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On Honolulu's Waikiki beach, a man in shorts greets visitors with open arms. He is the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. This year it will be 100 years since the man known to Hawaiians simply as “the Duke” took home an Olympic gold medal in swimming, and decided to show the world how to surf.
On his way to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, the Duke stopped off in southern California and held packed-out surfing demonstrations. Others had surfed in Californian waters before him, but the world-famous Duke brought in such crowds that he is credited with starting the Californian craze. Three years later he carved a board from an Australian sugar pine at Freshwater, Sydney, and amazed locals by standing on it in the water.
Arguably it's thanks to the Duke that there are now wetsuited figures bobbing in the freezing waters off Noordhoek, Scotland and speeding into barrels in Bali.
For centuries, surfing had been almost entirely the preserve of Hawaiians, whose joy in riding the surf naked shocked visiting missionaries into banning the pastime. While Tongans and Fijians rode the sea on their bellies, it was in Hawaii that the art of standing on a wave was perfected.
The beach at Waikiki probably hasn't changed that much since the Duke set off for Stockholm, if you ignore the skyscrapers; the water still teems with outrigger canoes, surfboards and swimmers. At its heart are the marble pillars of the Moana Surfrider hotel, where the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) stayed in 1920 and was taught to surf by the Duke. The grand, whitewashed “First Lady of Waikiki” was the first hotel to be built here, in 1901. It has kept its imposing colonial style, with enormous corridors off the lobby to accommodate guests' steamer trunks.
I stayed here before my first Waikiki surf, waking up to the sort of turquoise waves that make you want to leap out of the window and sprint for the nearest board shop. This is where the Duke learnt his art, and I had long been keen to make that same pilgrimage.
Paddling out felt absurdly easy. The sea was a bath-like 25Cº. I headed for a reef break called Pops. Two hours passed so quickly that when I finally caught a wave back to shore I had only minutes left until my afternoon stand-up paddle boarding lesson at Hans Hedemann's surf school. Hawaii-born Hedemann represented the islands as a professional surfer in the 1980s and '90s, and offers stand-up paddle boarding in tandem with the original art. I managed about two strokes before falling off backwards, but when I finally made it work, I rocketed towards the shore.
The precursor to stand-up paddling is the outrigger canoe, several of which go out every day at Waikiki, packed with tourists. The men paddling these team canoes are the last of the Waikiki beach boys. The Duke was one of the original boys. Their enthusiasm was responsible for the revival in the ancient sports of surfing and outrigger canoeing in the 1900s, and you still find the same beach-boy friendliness at Waikiki in everyone from the guys renting boards on the sand to the sun-wrinkled old locals dishing out tips in the surf.
While Oahu island's Waikiki beach may have the greater claim to surfing history, the Hawaiian islands are best known for the waves that batter Oahu's North Shore, created by storm-generated swells in the North Pacific. At notorious breaks such as Pipeline, Sunset and Waimea Bay, professional surfers slug it out in enormous hollow tubes, trying to escape before the towering waters - up to 52 feet high - crash down.
I couldn't go home without surfing the legendary North Shore. Hedemann's North Shore surf school is based at the Turtle Bay Hotel, and its surf coaches took us to waves that were just a few feet high and less likely to kill us. But they broke over a sharp reef, and smashing into that reef on a few wipeouts brought home how terrifying it would be to get pinned by something 10 times the size.
While Oahu is most associated with Hawaii's surf scene, the island of Hawaii - the Big Island - claims its own surf pedigree. Despite its size it's sparsely populated, with plenty of rugged scenery to explore. Anthropologists cite Kealakeku Bay on the island's west coast - known as Kona - as the first place where a written record of surfing was made, by one of Captain Cook's crewmen. But breaks are trickier to find here than on Oahu. The best thing to do in the waters around the Big Island is to get under their surface - and you won't need fancy scuba gear to see fish all the colours of a 1980s rave. At Kahaluu Beach Park, a staggering multicoloured underwater world lies just 20m from the car park.
I abandoned any idea of surfing and hired a VW camper to explore and go snorkelling. The best site was on the black sands of Punaluu Beach Park, where I woke to see enormous turtles sunbathing in volcanic rock pools just across from the van.
Before heading back to Hilo, I drove inland to visit the spectacular Kilauea, the most active of the island's three live volcanoes. The lava wasn't flowing, but it was exciting to stand by its crater, taking in the strange atmosphere of impending doom, and catching a whiff of its mix of fireworks and rotten eggs.
My last stop in Hawaii was the island of Kauai, whose most recent claim to fame is as the lush location for the film The Descendants. Flat-roofed diners and shopping arcades straight out of the 1950s sit in front of enormous waterfalls cascading down the sides of a volcano.
Here the road hugs the sea and the water is full of figures bobbing on boards. No wonder tiny Kauai is home to so many great surfers. Laird Hamilton, pioneer of tow-in surfing, where a jet-ski propels the rider into implausibly huge waves, is the best known. He grew up here, and his dad, Bill, runs the board-rental shop at Hanalei Bay.
Hanalei is also home to professional surfer Bruce Irons and his brother Andy, a triple world-title winner. Andy suffered a fatal heart attack last year, and the trees by the beach are now a makeshift shrine to him.
I headed to Bill Hamilton's shop for my final date with the Hawaiian surf, hired a longboard and paddled out into Hanalei Bay. There will be some in Hawaii who wish the Duke had never shared their secret pleasure with the world. But as I caught another long, turquoise wave into the shore I could not help feeling very glad that he did. - The Independent