Many vacationers seek Oahu for one reason: Waikiki . The white sands, turquoise waters, fun surf breaks, premiere shopping, exciting nightlife… there are plenty of reasons why a traveler would want to explore Waikiki and all it has to offer. And while this area has been highly commercialized as a tropically urban, picturesque and lively city, it is also deeply rooted in history and boasts many interesting cultural facts.
Not only is Waikiki recognized as the birthplace of modern surfing, but it is also the stretch of sand where Kamehameha I landed his armies to conquer Oahu in 1795. Honolulu, the state capital and the only city in the nation that is home to a royal palace, is the #1 tourist destination in Hawaii and boasts a wide variety of surf breaks along its stretch of coastline.
Oahu locals refer to the Waikiki and Honolulu area as Town (in contrast to the North Shore, which is considered Country). Since many tourists, locals and beach goers alike enjoy Town as an ocean and urban playground, I decided to do a little research and find out what makes these areas so unique.
The Hawaiian word Waikiki means ‘spouting waters’. Wai (fresh water), kiki (to spout, bubble). Waikiki had an abundance of fresh water springs that percolated from the Ko‘olau Mountains down to the coast, creating a swampland. This marshy area sustained many native Hawaiians through kalo (taro) farming, but by the early 1900s, was used to grow rice. But rice paddy swamplands were not economical and tourism was growing, so officials decided to dredge the Ala Wai Canal in 1920. The canal diverted the natural springs and turned Waikiki’s swampland into dry land, ideal for development.
Duke Kahanamoku grew up on today’s Ala Moana Blvd., (just before the Kalia Road intersection), which is adjacent to the property where the Hilton Hawaiian Village now sits. Today, the beach in front of this resort is mostly manmade, as is the lagoon. But the lagoon is named after Duke, and so is a small side street (between the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Ilikai Hotel), in recognition of where the Hawaiian was raised and learned to swim. Duke grew up in a time where the women would gather limu (seaweed) and the men would fish to sustain themselves and their family.
The Waikiki Beach Boys are widely recognized as reviving the ancient sport of surfing and outrigger canoe surfing, as both watersports were on the verge of extinction during the turn of the 20th century. While the first beach boys arrived in 1901 with the opening of the Moana Hotel, professional beach boys in Waikiki didn’t really exist until the 1920s. In 1934 The Royal Hawaiian Hotel sponsored an official beach boy organization known as the Waikiki Beach Patrol.
Diamond Head’s Hawaiian name is Le‘ahi, meaning ‘point (of the) ahi fish’. Lea (point of land), ahi (yellow fin tuna). At a distance, the mountain resembles the dorsal fin of an ahi, hence its Hawaiian name. Later, in 1825, British sailors found small sparkling calcite crystals in the beach sand near Le‘ahi and named the mountain Diamond Hill. This name was later changed to Diamond Head.
Tom Blake, surf pioneer and legendary figure in Waikiki history, first came to Hawaii in 1924 and bought a wooden surfboard for $25. Later, in 1926, he created the first hollow surfboard that weighed 44 pounds (compare this to the 100-pound boards most people were surfing then). In 1929, Tom bought a Graflex camera from Duke Kahanamoku and became the first to build a waterproof camera housing, which was used exclusively for surf photography. The man is also credited for creating the fin in 1935, when he fixed an old speedboat keel to the bottom of a board.
Garbage Holes for Bowls. Magic Island was created in the 1960s as part of a new resort, (which was never finished) and ended up destroying a hollow peak surf break known as Garbage Holes. Around the same time in 1952, the Ala Wai Canal was being blasted with dynamite to reroute its entrance, and thus Ala Moana Bowls was created, now known as one of Town’s best lefts.
It is literally illegal to surf Point Panic with a board of any kind. Surfers who enter the bodysurfing area of Point Panic with a surfboard or bodyboard can face up to $1,000 in fines and possibly even jail time. Usually DLNR just confiscates your board, but because this place is highly territorial, just surf Incinerators instead. The man-made seawall that extends from Kewalo Basin to Honolulu Harbor is where Point Panic gets its name. The rocks are the ‘point of panic’ where if you don’t avoid them, you’re guaranteed to panic.
Overcrowding on the beaches and in the lineups became a topic in Waikiki in the ‘50s, and in 1963, a newspaper headline read, “Waikiki Has 3 Times As Many Surfers As An Area Can Safely Handle”. Today 4.5 million people visit Oahu each year and Waikiki is one of the most popular destinations they seek. Oahu harbors 70% of Hawaii’s population, and over 70% of these Oahu residents live in Town.
Waikiki was initially an important food location, but once this necessity shifted, it became less important for sustainability and more important as a place of recreation. Kamehameha V was the first to make Waikiki a specific vacation getaway in the mid 1800s, and had a home built on the property where The Royal Hawaiian hotel now exists. After this, Waikiki became a regular summer retreat for Hawaiian royalty.