Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

USA: Hitting Hawaii's swell waves

Waikiki Beach is one of the best places to learn to surf, writes Michael Burgess.

Waikiki is a tourist haven with 4.5 million visitors arriving each year. Photo / Thinkstock
Waikiki is a tourist haven with 4.5 million visitors arriving each year. Photo / Thinkstock

My instructor grinned as he told me, "You've come to the right place. Anybody can learn to surf here. That's what we do."

It was exactly what I needed to hear, standing in the middle of Waikiki Beach feeling a little out of place wearing tramping shorts (I had misplaced my togs), a mild dose of sunburn and a nervous grin.

On my brief stopover in Hawaii (48 hours) en route to New Zealand from Oregon, I had one main mission: learn to ride the waves.

Before my surfing escapades, Waikiki had ticked every box. A taxi driver told me that the famous stretch of shoreline wasn't like the old days but it still seemed pretty good.

The heat was lovely and constant, with a breeze that took the edge off it; the water was warm and inviting; and the "tourist amusement" factor was high. With a book, numerous swims and plenty of people watching, it wasn't hard to instantly relax. Nothing seemed to be a problem on an island devoted to hospitality and my hotel even happily gave me towels specifically to take to the beach, which is usually a massive no-no.

But back to the boards. There is a reason Waikiki is synonymous with surfing, partly thanks to one of the most extraordinary sporting figures of the 20th century.

Waikiki native Duke Kahanamoku was the godfather of modern-day surfing. He was a gifted swimmer, winning multiple gold medals at the 1912 and 1920 Olympics and finishing second to Johnny Weissmuller (the original Tarzan) at the 1924 Olympiad, but surfing was his passion. Kahanamoku travelled the globe to popularise the sport, essentially introducing it to Australia and mainland USA. He also starred in Hollywood movies and was the sheriff of Honolulu for three decades.

As well as his undoubted talents, Kahanamoku grew up in a special place, as Waikiki must be one of the best places in the world to learn to surf.

The unique geography and underwater reefs means it is blessed with a long, rolling wave that peels gradually into the shore before breaking. It's quite different from the uneven, crashing sets often encountered on our coasts.

As well as the picture-perfect waves, it also helps to be surrounded by many other beginners (often complete novices) from all over the world. It makes for a less intimidating environment than learning in Australia or New Zealand, where you might cross paths with territorial (and more adept) locals.

My lesson was with Waikiki Beach Services, which has been teaching tourists for more than half a century. After going through some basic manoeuvres on the sand with Pohai, our instructor, we were let loose on the water.

What had seemed straightforward on land was more complex on a moving 2m piece of fibreglass, and the board disappeared from under my feet with alarming frequency.

"You are jumping up like a jack in the box," Pohai told me with the ready, relaxed smile typical of tropical island resident.

I needed to slow things down.

The process is meant to be simple: Once you are pushed on to the wave, after a few strokes of paddling while lying on your stomach you get on to your knees and then on to your feet. He also told me to look where I want to go, rather than gazing down at my board, as your feet will follow your focus.

But I crashed backwards, narrowly missing Pohai's colleague Shawn, who was snapping photos of our progress.

While Pohai assisted another student by cleverly towing her with his feet wrapped around her board as she had tired, I chatted with Hiroki, a "salaryman" visiting from Japan. It was a delicious place for a conversation, sitting on our boards gazing back at Waikiki's incredible skyline.

Just as I was beginning to feel as though I was letting Pohai down as I made the same mistakes, my eureka moment came. I paddled, propelled, unfolded upwards, stood and stayed.

My front arm may have been outstretched like an over zealous traffic warden, my back may have been slightly hunched like a hobbit and the size of the wave may have been modest, but I was surfing.

What a buzz as I skidded towards the shore, on the same beach that Duke had once displayed his magic. There was time for one more wave which I proudly caught myself before we returned to the beach.

The surfing experience was the highlight of my brief stopover, though the famed location offers a variety of experiences. It is an invigorating way to break up a journey to North America and there is an endless array of activities.

Some visitors chose not to stray far from the hotel pools but I enjoyed wandering around Waikiki. An early morning walk along the beach towards Diamond Head (the picturesque mountain at the edge of most postcards) is highly recommended, and watching the sunset from the Outrigger Reef Hotel beachfront bar accompanied by a glass of Mai Tai was magical.

I avoided the temptation to purchase a Hawaiian shirt (how good you looked in one seemed to be directly proportional to the amount of time you had been on the island; locals looked great but for tourists it was hit or miss, despite being a handy cover for buffet belly).

Dining options were plentiful, from upmarket establishments to the gigantic buffets that the US is so famous for, and there were places to satisfy those who want to dance or drink.

The fierce competition among hotels keeps prices reasonable, along with a variety of extraordinary benefits (my hotel offered unlimited free calls to the US and Canada).

Waikiki is touristy, - 4.5 million visitors set foot on the iconic stretch of white sand every year - but the beach extends for almost 2.5km so it is possible to escape the crowds.

The US Army museum (free admission) is worth a peek, especially for its fascinating insights into Pearl Harbor and World War II and a photo beside Kahanamoku's statue beside the beach is a must for most visitors.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines flies three times a week from Auckland to Honolulu, connecting to four neighbouring islands, with a further two island connections being added soon. From Honolulu, Hawaiian Airlines connects to 11 US mainland destinations and has a 2 x 32kg bag allowance, perfect for those looking to do some shopping. Learn more by phoning (09) 977 2227.

Learn to surf: See Waikiki Beach Services.

History lesson: Visit the Hawaii Army Museum.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on Hawaii or try the 'Trip Tuner' for additional holiday inspiration.

Michael Burgess flew to Hawaii courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines and stayed at Outrigger Reef at the Beach (Waikiki) Hotel.

- Herald on Sunday

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