A taste of the real Hawaii

There are untold rewards if you venture beyond the palm-clad convenience of Waikiki

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

Spend enough time in the company of surfers and everyday tasks like getting buses or filling in forms are transformed from unavoidable inconveniences into an affront to life’s true purpose. Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing and a byword for getting away from it all, has a similar effect. Beauty’s seductive charms are in full effect here, and America’s favourite tropical paradise knows exactly how to seduce visitors with its lei garlands, friendly alohas and perpetually good weather. Initially, I treat all this smiling with unreserved cynicism, but within a few days I’m trying to figure out a way to move here.

At first, though, Hawaii plays it coy. Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, is the main gateway to the archipelago; home to the bulk of the state’s hotels and shopping, it is the kind of place where those looking to get away from it all don’t really have to. It’s also where most visitors to Hawaii will spend their holiday, clustering around the golden beach and glassy, user-friendly waves of Waikiki. Conveniently, the retail distractions of Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu’s answer to Rodeo Drive, are only a short walk away.

I spend my first night in the Hotel Modern, at Waikiki’s southern edge: its name a hostage to the fortunes of fickle trends but a satisfying example of contemporary design nevertheless – the first-floor pool area and Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant are reasons enough to stay.

Beyond Waikiki’s overcrowded perimeter, Honolulu is a kind of low-rent LA, a city of strip malls and traffic-choked avenues lined with monkeypod trees. I beat a fast exit out of this paved-over paradise and head out along Highway 1 through the heart of Oahu to North Shore, home of the Seven-Mile Miracle, a stretch of three beaches that are the centre of world-class performance surfing. I’m no surfer, but I still want to see what the fuss is all about.

Of the three, Ehukai is the best-known thanks to the Banzai Pipeline, a break that is the ultimate proving ground for the top pros. It is a surfer’s Wimbledon, but with deadly consequences – the incisor-shaped rocks beneath the break have cost the lives of seven top surfers since 1999.

There are half a dozen camera crews on Ehukai, their lenses all trained on one spot, about 100m out to sea, where 10 or so surfers are straddling their boards, waiting. I’m standing at the edge of the beach, next to a group of young surfers with perfect abs and half-lidded stares. We’re all looking in the same direction, but I have no idea what I’m meant to see. I’m hoping that it’s superstar Kelly Slater, the only surfer I’ve ever heard of.

“Who are you watching?” I ask one of them casually, careful not to betray my hopeful ignorance. He turns to me slowly and gives me a look of confusion and pity. “Who . . . ? Nah, brada, we’re just watching the break . . .” he says, trailing off as he turns back to stare at the water.

I stare quietly and try to absorb the awesome sense of place, but nothing really happens. There will be no tube riding today, no spectacular wipeouts at the top of a 20-foot swell – it’s the wrong time of year. After half an hour of watching dots bobbing up and down in the water I leave, disappointed I didn’t at least secure an invite to whatever beachside barbecue my staring companions were probably planning for later on.

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