Catching that very first wave is an incredible feeling – somewhere between scoring a goal and riding a magic carpet
Jonathan Thompson encourages you to say aloha to the home of surfing
In the opening lines of the film The Descendants, George Clooney’s voiceover declares: “My friends on the mainland think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane?”
As I sit on a surfboard among the glittering waves off Oahu’s sun-kissed south coast, I can only conclude: no George, they’re not. Hawaii really is paradise – or as near to it as possible. This chain of eight Polynesian islands – the most remote archipelago on Earth – is as ruggedly tropical and extraordinarily beautiful as you might expect, from the towering volcanic crags of Hawai’i itself (aka “the Big Island”), to buzzing, booming Oahu (home to the only major city, Honolulu) and lush little Kauai (the “real” Jurassic Park – as well as the backdrop to a multitude of other Hollywood movies).
If there’s one thing you absolutely must try while visiting these spectacular islands, it’s surfing. Hawaiians are fiercely proud of the fact that they introduced ‘wave sliding’ to the world – via one of their favourite sons, Duke Kahanamoku.
The athlete, revered here as “The Duke” (and immortalised in a 9ft bronze statue on Oahu’s popular Waikiki Beach), famously won a swimming gold at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, before deciding to teach the world to surf – a practice already common in the Hawaiian islands, particularly among generations of the royal family. On his long journey back to Honolulu, the Duke stopped in southern California and held a series of packed lessons for a generation of young mainlanders. Already world-famous after his exploits in Sweden, the Duke attracted such enormous crowds to the Californian beaches that his post-Olympic tour is generally accepted to be the birth of international surfing.
A little over a century later, there are surf schools scattered all over these palm-fringed islands, particularly on Oahu where the monster barrels of the North Shore are the stuff of surfing legend. Here, towering waves batter the coastline around the tiny town of Hale’iwa – the setting for a number of major international surf competitions every year, from the Vans World Cup of Surfing to the Billabong Pipe Masters.
Being a complete novice, I opt for Oahu’s considerably calmer southern shore for my first foray into surfing. Most surf schools will pick you up from any address in Honolulu, transporting you to a beach appropriate to your skill level. For me, that means a 40-minute ride from Waikiki Beach, past Pearl Harbor to the gentle rollers of Barbers Point, with a group of firefighters who run their own renowned surf school.
I join around 12 other beginners in glorious sunshine (temperatures in Hawaii are reliably excellent all year-round, rarely dropping below 25 degrees centigrade) I’m handed a rash vest and 10ft surfboard, before the lesson begins on the sand.
Lying face down on our boards, we’re taught to watch behind us for suitable swell, before paddling with our hands as fast as we can to gain momentum, then “popping up” onto our feet when we feel the wave catching us. It sounds – and feels – simple enough, but that’s on warm, dry sand. The real test comes when we enter the ocean.
Predictably, chaos (and much accompanying laughter) ensues when we try to surf for real – with bodies and boards flying in different directions as we wobble and splash across the breakers. Fortunately, the swell At Barber’s Point is bathwater-warm and never above head height, so whenever we fall we’re back up again almost immediately – paddling in for another try.
Our instructors (roughly one for every two students) stand in neck deep water, shouting instructions, tips and encouragement – and shoving the back of our boards as we paddle, for extra wave-catching momentum. One by one we manage to hold on, pop up and finally ride a roller into shore, blinking salt water from our eyes and punching the air in celebration. Catching that very first wave is an incredible feeling – somewhere between scoring a goal and riding a magic carpet.
By the middle of our two-hour session I’m paddling into waves by myself, popping up with ease, then pushing down on my front foot to gain additional speed. After that, one of the instructors shows me how to turn and angle the board by twisting my upper body, so I can change direction while riding waves. It’s exciting, exhilarating – and highly addictive. When it’s finally time to go, I have to be bellowed at from the beach, before grudgingly trudging from the warm Pacific waters and into the van for the drive back to Honolulu, surfboards stacked on the roof, windows down and Beach Boys blaring.
Exploring Honolulu, awash with Aloha spirit, is almost as exhilarating as riding the waves around it, with a world class restaurant, bar and hotel scene to dive into. There’s only one place to truly celebrate our first successful surfing session though – Duke’s Waikiki. A nightspot named after the legend himself, the bar sits on the oceanfront, overlooking the place where the Duke famously rode a monster wave for more than a mile in 1929. Here the tropical cocktails are pitcher perfect and dancing by the water is de rigeur. We end our perfect day in Hawaii by sipping Mai Tais and shaking our hips after a jubilant session of wave sliding. George Clooney’s scriptwriter couldn’t have been more wrong.