Hawaii place names: Pearl Harbor/Pearl City

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Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > Hawaii place names: Pearl Harbor/Pearl City

The vast majority of neighborhoods and towns in Hawaii are known by their traditional native Hawaiian names. The literal translations of those Hawaii place names tend to reflect unique aspects of the areas they represent. We here at the HAT Blog have always found it unusual that Hawaii’s most popular visitor attraction, Pearl Harbor – located in and near Pearl City – and its multiple historic museums and memorials, is known by its English moniker.

Pre-colonial native Hawaiians knew the area as “Pu’uloa”, which translates to “long hill”. It later became known as “Wai Momi”, which means “water of pearls”. The waters of Pearl Harbor were once home to a thriving population of pear-bearing oysters. So, “Pearl Harbor” and “Pearl City” are anglicized versions of a native Hawaiian name that reflects the area’s natural environment before colonization.

Arizona Memorial

Pearl Harbor is a natural inlet, now dredged extensively to accommodate military and commercial vessels. It is contained within the greater Malama Bay, which stretches from Diamond Head in the east (another anglicized place name!) to Barber’s Point in the west (again!).

The modern historical significance of Pearl Harbor is known around the world, as the Japanese attack on the US Navy shipyard began US military involvement in World War II. The world was forever changed on that day, December 7, 1941. Our modern world has been shaped by the results of that global conflagration. Pearl Harbor is home to the USS Arizona and Oklahoma Memorials, as well as the final berth for the USS Missouri and the USS Bowfin, now both popular museums. The Pacific Aviation Museum is also at Pearl Harbor. Combined, they attract well over 1 million visitors every year.

USS bowfin
USS Bowfin Memorial.

Native Hawaiian legend holds that Pearl Harbor was the site of a great battle between an army of the “guardian sharks” of Oahu and “man-eaters” from Hawaii Island waters. Pearl Harbor, it seems, has been a battleground since time immemorial.

Pearl Harbor is an active military installation, and much of the commerce in Pearl City is driven by military members and their families. But Pearl City is also a largely residential area, with a main commercial core anchored by Pearlridge Center, the largest indoor shopping mall in Hawaii. Pearl City isn’t the first place that is likely to make your “must-do” list for a Hawaii vacation, even if you do plan a visit to Pearl Harbor and its memorials and museums.

Arizona Memorial viewed from the mIghty Mo
Ship to shore, Pearl Harbor to Pearl City.

But there are many reasons to visit Pearl City, from excellent local plate lunch places and eateries to high-end art galleries and specialty stores. There are also a handful of beautiful hiking trails in the mountains above Pu’uloa, at the top of the “long hill.”

View of the long hill Puuloa from Pearl Harbor
Manana Trail, top of the “long hill” of Pu’uloa above Pearl Harbor.

Even if Hawaii place names are known in English as Pearl Harbor, and Pearl City, there is always a more ancient native Hawaiian name that opens the door to its ancient past. We here at Hawaii Aloha Travel have the key to unlocking those stories for Hawaii’s visitors. Let us help you on your voyage of discovery during your Hawaii vacation.