Hawaii has long been a beacon for surfers and adventurers alike - but with chic hotels and gorgeous beaches, it's also an under-the-radar superyacht playground. Hugh Francis Anderson travels to the Aloha State to catch a few waves.
An endless depth of crystal-clear water lies beneath me, the westerly breeze and warming sun feel almost meditative, and in the distance a humpback whale calf breaches, its flukes rising high into the air before it submerges once again. I’m sitting on a surfboard on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Waiting for a wave has never been this enchanting.
The ocean and the archipelago of Hawaii are inextricably linked. The first settlers are thought to have travelled more than 2,000 nautical miles from the Marquesas Islands in hand-carved canoes to discover its volcanic shores. And it was these settlers who fashioned the first hardwood surfboards that were documented by the Royal Navy's Lieutenant James King in 1779 (the earliest written account of surfing). Two hundred and forty years later its cerulean waters are still a Mecca for professional surfers and first-timers alike. And its location above a volcanic hotspot within the tropical waters of the central Pacific makes it a yachting paradise too.
“Hawaii is a really fun place to sail to,” says Jacob Kahiapo, Hawaiian captain of Sea Ray SLX 400 The Entertainer. “Between California and New Zealand, and Australia and Chile, there’s no better place to stop, enjoy and hang out.” With abundant stretches of isolated beach and rich marine life, providing fantastic diving and sportfishing, the 50th and newest US state has plenty to tempt superyachts to its shores. Its position, more than 2,000 nautical miles from San Francisco, means it requires an adventurous mindset, but 126-metre Octopus, 119-metre Motor Yacht A and 56-metre Asahi have all been spotted here in recent years. Created from volcanic debris that expanded and rose out of the ocean, there are eight large islands and more than 100 smaller islands, islets and atolls to explore by boat. However, I set out to discover the top three for any surfing-inclined superyacht visitor: Oahu, Maui and Hawaii.
Sailing and surfing exist in perfect harmony on the most populated of Hawaii’s islands, Oahu, which is home to both Waikiki Yacht Club and Hawaii Yacht Club. Its less-developed leeward coast hosts the 330-slip Ko Olina Marina (the most sophisticated superyacht set-up in Hawaii) and the Four Seasons Resort Oahu, which opened in 2016. The tropical retreat sits next to a cultural preserve called Lanikuhonua, which was once a holiday home for the island’s royalty, and the surrounding lagoons act as refuge for albatrosses and Hawaiian monk seals.
Oahu may be set up for superyachts and high-profile guests but it also has a rawer side. As I arrive at Haleiwa on the famed North Shore, the fantasy Hawaii that has been depicted in surf sportswear ad campaigns for decades comes to life. The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA plays on repeat in my head, surfboards lie propped against rustic homes and the northerly breeze rustles the palm trees that dot the roads. It would be impossible to come here and not try surfing. So, on nearby Haleiwa Beach I meet the Big Wave World Champion, Makua Rothman, and throw myself into the water. With a gentle 30-centimetre swell, I catch my first wave, and then another and another. Rothman cheers wildly, explaining that nothing gives him greater pleasure than sharing his Aloha (positive energy) with others. And I feel the positivity again and again as I stand tall on the 3.5-metre foam board. There’s a magic to riding a wave, a tranquillity that builds to a feeling of unadulterated exhilaration.
The less populated island of Maui is dominated by the West Maui Mountains to the north-west and Haleakalā Volcano to the south-east. Along the west coast at Launiupoko Beach Park, I meet Zane Kekoa Schweitzer, a young waterman (which is surfing jargon for all-round watersports athlete – a grown-up waterbaby) and passionate conservationist. Twice crowned Ultimate Waterman champion – a decathlon of the ocean that includes surfing, longboarding and breath- holding trials – Schweitzer tells me more about the role surfing plays in Hawaii. While we gaze out to sea, with the island of Lanai in the distance, he explains that surfing was a way to connect with the ocean and became a ritualistic art form long before a sport. I notice, listening to other surfers, that they are all aiming for creativity, not performance, on the water.
Schweitzer and I dive into the ocean, carefully avoiding contact with the reef below, and paddle out. “I now get to share what I love the most: the passion that the ocean and nature can bring into our lives,” says Schweitzer as we wait for the next set of waves to roll in. “Once we get in the water we start to see the ocean differently and it really does allow us to be present.” As if by magic, a green turtle surfaces within touching distance of us, unfazed by our presence as if we belong here, too.
After our surf, I travel to the north coast to witness the truly wild side of Hawaii – the Jaws break at Peahi. When the swell rises at this surfers’ paradise, crowds flock to the Peahi cliffs, only accessible by four-wheel drive, to watch the spectacle. I’m fortunate to catch it on a day where there are swells in the region of 20 metres and it’s truly mesmerising to watch men and women towed out by jet skis to take on what looks like an avalanche of water rising from the ocean. The crowd gasps when a rider successfully rides one of the waves double the size of a house.
Away from the rough and tumble, Maui offers more than a touch of luxury. This is especially true at the neoclassical-style Four Seasons Resort Maui, where celebrities including Lea Michele and Paris Hilton have been spotted among the fountains and sunbathing cabanas. Overlooking the pristine Wailea Beach, the palm-tree studded hideaway even has an in-house chiropractor on offer if you have overdone things on the water. The waters off the golden sands of Wailea Beach also have some of the best anchorages in Maui. “The west side of all the islands have a lot of lee, so there are many, many great spots for anchorage,” says Kahiapo. “The sand is thick and deep at 12 metres so yachts can anchor very easily.”
In contrast to the sloping shelves of Wailea Beach, my final destination, Hawaii Island or Big Island, is home to some of the most starkly diverse scenery in Hawaii. The primary reason for this is Kīlauea, Hawaii’s most active volcano, which last erupted just over a year ago. The island is a favourite stop-off for Mike Hein, former captain of 42-metre McMullen & Wing Mea Culpa. “It has some of the world’s bluest water and there’s some amazing fishing east of the Big Island, too,” he says.
As I make my way back along its western shore I see evidence of volcanic activity all around. The island’s far north is covered by dense tropical jungle and waterfalls but on the west side, barren lava fields and dark volcanic rock dominate the landscape. The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is an oasis of verdant manicured lawns and palm tree groves in the otherworldly tundra. It may be 30 minutes from the nearest superyacht anchorage at Kailua- Kona, but its spa, featuring traditional wooden pavilions in its tropical gardens, is worth the effort thanks to its locally inspired treatments. Its Lomi Lomi massage, for example, is a sacred healing technique passed down by kupuna (elders). As such, each therapist has a unique technique, using palms and forearms for a full body massage.
The best way to appreciate this island is from the air, so I set out by helicopter from Kona Airport. We fly over the neat rows of the Kona coffee plantations, gaze into the steaming mouth of the Kīlauea Volcano, continue along the sheer cliffs of the Hamakua coastline and fly deep into Kohala Forest Reserve, home to the 790-metre Waihilau Falls. When returning along the west coast, we spot a pod of dolphins and a few humpback whales with their calves breaching nearby. Hawaii's warm waters attract whales by the thousands to mate and give birth. Watching them from above is an experience like no other.
It is in these waters that my surfing journey culminates. A short drive south of Hualalai at Kahaluu Bay I meet Wesley Moore, founder of Kona Town Surf Adventures. “What makes Kahaluu Beach ideal for surf lessons is the wide-open bay and its ability to provide waves for all skill levels,” he says. “Kahaluu’s inside reef produces soft rolling waves that make it easy for first-timers. The more comfortable the surfer gets, the further outside the break they’re able to go and test their skill level.” From 30-centimetre beginner swells to 2.5-metre waves, Kahaluu Bay has it all. And it is here that I ecstatically catch my final waves. Heeding the advice of my surfing gurus, I take a moment to rest on my board and look out to sea.
Hawaii is a state of vivid contrasts – volcanic cliffs melt into golden sand beaches and laidback hippy surfers rub shoulders with designer-clad celebrities. There are few locations that offer superyachts a sense of natural adventure in such close proximity to world-renowned resorts. And if you’ve ever had a desire to surf, there’s no greater place to do so – trust me.