July 1, 2012: Two men and their girlfriends are dashing around Chinatown in search of a famous Chinese doctor. To prove they've found him, they've been instructed to take a photo of them hugging him. He's an old man, they've been told, so they should be gentle.
At last, the two couples spot the doctor near the Chinese Cultural Plaza. After asking a passer-by to snap their picture, they rush to the doctor and wrap their arms around him.
He doesn't hug them back, but they're not disappointed. The "doctor" is actually a bronze statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary who became the first president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1912. From the plaque on the statue, the group learns he came to Honolulu in 1879, at the age of 13, to study at ‘Iolani School. Honolulu was also where he founded the Hsing Chung Hui (Revive China Society) on Nov. 24, 1894.
The goal reached and an interesting history lesson gained, the couples look around and see an X and an arrow marked with chalk on a wall. Following that sign, they head to the courtyard of the Chinese Cultural Plaza where their next clue is located.
Yes, participants might be asked to do some zany things during a Treasure Hunts Hawaii activity, but they all add up to a really good time. Founder Chris Akin got the idea for the business eight years ago, when he was enjoying the ocean views from his house beside Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai.
An old wine bottle drifted to shore nearby. For Akin, who describes himself as "someone with an active entrepreneurial mind," that triggered an idea for a business — treasure hunts that would engage participants in fun activities, provide mental and physical challenges and reveal often overlooked characteristics about Oahu neighborhoods.
At first, Akin organized hunts just for friends and acquaintances. Gradually, however, the concept gelled and word spread. Corporate executives started asking him to organize hunts for their employees. Teachers and club leaders also began calling.
Today, Treasure Hunts Hawaii specializes in customized hunts for groups of at least 20 people. Public hunts for individuals, couples and smaller groups are available at least twice each month.
Akin holds many of his hunts in Chinatown. He worked on Bishop Street for several years as a financial adviser and operations manager for a media company. After work and during his lunch breaks, he spent a lot of time in Chinatown, strolling down narrow alleys, through buildings that are more than a century old and into restaurants selling delicacies he'd never tasted before.
"Chinatown is the perfect setting for a treasure hunt," Akin said. "It's walkable, it's culturally and historically significant, and it has a wide range of places where clues can be incorporated."
He usually forms teams randomly, noting that people establish rapport quickly when they have a common goal. All hunts are based on his original Tri-Fecta Formula, which combines three elements of engagement. The key component is the treasure hunt, which takes teams from place to place via a series of clues. In addition to figuring out the clues, they can accrue bonus points by gathering scavenger items and answering trivia questions.
"The hunts call for a variety of skill sets — athleticism, resourcefulness, out-of-the-box thinking, academic knowledge and knowledge about Hawaii," Akin said. "To be successful, team members have to collaborate and get creative."
Clues are communicated through puzzles, letters, photos, newspaper ads, song lyrics, GPS coordinates, 800 phone numbers and, for the Chinatown hunt, even fortune cookies. The answers to a crossword puzzle might include words such as theater, show, music, historic, park and Bethel. They lead participants to the Hawaii Theatre on Bethel Street, where their next clue might appear on the marquee.
"People love the surprise factor — discovering clues in unexpected ways," Akin said. "They enjoy going to places they hadn't noticed or been to before."
For private groups, hunts are tailored to specific ages, interests, professions. "I have hunts that are suitable for college students, lawyers, engineers, environmentalists, you name it," Akin said. "I did one for a real estate development firm that took employees through newly developed areas of Kakaako. I also ran a hunt in Waikiki that emphasized sports because a lot of the participants were avid sports fans. Some hunts have gone on for 90 minutes; others for 3 1⁄2 hours."
No matter what the hunt's theme, duration or location, participants inevitably show up at the finish line with big smiles on their faces. "They can't wait to compare what they did and where they went with the other teams," Akin said. "They share their stories, photos and videos during the awards ceremony, which sometimes goes on for an hour because people are having such a good time."
He says the hunts are rewarding diversions for both visitors and kamaaina. "When I travel, I find my most memorable and authentic experiences don't come from tourist attractions, they come from interactions with local people in areas where they live, shop, eat, work and play," he said. "The hunts are also great for kamaaina because they expose them to things about Oahu that they weren't previously aware of, including flora, historic sites, artwork and architecture. Last, but not least, the hunts are a ton of fun!"
Teammates who start out as strangers often become close friends. One man brought a date to the last public hunt, and they're now a couple. "The hunts are much more than people running around a place searching for clues," Akin said. "They can spark meaningful long-lasting relationships."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.
TREASURE HUNTS HAWAII
» Meeting place for the Chinatown hunt: In front of the entrance to the American Savings Bank Tower, Tamarind Park, corner of Alakea and King streets, downtown Honolulu
» Offered: Saturdays and Sundays. Hunts are customized for private groups of at least 20 people. Public hunts (also with a 20-person minimum) are available a few days each month (see notes below for July's events). Reservations must be made at least three business days in advance via email.
» Time: 3 p.m. (check in 30 minutes prior)
» Cost: $40 per person; discounts are available for private groups of at least 40 people
» Phone: 295-1404
» Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
» Website: www.treasurehuntshawaii.com
» Notes: Customized hunts can be held in any area of Oahu. Wear comfortable clothes and walking shoes, and bring a digital camera or smartphone. Participants should be able to walk for a few hours in warm afternoon temperatures. There's a minimum age requirement of 12 for public hunts (minors must be accompanied by an adult).
Upcoming dates for public hunts are July 8, 15 and 22. In addition, Castle Resorts & Hotels is working with Treasure Hunts Hawaii on an islandwide hunt that will start on July 27 and end the next day. Prizes include hotel stays and vacation packages. This hunt is open to the public and there's no charge. Check the website for more information.