Surf, hike and “ocean-scooter” in Oahu
Finding outdoor adventures on the popular Hawaiian island.
Northwest travel guides
HONOLULU — For someone approaching 60 years old, Joey Carroll is quite at home with the word “bro.” And as a bronzed and lean Carroll led me through a Wednesday morning surf lesson on the waves off Waikiki, the word was welcome encouragement for a first-timer.
“You got that one, bro!” Carroll said as we paddled our boards back through the salty surf, moments after I had ridden my first wave on two steady feet. “Great job!”
During a week in Oahu, I chased three kinds of Hawaiian adventure — one on the water, one under the water and one by foot.
LEARNING TO SURF
When you’ve never ridden a wave, surfing looks like a pursuit that requires plenty of discussion, instruction and theory. Not so much. The beach portion of my lesson with Carroll lasted five minutes.
On a Waikiki beach below an endless line of hotels, the former surfing champ explained how to mount the board (at the back-middle, belly first), how to pop onto my knees (one swift, confident motion) and then how to lift and position myself (feet a couple of feet apart on opposite sides of the board). And then we went to the water.
Carroll led the way as we paddled into the ocean until we were several hundred yards off the shore, with the waves gently rolling below us (the smaller waves are a good reason to learn at Waikiki rather than the fabled North Shore, where the surf can reach epic sizes).
Carroll is called “The Wave Whisperer” for a reason; he spots the surf worth grabbing 15 or 20 seconds before it arrives (and finding those waves, I would learn, is harder than riding them). With Carroll’s guidance, I rode the first one on my belly. Fun. Then I rode one on my knees. Also fun. For the third one, Carroll said to ride it however I wanted and to try standing when I was comfortable.
As the wave swelled beneath me, and my surf board rose in the foam, I popped up as I had been instructed on land — and I rode it! It was a magnificent feeling: snow skiing meets skateboarding meets flying. I was riding the ocean.
When the wave ran out of energy and I toppled into the ocean, I paddled back to Carroll and asked the key to becoming a decent surfer.
“Patience,” he said. “Waiting to be in the right place at the right time.”
Over the next 90 minutes, I discovered other necessary attributes. Balance. Relaxation. And letting the body do more work than the mind. Eventually I even figured out how to steer the board by shifting my weight (one reason it helps to have skied).
Locals began giving me thumbs up as I rode with them. But the most gratifying compliment came back on the beach, when I was salt-drenched and exhilarated and dreaming of my next surf.
“A-plus, bro,” Carroll said.
More information: There are many quality options for surf lessons in Waikiki; I opted for Ty Gurney Surf School. (tygurneysurfschool.com, 808-271-9557). Private one-hour lessons cost $110 plus tax, and two-hour lessons cost $165, plus tax.
SCOOTERING ON THE OCEAN FLOOR
“I’m freaking out already,” said a Rhode Island woman as the boat headed into the Pacific Ocean one windy morning.
She didn’t know how to swim. But even for someone who does, it’s hard not to be a little intimidated by the concept of the underwater scooter, which is exactly what its name implies — a scooter that putters across the ocean floor.
“Don’t psych yourself out,” our guide said. “Breathe like you are right now, and everything will be all good.”
Not only do you not need to know how to swim to operate an underwater scooter, you barely need to know how to drive a scooter.
It’s simple: Climb from the boat into the water, where a worker waits with one of the bright yellow scooters. Hold your breath, dunk your head and pop up in an astronaut helmet, of sorts, that’s attached to the scooter. Oxygen is pumped into that helmet; no mask required.
Then the scooter descends about 15 feet to the ocean floor.
Drifting down is an odd sensation: The ears pop, oxygen hisses, and you try to convince yourself that you are safe. But after a couple of minutes, your thoughts shift to steering where you wish to go.
In truth, the scooter is less about underwater exploration — I probably didn’t leave a 50-foot radius — and more about breathing underwater while surrounded by fish. The scooter’s mesh bag, stuffed with bread, helps ensure a good crowd.
But the most rewarding moments weren’t communing with the fish. They were looking up at the surface, no tubes attached to my face, with one simple thought: “I’m breathing underwater.”
More information: Island Water Sports (islandwatersportshawaii.com, 808-224-0076) is the only place to rent an underwater scooter on Oahu. Cost is $99 for a 20-minute ride.
HIKING WITH LOCALS
I stayed in the tourist crush of Waikiki, which meant I was quite happy to find a quiet corner of the island for exploring by foot. Several locals suggested driving an hour north, along Oahu’s west coast, to Kaena Point State Park.
It is the northwest corner of the island, and it offers one of the island’s simplest, most magnificent hikes: 2.5 miles along the rocky coast to Kaena Point, which extends like a finger into the ocean and is accessible only by foot.
Every step is rewarding, as waves churn and crash against the rocks below. It’s an almost completely flat trail, allowing for ample serenity in the peaceful Hawaiian beauty before ending at a sandy point that segues into a rocky beach.
I spent an hour on that beach, sipping water, chatting with locals (who wondered how a tourist had figured out that the trail existed) and saw three Hawaiian monk seals, which I was told was a relatively rare sight.
Then I turned around and walked those blissful 2.5 Hawaiian miles back, Oahu’s towering green cliffs looming ahead.
More information: Access to the park is free. Smash-and-grab break-ins are not uncommon at the Kaena Point trailhead (tinyurl.com/kaenapointhike), so carry your valuables and leave your car unlocked with nothing of value inside. The trail is exposed, so carry plenty of water and snacks and wear a hat.