The Best Shave Ice on O’ahu (According to Me)

Here it is: the definitive list.

A topic of this importance is not to be taken lightly, so I can assure you that I have done some very thorough research before posting this list.

If you visit O’ahu, you will probably be told that Matsumoto’s is the place to visit for your shave ice because, well, that’s where everyone goes. I think, however, that a visitor who only tastes the shave ice at Matsumoto’s is cheated. There’s just so much better out there.

Number 1: Shimazu

Red Velvet with Haupia topping

Shimazu’s cups come big, bigger and huge (get the smallest; believe me it’s enough). They have a size known as “The Larry,” but no-one I know of has ever attempted it. The flavors at Shimazu are the most inventive I’ve come across: they have creme brulee, mojito, red velvet, even durian (though you may be ordered to eat it far outside the store).

The texture is fluffy like cotton, with just a little crunch, and optional fillings and toppings include standards like mochi and red bean, as well as haupia (coconut cream).

My favorite is the sour apple li hing mui, with mochi — although Shimazu’s mochi could be better, and I don’t like that it is cubed.

The only cons are the usual: almost no parking: long lines.

Number 2: City Cafe

Taiwanese Shave Ice with Mochi, Tapioca and Taro

At City Cafe you can choose from regular Hawaiian-style or Taiwanese-style shave ice. This was the first place I ever tried Taiwanese shave ice, and, although Sweet Home Cafe is good, I think it is still the best.

The ice is shaved fine and covered in brown sugar and condensed milk. Toppings include taro, tapioca, pudding and big, firm mochi balls — I think the mochi here is the best.

It’s a small space but I’ve never had a problem finding seating or parking. The owners are quite lovely too.


3. Waiola

Waiola

Wailoa was my favorite for a long time. Their ice is shaved to the finest consistency I have found on the island. The selection of syrups and toppings is small but adequate — I usually get the li hing and lilikoi with mochi. The cups are pretty small for the price and service can be brusque, otherwise there’s not much to fault Waiola.

Honoray Mention: Matsumoto’s

Matsumoto's, North Shore

It’s definitely not the best, I find the ice too thick and crunchy, but you have to visit Matsumoto’s at least for the atmosphere. A North Shore institution, it’s been in the same spot since 1951 and is almost always packed with tourists. Braving the long line and finding a spot on the bench outside is just one of those things you have to do on the North Shore.

Kalaupapa

I would have liked the mule ride.

As the plane swooped along the coast, I saw the zigzagging trail sloping down the cliff face. It’s a two-hour ride each way but April’s rain had washed away the trail so now the only way in was by plane.

Our little four-seater airplane flew over the cliffs and on to the other side of Molokai: it would be quicker to just pick up the other guy now, our pilot explained.

Our group grew to four; seats were swapped to evenly balance weight and we were back in the air for just a few minutes before gliding down past a tall, thin lighthouse and landing in a patch of field.

We met our guide in the Kalaupapa Airport—a building the size of my living room—and waved goodbye to the pilot as he pulled the plane across the grass and out the way.

“It’s rush hour!” The guide whistled through the gaps in his teeth as a truck wobbled along the road past us. He threw a shaka towards the truck driver and then it was just us as far as I could see.

Our near empty school bus carried on along the road, past several cemeteries: the overflow cemetery; the Native Hawaiian cemeteries; the cemeteries where most of the headstones had been washed away by a tsunami.

We made our first stop at a store and bar—though alcohol can only be sold after 4pm. The guide pointed out an old photograph of Kalawao at the time of the leper colony and we petted a cat named Hitler.

“It’s irony,” said the third visitor, an optimistic man from Washington. “You take something terrible and turn it into something happy.”

Mentally I tried to make the connection to our visit to a former leper colony, but it didn’t fit. Looking at the cold shop assistant, I didn’t get the feeling that this had turned in to something happy. The man from Washington looked pleased with the thought, though, and I turned and left him petting and cooing at the cat.

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Onwards; past former hospitals and separate residences for boys and girls. On to Saint Francis Church where there was singing; the church hall where there was more photographs and stories, and past the Post Office and General Store—off limits for visitors, out of respect for the former patients who go about their daily lives here.

We got back in the bus and started our way across to Kalawao. A truck passed us and the guide couldn’t resist repeating the joke: “We’re coming into heavy traffic now!’” He grinned. I caught a flash of a girl sitting in the back as the truck drove past. I noticed highlights in her dark hair and it wondered what it would be like to be a young woman here.

We stopped for lunch at the edge of the peninsula, looking out towards the massive cliff faces and conical islets. The driver had been carrying around a tub filled with cat food; he shook some out onto the ground for the kitten that came up to us as we stepped off the bus.

“There’s no children here,” he said, “so the animals become family.

You can’t even visit Kalaupapa if you are under 16.

We sat at a park bench for lunch, the man from Washington tore pieces of his to give to the kitten, petting and coddling it. I thought that animals were family for him too.

I walked away from the others for just a minute and took in the silence. It occurred to me that Kalaupapa is silent. The two locals we had interacted with hadn’t said a word, not even when making a transaction with the others. I considered that Kalaupapa was inscrutable; it wouldn’t breathe a word of its secrets.

We moved on to the neat, simple church, locked now because a recent visitor had removed some artifacts. We stood by Father Damien’s grave–containing only his right hand—then made our way back to the little airport.

As we neared the airport the driver slowed to point out a monk seal; flopped out all alone on his long empty beach.

Mu-Ryang-Sa

I am quite lucky to have local friends on O’ahu, because it means I get to go to places I’d never have known about otherwise.

Mu-Ryang-Sa Buddhist Temple isn’t in any of the guide books that I’ve looked at and it’s quite hidden away–well as much as a brightly-coloured building around 70-foot high can hide. We drove up through Palolo Valley, winding around corners until we could see the roof above the trees. The temple is on a steep hill in a quiet residential area, the residents of which, I later found out, had campaigned to get the temple’s peaked roof lowered by six feet to comply with city planning laws. The temple was previously called Dae Won Sa Temple; it’s new name reflects the result of the rule: Mu-Ryang-Sa means “Broken ridge” in Korean.

Mu-Ryang-Sa was quiet and empty except for us and one lady working there. From her cool air, I think they prefer it that way.

A couple of surly figures greet you upon arrival.
Lanterns hanging inside the temple


North Shore Polo

Mercifully I slept through the England- Germany match. I woke up, checked the result on my phone and put it to the far back of my mind.

Onward , then, to a different game.  The rain took a break and the polo was on: Mexico vs. Hawaii at Dillingham Airfield. Now, I’ve never been to a polo match before and can’t say that I’m much the wiser about how the game works, but Sunday at the Polo might become a new favourite thing. You can drive up to the edge of the field, tailgate, barbecue, order cocktails from the bar and, when it gets sticky, walk about 100 metres to the beach and cool off in the, not too choppy, ocean.

They weren’t playing, so I’m not sure why the Argentinian flags were flying; surely not that local Argentina fans wanted to taunt the Mexican players over that morning’s defeat in South Africa. But, the atmosphere was relaxed nevertheless. Probably only a few came for the game really; it was all about the hanging out.

King Kamehameha Day: Lei Draping Ceremony

It seems to me that barely a week goes back without a festival or celebration of some kind going on on Oʻahu. I do try my best, but still only make it to about half of them.

I thought twice about heading downtown to the King Kamehameha statue opposite Iʻolani Palace, wondering how interesting a lei draping ceremony could be.  But those leis donʻt get up there without fanfare; no way, Hawaiians are no slouches when it comes to ceremony. This was a gathering, by turns reflective, solemn and celebratory, filled with colour, dance and music from the Royal Hawaiian Band. A quiet respect was tangible as descendents of the king spoke of his legend, triumphs and even hinted at what today we might call faults. Dignified men and women stood to attention in ceremonial robes, suits and feather cloaks while I sweated and burned in shorts and a tank top. A slight woman with a gorgeous smile performed first hula and then a war dance while the fragile leis were being hoisted with the aid of a fire truck; a scene of both strength and beauty.

Food Talk: Ala Moana Center

I’ve never been much of a mall enthusiast, and would hesitate to recommend that Honolulu tourists spend precious vacation time in a shopping center, but there’s something about Ala Moana Center. It’s at the end of the bus line, so that’s how I usually get there, but it is also directly behind beautiful and peaceful Ala Moana Beach Park–well usually it’s peaceful, not so yesterday; school’s out remember.

Mostly, I come here to eat. Shokudo, outside the mall, is a Japanese restaurant that makes a killer cheese mochi dish and honey toast dessert. I stock up on imported Japanese groceries at Shirokiya, then stop in the food court for tako-yaki, a bento box or a Harajuku-style crepe, before heading back downstairs for raspberry mille-feiulle mochi cream.

Look:

Mochi Creams at Shirokiya

And then there’s Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room; plantation tea jelly from La Palme d’Or and  pau hana lychee mojitos at Panya:

Lychee Mojito at Panya

On yesterday’s visit I tried the acai bowl from Blue Hawaii Lifestyle for the first time. I think I’ve had a broad acai bowl experience over the last eight months: I’ve tried them from the chains, Jamba Juice and Smoothie King (delish and bland respectively); from Kava Roots on the North Shore (huge, chunky granola and thick slices of banana–filling but not memorable) and from Lanikai Juice (didn’t get a fair chance–there was no place to sit so I walked with it in midday heat until I got to the beach and it turned into slush). The one I always went back to was Vita Juice in Chinatown, partly because it was underneath the office I used to work at, but mostly because the sweet owner piled on the fruit and honey (Lanikai Juice makes you pay extra).

I have a few places still to try, but I’ll be back to Blue Hawaii. I tried the Jasmine Bowl, which had just enough of a tangy flavour, and I liked that the fruit and granola was mixed through the bowl, rather than just lying on top. Also, sweet space. I loved the blue stained glass, ceramic bowls, locally-made omiyagis on sale and the little notice on the napkin dispenser that says Napkins=Trees. I didn’t take any.

Blue Hawaii Lifestyle, Ala Moana Center

Puʻu o Mahuka Heiau

School’s out. The bus to the North Shore started to choke just before the Dole Plantation as groups of kids in board shorts crowded on. I made a smart-ass comment to myself that you never know here if school’s in or not seeing as they hardly go anyway; not knowing that the next day it was to be announced that the furlough’s were ending. Anyway, school is out for summer.

I got off at Pupukea and filled up with an açaí bowl the size of my head from Kava Roots. Nourished, I started the steep walk up to the state monument, dismissing two drivers sympathetically offering rides. The walk up the road was tough, but the dirt road after the turn-off felt a little creepy. No cars passed through there and I tried to wave away thoughts of lurking psychopaths as I hurried along the path through acres of woodland and nothing else.

Puʻu o Mahuka Heiau is Oʻahu’s biggest heiau (temple), a site of religious ceremonies until 1819 when the kapu system was abolished by Kamehameha II. It was thought to have also been the site of human sacrifice. The site consists of three walled enclosures; discreet placards on each warning you, kapu; do not touch the rock walls.

I walked around the outside of the walls, veering off the path to take in the view. Slipping slightly down the cliff edge, I raised my camera for shots of Waimea and beyond. The sand at Waimea was dotted with more bodies than I’ve seen there on a weekday–since the Eddie in December. Kids were hurling themselves of the rock, clambering back up and doing it again; the water below in regular turmoil with giant splash followed by giant splash. Right; school’s out, I reminded myself.

I climbed back up and onto the path around the temple. Paused for a few moments by some stones wrapped and laid on the walls, then at the fruit and lei offerings at a tree at the end of the path.

I walked back down to Pupukea and waited for my bus. Carrying just me and a waitress on her way to a shift at Cholos in Haleiwa, it quietly wound its way past the church. At the stop outside Waimea, the doors opened and it swelled with soggy, vociferous kids. The same ones from the journey here. It must have been them jumping off the rocks.