Into the Grove

In exploring the Royal Grove’s urban oasis, a writer recalls the lush landscape of Waikīkī’s past.

Text by Eunica Escalante
Images by Kali Alexander

As one of the most popular destinations in the world, Waikīkī can sometimes feel as bustling as any other metropolis. Glittering high-rises and sprawling shopping centers populate the three-mile stretch of ocean front. Across Kalākaua Avenue, throngs of visitors and locals stroll past every kind of shop imaginable, from luxury storefronts to restaurants. It’s a lively scene, but one that is only Waikīkī’s most recent iteration. For most of its history, Waikīkī was a much different landscape.

In place of hotels and high-rises were once acres of lo‘i (taro patches). Instead of today’s crisscrossing streets and alleyways, a thriving ecosystem of wetlands fed by water from fresh mountain streams spanned the horizon. 

At Helumoa, the wahi pana (storied place) upon which Royal Hawaiian Center currently stands, a grove rich with thousands of niu (coconut) trees flourished. 

This verdant past of Waikīkī can be hard to picture now that much of the ahupua‘a (watershed) is transformed into an urban mecca. Yet, as I immerse myself in the Royal Grove’s verdure, its landscape of trickling streams and lush canopies inspires me to remember the Waikīkī of before. 

Here, the glittering water features recall the three streams that once channelled wai (water) from the mountains through Waikīkī’s wetlands: Pi‘inaio, Ku‘ekaunahi, and ‘Āpuakēhau. These waterways are said to have inspired the inoa ‘āina (traditional place name) of Waikīkī, whose name translates to spouting water. 

From the time of the first Polynesian settlers, these streams nourished lo‘i cultivated by maka‘āinana (commoners) and ali‘i (chiefs) alike. It was an agricultural hub that covered an expanse from what is today Kālakaua Avenue to Kapi‘olani Park. Alongside the taro fields, loko i‘a (fish ponds) offered a regenerative source for ocean harvests. During his time as king, Kamehameha IV further enriched the lo‘i. His campaign was so succesful that one Hawaiian-language newspaper remarked, “The taros are thriving from up at Keokea down to the shore, a pleasing sight to the eyes. The leaves are green and much admired by every one here in Waikīkī.”

In the 19th century, though, foreign diseases ravaged the Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) population and many lo‘i fell into disuse. In their stead came Asian immigrants, who transformed the expanse of kalo into fields of rice, lotus roots, and duck ponds. Historical photographs from this time, showcasing rice fields and niu trees against the iconic silhouette of Lē‘ahi (Diamond Head), presents a stark difference to the Waikīkī of today. 

But despite its agricultural resurgence at the end of the 19th century, this Waikīkī would soon become a vision of the past. In the 1920s, the Ala Wai canal’s construction drained much of the wetlands and rerouted the streams. Without these nourishing waters, the lo‘i and loko i‘a could no longer be. 

Though sitting under the canopy of the Royal Grove, this Waikīkī of old still feels alive. Here, ‘ulu (breadfruit) trees are thriving beside ‘ōhi‘a plants sporting vibrant red and yellow blooms. Kalo flourishes in the waterways that weave across the space. A thicket of niu reaches its palm fronds upward. As I regard their silhouette against the Hawai‘i sky, I am reminded that this ‘āina (land) has lived many lives.