Phil Birn should know what it feels like to move to an island — he’s done it twice. The small-business owner escaped the hustle and bustle of New York City when after a vacation on Kauai, he and his wife packed up and moved there. And when Kauai’s slow pace became a little too slow for his growing family, Phil didn’t head back to the mainland; he just moved next door — to Oahu. Thirty-six years, four kids and two Hawaiian islands later, 59-year-old Phil shares how he’s made the island life doable for so long and why he never plans to leave.
What was Kauai like for you when you made that first leap to the island life of Hawaii back in 1973? Kauai was starting to boom in the early 1970s, and many people from the mainland were coming to Hawaii. In my case, I had visited a friend who had just made the move himself. When I returned to New York after a nine-day vacation visiting him on Kauai, I told my wife of two months that we were moving. When I got there, I found that suddenly, surf spots that used to be empty, except for a few locals, were becoming crowded with new arrivals, like myself. It caused some resentment. And I had to learn a new culture that was very different from the one I left in New York City. But I was fortunate because I had a very popular and visible business — first a bike shop and then a sportswear store. I got to know a lot of the local population on Kauai in a relatively short period of time. And once people get to know you, you are accepted pretty quickly into the local culture. The term “aloha spirit” is definitely alive and well and not just hype.
Once you settled into life on the island, what were your nine years on Kauai like? There became an ohana, a family, of new transplants to the island, and on the weekends we would explore the island and find new beaches. My job gave me the opportunity to spend at least a few hours a day on the beach with my wife and kids. On most days I would be in the water bodysurfing, wave riding or diving. There were times when my life on Kauai seemed like a nine-year vacation.
So why did you leave and end up moving to Oahu? I had visited the island many times but never entertained the thought of living there. But then my wife at the time decided to return to school at the University of Hawaii at the campus on Oahu. Also, we felt that our 6-year-old daughter would receive a better education in Honolulu. Once we moved, I fell in love with the diversity. Two minutes down the street from my house in Hawaii Kai on the east side of the island are beautiful beaches and rugged coastlines. And five minutes in the other direction are the conveniences of a city.
After 27 years living on this island of Oahu, how does your life now compare to your life back on Kauai? Life on Oahu is very different. My four children are grown, and I spend my days during the week in my office as the principal broker for a time-share project in Waikiki. I don’t get into the water very much anymore, but because of my job, there are a lot of island activities that I get to do. Kauai was great for that time in my life, but I don’t think I could live there now.
Has living in Hawaii changed you? I have learned to enjoy local dishes that as a recent transplant years ago, I would not have bore the thought of eating. Before I moved to the islands, I was not a very big fish eater. Canned tuna was about as good as it got. If anyone had told me then that I would eventually enjoy eating ahi poke, cubed yellowfin tuna served raw and marinated in soy sauce, I would have laughed.
Now that you’re a poke fan, where’s the best place to find it on Oahu? Most people have their own favorite places to buy poke, but in my opinion, I’d say Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors, the Tamashiro Market and Riggers Hawaii are among the best.
What about island pastimes? What are the best activities on Oahu? I enjoy getting together with my friends, going to shows. Last week I went on a whale watch. And just recently, I spent the weekend on Oahu’s North Shore and took a glider ride. It’s quite beautiful on that side of the island and very different from Honolulu. It’s much more laid-back. There are also a lot of attractions that might be considered “touristy” that I really enjoy. Like the Oahu Ghost Tour, which I did last week — interesting and very spooky.
Did you learn any island secrets you didn’t already know while you were on that Oahu Ghost Tour? A lot of the places I saw were places I’ve been to many times during the day. But at night, with Uncle Joe as my guide, places like Morgan’s Corner and the Pali Lookout took on a very different quality. There was one girl on the tour who wouldn’t come out of the van at Morgan’s Corner. The place is famous for one of its more popular trees, which is located on a hairpin turn. Many people have reported seeing the apparition of a body hanging from the tree when driving by at night. I’d heard the story many times about a gruesome incident that supposedly took place there, but to hear it while being there at night gave me chicken skin.
What about your own Oahu secrets? Well, if I answered that question, they wouldn’t be secrets now, would they? Let’s just say there is a very beautiful waterfall that I like and it’s off the beaten path. Not too many people go there, but it is a very beautiful place to go to relax and swim.
So when you already live near private waterfalls, where do you go to retire? When I retire, I will travel more and perhaps I’ll stay at destinations for longer than I do now. But I know I will always come back to my home. Hawaii no ka’oi — Hawaii is the best.
Facts of Life
- Climate: Tropical
- Population of Oahu: 900,000
- Population of Honolulu, Oahu: 380,000
- House starting price: $135,000 for a three-bedroom, 1½-bath in Wai’anea
- Main hospital: The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu
- Price of a local beer: $5 for a Big Wave Golden Ale at Koko Marina Pub
- Languages: Hawaiian, English
- Ease of immigration: Easy
- Ease of buying a home: Easy
- Website: gohawaii.com