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Back when kings and queens ruled Hawaii, surfing represented social status. Royalty distinguished themselves from commoners by making boards from the finest wood and riding the waves of Waikiki. Today, however, surfing is something everyone can enjoy whether they get wet or not. Surfing is not just a sport — it’s a lifestyle.
Even though surfing originated in Hawaii, islanders lost interest in it by the late 1800s. It found new life in the early 1900s thanks to Oahu native Duke Kahanamoku, considered the pioneer of modern surfing. An Olympic swimming champ, Hollywood actor and local folk hero, Kahanamoku promoted surfing worldwide, and a statue in Waikiki honors his contributions to the sport.
“Oahu’s waters are shared by people from all walks of life who are drawn to the excitement and energy of surfing,” said Oahu Visitors Bureau director of travel industry sales Stacey Martin Alford. “Learning to ride the same waves surfed by Hawaiian royalty and surf legends is a unique experience that visitors can’t find anywhere else.”
Alford can attest to the thrill of catching some curls.
“I didn’t think about my first surfing experience as easy or hard — just fun,” Alford said. “The instructors were passionate about the sea and made me feel comfortable and motivated. I ended up with a newfound appreciation for the water and a greater level of comfort in the ocean.”
New fitness trends such as stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) have led to a renewed interest in Oahu’s surf culture, said Alford. Clients can choose from companies such as Hawaiian Fire Surf School, taught by off-duty Honolulu firefighters. Aloha Beach Services in Waikiki offers surfing lessons, catamaran rides and outrigger canoe paddling. With Waikiki Beach Services, clients can learn to surf from the famed Waikiki Beachboys, who also give SUP lessons as they share surfing lore.
Since Oahu is synonymous with big wave surfing, clients might want to time their vacation with one of the impressive competitions that occur around the island. The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing takes place on the North Shore in November and December, and the Quiksilver Big Wave International occurs between December and February. Come summer, Duke’s OceanFest in Waikiki honors Kahanamoku through competitions in some of his favorite sports.
Oahu hotels are embracing surf culture as well. The interior of the Modern Honolulu incorporates surfboards of famous island wave-riders and offers a beachfront surfing boot camp for guests. Turtle Bay Resort, located near the world-famous North Shore, hosts ocean-inspired events and activities.
Oahu museums and restaurants provide clients with yet another way to plug into surf culture. The Honolulu Surfing Museum, the brainchild of musician Jimmy Buffett, features two dozen boards, including the longboard used by Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now.” Duke’s Waikiki, an eatery at Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, houses an extensive collection of surfing memorabilia. The Bishop Museum’s archives contain the largest collection of Kahanamoku photographs in the world, plus one of his surfboards. Honolulu Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Boardshorts: A Perfect Fit,” runs through Jan. 13, showcasing the history and styles of Hawaii’s unofficial uniform.
Visitors can also try on surf culture by shopping around the island. Haleiwa, the quintessential North Shore beach town, offers laidback shops and boutiques. Surf retailers like Local Motion, Xcel and Quiksilver outfit clients with classic shorts, T-shirts, wetsuits, “slippahs” (flip-flops) and other gear.
George Kam, Quiksilver’s ambassador of aloha, believes that everyone can appreciate surf culture.
“You can feel the mana (spiritual energy) just by watching surfers catch a wave and seeing how stoked they get,” said Kam. “It’s an easy way to embrace the culture.”
For Kam, who surfs nearly every day, the best way to appreciate surf is to experience it firsthand.
“Whether in a canoe or on a boogie board, stand-up paddleboard or surfboard, catching a wave in Waikiki is the best feeling in the world,” he said. “Duke Kahanamoku knew how good it felt, and that’s why he shared the gift of surfing with the world.”