Waves come in a variety of shapes and sizes on Kauai's North Shore at Hanalei Bay, a stunning stretch of soaring volcanic peaks and beachfront beauty that attracts wave riders from every skill level.
A little more than five years ago I surfed for the first time on Kauai during an introductory group lesson with Hawaiian Surfing Adventures at Hanalei Bay, catching all sorts of knee- and hip-high waves.
While that Garden Isle outing wasn't my first instructional session in Hawaii, it stands out because everyone in our group seemed to have a blast in the bay's sandy-bottomed shore break.
Earlier this year, I joined the surf company again for a different type of adventure: riding head-high and overhead waves at an outer reef break known as the Hanalei Bowl.
Much of Hawaiian Surfing Adventures' business is working with first-timers, teaching beginners to stand up on smaller waves close to shore on large, foam-topped boards. But more experienced surfers, looking to try out some of Kauai's more challenging breaks, can book private lessons and surf-safari outings with the company.
"Some people like those options because they want to advance and want some coaching," said Lynn Alapa, who owns the company with her husband, Mitchell. "Or they just want a partner because they feel more comfortable having somebody there, helping them get the lay of the land. For the breaks where more intermediate to advanced people want to go, you don't necessarily know where the reef might be a little shallower."
I was after a little of both during my recent session, hoping to pick up as much expert advice as possible while also looking for some guidance about where to catch some larger waves.
The Alapas' son, also named Mitchell, was my coach for the day, paddling alongside me away from shore and the Hanalei Pier toward the bigger waves breaking much farther out at the Bowl.
"I can remember my first waves from when I was about 3," he told me later, adding that he's been surfing at Hanalei ever since.
A boy rides the shore break at Hanalei Bay with Hawaiian Surfing Adventures. The company offers a four-hour Children of the Sea Surf Camp for ages 8 and older.
As the two of us paddled closer to what were some pretty imposing wave faces along Hanalei's outer reef, it was clear Mitchell liked what he was seeing, and it wasn't long before he was directing me into the right spot to try my first ride of the day.
"Paddle, paddle!" he said with encouragement as a growing hump of ocean rapidly rose up behind me.
Reaching deep, I managed to pull myself into that wave and then slid down the steep ramp of water before turning down the line as the foamy lip of the wave crashed behind me. All told, I managed to paddle into and ride another two or three head-high to overhead waves, thanks largely to Mitchell Alapa's guidance, and then somehow caught and rode one of the largest waves of my life.
"That wave was probably at least 10 feet," he said. "It was a good double overhead for you on the takeoff and then it kind of tapered off. But on the takeoff, that A-frame peak, it was tall."
"Tall" is certainly one of the memories I have of that wall of water. Another was how dark things got as the wave hulked above me, but just as memorable was the megawatt smile on Alapa's face as I paddled back toward him after the ride.
"I get a lot of joy from seeing people so happy and seeing the smiles on their faces," he said of the moments right after clients catch a dreamy wave. "It makes me super happy, too."
Surfers headed to Kauai can book a four-hour, surf-safari outing with Hawaiian Surfing Adventures, which includes lunch on the beach, for $250 per surfer. Additional surfers can join the outing for a discounted rate, according to Lynn Alapa. Private lessons with an instructor run 90 minutes and cost $150 per person. Both options are commissionable to agents.
Swell conditions vary seasonally, and surfers looking for overhead surf will usually have the best luck in Hanalei Bay during the winter months.
"We'll adjust where we take people based on their level," son Mitchell Alapa said.
"But Hanalei usually has a nice variety of different sizes where you can take people surfing with different skills. We've got lefts and rights, sandbars or reefs, so there are waves for beginners up to expert-level surfing," he said.
Hawaiian Surfing Adventures opened in 2000 with four surfboards, according to Lynn Alapa, and was the first surf school on Kauai's North Shore. It remains a terrific option for novices because of Hanalei Bay's shore break over a sandy bottom free of razor-sharp corals.
"Basically, our biggest feature is the sandy bottom here," Lynn said. "Some other places have you wear booties, but you might still nick your fingers or your knees [on the reef]. And it's nice to have waves here so close to shore. Some other places people offer lessons, like Waikiki, you have to paddle pretty far and people are pretty tired before they even start their lesson."
Introductory group lessons for those 13 and older, with no more than four students per instructor, start at $65 per person. Hawaiian Surfing Adventures also offers a four-hour Children of the Sea Surf Camp for ages 8 and older for $200 for the first child.