to 25 people). NaHHA has typically organized tours for businesses, school groups and association memberships but anyone who is interested can call.

  • How to sign up: Call the association at (808) 628-6374.

  • Cost: Varies by tour (they couldn’t quote a price when I called). Recca can customize tour routes based on what a group wants to learn. Our group happened to go on Recca’s Royal Hawaiian to Hilton route.

  • Tips: Wear comfortable shoes and bring water. A hat and sunscreen would help too. If you need to go to the bathroom while on the tour, just ask. Recca made a few bathroom breaks along the way.

  • Parking: Most of our group parked at the Royal Hawaiian Center. A $10 purchase is needed for validation. The first two hours cost $2 and $2 for the third hour. After that, standard rates apply ($2 for every 20 minutes).

  • Additional tours: The association recently started offering scheduled walking tours of Waikīkī from August to December (NaHHA hasn’t scheduled these tours for a few years). The tours are $30 per person and part of a two-part series that begins at the Honolulu Zoo and ends at the Hilton. For more information or to sign up for these noncustomizable tours, visit here for part one and here for part two.