Sometimes when I am walking from my house down to Waikiki, I wonder how the beautiful coast of Diamond Head got such an ugly name: the Gold Coast.

The so-called Gold Coast of Diamond Head stretches from the New Otani Kaimana Hotel on the west to the Kainalu apartment building on Coconut Avenue at the east end of Kalakaua Avenue.

I would be reluctant to waste even one word of print to criticize the marketing tool “Gold Coast” if it hadn’t become so ubiquitous.

My reaction verges on visceral when I hear someone say, “my apartment is on the Gold Coast” or when talking about a friend’s home, “he lives on the Gold Coast.”

Patchwork of older homes and larger apartment buildings line up on the most east direction of Kalakaua Avenue with sea walls along shrinking beach areas.
What real estate agents branded the Gold Coast, known by Hawaiians as Kapua, is a patchwork of older homes and larger apartment buildings with sea walls lining the shrinking beach areas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Shayne Stambler, who still resides in her childhood home on Kiele Avenue at Diamond Head, says “The name just doesn’t have a Hawaiian feel to it. It seems snobby.”

“No other shore on this island has such a haole name,” Stambler, a 70-year-old commercial photographer, added.

What’s irksome about the glitzy Gold Coast brand is that it’s become so overused.

Developers have slapped the designation on neighborhoods everywhere from Florida’s Gold Coast on the Atlantic to Baja California on the Pacific Ocean and even inland lake districts such as Chicago’s Gold Coast bordering Lake Michigan.

And it’s not just commonplace in the United States, the moniker is used worldwide to name places such as Australia’s Gold Coast or the former British colony once referred to as Gold Coast, now the nation of Ghana, or Vietnam’s Gold Coast at Vung Tau.

The ancient and beautiful Hawaiian name for Oahu’s Diamond Head coast is Kapua meaning “the flower.” Hawaiians considered the area sacred, with six heiau in the immediate vicinity.

Kapua is where Queen Kaahumanu, surfing with friends, wailed in grief when she heard the priests of Kamehameha I had ritually executed her 19-year-old lover Kanihonui at Papaenaena Heiau, on the slopes of Diamond Head above the surf break.

A small heiau, also described as a human sacrifice temple named Kapua, was located near the present Kaimana Beach.

“No other shore on this island has such a haole name.” — Shayne Stambler, photographer

Historian John Clark says Hawaiians used the name Kapua for this coastline at least as far back as the 1800s, as evidenced in the numerous Hawaiian language newspapers.

Clark is a Native Hawaiian and the author of ten books including a series of beach histories that begins with “The Beaches of Oahu” published in 1977. He is a measured, scholarly person, a retired Honolulu Fire Department deputy chief who refuses to get drawn into a discussion about the worthiness of the Gold Coast name.

When I try to get him riled up, he responds calmly, “I am happy tell you about the history of the area but I will leave the evaluation of the name up to you.”

A Reassuring Name For Homebuyers 

The earliest use of the term Gold Coast for Diamond Head I could find in is a real estate advertisement published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin by real estate broker Myra Fisher on September 12, 1959.

In her ad, Fisher wrote: “On the Gold Coast, Diamond Head, On the Beach.  The future millionaire row, an address world renowned and the Honolulu home of the Jet propelled wealthy people of the world.”

New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel and right, San Souci condominiums.
New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, and at right, San Souci condominiums mark the beginning of the Gold Coast. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

She was selling units in the newly built Kainalu apartment building and the Diamond Head Apartments designed by architect Valdimir Ossipoff, as well as the Sea Breeze apartments for which ground had just been broken.

Honolulu real estate broker Frankie Anderson remembers Fisher as an energetic saleswoman and a gifted writer.

 “She was fabulous with words. She probably was the one to coin the term Gold Coast for the area,” he said. 

In the late 1950s and 1960s, when many apartment buildings were springing up at the same time in the Diamond Head area, enabled by the Honolulu City Council’s spot zoning approvals, sales agents needed a clever way to attract people to buy them.

With statehood and the launch of jet travel to the islands in 1959, mainland and foreign investors were starting to see value in Hawaii real estate.

“Diamond Head was the best part of the island.  The new apartment buildings on the coast offered numerous possibilities for oceanfront ownership that had never been there before,” said Anderson.

This 1959 real state advertisement in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin was the first to brand the area as the Gold Coast. One realtor says the tony name was reassuring to buyers.

She said even back then buyers from Japan and the Philippines started asking her mother, pioneer real estate broker Marion Blair, to find them “Gold Coast property.”

Realtor Don A. Persons has lived in the area for 40 years. When he opened his company 23 years ago he named it Gold Coast Real Estate. Earlier this year it merged with Hawaii Life Real Estate.

Persons says the term Gold Coast has always been reassuring to buyers. “I believe it made the owners of this special neighborhood feel that their choice of living area was special and that they had made a wise decision,” he said. 

Fading Luster?

But real estate analysts watching the so-called Gold Coast today say it may have lost some of its glitter.

“Asians, especially Japanese are wary after the Fukushima tsunami of buying property directly on the ocean. Some are seeing Kakaako as a safer option,” real estate consultant Stephany Sofos says.

Sofos says buyers are considering other factors when they reject Diamond Head in favor of Kakaako. One key factor is the buildings at Kakaako are newer. Also, enthusiasm for living on the Gold Coast has been dampened by buyers’ concerns about rising tides from climate change as well as the simmering legal dispute over whether Diamond Head property owners or the state are responsible for the repair and maintenance of the seawalls fronting the buildings. 

The seawalls were built almost a century ago to protect the oceanfront Diamond Head property from erosion.

Clark writes in “The Beaches of Oahu” that “there was once an expansive white sandy beach stretching from Beach Road near the Diamond Head Lighthouse down the Gold Coast … The beautiful sand beach at Kapua and nearby Kaluahole was said to have been the best in that whole area.”  

But the wealthy homeowners of the late 1800s and early 1900s put their mansions too close to the water and they eventually had to install groins to protect their properties, causing beach erosion because of the imposition of concrete and stone structures.

“When erosion really became a major problem, substantial seawalls were built at the water’s edge and then the beach disappeared completely,” Clark says. 

Today, the shoreline of Kapua is fronted almost entirely with high retaining walls.

With the sandy shoreline gone and the area commoditized into luxury homes and apartments, it is probably too late to revive the name Kapua or restore the beach to its former glory. But it doesn’t hurt to think about it or to mourn the loss. 

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