Storied Streets

More than a tourist mecca, Waikīkī’s meandering alleys and world-famous beaches hold a rich history that reflects the heritage of the islands.

Written by Eunica Escalante
Photographed by John Hook

Famous for its sprawling white-sand beaches and forgiving Pacific waters, Waikīkī has always been a place of ease. For centuries, locals and visitors alike have flocked to its shoreline for a chance to melt their cares away in the surf and sun. Glittering hotels and spacious luxury shopping centers populate its meandering streets. At night, visitors mosey along tiki torch-lit alleys to the distant sounds of lapping waves or local performers serenading audiences in the moonlight.

And yet, despite its contemporary claim to fame, Waikīkī’s story transcends the mecca of tourism for which it is known today. In its boulevards, secret beaches, and world-famous surf breaks hide a rich history that reflects the changing times of the islands. And as one of Hawaiʻi’s most walkable neighborhoods, a stroll presents an enlightening exploration into Waikīkī’s heritage, from the erstwhile playgrounds of Hawaiian royalty to the birthplace of modern surfing. So, follow along as we walk across these storied streets.

Our first stop takes us away from the neighborhood’s famous shoreline as we head mauka (toward the mountains). The Ala Wai is where Waikīkī begins, both physically and historically. This artificial waterway set against the backdrop of Oʻahu’s iconic Diamond Head nearly runs the entire stretch of Waikīkī, a convenient demarcation for the neighborhood. 

It was through the creation of this canal that the Waikīkī we know today can exist. Before the building of the Ala Wai, this place was a collection of wetlands that cultivated taro fields, coconut groves, and duck ponds. In fact, beyond its shoreline, Waikīkī was better known for servicing Oʻahu as an agricultural hub than being a luxury destination. Mountain streams filtered through the island’s valleys before feeding Waikīkī’s wetlands, eventually emptying into the ocean.

In the 1920s, the wetlands were deemed a health hazard, though contemporary historians question the proclamation’s validity. Waikīkī was dredged, and the Ala Wai was built to centralize mountain water flow out to sea. Today, the landmark remains controversial. Outrigger canoe paddlers find calm amongst its waves, but locals decry its environmental consequences. Polarizing though it may be, Waikīkī would be a much different place without it.

Strolling away from the Ala Wai and back towards the heart of the neighborhood, we’ll traverse Waikīkī’s crisscrossing streets. Today, the area is a pastiche of luxury brands, international eateries, and hotels. But in the early 20th century, these avenues were lined with jazz clubs and live music joints. For decades, Waikīkī was the epicenter of music in the islands. Acts like Johnny Noble gave rise to hapa haole music, whose distinct sound captured the American public’s imagination. The genre and its imagery of swaying palm trees and ocean breezes romanticized Hawaiʻi, influencing popular perceptions of the islands as a tropical escape.

By the mid-century, Waikīkī was an open-air haven for music acts, an atmosphere akin to New Orlean’s Bourbon Street. The spirit cultivated musicians like the ’60s crooning of Don Ho or the new-age surf rock stylings of Cecilio & Kapono. Live music remains an integral part of Waikīkī’s allure. And, much like in the old days, one can still stumble upon a bustling venue while on a night stroll.

Walking past Kālakaua Avenue and towards the shore, the island breeze brings with it the promise of the sea. Gentle waves and white sands beckon. One of Waikīkī’s enduring destinations, these south shore beaches were enticing even for aliʻi (Hawaiian royalty). These waves once served as their playground. Queens, a famous surf break that abuts the Waikīkī Aquarium, traces its name to a royal beach house that fronted its shores. It was here that Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last reigning Hawaiian monarch, found refuge, as did many other royals before her.

It was also along these beaches that modern-day surfing was born. Heʻe nalu, as surfing is called in Hawaiian, is an ancient Polynesian sport beloved by aliʻi and commoners alike. Waikīkī’s gentle waves presented a forgiving playground. Before Diamond Head became a global symbol for the islands, it was the home of a surfing heiau (temple). Priests would fly kites from its slopes to proclaim the day’s waves for the surfers below. As Waikīkī grew popular with visitors, Hawaiian surfers nicknamed beach boys shared the ways of the waves. The most famous of them, Duke Kahanamoku, began traveling the world, popularizing the sport wherever he went.

Take a short stroll away from the beaches, and you’ll arrive at the sprawling greens of Queen Kapiʻolani Park. Sitting at the foot of Diamond Head, yawning banyan trees and pendulous palm trees present an enticing scene. Locals love its spacious lawns, a quiet haven amid bustling Waikīkī. Its place as a refuge for leisure goes back centuries to King Kalākaua, who first designated it as a horseracing course. It’s since shed its polo greens past but remains Hawaiʻi’s oldest park.

Waikīkī is a historic neighborhood with a thriving heritage. Street names and landmarks hold centuries' worth of stories. And as you step into Waikiki to set out on your own journey, remember the many lives these streets have lived.