Waikiki’s wild ride: From the seat of Hawaiian government to a world-famous tourism mecca

Updated: Feb. 24, 2020 at 6:35 PM HST
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WAIKIKI, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - It’s an unusually overcast and blustery day in Waikiki so author John Clark is wearing a windbreaker as he strolls down the shoreline of a spot known as “Publics.”

The salty mist in the air and sound of waves crashing on shore make Clark, a retired deputy Honolulu fire chief, nostalgic for a childhood spent in the waters off Waikiki.

He learned to surf here when he was 8, grew up just down the street. His parents bought a lot near Triangle Park and his father, in construction, would help craft Waikiki’s modern shoreline.

Back then, Clark’s go-to spot was “Canoes” — right in front of the Moana Hotel. He’s since ridden so many other breaks.

But what he loves about Waikiki today is what he loved about it in the 1950s — as a kid who couldn’t wait for the school day to end so he could head to the beach, jump on a surfboard, and ride the waves that made Duke Kahanamoku famous on the shoreline where royalty once lived.

“I've been in and out of Waikiki as a surfer my entire life,” said Clark, who’s written 10 books on the history of Hawaii beaches and has extensively studied the surfing history of Waikiki.

“That's what makes it a fun place.”

For many Hawaii residents, Waikiki is hardly a paradise. Overbuilt, overpriced, overcrowded — lots of folks who call the islands home are more likely to avoid it than make the trip.

But underneath the glitz and the overly-idyllic sales pitch, Clark and people like him see something more: A gathering place that’s home to centuries of important Hawaii history, from the setting for ancient battles to a playground of Hawaiian royalty and the former seat of government.

It’s a history that’s been all but forgotten by many and, arguably, all but ignored by the tourism industry. But celebrating Waikiki’s rich past could be key, some say, to mapping out its future.

Here are some important pieces of Waikiki’s history you might’ve missed:

  • Countless battles were fought on the land that’s now Kapiolani Park.

Of the roughly 10 million tourists who visit Hawaii each year, 6 in 10 still count Waikiki as a primary destination.

But long before it was a tourism mecca on a global scale, Waikiki was a gathering place for alii ― for business and pleasure.

As Hawaii has changed, so has Waikiki — and on a Waikiki-sized scale.

Famous Waikiki Beach is geo-engineered. Waikiki’s wetlands were drained in the creation of the Ala Wai Canal, one of the state’s biggest public works projects of all time. And the very ground that Waikiki’s hotels and highrises sits on was lifted, making Waikiki’s very topography manmade.

But while Waikiki may very well be unrecognizable from the place Hawaiian royals knew centuries ago, its rich history can be seen at every turn.

Just ask Rick Egged, of the Waikiki Improvement Association.

He gets animated when he talks about Waikiki, just a little breathless. Waikiki, he says, doesn’t begin and end with a beach.

Six centuries ago, it was deemed the government center of Oahu, a place fit for Hawaii’s elite.

And in the 18th century, it was the site of countless historic battles as armies from Maui and the Big Island landed near Kapiolani Park in conquest bids.

“One of the things we often find around Waikiki is a lot of iwi — or bones — of our ancestors,” said Egged, sitting in his office on Kalakaua Avenue a recent day.

From there, under the shadow of soaring highrise towers, it’s hard to imagine the Waikiki of yesteryear. The place that nature created — where fishponds and wetlands, covered with taro patches, once filled the landscape.

  • Surfing in Waikiki has always been really big.

Some might think Waikiki’s modern history begins in the 1900s, at the advent of its first hotels. But you could argue it actually started in 1809, when Kamehameha I moved his headquarters to Honolulu and Waikiki became a favorite retreat for the Hawaiian monarchy.

Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V and Lunalilo — who consecutively ruled Hawaii from 1854 to 1874 — all had homes in Waikiki.

In fact, what's now the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel was once the site of Ainahau, the sprawling estate where Princess Kaiulani grew up and enjoyed bathing in Waikiki’s waters.

But the royalty — and foreigners who lived in Hawaii — not only relaxed on Waikiki’s shorline. They loved to surf.

Before the days of lightweight shortboards and longboards made of foam, surfers hauled massive, wooden boards — some as long as 24 feet — into the ocean to catch waves.

It wasn’t until around 1910 when Duke Kahanamoku — the father of modern surfing — introduced the 10-foot-long surfboard to the islands.

Clark, the historian and author, said the history of surfing is intertwined in the history of Waikiki.

"Waikiki has always been a focal point for Native Hawaiians and was particularly attractive to royalty because they surfed," said Clark, an avid surfer himself.

"Hawaiian royalty, all of them, men, women, young, old. They were all surfers."

Clark points out that popular surf spots, with names like "Queens," "Publics" and "Castles" and "Canoes,” were originally surfed by Native Hawaiians and had Hawaiian names.

"Waikiki is one of the best surfing areas in all of the Hawaiian islands, so they were attracted to this place," Clark said.

  • Material dredged from the Ala Wai Canal was used to elevate Waikiki land.

But as picturesque as early Waikiki sounds, it had a big problem.

Waikiki, loosely translated as "spouting waters,” was a hotbed for mosquitoes.

The insects, introduced accidentally to the islands in 1826, swarmed the ponds and wetlands and raised concern about diseases.

It was those concerns, along with an interest in further developing the area, that ultimately led to one of the state’s largest feats of engineering: the draining of Waikiki’s wetlands in the 1920s and dredging of the Ala Wai Canal.

"The modern-day Waikiki that we know of came about when they began to dig the Ala Wai Canal," Egged said.

"The original justification for the Ala Wai Canal was disease control because there's so much wetlands in Waikiki, basically the area between what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Kapiolani Park was wet because of the streams that ran through there."

The construction of the modern Ala Wai Canal took nearly a decade.

Crews dredged the 2-mile-long waterway, and the material was used to fill rice paddies, taro patches and fishponds, elevating the land where hotels and highrise buildings sit today.

Instead of the streams of Waikiki flowing into the ocean, they flowed into the canal.

Historians say the creation of the Ala Wai Canal marked the start of modern Waikiki.

  • At the turn of the 20th century, Waikiki helped diversify Hawaii’s economy.

Egged, of the Waikiki Improvement Association, likes to say that tourism was Hawaii’s original economic diversification.

"Prior to that, our economy was based on sugar, pineapple and the military," Egged said.

The early 1900s ushered in that new era for Waikiki. One of the first major hotels was built in 1901: the Moana Hotel ― now the Moana Surfrider. Then came the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, also known as the “Pink Palace.”

In the years to come, Waikiki’s landscape (and its skyline) would continue to change dramatically.

And along with that change, Waikiki moved further and further away from the everyday experiences of Hawaii residents ― and from Hawaiian culture.

But there’s a push to change that.

Egged pointed to work underway to bring hula programs to Kuhio Beach three times a week and offer other educational opportunities to visitors.

“We want to bring that sense of Hawaiian culture into Waikiki on a regular basis,” he said. “Of course, Waikiki is a Hawaiian place and we want to make sure that link is available for our visitors to share.”

  • Nature might have started Waikiki’s famous shoreline, but men finished it.

There’s a race on to save Waikiki’s crowning jewel: its beach.

Many don’t realize that Waikiki is an extensively developed beach with a history of coastal engineering projects that began in the early 20th century.

The 2-mile-long shoreline, separated by several smaller beaches, is dotted with man-made structures ― from seawalls and groins to piers and storm drains.

Much of the sand, too, is imported from various sources.

This piece of history is important for Clark, too, as his father helped build one of those structures: the Kapahulu Groin, an extension of a storm drain that's become a popular pedestrian pier.

Clark said his father was the superintendent for the James W. Glover construction company, which built the wall in 1951. The work took about six months.

  • Maintaining a man-made shoreline takes lots of work ... and money.

Structures built to widen Waikiki Beach are now part of the problem.

The hardened shoreline structures, sand hauling, and dredging and mining of the reef have significantly altered the dynamics of the coastline — and in turn have accelerated coastal erosion and actually contributed to beach narrowing.

What that means is that without consistent maintenance and management, erosion would ultimately swallow up Waikiki’s most prized asset: its beach.

[Read more: Series of coastal engineering projects underway amid race to save Waikiki Beach]

Dolan Eversole, of the University of Hawaii, is among the team of scientists working to save the beach. Eversole’s official title: Waikiki Beach management coordinator.

“One of the overarching goals with a lot of the work that’s happening in Waikiki is one, to maintain a viable beach, a sand beach resource in Waikiki,” Eversole said.

But a looming challenge remains: Sea level rise due to climate change.

As coastal erosion is already a problem for this highly engineered beach, Eversole worries that sea level rise will not only expedite erosion, but it could flood Waikiki's streets and infrastructure.

Eversole said without these maintenance projects, we run the risk of losing Waikiki’s beloved beach.

“I think there’s pretty much a universal agreement that having a sand beach in Waikiki is not only desirable but it’s crucial for the future of Waikiki as a resort destination.”

Clark put it this way: Without a beach “It wouldn’t be Hawaii. Hawaii and beaches are synonymous — and not only here on the island of Oahu but on all the islands.”

And it’s not just the beach that needs maintenance. It’s Waikiki as a whole.

With more than 50,000 workers and 90,000 visitors on any given day, work constantly needs to be done — whether it’s landscaping or building renovations.

"One of the things that's important to realize is you can't ever stand still,” Egged said.

And that’s always been true in Waikiki. It’s a place with a unique place in Hawaii history, including as a gathering place for people from around the globe, Egged said.

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

"That energy that comes from all of the mixing of people here,” he said, “from all over the world … all of that energy that takes place in Waikiki is something that is not easy to find elsewhere.”

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