Hawaii Kai Carves Out Niche as Island's Ocean Sports Center

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Reed Travel Features

HAWAII KAI -- Hawaii Kai in east Oahu can claim to be Oahu's ocean sports center.

A major playground for visitors to Waikiki, it probably has the largest concentration of ocean activity firms in the islands.

Clients can spend a half or full day here, experiencing a range of activities from parasailing and jetskiing to water- skiing and scuba diving.

This is the place to try something new. Experience is not necessary.

Around 8:30 a.m. each day, shuttle vehicles start rolling in from Waikiki, eight miles away, to Koko Marina Shopping Center, which is headquarters and dock for most Hawaii Kai operators.

Visitors are ferried from Koko Marina out to Maunalua Bay.

The shopping center has more than 60 outlets, including fast food and other restaurants.

A quarter of a mile farther along the highway, on the slopes of Koko Head, is the entrance to the crescent-shaped Hanauma Bay Nature Park, Oahu's most popular snorkeling spot.

Along the coast are well-known body-surfing beaches and the Sea Life Park marine attraction.

The late industrialist Henry J. Kaiser is responsible for the creation of Hawaii Kai.

In 1961, he leased 6,000 acres, mostly fish ponds, and built this Honolulu suburb and marina (he also built what is now Waikiki's Hilton Hawaiian Village).

Concentrated here today are an impressive array of activities: five scuba operations; two for parasailing; three specializing in jet skiing; four for power boating, and one waterskiing operator.

Also offered are snuba (a cross between snorkeling and scuba); a Reef Adventure, which features a drive-your-own "glass-bottom" power craft, and several activity barges offering water games.

Most activities cost about $49, including roundtrip transportation to and from Waikiki.

Packages available include Hanauma Bay and Sea Life Park.

Almost all operators package each other's products and pay commissions of 20% and more.

An unusual degree of cooperation, even among direct competitors, has developed, a necessity for the survival of these small, owner-operated businesses.

"This is becoming a premier destination," said Kathy Takahashi, marketing vice president at a Reef Adventure.

"Visitors can stop while sightseeing or be brought in from Waikiki.

"They can take all day to do two activities if they want," she added.

Most activities take one hour to an hour and 15 minutes, which means that three can be done in a morning.

Actual activity time, for example, is eight to 10 minutes for parasailing; 30 minutes each for jet skiing, speedboat excursions, snuba and one-tank scuba, and one hour for the Reef Adventure.

Like the other activities, a Reef Adventure starts with a briefing at its offices.

Visitors are shuttled out of the marina, with the Reef Adventure boats in tow, under the bridge to Maunalua Bay.

The destination is Turtle Canyon, an area a mile offshore noted for its endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles.

Fish feeding attracts schools of reef fish, mostly trigger fish.

Participants can spend time viewing the underwater world through the glass bottom or speed around in power craft, an escort boat never far away.

Steve Macy, owner of Divers Island, a scuba operator, anchors his 40-passenger catamaran here.

Divers go down to about 30 feet, and a 15-passenger boat is used to shuttle participants.

At one time, Macy offered dive tours to Hanauma Bay, and he still has a permit and will take custom groups there.

However, he finds Maunalua easier with less preparation time needed, less crowded and, therefore, safer.

"It's good for both beginners and licensed divers, with clean water, great visibility and marine life," he said.

Throughout the day, shuttle vessels ply the marina and the bay, transporting passengers to the floating activity platforms.

Each company has its own stickers that visitors wear, with the activities checked off.

Firms keep in touch by radio as well as cellular and regular phone.

"If customers get lost in the shopping center, anyone here will help them out," Richard Constant, owner of EMW Power Boats, said.

"You look at the sticker, ask them what activities they've done, and we'll get them to the next one," he said.

Such flexibility is important when many visitors speak little or no English.

Japanese form Hawaii Kai's biggest single group of visitors.

"We began attracting Japanese big time in the late 1980s. The mainland market never fully recovered from the decline after the Gulf war," according to Jaap Syderhound, owner of Syderhound Water Ski Center.

Syderhound, who has been at Koko Marina 20 years, added, "But the Japanese have changed. Before, they wouldn't bother to ask the price. Now they shop around.

"Now the Korean market is coming on strong, and it's an affluent market."

Syderhound noted that, with fierce competition, activity prices have remained static during the years.

About half his business, he said, comes from retail sales of water-ski equipment, which enables him to survive.

Syderhound, however, has the advantage of having the only activity in the private marina, which is permitted under federal boating laws.

A Reef Adventure's Takahashi said that Hawaii Kai Shopping Center has made an effort to attract activity firms and tourists.

Last fall, a Reef Adventure moved from the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center on the other side of the marina.

Some ocean sports firms have their docks and offices at Hawaii Kai Shopping Center, but the center's appeal is mainly for residents.

Last year, Koko Marina Shopping Center started advertising in Japan, promoting the flexibility and range of activities to the growing number of Japanese FITs with the slogan "Hey, It's Your Vacation."

More stores with signs in Japanese have sprung up at Koko Marina, and there is a move to merchandise for tourists.

Fast food chains here include McDonald's, Taco Bell and local chains Loco Moco Drive-In, Kozo Sushi and Zippy's.

Restaurants also open for lunch include Assagio's (Italian) and the Marina Grill (seafood).

A new souvenir and clothing store called Hanauma Bay advertises fish food for the bay for $1.50 and free snorkel rentals with a $15 purchase.

The Hawaii Kai firms market through local tourist publication advertising, hotel tour desks and ground management companies.

One firm, Get Wet Hawaii, has its own van transportation and packages the other activities.

"We have the best-kept secret out here, but we're learning to market better," according to Alan Gowen, the firm's president.

The most popular activity, he said, is parasailing, followed by jet skiing.

Get Wet also sells jet skiing at Keehi Lagoon near Honolulu Airport (mainly because under state law, commercial jet skiing is forbidden at Maunalua on Saturdays and Sundays).

Waikiki also has surfing, parasailing and jet skiing, and places such as Kaneohe and Kailua on the east coast have windsurfing (the south coast doesn't because trade winds could blow windsurfers out to sea).

However, Gowen echoed other operators here in saying that Hawaii Kai has the cleanest and clearest water and the best reef life in the islands.

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