My ambition might be no stronger than to spend the day swimming off the reef-protected beach at the Kahala Hotel. Like the Halekulani, this 1964 colossus benefits from having about it a whiff of archaism. It was here, at what was then a Hilton and known as the Kahollywood, that Richard Burton and Liz Taylor hid out from the paparazzi in a private cabana. And it is here that I hide out from obligations and, more important, my phone.
So absolute is one’s sense of remove at the Kahala that when I bumped into a German acquaintance on the beach I found my small talk veering from international gossip to the more compelling news that unexpected swells had risen on the North Shore and that Ted’s Bakery, in Sunset Beach, was serving chocolate haupia pie.
Sometimes when on trips to Oahu, where my father had business, he and my mother took a suite at the Kahala. The business had a surfing motif and he traveled often to Hawaii, and yet, for complicated reasons, I was a grown man before I ever set foot on the islands. I also avoided surfing, then as now unimpressed by the manufactured profundities cranked out by the surf press, the sport’s permanent roster of self-enchanted seeker-loners, but most of all by its laid-back ethos, which, as I learned first-hand, is a crock.
So it made no particular sense when, on a morning marked for me by an impressive hangover, I found myself hauling a longboard into the waves at Gray’s Beach, a break right by the Halekulani, trailing behind the former pro surfer Hans Hedemann. A barrel-chested man who operates surf schools at various points around Oahu’s north and south shores, Hedemann had developed an idea that he might teach me to master stand-up paddle-surfing, one of those newly appreciated ancient sports enjoying a revival.
“It’s like walking on water,” a friend had said reverently of a sport that involves standing on a surfboard and guiding oneself through the water with the aid of a long-handled paddle.
If water-walking was not exactly the effect desired or achieved, I did find it simple enough to stay upright. From what I could tell through the remnant haze of the previous night’s hilarity, it was also kind of fun.
Paddling us past an inshore reef, Hedemann told me how to stand and then to stroke. I followed his instructions and successfully completed a few back-and-forth circuits and then announced that I was ready to quit and get breakfast, preferably something greasy to wash down with a Niagara of Kona coffee.
“Want to surf?” Hedemann said, ignoring me. We had reached the beach and angled our paddles against a seawall. Then somehow we were back in the water and heading toward some waves, him on his small board, me on a thing roughly the size of a Buick.
As it happened, I had spent the previous day with big-time North Shore surfers who regularly attack what the father of one rider, Jamie O’Brien, termed “waves of consequence.” He was referring to the 60-foot monsters at Mavericks, in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, a break whose fearsome reputation became still more terrible to me when the surfer Kealii Mamala remarked that “Mavericks is one of the sharkiest places on earth.”
There were no sharks that day in Waikiki and certainly no waves of consequence. Or if there were, I never saw them, owing to the fact that, without my glasses, I had trouble sighting anything less prominent than the Royal Hawaiian hotel, which is pink and 16 stories tall.
Still, surfing turned out to be surprisingly easy, in the way that skiing is if you never leave the bunny hill. I paddled out, waited for the surge of a baby wave, and then launched myself into a half-crouch stance, trying to remember how people who really know how to do this look. While I was busy honing my imitation, a real wave came along and, gently and naturally, pushed me to shore. I had become a wave glider, somehow.
Later I went to Hedemann, fishing for approval and a way to explain this entirely unexpected success, only to find that he had turned into Gary Cooper.
“It’s just a feeling kind of thing,” he said in a laconic tone allowing for no elaboration. In my mellowed state, this seemed fine to me, the Occam’s razor reply.
Why should the most obvious answer not be the correct one?And why is this always most obvious in places half a world away from home?
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.