The Mecca: Paddling Pilgrimage in Waikiki


One of 16 destinations spotlighted in our 2018 Paddle Town Battle, Waikiki has a rich history of standup paddling and a booming SUP culture today. Does that make it the best paddle town on earth? Vote now for the Paddle Town Battle to help us find the best place to paddle in 2018!

By Stone Parker

Waikiki is the spiritual and physical home of standup paddling. It all goes back to Duke Kahanamoku standing up and paddling an Australian surf ski in the late 1930s—you can see it on YouTube. There is a long story about that long board Duke is on with a double-bladed paddle and a leash attached to the nose. And an even longer story that extends from Duke in 1939 across 77 years of time to the SUP sensation that is still sweeping (pun intended) the world. Until other arguments win out, Waikiki begat SUP, and that’s a good thing, because Waikiki is a very spiritual and mystical place to standup paddle.

From the west end of Ala Moana Beach Park at Kewalo Basin to Queens is a round trip of just over four miles—as Google Earth flies. But the real mileage is much more when you add in riding waves and going around Magic Island and dodging sharks and powerboats and zig-zagging into the trades and chatting up tourist chicks and all the other adventures that can happen between Kewalo and Queens.

A hundred years ago, Waikiki was feral and beautiful, swamps and trees to the water’s edge, only a couple of elegant hotels overlooking reefs as lively with animal life below as waves above. Today tourism is worth almost $14 billion a year to the Hawaiian economy, and most of that cash pours through Waikiki—a highly congested two square miles of high-rise hotels, luxury shopping and endless places to eat, drink and shop. From street level it really can seem like they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Waikiki can be sad, Waikiki can be beautiful. Like the ocean, Waikiki’s emotions are always on the move, like clouds over the sun.

But that’s what makes it such an endlessly entertaining place to paddle.

The happy hunting ground, sun-kissed and blue. Photo: Thomas Del Amo

At the west end of Ala Moana Beach Park is a man-made channel approximately 400 feet wide and 3,400 feet long that marks the border between the beach and the reef. This channel makes a sandy path the length of the park and it’s a beautiful two-channel highway for swimmers and standup paddlers alike.

Ashore the beach park is a real melting pot, its wide-open beach peppered with coconut-oiled sunbathers, while under the broad canopy of monkey pod trees its wide, grassy expanse hosts myriad local barbeques and baby parties, homeless people tinkering on bicycles, joggers, pickup football games and, on most days, numerous Japanese couples getting married. But it’s offshore that the flavor really comes through. Steady trade winds blow the sounds and smells off the park and it’s bliss to paddle the inner channel on a sunny, glassy day, with surf on the reef, girls on the beach, barbeque smells mixing with children laughing.

The inner channel is great for beginners, cruisers and practicing racers. The channel is divided by buoys into lanes to keep the paddlers from running into the swimmers. There are a lot of standup paddlers using Ala Moana Beach Park—a regular, before-work crew of trainers and wave-riders, and then all kinds of people, all day long, all standup paddling in various shades of competent. The sun and the clouds and the wind are always on the move. Hot and glassy is heaven. But when the trades are up and coming from the Diamond Head direction, they blow side shore through Ala Moana Beach Park, and you have to paddle-tack into that wind and it’s a lot of work. So going west to east it’s work paddling upwind, but from Diamond Head back to Kewalo Basin with the trades is nothing but speed and fun. Do that circuit three or four times and there’s your exercise for the day. The inner channel is just one of the delights of Ala Moana Beach Park. There’s more outside.

The reef beyond is about 1,000 feet wide. Paddle over it carefully, because it’s shallow in spots, and you could surprise a sea turtle, and you just don’t want to fall over the reef here. Dare to be dorky: wear booties.

All along Ala Moana Beach Park, there are a number of reef breaks—some of them kapu to SUP, some of them SUPerlative. No names here, figure it out for yourself, but here is one caveat: Some of these spots are as local as Hawaiian spots can be. Some of these guys have been surfing these spots every day for 60-plus years and will not show too much aloha (like, none) to an unknown malahini—wearing booties, or not wearing booties—blundering into their lineup on a standup paddleboard. Respect outranks muscle and threat. If you see a group of surfers and/or standup paddlers, go around them.

Many of these locals have their technique and the waves dialed and they are fun to watch. Standing up on a big board and catching a wave with a paddle is a very Hawaiian act. The guys who make it look good, make it look very good: noble and upright and stylish and sometimes wearing a traditional malo: 100% Hawaiian.

The view from Kewalo Park: The inner channel at Ala Moana Beach Park, overlooked by Magic Island, overlooked by Leahi (Diamond Head). Photo: Jianca Lazarus

Of course the surfers aren’t the only Hawaiians exerting their territorial rights. While on a recent Kewalo to Queens paddle I caught a fun wave and while paddling back out I heard a water-ripping noise to my left. I looked over and there was the fiendish thing that one small part of your brain is always looking for in Waikiki: A big tiger shark, all fins showing, tracking over the reef like a mini-submarine. A local guy took off on a wave and I shark-warned him as he surfed right over it. He kicked out and said, “Shoots! That was the biggest I’ve ever seen. Nine feet. Shoots!”

More locals sat off to the right but when I told them about the shark they didn’t seem too concerned.

“No worry,” one said. “They only eat haole guys on standup paddleboards.” (According to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources there has never been a confirmed shark attack at Waikiki, despite common sightings.)

But if you can dodge the local’s fins and teeth (and the tiger sharks) Ala Moana Beach Park is SUP heaven because there’s a lot of stray swell moving all along this reef, not just at the named reefs, but everywhere. The challenge is to sweep your way into those sweepers, chase the wide sets and swingers down, catch waves no one else is near, ride them, kick out, look to Diamond Head for approval and keep going.

Whether you paddle inside or outside at Ala Moana Beach Park, eventually you get to Magic Island and then it’s decision time: around the outside, or through Magic Island lagoon. For some reason, paddling around the top of Magic Island is creepy. It’s not that far, but the water is deep and it’s clear and there’s backwash coming off the jetty and if there’s wind…well the better option is to play it safe and paddle into the Ala Wai Harbor. Here, a narrow channel between the docks and the jetty provide a sheltered stretch of salt water, and it’s kinda fun to paddle through, checking out all the oddball fish that would be a great basis for a Disney film, chatting with the yachties off the port side and the jetty’s homeless denizens and seriously focused fishermen to starboard.

The channel runs along Number 800 dock and then turns left and here you carry your board up and over the breakwater to a little crescent of sand that some call Kaisers Beach and some call Bowls Beach. But the rascals who hang out there all day call it Sweet Okole Beach, because to sit there all day is to see the sweetest procession of healthy, shapely, barely-clad behinds—male and female but mostly female—heading into the water and coming back out. The main attraction here is the surf breaking at several well-attended patches of coral directly offshore, Kaisers and Ala Moana. Both of these breaks are best left to the prone hordes that descend during anything resembling a swell. And regardless, on a standup board you’ve got way more options anyway.

From Okole Beach you have your choice: inside or outside the reef. Paddling inside takes you past the Hilton Hawaiian Village Lagoon, Duke Kahanamoku Beach and then along DeRussy Beach. This is fun if you want to be social and chat up tourists from the Midwest or maybe meet a girl by showing her proper SUP technique: “Hand over the top of the paddle. Pull with your body. Use your core. Where you staying?”

Like Ala Moana Beach Park and Magic Island Lagoon, there’s a wide variety of people getting in the water from Duke Kahanamoku Beach to DeRussy. The water is warm, the water is clear, the water is perfect. There is a surprising population of sea turtles—some of them rather large—that cruise around in there, right in with the tourists. But maybe those turtles know something humans don’t, and they feel safer on the inside with the humans rather than outside with the tiger sharks, because to a tiger shark, sea turtles are a giant bonbon: crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.

Cruising to high performance: Waikiki has it all. Leleo Kinimaka illustrates the latter. Photo: Russi

But if you don’t feel particularly turtle-like you can head straight out over the reef and head toward Diamond Head and Waikiki proper, doing the same thing you did along the top of Ala Moana Beach Park: cruise along enjoying the view while occasionally sneaking in to nab an errant wave or two.

The surf along this quarter mile stretch is year-round and generally small to head-high, perfect for all but the most experienced SUP acolyte. Even the crummy days are fun for SUP, with waves conventional surfers aren’t interested in proving to be a blast. And this is Hawaii, after all, floating in the middle of the Pacific. Even on the scrappiest days, a bomb could roll in from nowhere, and make your day.

Passing DeRussy Beach with about 300 strokes you’ll see a major landmark on shore that indicates your turnaround point. Nestled in among the high rises the venerable Royal Hawaiian Hotel, with its famous pink architecture, is hard to miss. Not so is the flotilla of surfers of every stamp riding the gentle combers breaking directly in front of the “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” spread out across the reef system called Canoes. Depending on your affinity for weaving your way through throngs of Japanese tourists, soft-top surf schools and surly outrigger canoe concessions, sliding a few waves at Canoes is one of surfing’s quintessential experiences. Just expect to share. Make yourself popular: Call out the sets. Call a wave, make a friend. Show the aloha.

Across a well-defined channel is one of Waikiki’s most popular surf breaks—and it has been for centuries. Queens, once reserved for Hawaiian royalty, is an amazingly benevolent peak, breaking left and right … and the hearts of all but the fiercely dedicated locals who have its tiny takeoff spot all but sewn up. Forget trying to paddle over to Queens, but instead gaze longingly before turning about and heading west, back toward Kewalo Basin.

Even if you stay way away from the waves—which could be a good idea, depending on the swell, the crowds and your ability—Waikiki is always an amazing experience. The trip from Kewalo Basin to Canoes covers approximately four-and-a-half miles and takes about half a day. Time it right and do the return paddle in the evening. This is a good way to end the day, paddling easy, talking to swimmers along the way, watching the stars and enjoying the warm Hawaiian sea the exact temperature as the night air.

It’s good for your head, it’s good for your mind, it’s good for your body. And when the clouds are on the move and a sunset’s rainbow arcs over Diamond Head and the moon comes up out of the crater and the hotel lights come on and the sun sets with a green flash and the stars come out…well, Waikiki is one of the most beautiful places in the world—and one of the most beautiful places to paddle. –SP

This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 Issue of SUP Magazine. 

Vote for your pick of the 16 towns in this year’s Paddle Town Battle!

More paddling Hawaii.

The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!