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.

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.

After an easy paddle out -- outriggers are very narrow and ride high in the water, very comfortable -- you catch a wave and it pushes you in to shore. The feeling is of smoothness, power, and speed; the spray just pours off the prow. Look back, and you can see the wave cupping the outrigger like an invisible hand. Sailing:

A possibility for good sailors: Rent a Hobie Cat. Most concessions are easy to find; just stroll along the beach -- there is an offering every few yards of its four-block length. But this one, Seaction Sports, is at the far end of the beach, tucked away beyond the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

But back to more authentic Hawaiian experiences: Catamarans sit on the beach, awaiting customers. Other attractions:

I thought Waikiki's stretch of high-rise hotels would be ugly, based on black-and-white photos of it. And some people think it is, even though that glorious view is still there.

On the other hand, for high-rises, they're attractive. And staying right on Waikiki Beach is pleasant. Most people hop into their bathing suits and pad barefoot straight down the elevator and out to the beach.

It's especially pleasant to be right here on your first night, particularly if you arrive just before sunset after a long flight (12 hours from Boston, including a 3-hour layover).

Sunsets here are famous. My first one was brassy yellow, with smoky purple streaks. The sun slid below the horizon to the sound of snapping cameras. A number of exotic-looking ships, all taking tourists on dinner cruises, were nicely silhouetted on the golden horizon.

Afterward I walked along the beach, appreciating the silky feel of sand flowing around my feet after long hours of traveling. There were plenty of people still about. Many were plainly fellow tourists just off the plane, tottering along in their airport leis. A few natives were noticeable for their tans and fitness and general exuberance.

It was a pleasant walk past well-maintained scraps of lawn, an occasional intensely blue pool surrounded by clipped hedges of red hibiscus, thousands of lawn chairs. You can select places you'd like to eat or entertainment that you'd enjoy, plainly audible from the beach.

That night there was a jazz band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Within this fancy hotel's pink, embracing arms, people sat, elegantly tropical, under strings of pink Chinese lanterns and silver backlit palms. At the other end of the entertainment spectrum, my hotel, the Reef, had an open-air lounge with a very good folk singer singing ``Hotel California'' and ``Bobby McGee.''

Some people, in fact, come here for the night life and the shopping. (My hotel alone had seven shops devoted to muumuus, three very extensive booths of shell jewelry, and one woman selling bikinis right on the beach. Not your unspoiled paradise, but convenient, at least.)

When I mentioned to a friend that I thought Waikiki was a terrific place he remarked: ``What a surprise to snobs.''

All I can say is this: No amount of snobbery is worth making you miss Waikiki. Where else can you learn to surf with Rabbit Kekai? Practical information:

Surfing lessons are $10 an hour. To arrange a lesson with Rabbit, call the Sheraton Moana-Surfrider (808) 922-3111 and ask for Aloha Beach Services.

One auburn-haired Californian of my acquaintance recommends wearing a T-shirt while surfing to protect you from the sun. (Suntan lotion is forbidden, as it might make your surfboard slippery.) Women will be more comfortable in one-piece suits, even though it may not fit the surfing image.

Outrigger rides cost about $3.50 per person. They last about 20 minutes.

Renting a Hobie averages $25 to $30 for the first hour; but you can buy a bigger block of time at a lower rate and use it over several days. Repeat: This is not for novice sailors. By the way, each sport has its own slice of the beach; sailors in particular stay far away from the surfing areas.

Aloha Windsurfing (2239 Aloha Drive, right in Waikiki) offers excursions to Kailua Bay on the windward side of the island (if people run into trouble they will just be blown back to shore). A full day with instruction is $47 for a beginner, $40 for advanced. You can also just rent a board and racks for your car if you wish.

Scuba diving and snorkeling are also available: Cost for a half day is $45 to $55. Some outfits offer demonstrations at the hotel pools on Waikiki; call or ask around if you think you want to try. In Waikiki: Steve's Diving Adventure, 1860 Ala Moana, Honolulu, Hawaii 96815, (808) 947-8900, and South Seas Aquatics, 1050 Ala Moana, Honolulu 96814, (808) 538-3854.

Care should be exercised when walking around Waikiki at night. Go with someone or stay near others.

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