Hawaiian History: The Story of the Waikiki Beachboys

If there’s something about Waikiki that sets it apart from other tropical sea destinations, it’s the Waikiki beachboys. Hailing back a century, the beachboy culture has evolved with the changing face of tourism in Hawaii, but the gentlemen in the red shorts still practice the same core values of sharing the sports of surfing, outrigger canoe riding, and aloha with visitors.

Lei-covered statue of Duke Kahanamoku in Waikiki.
Statue of Duke Kahanamoku in Waikiki. Photo © Werner Bayer, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

After Calvinist missionaries decimated the Hawaiian culture in the 19th century, the sport of surfing, a purely Hawaiian endeavor, was nearly extinguished. It was seen as sinful because of how much skin was shown while surfing. Only a few surfers remained at the end of the century, namely legendary waterman and three-time Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku and a few of his friends.

As the first wave of wealthy American tourists arrived on steamers in the early decades of the 20th century, these few surfers took it upon themselves to entertain the visitors, teaching them how to surf, ride canoes, and have a good time. In essence, they created a way to earn a living surfing year-round on the beach at Waikiki. These first visitors came to Hawaii for extended stays and were able to develop relationships with the beachboys, who became their tour guides and a bridge to the Hawaiian culture and a different lifestyle. After giving surfing lessons during the day, the beachboys entertained their guests with ukulele, song, and libations at night, a hedonistic lifestyle by all accounts.

The fun was curtailed by WWII, and as travel and tourism have changed since then, so too have the beachboys. With the ease and affordability of flying across the Pacific, a vacation to Waikiki is accessible for so many more people, not just the wealthy elite. Today, with thousands of visitors flocking to the beach daily, the beachboys focus on surfing and outrigger canoe surfing and have shifted roles from entertainers and tour guides to beach services. While only a few of Waikiki’s beachboys can still trace their ties back to the original beachboys, any beachboy can still show you how to have the time of your life in Waikiki’s gentle surf.

Related Travel Guide