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Waiting for the Wave in Hanalei

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When the tsunami alert was announced for Hawaii on the morning of February 27, keening sirens echoed through the seaside north-Kauai town of Hanalei. Within the hour, everyone in the low-lying community—including me—had evacuated for the higher ground of other neighborhoods.

That’s what I thought, anyway. But once I’d settled myself on a lofty nearby hotel veranda—from which I could safely survey the still-tranquil sweep of Hanalei Bay—I realized some Hanaleians had stayed behind. I could see them, bobbing on the bright slashes of their boards just a few hundred yards from shore: surfers. Scared of the impending tsunami? Hell, no. They were hoping to ride it.

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After the week I’d spent in Hanalei, this made sense. Though the town’s just a speck on the map—and unsung compared to famed Hawaiian surfing meccas like Oahu’s Sunset Beach—it takes its waves very, very seriously. Existence in Hanalei revolves around the area’s handful of shore and reef breaks; every car in town has at least one board strapped to the roof. World-class pros—Laird Hamilton, and Bruce and Andy Irons—are seen frequently; landlubbers and beach bunnies, not so much.

It’s not that beginning surfers aren’t welcome here; in fact, Hanalei Bay’s sandy bottom and gentle swell makes it an excellent place to learn. But in keeping with the place’s under-the-radar vibe, surf schools here like to keep things small. The week-long surf camp I joined, Surf n Sol, was characteristically intimate: just me and two other newbies (the camp usually maxes out at around six students).

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What was exceptional about the five-day program, though, was that it was also a model of local sustainability. Owner Christine Gau put us up in swanky but low-impact digs—a sleek, fan-cooled five-bedroom home surrounded by papaya trees and just five minutes’ walk from the beach (no car rides necessary). Our daily meals—whipped up by Gau’s partner, a veteran chef—were made with local produce like fresh-caught fish and organic veggies from the Hanalei Farmers’ Market. And all our ancillary desires—including post-surf massages to work out the kinks, and custom-made bikinis sewed up to our specifications—were arranged through collaborations with other community residents.

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Of course, the best thing about Surf n Sol was the surfing. Our patient, encouraging instructors had all three of us tyros standing up on our boards the very first day. And though they’d clearly seen it hundreds of times before, they were excited enough to let out a collective whoop when I caught my first (admittedly dinky) wave.

The tsunami, as it turned out, was a non-event. (This didn’t keep some enterprising Kauai folks from printing up, and vending, t-shirts emblazoned with “I survived the Hawaiian tsunami of February 2010!”) But though the surfers who’d been waiting that day for “the big one” never got their fix, I left Hanalei happy. Like the locals there would be likely to say, small is good.


Guest blogger Sarah Gold is a freelance writer-editor and frequent contributor to TravelandLeisure.com.+

Photos courtesy of Sarah Gold

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