Life is a breeze in Waikiki. Offshore winds and onshore attractions make this Hawaiian hot spot a relaxing place to ride the waves
Most places in the mainstream of travel have changed a lot in the last 30 years, but Waikiki Beach, now a vacation playground for the masses, has changed more than most. It is no longer the idyllic strand where Robert Louis Stevenson once accepted a dinner invitation -- on the condition that his wife, Fanny, could find her other shoe after several months going barefoot. For some time it has been fashionable to pan Waikiki, and it's probably important to warn anyone who remembers this narrow strip of buff-colored sand before it became lined with elbow-to-elbow high-rise hotels to put such memories firmly aside.Skip to next paragraph
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But, contrary to common belief, speculators really haven't ruined Waikiki. To do that, they would have left the swampy land and skinny beach intact and added a marina. What is special about Waikiki is the rare combination of wind and water that adds up to the most benign conditions for learning to surf.
One reason for the perfection of Waikiki is the offshore breeze that blows ``90 percent of the time,'' says Rudy Choy, president of Aikane Catamaran Cruises, and, back in 1948, one of the inventors of the modern catamaran. ``When you have an offshore breeze it shapes the waves,'' he says. ``The wind is like an invisible hand pushing against the water. An onshore breeze crumbles the surf.''
The concept of surfing is embodied right in its name: ``Wai'' means water and ``kiki'' lively, according to Mr. Choy, a former beachboy (``and a singer and a sailor and a paddler and all the things you do when you're a beachboy'').
The offshore breezes, combined with the placement of coral reefs, have given Waikiki ``a dozen surfing areas,'' he says.
What all this boils down to is that at least a taste of surfing is readily available to anyone who comes here, no matter how middle-aged or timorous. Surfing:
I always assumed that being 18 years old and terrifically fit, and probably blond as well, were requirements before one would even be permitted on a surfboard. But that was before I met Rabbit Kekai.
Mr. Kekai teaches surfing for Aloha Beach Rentals, a concession on the Waikiki side of the Sheraton Outrigger Hotel. Duke Kahana- moku, an Olympic swimmer who popularized surfing, gave him surfing pointers, and he himself has taught, among others, David Niven, the Shah of Iran, and the entire cast of ``Gidget Goes Hawaiian.'' Kekai says he can teach anybody how to surf, ``as long as you can swim.''
Kekai plops down his custom-made surfboard on the sand and has you practice getting up the proper way: First, you lie flat on your stomach, then you put your hands right beneath your shoulders, arch back, and pull yourself to your feet in one smooth rapid motion, ending up with one foot slightly in front.
Then he takes you out to the surf and, when a good wave comes by, gives your board a mighty shove and yells ``Get up.'' And there you are, having scrambled to your feet somehow, with the shore whizzing toward you; it feels like standing on a rocket.
That was my first ride; actually, when you stand the proper way, that is, with one foot ahead of the other, the board feels amazingly solid, almost as if you could just stroll around up there.
The tough part of this first lesson turned out not to be staying up on the board; with Rabbit Kekai selecting the waves and calling out instructions, this reluctant sportswoman made it all the way to shore every time. No, the tough part for the novice is the paddling; it's the part of surfing that is such terrific exercise. A couple of times, Kekai came out, hooked his feet over my board, and towed me back to the starting point to the tune of envious comments from other fledgling surfers.
The point is that if you are planning a trip to Hawaii, go to your local YMCA and work on your paddling. A kickboard will substitute for a surfboard; use your arms like oars.
Rabbit Kekai says that in three lessons you should be able to go it alone. And, unless you have time to reinvent the sport for yourself, lessons are a good idea. Not everything about surfing is obvious. I noticed a man who rushed up to the calm woman behind the Aloha Beach rentals counter and excitedly and without preamble asked: ``You keep your weight in the middle, right?'' She gave a surprised nod and he dashed off again, like a relay runner who had just received the baton. Outrigger canoes:
Surfing, although central, is far from the only thing to do on Waikiki. Fred Hemmings, a former world-champion surfer, now a state representative, points out that some of the activities are just entertainment, while others ``are a legitimate part of old Hawaii. The outrigger canoe ride and surfing are the most obvious cases of that. Another example is the catamaran ride.''
The outrigger ride, particularly, is one not to miss. It takes four tourists, plus the guide, to paddle the craft. Getting three other people to arise from the beach, from the thousands flopped there as if never intending to rise again, may take a little huckstering on your part; or you can just lie in the sun until the guide (``What's your hurry?'' seems to be the motto for this group) comes for you.