Surfing is inherently tied to travel. What began as wave riding centuries ago in Polynesia has evolved into an international obsession that now compels surfers to chase waves all over the world. And although there is no consensus on which Polynesian island first invented surfing, most people can agree that the sport’s international journey began in Hawai’i , on one of the world’s most famous beaches: Waikiki.
Hawaiians have surfed these perfect waves since Waikiki was just a small village down the road from Honolulu. In more recent decades, many surf-curious travelers have taken their first lessons here: The conditions are notoriously calm, and perfect for beginners. Today the area looks different than it once did, clad with high-rise resorts and pricy restaurants. But don’t write it off as a tourist trap just yet—surfing here is a historic and cultural experience to be had, if you’re willing to paddle out for it.
With the sport scheduled to make its official debut at the Tokyo Olympic Games in July, a long-awaited milestone in the sports history, we look back at Waikiki’s surf heritage, and the best ways to experience it yourself.
In bustling Honolulu, the hallowed sand of modern surfing
In order to surf in Waikiki, it’s important to know the sport’s storied history. Back in 1810, after King Kamehameha united the islands of Hawai’i, and well before Hawai’i was part of the United States, the royal families of each island, or the ali’i, came together in Honolulu Bay. According to Brown, many of them visited the village of Waikiki to surf and eventually built their homes alongside the commoners and non-Hawaiians living in the area. Only native Hawaiians surfed in Waikiki—but upon the arrival of Protestant missionaries in the 19th century, the sport was discouraged across Hawai’i and nearly disappeared.
Other factors contributed to the decline of surfing during the 1800s, too, Brown says, including the introduction of diseases that killed many Hawaiians. “Hawaiians still surfed, particularly in the country … [it] just kind of went out of favor, perhaps being seen as old-fashioned.”
Surfing’s revival would not occur until almost a century later, when tourists visiting Waikiki in the 1920s took interest in the Hawaiians who seemed to be walking on water. Waikiki’s waters are shallow, and the reef offshore creates gentle, long waves, which give novice surfers plenty of time to stand up and earn their ride—ultimately making Waikiki the preferred spot for surfing Hawaiians to teach foreigners the sport. “Surfing became first something for visitors to watch from a distance, and then to try themselves,” says DeSoto Brown, a historian at the Hawai’i State Museum of Natural and Cultural History.