What used to be a rather derelict neighborhood in Honolulu is now a hip area filled with craft breweries, coffee shops, a beautiful waterfront, and a huge collection of murals.
Kaka’ako origin story
Before European settlement, Native Hawaiians used the area of Kaka’ako for fishing and agriculture. Hawaiian royals also made their homes here.
During Honolulu’s building boom in the 19th & 20th centuries, Kaka’ako became rundown as some of the area was used to dump industrial waste. A water treatment plant was also built, furthering the area’s undesirability.
In recent years, giant 50 story residential towers have been built in Kaka’ako. With tens of thousands of people moving in, new amenities have sprouted up. These include three excellent craft breweries (Waikiki Brewing is especially good), artisan ice cream, tattoo parlors, a vinyl record shop, and a chocolate store using beans grown in Hawaii.
But, it’s not all fancy coffee drinks and ironic t-shirts in Kaka’ako. There’s plenty of visible reminders of the neighborhood’s recent past that refuses to be swept away.
What always strikes me about Kaka’ako is the multitude of shady car repair shops. Housed in buildings that look like they could come crashing down with a shove, these places always seem to have a couple of cars sitting around, but rarely being worked on.
It looks like some of these places are used for unlicensed after-hour nightclubs. I’ve seen people coming out of garages at 6am on a Saturday morning dressed in club attire that’s definitely not car repair shop appropriate.
Kaka’ako’s Pow! Wow! festival
All these garages and low slung cinder block buildings make the perfect blank canvas. Ten years ago, some folks in Kaka’ako realized this and started the Pow! Wow! festival.
Every February, during Valentine’s week, artists from all over the world gather in Kaka’ako for Pow! Wow! and paint colorful murals. Some of these works of art are painted on virgin space, other pieces may cover older murals (I’ve seen some of my favorites disappear under new paintings, but c’est la vie).
As the February festival gets bigger and better each year, literally hundreds and hundreds of murals have been created. The Pow! Wow! website has a map showing the locations of many of the murals.
However, Kaka’ako is a rather compact neighborhood (at least the area where most of the murals are located) and very walkable. Start at the corner of Cooke Street and Auahi Street. Then, you can walk in any direction and see lots of works of art. Explore down alleys where there are some good pieces to be found. Just make sure to be careful when crossing the street, there’s lots of cars here. And, it should go without saying, don’t camp in the middle of the road trying to get the perfect picture.
Besides Waikiki Brewing, there are several other good places to eat and drink in Kaka’ako. SALT at Our Kaka’ako is home to Butterfly Ice Cream. If you’re lucky, the owner’s adorable daughters will be behind the counter when you visit. Another great spot at SALT is Lonohana Chocolate Tasting Bar. They grow their own cacao trees on Oahu and their chocolate is to die!
Just a few steps outside of Kaka’ako proper is the best wine bar in Hawaii, and one of the best wine bars in the whole U.S.A. Run by Chuck Furuya, Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar has an unique wine list with fantastic offerings from all over the world. Chuck is a master sommelier and one of the people who designed the sommelier test so he knows his wine!
Kaka’ako Waterfront Park
Kaka’ako is still very much a local’s neighborhood, but it is quickly being discovered by tourists. One spot where you’re unlikely to see vacationers is Kaka’ako Waterfront Park. Behind the University of Hawaii Medical School, this park is still very much a local’s haunt. On weekends you’ll see families from Honolulu gathering to cook food and have fun.
There’s no beach at the Kaka’ako Waterfront Park (another reason the tourists stay away), but there is a beautiful promenade along the oceanfront. At the end of the paved walkway is a Panic Point, a great spot for bodysurfing. But beware, dangerous currents can easily overwhelm you if you are not an expert. I suggest hanging out on the rocks and watching the locals do their thing in the surf.