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
This is the place to try something new. Experience is not
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
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,
"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
"They can take all day to do two activities if they want," she
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
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
"If customers get lost in the shopping center, anyone here will
help them out," Richard Constant, owner of EMW Power Boats,
"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
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
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
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
A Reef Adventure's Takahashi said that Hawaii Kai Shopping
Center has made an effort to attract activity firms and
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
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
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
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
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
However, Gowen echoed other operators here in saying that Hawaii
Kai has the cleanest and clearest water and the best reef life in