Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Week on the Island

WAIKIKI, OAHU, HAWAII—"Speed, balance and direction,’ those are the three things you need to know about surfing,” our surfing instructor tells a group of us on a sleepy Wednesday morning, just across the street from the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku. Since I haven’t actually stood on a surfboard since the 20th Century, I listen intently, silently praying to Brian Wilson that, before lunch, I will be catching a wave and sitting on top of the world.

My morning at the Hans Hedeman Surfing School in Waikiki is only the latest in a series of excellent adventures since arriving here on Saturday afternoon, and parking myself at the Waikiki Outrigger hotel. (Full disclosure: Travel and transportation arrangements were provided gratis through the Oahu Tourism Bureau, who booked us at the Outrigger, the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore, and the Aqua Coconut Waikiki,over a span of five nights and six days.)

Since living here in the mid-80s as the editor of the local entertainment monthly, I was startled to see the amount of new development on Kalakaua Avenue, which runs along the Waikiki beachfront. New and renovated hotels sit chock-a-block with designer stores as well as the requisite t-shirt and chotchke emporiums and ABC stores. Five-dollar t shirts hold court next to Louis Vitton and Coach merchandise. As it should be, I suppose. The effect is a dizzying whirlwind of shops and surf, coated with a fine scent of coconut oil. To this day, coconut tanning oil always reminds me of Kalakaua Avenue.

The view from the Outrigger Waikiki looks like every postcard of Hawaii you’ve ever seen. The luminescent, teal-colored water shimmers under a blazing sun that will fry you like carne asada faster than you can say, “We go power grindin’ at Zippy’s, li’dat.”

From the 14th floor, Diamond Head looms over the landscape like the Sphinx, and the horizon is a continuous monochromatic vision of blues. A $20 million renovation project, begun in September 2002, has re-imagined the once-dowdy Outrigger Hotels & Resorts' Waikiki property, including its 495 guest rooms, 30 oceanfront suites, and the 18,000-square-foot lobby. A one-hundred-year-old koa canoe sits front and center in the renovated lobby. Everything dazzles at the Outrigger, and the service and accomodations are quietly and elegantly impeccable.

Though we traveled here in the middle of summer at the height of travel season, there is really no peak season on the eight main islands that make up Hawaii. (Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and the Big Island of Hawaii, if you’re taking notes. Niihaau is privately owned, and Kahoolawe is a former military target area, not open to the public).

With Honolulu as the 11th largest metropolitan area in the US, and the largest in actual size (It’s complicated), Hawaii is unique in that there are no racial or ethnic majorities here. Everyone is a minority. Caucasians (Haoles) constitute about 34 percent; Japanese-American about 32 percent; Filipino-American about 16 percent and Chinese-American about five percent. Most of the population has some mixture of ethnicities. Very few are strictly Polynesian.

And now back to our trip, currently in progress.

Saturday evening found us beachfront at the Outrigger’s luxury Hula Grill restaurant,staring out at a cinematic sunset and staring down at plates topped with gourmet- quality entrees, only the first of several frankly spectacular dinners we would enjoy over the course of the week, each one vying for the title of “best ------ I’ve ever had.” By the time the sun dipped below the Earth’s blue edge,we were giddy and satiated with food, sun, turquoise-colored drinks with umbrellas, and the constant ringing disbelief in our heads that we were actually here.

And things would only get better from this point on, as if that were even possible.
A drive up and over H1 past Pearl City, Aiea, and the Dole Pineapple factory (now more a museum than an active factory), brought us to the entrance of the Turtle Bay Resort. Situated at Hawaii’s North Shore alongside the beach town of Haliewa and the famous surfing locations of Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and the Banzai Pipeline, the hotel is a spectacular bit of everything Hawaii offers.

“Depending on what you like,” explains PR rep Keoki Wallace, “You can find it here.”
The resort boasts 443 beach cottages and guest rooms, and owns nearly five miles of beachfront which is not only peaceful and secluded, but also lays claim to some of the most impressive waves in the world every winter.

It’s hard to believe as I sit,watching a quiet, peaceful bay with gently lapping waves, but those same waves become 20 and 30-foot raging monsters who take no quarter come November.

There are two pools, one with a pool slide, two golf courses, tennis courts, horseback riding, hiking and mountain bike trails, and of course, a surfing school, as well as free scuba lessons. Since the hotel’s footprint is so large and diverse, it’s the home for numerous TV and film productions, says Wallace, who has arranged close to 40 during his few years at the hotel.

Wallace points to a lush, dense clump of palm trees across the bay. “They shoot “Lost” over there.” He goes on to explain that because of the diversity of the landscape, as well as the luxurious facilities, the hotel is a popular choice among production companies.

“We can produce everything from the jungles of Viet Nam to the shores of Cape Cod here,” he says.

Just a few miles south of the resort, alongside Waimea and Sunset Beach, sits the historic beach town of Haliewa, a cozy little melange of Hawaiian cowboy shacks with restaurants, surf shops, and more surf shops. At one end of a seven-mile stretch of beaches and some 40 surf breaks, it’s a madhouse every winter, as thousands of fans converge for Uber-Surf contests like the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, with waves the size of houses roaring down toward the shore from hundreds of feet out, turbo-powered by winter Pacific storms. No hodads allowed here, bro.

We spent two luxurious nights at Turtle Bay—with daily jaunts into Haliewa for t-shirts and tourism—the highlight being the resort’s first-ever Winery Dinner, featuring Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards, a Napa Valley-based operation, hosted by owner/raconteur John Komes. He introduced each of the five courses and accompanying wines. The meal offered a pair of Chardonnays, a Cabernet Sauvigon, and a Merlot, which Komes naturally defended after its savaging in the hit film,

Courses ranged from Cajun-spiced Ahi, diver scallops, roasted duck breast and a pan-seared beef tenderloin, each of which was sublime. And devoured.

Tuesday brought us to The Aqua Coconut Wakiki hotel, a smart, stylish boutique hotel on the banks of the Ala Wai canal, where crew teams practice in the early evening twilight. This is an affordable but high-quality alternative to the pace and price of beachfront Waikiki, and within walking distance of everything you might desire Honolulu-wise.

The Aqua chain also owns the Aqua Surf and Spa, where I was treated to a surprisingly effective massage to bang out the dents I had acquired surfing.

Oh yes, surfing.

I paddled out, turned my Laird board around to face the shore, and as the next wave tucked under and lifted me, I was sailing along in a sea of foam and wind. Remembering my lesson, I stood up quickly, and for the 10-second ride, I understood again why people give up their lives to do this. Sure, I wiped out more than a few times in true surfer fashion, but standing atop the board and dreaming of the Pipeline, I surfed. I paddled out again. I surfed. I paddled out again. I surfed. Until my shoulder said, “No mas,” I surfed, dude.

How was your week?

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