The vast open space at the foot of Diamond Head Crater is always packed with action – from soccer and rugby games to family picnics and cultural festivals. At 170-acres, Kapiolani Park serves as a nice respite from urban Honolulu and a home to several island landmarks, including the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium and Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.

A beautiful afternoon at Kapiolani Park, named after King David Kalakaua’s wife.

This is the park we see today. But underneath these once barren swamplands, a rich history exists. Listen carefully as the gentle trades carry the ghostly cheers of people rooting on prized race horses or the whistling commands of military generals. As the largest and oldest public park in Hawaii, Kapiolani Park has a past that not many know about.

During the late 1880s, horse racing had been a favorite sport for Hawaiian royalty, wealthy landowners and plantation workers. King David Kalakaua helped to establish a one-mile, oval horse racing track, complete with a grand stand and a clubhouse. The annual “Rosita Cup” had been the highlight of this social activity that took place every Kamehameha Day until the fad slowly diminished several years later.

The U.S. military occupied a section of the park during the late 1800s in what was called Camp Otis and Camp McKinley. This provided a platform for locals to sell their goods to troops, which did so well that they eventually established the park’s first public food concession. Think of it as one of the first real “farmers’ markets” in the islands. But not for long; the federal government evicted the camps and fined them $3,000 for park damages.

The Waikiki War Memorial and Natatorium is also part of Kapiolani Park.

With race horses and military establishments a part of the past, Kapiolani Park soon evolved into what it is today. Its perimeter’s extended to include oceanfront land, becoming a popular beach park in no time. It seemed to be an uphill trend from there, with the establishment of the zoo, then the natatorium as an athletic facility for saltwater swimming competitions and lastly, the construction of the Waikiki Shell (where musical talent perform and ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro made his first attempt to break a world record).

Now, when you stroll through Kapiolani Park or take in its vastness from atop the Diamond Head hike, imagine the multiple hats it wore centuries ago before sporting its current one as a favorite island gathering place.

KAPIOLANI PARK • 2805 Monsarrat Ave., Honolulu, HI 966815

Source: Kapiolani Park Preservation Society

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