Renowned beachfront area located on the south shore of Oahu, in the lee of Diamond Head, three miles southeast of downtown Honolulu; the sun-warmed birthplace of modern surfing, and the sport's most history-rich area. While maps define Waikiki Beach as a narrow strip of shoreline just a few hundred yards long, fronting an enormous wall of high-rise hotels, surfers generally think of Waikiki as extending over two miles from Diamond Head to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor—an area containing more than 20 reefbreaks, including the churning left tubes at Ala Moana, the easy rollers at Canoes, and the high-performance rights at Queens.
Waikiki (Hawaiian for "spouting water") breaks best from May to October, as Pacific Ocean storms to the south and southeast semi-regularly produce three- to four-foot waves, and on occasion create surf up to eight foot or bigger—as a rule, however, the waves here are much smaller and less powerful than those that strike the North Shore of Oahu in winter. The tradewinds blow offshore at Waikiki so the waves are consistently smooth and well-groomed; the warm tropical air often carries a scent of plumeria, and the water temperature ranges from the mid- to upper-70s. Shallow reefs are a danger at a few breaks, but crowds are Waikiki's biggest surfing hazard.
Waikiki was second only to the Kona Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii as ancient Hawaii's most popular surfing area, and in centuries past a long ride at Kalehuawehe—Outside Castles—was thought of as the ultimate surfing experience. Romance was associated with Waikiki surfing from the beginning. Hawaiian legend tells of a handsome local surfer, enticed by a chiefess to ride alongside her at a Waikiki break reserved for royalty, who was nearly executed by the ruling chief, saving himself only after he was able to skewer 400 rats with a single arrow shot.
In part due to the influence of Calvinist missionaries, surfing in Hawaii dropped off radically during the 19th century. The sport's renaissance in the early decades of the 20th century was staged at Waikiki, led by Olympic gold medal swimmer and lifelong surfer Duke Kahanamoku, along with Irish-Hawaiian surfer George Freeth. Waikiki and surfing were almost synonymous prior to World War II: the gentle-rolling waves were perfectly suited to the era's heavy wooden surfboards, and Diamond Head made an ideal backdrop for the hundreds of black-and-white surfing photos used on postcards and published in general interest magazines including Collier's, Sunset, and National Geographic.
Waikiki surfing also had a tireless patron in Alexander Hume Ford, the South Carolina-born journalist-promoter who founded the Outrigger Canoe Club (surfing's first organized group), and convinced Jack London to write an article on the new sport. "That's what it is, a royal sport for the natural kings of earth," London wrote in his 1907 article for the Woman's Home Companion, after trying the Waikiki surf for himself, where the waves, he said in typically ornate style, were "bull-mouthed monsters . . . a mile long, with smoking crests." Freeth left Waikiki and introduced Southern California to surfing in 1907; Kahanamoku, a few years later, became the sport's greatest emissary and representative, giving wave-riding demonstrations in California, New Jersey, New York, Australia, and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the rakish Waikiki beachboys—a group of natives loosely affiliated with the hotels, most of whom passed easily back and forth from surf instructor to entertainer to gigolo—were coming into their glory as Waikiki became America's first and most popular tropical vacation area. Waikiki was also home base for haole (white) surfers John Kelly and Wally Froiseth, who invented the streamlined "hot curl" board in 1937 and went on to become the first dedicated big-wave riders.
Although Waikiki was no longer viewed as the center of the surfing universe by midcentury (Southern California was the sport's industrial hub; the North Shore of Oahu was the new high-performance arena), it remained the headwater of Hawaiian surfing talent from the '40s to the '70s, producing first-rate surfers like Albert "Rabbit" Kekai, George Downing, Conrad Canha, Paul Strauch, Fred Hemmings, Joey Hamasaki, Joey Cabell, Reno Abellira, Gerry Lopez, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha, and Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani.
Favorite Waikiki breaks, along with those previously listed, include Number Threes, Kaisers, Castle Surf, and Populars. Hundreds of amateur surf contests have been held in Waikiki over the decades, including dozens of state titles, as well as the United States Championships in 1976, 1992, and 1996. A small number of regional and national pro meets have been held here as well.
Surfing was filmed for the first time in 1906 at Waikiki; it was also featured in a small number of Hollywood features over the next four decades, including Bird of Paradise (1932) with Dolores Del Rio and Waikiki Wedding (1937) with Bing Crosby. Hawaiian Surf Movies (1954), the first all-surfing film, made by Californian Bud Browne, was shot almost exclusively at Waikiki; most surf movies of the '50s and early '60s included Waikiki footage.
Because of its proximity to Honolulu (population: nearly one-million for the larger metro area), as well as occasional heavy rainfall, Waikiki beaches and waterways have long been subject to sewage spills. 471 gallons of partially-treated sewage flooded the area in a 1986 spill; a raw sewage spill of 48 million occured in 2006, and contributed to the death of a boater who fell into the water; a half-million-gallon raw sewage spill took place in 2015, causing a two-day shutdown of all Waikiki beaches.
Waikiki waves, surfers, and history are looked at in detail in dozens of books, including Hawaiian Surfboard (1935), Surfing Hawaii (1972), Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure (1984), Waikiki Beachboy (1989), History of Surfing (2010), and The World in the Curl (2013)