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12 Sep 2017
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Hawaiian Culture

When most people think of Hawai‘i, riding a colorful surfboard on a turquoise wave comes to mind. From the rugged and large board carved out of the native Koa wood to the current day polyurethane boards, there is much history in between these two.

Heʻe nalu or surfing was once known as the Sport of Kings in Hawai‘i. The people of Hawai‘i are highly regarded for their knowledge and prowess of the ocean, a skill grounded in necessity that began in early A.D. when ancient Polynesians paddled their canoes into the unknown navigating only by the stars thus discovering the Hawaiian Islands.  

Historians theorize that surfing started over 1000 years ago with the migration of the Polynesians from the Marquesas and Tahiti and eventually to Hawai‘i. Captain James Cook was the first European to document surfers in Tahiti in 1778. The rich tradition of surfing flourished here in Hawai‘i, where the best surf boards and beaches were reserved for the Ali‘i.

Ancient Hawaiian society was split into classes, the Ali‘i or royal class and the makaʻāinana or common class. For years, Ali‘i ruled the waters, with the best surfing spots reserved for the Ali‘i and the makaʻāinana were stuck with the less favorable spots. The culture believed in the kapu system or taboo,kapu dictated that everything in the islander’s lives, from what to eat to how to build a canoe or surfboard.  Kapu even extended to the length of the surf boards.The makaʻainana rode boards that averaged 12 feet, whereas the Ali‘i road boards up to 24 feet long. These boards were just one of the many ways the Ali‘i showcased their superiority over the makaʻāinana. 

In the 19th century, western missionaries who immigrated to Hawai‘i preached against many cultural practices, including surfing. They preached surfing that was a waste of time, and it had sinful ties to gambling and nakedness. This disapproval broke the spell of surfing for almost 150 years, until King David Kalākaua encouraged the restoration of the Hawaiian cultural practices, including surfing.

Once surfing was put back into its rightful place, the sport took a shift. Ali‘i lost its power to call the shots on waves and beaches, and it became a sport which relied more on ability than noble class.  

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was born in 1890 in Honolulu. Growing up, Duke had a strong passion for swimming, surfing and canoe paddling. In 1910, Duke and a group of friends organized the Hui Nalu or “Club of the Waves”. Soon he was recognized as a world class amateur swimmer; in 1912 he traveled to the mainland and won the 100 meter race, making the Olympic swimming team and traveling to Stockholm to compete. Swimming the 100 meter dash, Duke broke the Olympic record, winning two gold medals and becoming a Hawaiian hero. He went on to win two more medals at the 1920 Olympic Games in Belgium, and made the 1924 U.S. Swim Team.

He is widely recognized as the greatest athlete in the history of the Hawaiian Islands and helped to popularize the sport of surfing in mainstream America by the becoming known as the “Father of Modern Surfing.” The Duke died in 1968 at the age of 77 and is celebrated for his all-around good character and legendary feats of athleticism in the water. After going through somewhat of a renaissance, the beautiful tradition of surfing survived.


Today, Hawai‘i is home to not only many of the best places to surf in the U.S. and the world:

Oʻahu – Chun’s Reef | Laniakea Beach | Waikiki Beach | Diamond Head Cliffs
Maui – Peʻahi “Jaws” | Hoʻokipa | Baldwin Beach Park | Canoe Beach
Hawai‘i Island – Kohanaiki | Kahalu‘u Beach | Honoli‘i Beach Park
Kauaʻi – Keālia | Hanalei Bay | Wailua | Kalapaki Beach


It is also home to many well-known and respected professional surfers as well: 

Eddie Aikau | Dave Kalama | Buffalo Keaulana | Laird Hamilton | Andy Irons | Kelly Slater | Rell Sunn
Bethany Hamilton | John John Florence | Carissa Moore | Kai Lenny


Before you grab a board and jump in, here are a few helpful tips to help make your experience a memorable one.

  • Know what and where you’re surfing:  It’s a good idea to find out where the Ocean Safety Officers are located, understand where the surf break is, which season brings in the big waves and which side of the island is the best for beginners.

  • Etiquette is still a thing in the Islands, from paddling out to dropping in on waves.  While you no longer have to be Ali‘i, you do need to abide by a few common sense rules if you want to enjoy yourself and stay on the friendly side of the locals.

  • Avoid touching the reef:  Sure the reef can cut your feet, but it will heal faster than the damage done to the coral.  If you fall off your board or are in shallow water, make every effort to tread water to avoid touching the reef.

  • Most important!  Know what you’re doing and if in doubt, don’t go out!

Your Hawai‘i Life Vacations - Guest Services are always available to help you find the perfect surf spot, lessons and gear rentals!

Aloha e Komo Mai! Hawai‘i Life ~ Vacations