This whiskered mug (shown at right) was my last hurrah on Kauai before it was time to board a plane bound for covert Nextpedition destination #2.
Considering that I’m obsessed with any adorable wild creature – let alone one that waddles from the surf onto the beach before my very feet – this, I decided, was going to be a tough surprise act to follow.
When the plane’s wheels rolled down the runway in Honolulu, I have to admit that I still wasn’t entirely convinced that the second leg of my mystery trip could possibly live up to the past four days.
The last time that I visited Oahu with my dad some 20 years ago, I remembered feeling inundated by the frenetic, tourist-packed energy that was Waikiki Beach. In fact, we spent half the trip exploring the more sedate North Shore of the island, zipping around on scooters and stopping at seafood shacks along the way.
So when my airport shuttle driver pulled onto Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main drag, I started to get a little nervous. Then I set eyes on our oceanfront hotel, the Moana Surfrider, which looked more Southern plantation than chain hotel (of which there are many in this South Beach-esque Hawaiian city).
There’s a reason why the Surfrider is often referred to as the “First Lady of Waikiki.” The property was built in 1901, and helped put Honolulu on the vacation destination map. Today, it’s a Westin-branded hotel, but there are elements that still exude that distinctive old-time charm, from the over-100-year-old banyan tree that shades the Victorian-era outdoor bar to the gleaming white verandah, where you can treat yourself to a proper afternoon tea.
If you’re staying at this spot, the bustle that is Waikiki really does feel far away – even at dusk, when there’s a nightly hula performance right under that historic banyan tree. My only issue with this historic gem: The service, which didn’t always live up to what you’d expect of an upscale stay on the sand.
The next morning, it became evident why our Nextpedition Specialists deposited us in Waikiki. It was our second Mystery Activity Day – and it definitely lived up to this Adrenalista’s high expectations.
On March 17, 1978, Waimea Bay lifeguard and surf legend Eddie Aikau lost his life while on a canoe expedition to recreate the 2,500-mile journey that ancient Polynesians had blazed between the Tahitian islands and Hawaii. When the team’s canoe took on water and capsized off the coast of Molokai, Aikau set off on his surfboard solo in search of help. Although the rest of the group was eventually rescued, he was never seen again. That fearless surf spirit is what earned him the popular tagline, “Eddie would go.”
On December 13, 2011, my Nextpedition team had arranged for me to follow in the fellow Adrenalisto-Farbarian’s footsteps with private surf lessons led by wave riders from the Aikau Pure Hawaiian Surf Academy. The school was launched by Eddie’s brother Clyde, a legend in his own right who’s taught wannabe surfers in locales around the world, including Indonesia, Brazil, and France.
I’ve tried many adrenaline-derived things during my travels, most notably the time I rolled down the side of the Smoky Mountains in the equivalent of a human hamster ball, a head cam strapped to my forehead in order to capture my screams. But surfing was still a box left unchecked on my life-experiences-to-definitely-do list.
At breakfast that morning, I decided that, oh, yes, this activity could indeed rival my adventures in Kauai. And I say this partly because my husband, who’d surfed in California once before, made the foolish mistake of claiming that, knowing me, “I’d probably get up on the first try.”
Game on, buddy.
Rash guards on and giant boards tucked under our arms, we headed out to sea with our instructor, Gerald Aikau (shown at left, with yours truly), who I instantly took a liking to when he pronounced that we’d both grasped the on-sand basics tutorial faster than most students.
The bay was bobbing with all sorts of people – paddle boarders gingerly maneuvering the waves while standing upright on wide boards, serious surfers who sat on their boards further out in the water waiting for just the right wave and local moms and dads co-surfing with their little ones. The latter made me think about how I would be that mother, teaching her 5-year-old to catch some waves and live life without fear.
My husband went first – and promptly fell, his feet flipping over his board. Gerald then gently positioned the tops of my feet on the back of my board, while going over the key steps I needed to do to get me from prone position to upright on the board. My body glued to the board and arms paddling at the sides, he suddenly yelled, “Go!”
And that is how “Liz would go.” The roar of the water behind me, there I was, standing and riding the wave to shore. I was up! And it was amazing!
It should be noted for my husband (yet again) that while he crashed and burned on about 50 percent of his attempts, his wife got up every time but once. “But no one was keeping score,” Gerald pronounced with a wink.
Okay, Nextpedition team, I get it now.
At dinner on our last night — our console highly recommended La Mer, a gorgeous French-Hawaiian restaurant right on the beach – I reflected on whether I’d do a mystery trip again. I’d have to say yes – and this is coming from a seasoned, very particular, Type A traveler.
There’s something to be said about letting go completely on vacation and simply allowing each day to take you where it may, no expectations attached. (It also helps when you know pros are handling the details.) As with anything in life, pre-planned routines can be comforting – you know, like going to the same getaway destination year in and year out – but they won’t enrich your life in the same way. Or, in my case, earn the same kind of spousal bragging rights.
Somewhere between my tenth ride to shore and my husband’s second successful surf, I found myself thinking about my dad and that trip we took to Oahu so long ago. If he were surfing with us (no doubt wearing a loudly-colored Hawaiian shirt), he’d be ribbing my husband and smiling at me, annoyingly telling everyone within earshot, “That’s my daughter out there.”
For general trip-planning information, see our Honolulu Travel Guide.