Hawaii: Wave of nostalgia
On a cloudless day, I paddle through emerald and turquoise water, suffer the gentle wrath of churning whitewash and take my place in the Waikiki lineup.
The sun is blinding, the water is bathtub-warm and the trade winds smell of frangipani and sunscreen. To my left is the majesty of craggy Diamond Head. To my right, a row of fellow neophytes from at least 10 countries straddle their boards and stare seawards. The horizon is a flotilla of yachts, catamarans, outrigger canoes and glass-bottomed boats.
Then comes a wave. I aim my yellow soft board towards shore, take several strokes, feel myself rise as if by some divine hand, then pop to my feet, being careful not to grab the rails as per the instructions of my goateed, beer-bellied instructor.
It's a magnificent feeling, standing tall in a Bruce Lee-like fighter stance, the swish of water under my feet, the tickle of spray on my ankles. The board is only 2.4 metres long, but feels like an ocean liner or a battleship. The ride lasts maybe six seconds, but it is a heightened and vivid six seconds, a six seconds that can change lives.
I rode that wave in 1977, but it might as well have been yesterday. It's that visceral. While the memory is unchanged, so too is Waikiki. It's much the same as it was 30 years ago, save for more high rises, more people in the surf and a proliferation of new inventions such as digital cameras and stand-up paddleboards.
It would be easy to write off Waikiki as a theme park, a parody of its once soulful, Polynesia-imbued self. Plastic leis are sold in supermarkets, gaudy oversized aloha shirts drape the torsos of sunburned, refrigerator-shaped tourists, and drinks called Island Girl and Tropical Itch are served to the accompaniment of ukuleles and hula dancers at happy hour.
Then there are the high-end designer boutiques along Kalakaua Ave, which add an incongruous Rodeo Drive vibe to a street teeming with salty bodies and sandy feet.
But with an eye on history, particularly surf history, Waikiki takes on a whole new light.
As I step from sidewalk to sand at Kuhio Beach Park, I am greeted by a larger-than-life bronze statue of the great Duke Kahanamoku, his open arms draped in leis. Known as the "Father of Modern Surfing", Duke was the sport's greatest ambassador, an Olympic swimming champion and a Hollywood actor. I'm looking at the spot where he honed his skills and caught a mile-long (1.6km) ride on a mammoth wave in 1917, which did as much for Waikiki's reputation as it did Duke's.
On the stretch of scorching sand between the Duke's statue and the palatial Moana Surfrider, Waikiki's first hotel, I see several board-rental stands manned by bronzed, broad-shouldered surfers who move fluidly, as if raised among sandcastles and shorebreak. They are the descendants of the Waikiki Beach Boys, with a lineage that can be traced back to the early 1900s.
As tourism developed in Honolulu, the Waikiki Boys earned their living as surf instructors, entertainers and hustlers, their carefree lives evoking envy and admiration among their students throughout the first half of the 20th century. In one X-rated tale, a beach boy took a smitten tourist girl out for a moonlit tandem surf and on a wave, while standing tall, they made love. Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby, among others, were introduced to surfing here by "Scooter Boy", "Steamboat", "Rabbit" and the rest of the Beach Boys.
I rent a powder-blue soft board from Aaron, who says he is an ex-pro surfer. While I could hardly wrap my little 11-year-old arm around it in 1977, now it feels natural, an appendage of sorts. At the water's edge, an elderly Japanese man with a gymnast's physique attempts to mount his stand-up paddle- board, but loses his balance repeatedly. Further out, a boy no older than seven knee-paddles his orange longboard with incredible fluency. On the reef, an outrigger canoe, two stand-up paddlers and a girl with a dog on the nose of her board share the same wave.
It's safe to say that more surfers have been spawned at Waikiki than any other spot in the world. The soft, rolling waves are beginner-friendly. The water temperature is balmy year round.
More than half the surfers today are first-timers, so there is no such thing as making a fool of yourself.
The lineup features bear-like Texans in ill-fitting Speedos, horrific collisions, hysterical wipeouts and bow-legged "survival stances".
In 1977, after three unforgettable days of surfing that would sign me up for life, I bought a booklet in our hotel gift shop called Learning Hawaiian Surfing. Written by legendary author Jack London in 1907, it recounts his first waves at Waikiki.
His description of surfing still rings true: a "royal sport for the natural kings of Earth".
Getting there: Flight Centre has Honolulu holidays including return airfares flying Air New Zealand and four nights' accommodation from $1499 ex Wellington per person, twin share. For details and bookings, phone Flight Centre, 0800 427 555, or see flightcentre.co.nz. Valid for sales until Friday. Travel from March 2 to 16.
Until Friday, House of Travel has a seven-night package combining Waikiki and Maui from $2699 per adult share twin. This includes return economy-class airfares flying Air New Zealand from Wellington to Honolulu, Hawaiian Airlines to Maui, three nights at Aston Pacific Monarch Waikiki in a partial ocean-view one-bedroom apartment, and four nights at Aston Maui's Kaanapali Villas in an ocean-view suite, rental car, shopping and dining discount booklet. Valid for travel from April 17 to June 5. Phone House of Travel on 0800 838 747.
Surfing at Waikiki: Top-notch surf lessons can be had at Faith Surf School, 2552 Kalakaua Ave, Suite 200. See faithsurfschool.com. Group lessons cost US$75 (NZ$107) a person. Private lessons cost US$200 per person.
Boards can be rented on the beach, directly behind Duke Statue, from an array of affable beach boys, for about $20 an hour. The best locations to learn to surf are Queen's and Canoes, located directly in front of the board-rental kiosks. For more experienced surfers, punchy, fast- breaking waves can be found at Kaiser and Ala Moana Bowls, in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel, with its famous rainbow facade. "Town", as the locals refer to the Waikiki area, is best surfed in summer, but breaks year round.
Queen Kapiolani is a good- quality, moderately priced hotel half a block from the beach. Double rooms with ocean views cost from US$119. It is located at 150 Kapahulu Ave. See queenkapiolani.com