Oahu's New Wave

Like most longtime surfers, I hate surf clichés. Phrases such as "Surf's up!" and "Gnarly wipeout, dude!" slice me like live coral. So I was mortified when I failed to stop myself recently from spouting one of the sport's most enduring platitudes: "Should have been here yesterday!" Even more so because I said it to one of its most respected big-wave experts at a dinner party on O'ahu's famed North Shore.

The expert was Darrick Doerner -- a member of über-legend Laird Hamilton's outer-water posse and a man who in 1988 stroked into a wave at nearby Waimea Bay that some of his peers still consider the largest ever ridden without a tow-in from a Jet Ski.

I'd come to Hawai'i to attend Doerner's new Surf Education Adventures (SEA) camp, a "school" for experienced surfers who want to tap into the former lifeguard's extensive knowledge of the North Shore's black-diamond surf zone. This was a family vacation, so the itinerary also included lessons for my wife and sons in the bunny-hill surf of Waikiki, on O'ahu's famously tame south shore. But the first few days were designed to let Dad confront his lifelong fear of big waves.

At least that was the idea. Our arrival, however, coincided with a spring storm that brought rain, winds and no swell, and I came to realize that my time at Doerner's SEA camp was going to be long on E and short on A.

Of course, the day before we arrived the waves had been glassy, blue and big -- wide faces in the 20-foot range. Exactly what I'd hoped for. Doerner, 48, had taken his student, a 41-year-old New York attorney named Rodney Youman, to Sunset Beach, a muscular deepwater break inevitably overrun by intimidating locals. Doerner had shown the New Yorker what to look for, and the guy had snared the biggest and most thrilling waves of his life.

Two days later, over a home-cooked dinner of teriyaki chicken, char siu noodles and green curry soup, Youman was reliving his psyche-altering Sunset rides, while I suffered the cliché-addled envy of every surfer who ever missed good waves by one day.

I consoled myself with the fact that I now had the freedom to explore the North Shore, a place many visitors view only through car windows on their way to Waimea Falls or La¯'ie.

Aside from a couple of decent restaurants (Hale'iwa Joe's Seafood Grill and Jameson's by the Sea), some tacky boutiques, and a very busy Starbucks, this side of O'ahu still gives off the scent of a rural outpost. Chickens strut on the fairway at the Turtle Bay Resort's two golf courses, while sheep and cattle graze small pastures just east of Sunset Beach.

For decades, the north shore has been known as "country" to Honolulu's "town," even though the two places are only about an hour's drive apart. Country was filled with hippies, surfers, hippie-surfers and an inordinate number of dogs. Town was filled with glistening shopping centers, skyscrapers and tourists. In recent years, however, country has started to display symptoms of town syndrome. Outsiders have been buying up beachfront property and boosting real estate prices. The Hale'iwa business community has made a concerted effort to brand the North Shore as a tourist destination. The campaign has been aided immeasurably by the recent release of the films Blue Crush, Riding Giants, and 50 First Dates and by TV shows such as WB's Boarding House: North Shore and Fox's North Shore.

Which is strange when you consider that compared with Honolulu's busy streets and shops and Waikiki's frenetic beach scene, there's really not much to do on the North Shore if you don't surf -- or don't enjoy watching people surf. Waimea Falls Park, with its cliff-diving demonstrations, hula shows and extensive tropical gardens, is well worth a visit. And you can easily spend a full day at the Polynesian Cultural Center in nearby La¯'ie. Part museum, part theme park (think Disney meets National Geographic), the center features replica villages and cultural demonstrations (make kapa, learn to hula or pound kava) from throughout Polynesia, as well as the most elaborate lu¯'au pig roast on O'ahu.

But if you really want to get a taste of the place, sit on the beach at Pipeline during a thumping west swell, which tends to hit between October and March. Pipeline is made for spectators: The beach slopes like an amphitheater, the waves break shockingly close to shore, and the winter sun arcs over the inland hills, front-lighting the scene all day. The surf booms so hard on the shallow reef that it rumbles the sand beneath your towel, while briny sea spray scents the air.

When it's firing, Pipeline resembles a small-town high- school football game in that everyone comes to watch: former stars, future heroes, giddy girlfriends, proud parents, community leaders. The onlookers tend to be well-informed and willing to share their knowledge with enquiring newcomers. By the end of the day, you'll be scoffing at the surfers who look good but play it safe, and cheering those who risk the most, get the deepest tubes and display the coolest aplomb. Ask the right person, and you'll come away prepared to judge a surf contest and able to discern the wannabes from the stars.

Although the surf stayed small during our April visit, visitors swarmed the streets of Hale'iwa, and it was hard to find a parking spot near Pipeline. "Why do all these people come here?" wondered aloud Duncan Campbell, owner of Café Hale'iwa, the best place to go if you want to gawk at surf stars while eating a breakfast burrito. "There's white sand, beautiful water, but that's about it. I think they come to see surfers. We get customers all the time asking, 'Where's Pipeline? Where's Waimea? Where's Sunset Beach?' We try to give them directions, but of course there are no road signs. They're all amazed that there are no road signs."

Campbell, 50, has lived on the North Shore for 25 years. For the first decade after the café opened, he said, business would drop 30 percent at the end of every winter, when the ocean goes flat and surfers would migrate elsewhere. In the summer, the same bays that were once whitewater are the domain of snorkelers and swimmers. These days, Campbell said, business declines only about 10 percent in summer.

This trip was my first opportunity to see the North Shore through the eyes of my wife, Pamm, and our sons, Will, 12, and Cameron, 10 and we had an immensely enjoyable time. We wasted a happy afternoon browsing the shops of Hale'iwa in a contest to find the most unlikely flip-flop-shaped trinket. Will sniffed out a rack of flip-flop refrigerator magnets, and Cameron found a display case that featured an alarming variety of bejeweled flip-flop earrings. But it was Pamm's discovery of a four-foot-tall wooden flip-flop sculpture that not only won our private competition but also raised the great unanswered question of our trip: Who buys wall art fashioned after cheap rubber footwear?

Oh, and we ate: Freshly sliced pineapple from a roadside fruit stand near Kawela; syrupy shaved ice on the sidewalk outside Aoki's in Hale'iwa; hubcap-size pancakes as we sat beneath autographed surf posters at Campbell's Café Hale'iwa; and a healthy, fruit-laden breakfast buffet at the Turtle Bay Resort's Palm Terrace restaurant.

On our third day, with no sizeable surf on the horizon, we headed south to Waikiki, passing the historic Schofield Barracks Army base on our way to a historic Honolulu traffic jam. Our crawl to the Outrigger hotel reinforced my preconception of Waikiki as a high-rise wasteland. I'd read up on some of the strip's stats, and they were worrisome: The one square mile of hotels in Waikiki generates half of Hawai'i's visitor industry expenditures and a full 13 percent (around $5 billion) of its gross state product.

The view from our room only partly assuaged my disdain. The water off O'ahu's south shore comes in a dozen delicious shades of blue. The trades blow offshore all day, grooming the surface putting-green smooth. And Diamond Head's green slopes deserve all the postcard coverage they've had over the past century or so. But the surf zone was filled with 100 (literally 100; I counted) wannabe surfers bumping rails amid miniature rollers.

However, I was determined to remain upbeat, a task made considerably easier by our newly energized preteen sons. They looked beyond the crowds and saw only sunshine, warm water and the softest, most user-friendly surf on the planet.

I had another reason to smile. Pamm, a committed nonsurfer whose fair skin chars under tropical sun, had promised to finally sample her husband's defining pastime. And what better location than here, at the birthplace of modern surfing, the same cozy crescent where, in the early 20th century, Duke Kahanamoku and other Hawaiians began to introduce mainlanders to the thrill of gliding across the ocean on a pulse of invisible energy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must also admit to an ulterior motive. I kept in the back of my mind an excerpt from the book Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, by Ben Finney and James Houston, which I'd read on the flight from San Francisco:

No doubt many an amorous Hawaiian, who didn't feel at all like surfing that day, found himself paddling for the breaker line in pursuit of his lady love, knowing full well that if a man and woman happened to ride the same wave together, custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach.

You get my point.

At a beachside concession in front of the Outrigger, we connected with Tommy A'ainuinu, a barrel-shaped beachboy who has been pushing people into waves and steering outriggers for 30 years. "It keeps you in shape," he said. "Makes you look young."

True enough. A'ainuinu is 62 but has the build and complexion of a man 15 years his junior. I pointed to the pack in the water and wondered if the place could possibly get more crowded. "This is nothing," he said. "Summer, worse."

One by one A'ainuinu hauled three hefty surfboards through the sunbathers to the water's edge. Cameron and Will, beneficiaries of more than a few previous lessons from their father, were issued matching floral-print nine-footers. Pamm lay atop a 12-foot tanker on which the entire family could have picnicked. I borrowed one of the concession's longboards, and soon the five of us were paddling toward the horde at a spot called Canoes.

The surf was about waist-high, mushy and inconsistent -- ideal for the scores of beginners flapping about. Tommy stood in chest-deep water and shoved my kin into easy breakers. Pamm caught on quickly. On her second wave she was up and riding, arms outstretched and slowly waving -- Gidget does tai chi -- as she skimmed across the shallows. "Tommy told me to relax when I stood up," she said of her cranelike stance. "That seemed like a good way to do it." By the end of the session, I'd lived out one of those selfish fatherly fantasies, riding a wave with each of my sons and another alongside my lady love.

Later, on the deck at the Outrigger's bustling, open-air Duke's Canoe Club restaurant -- surf history adorning the walls and looking out at the site where the legendary Hawaiian rode his longest waves, Pamm and I shared a certain intimacy, though not precisely the one intimated in Hawaiian history books. I massaged her sore shoulders, and we clinked beers while our sons romped in the nearby shorebreak. I'd never imagined feeling such peace in the land of the two-for-one lu¯'au.

That evening as we walked east on Kalakaua Avenue, past musicians and jugglers and old men playing speed chess, toward Kapi'olani Park, we discovered yet another happy fact about Waikiki: City fathers have been working hard lately to break down the barriers between tourists and natives. At a bimonthly event called Sunset on the Beach, films air on an outdoor movie screen, while local restaurants and caterers sell food out of tents. We joined about 2,000 people at a free high-fidelity screening of Finding Neverland.

It would probably be a stretch to call it a renaissance, but Waikiki is definitely undergoing a transformation. Old high-rises are being razed, beach access improved, walkways widened, grass planted, benches installed. And the area is awash in museums, gardens and elegant restaurants. The day after our first Waikiki surf lesson, we had an impeccably styled Pacific Rim lunch at Chai's Island Bistro, where I happily grossed out my boys by melodramatically savoring the escargot. Later, we envisioned bloody warfare at the Bishop Museum's display of wickedly ingenious Polynesian weaponry.

Yes, there are still plenty of places to buy cheesy knickknacks (I got high-fives from the kids when I showed up at the hotel with a flip-flop lighter), but Waikiki is beginning to have the feel of a city trying to recapture its proud history.

The changes on land have done nothing to affect the ocean, however, and it's the ocean that lures most visitors to Hawai'i. One morning, we got up early and joined a group of 30 snorkelers aboard the 45-foot Outrigger Catamaran for a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the south shore's outer waters. From the water, Waikiki's wall of hotels fades into the backdrop of green mountains, with a strip of white beach and blue ocean in the foreground. Wearing loaner masks we floated over swarms of silvery akule, tried unsuccessfully to incite a blowfish into blowing, mispronounced the blue-striped humuhumunukunu-kua¯pua'a and tracked a massive, leisurely sea turtle. Back on the cat, shivering, we were treated to a bouncing 15-knot speed run from Diamond Head to Ala Moana.

The day before our departure, we arranged one last surf lesson, this time with Hans Hedemann, a former World Tour pro who is now something of a surf-school tycoon. A sturdy and consistent competitor at his peak in the early '80s, Hedemann these days looks more like an insurance salesman than a beachboy. We met him on the sand in front of the Sheraton Waikiki, where he kept a cell phone to his ear coordinating lessons island-wide. Hedemann has concessions at six hotels on O'ahu. Private lessons, groups, beginners, advanced surfers, North Shore excursions, tow-in training … Hedemann and his army of 50 instructors do it all, introducing more than 25,000 people a year to the sport of kings.

According to the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hedemann is one of about 250 certified surf instructors on O'ahu, and that number doesn't include the many instructors who operate without certification.

"Everyone wants to go surfing now," he said. Hedemann, who has homes on O'ahu's south and north shores, appreciates Waikiki's current redevelopment. "They're renovating everything: the landscaping, the look, the feel," he said. "It's going to swing more people to just hang on O'ahu, which is a good thing because O'ahu really has so much to offer. It has city life and it has the country. And nowadays, going to the North Shore is like going to the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor; it's become a must-do."

Pamm opted to sit out this lesson. So it was just Hedemann, the boys and me. Cameron, our youngest, was unnerved by the long paddle out to the waves, but Hedemann calmed him down, and soon we were all sharing peaks at an empty little reef a couple of hundred yards east of the circus at Canoes. We surfed until our arms got tired, but even then stayed out for just one more. And for the first time, I saw in my sons the telltale indicator of legitimate stoke: an impatience with lulls, and the inevitable craving for more and bigger waves.

That's the self-centered insatiability of which true surfers are made. I know this firsthand. Because despite the paternal glee that came from watching my sons ride waves at the place where surfing began, my imagination kept drifting back to the one that got away -- to that big, clean day I'd missed at Sunset Beach. ©