Best Place to Paddle on Oahu?
“That’s my home right there” utters Bill, in a Sam Elliot-esque voice, without the southern drawl. From Moku Nui, he points across the cyan expanse to the golden shoreline where multi-million dollar villas nestle inconspicuously in between rows of palm trees. He withdraws his reach and once again rests both arms on his thighs as he sits hunched over on a ledge of sand and rock. His permanently tanned, leathery face and white coifs peaking out from under his “North Shore” baseball cap give him away to be in his mid to late seventies. “I’ve lived everywhere…spent time in Tahiti, Bora Bora, Bali, the Mediterranean, seen it all. THIS is the best paddling spot in the world, hands down.” He goes on to list the reasons why, although I’d already drawn the same conclusion about 3-hours ago. All I did to instigate this interaction was walk by and say “nice boat”.
Prior to this day, I had considered the Mokulua Islands to be about as real as a postcard. They taunted from the shore of Lanikai Beach, but I never stuck around long enough to contemplate how to get over there. Admittedly, I had never never been a big fan of Kailua or Lanikai. They are absolutely two of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but they are so very crowded. You know what it’s like when you’re trying to watch a highly-anticipated movie in theater full of people talking, texting, having popcorn fights, and laughing during scenes that aren’t supposed to be funny? That’s Kailua and Lanikai, combined.
But alas, I could not get those mysterious Mokulua Islands out of my mind, and on this particular day I decided to shuffle over from Kalapawai Market to Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks. I signed a personal safety waiver, and despite pleading (“Braddah, I’m experienced in the ocean”) I had no choice but to watch their safety video before departing.
Once done, I made every effort to make up that lost time by B-lining straight to Moku Nui. I was tempted to sneak over to the off-limits Moku Iki for a peek, but opted for more time on the island I came to conquer. An approximate shoulder-burning hour later a tiny wave relieved my stroke and pushed the kayak onto the small sandy strip that fronts Moku Nui. With other watercraft on the shore and their amiable owners sprinkled about the area, it seemed safe enough to leave my belongings tied-up to my bright banana boat. I could tell by the terrain that one best not be encumbered by unnecessary accessories while hiking around. The lush crown of the island is a “no humans allowed” bird sanctuary, whereas the circumference is comprised of what can be described as a jagged post-apocalyptic wasteland. I immediately regretted not wearing reef shoes, no matter how silly they look. With nothing but slippers to protect my feet, I flip-flopped over to one the larger green tide pools on the northern side of the island. The shaded water was cool and refreshing compared to the warm North Pacific that fed this pool. I floated on my back and looked up at the clear sky. Colorful little fish broke the solitude, darting back and forth to provide companionship. Paradise.
The next point of interest was heard before seen. A deep, continuous and echoing splash beckoned me to explore further. I overheard stories of an underwater cavern on Moku Nui, and this was most likely it. Apparently tide conditions must be exact for even an intermediate cave explorer to venture in, and it didn’t seem to my untrained eye that these were such conditions. The crevice walls had a fleshy appearance from the inanimate sea life clinging to the sides while the incoming ocean swirled around and eventually inside into the dark, ominous fissure. Oahu Search & Rescue would not find my remains here. Forget it. After another 15-minutes of exploring I figured it to be a good time to turn back. The sun was well-passed the high point in the sky, indicating that time was no longer on my side. Then around the corner, I spied what appeared to be a tour group, a disappointing sight at first for someone that planned on telling a tale of solitude in a barren wasteland in the middle of the ocean. But my ears perked up when I heard the guide exclaim to his followers “Are you guys ready to see what’s next? Are you sure? Good, let’s go!”. I scurried as fast as my tattered slippers would allow. How close can you get to a tour group without having to pay a fee? I kept about 10-meters behind.
“We” spent about 20-minutes navigating over what resembled slippery and sharp obsidian. Then there it was, nirvana. A massive indent into the island formed a jagged vertical rock ledge and significantly higher cliff with the “chunk” that probably broke off some million years ago, finding itself separated out and into the ocean. Too dangerous to climb, but still reachable by a quick swim across the u-shaped path of saltwater that wrapped it close, keeping it in the embrace of Moku Nui. I heard the guide utter something to his group about the undercarriage of this protrusion being home to blue lobsters, where local divers come to pluck them from their underwater quarters. The spontaneous decision to paddle to Moku Nui left me without fins or goggles to investigate. Next time.
Then came a deep splash, followed by another. Bodies dropped from a cliff to my right. To my surprise there was a perfect perch for jumping into the strip of ocean that outlined the backside of the island. On their own, new arrivals wouldn’t try this, given the semi-menacing look of this shadowed cove that seems so far removed from the most populated postal code of the Hawaiian Islands. But each ascension into the abyss was followed by a reassuring reappearance of the daring jumpers. Within minutes everyone in the group flung off their appendages and climbed up the rock face to join in. I placed my slippers a dry sill, handed my iPhone to a complete stranger (to snap a photo), and leaped off the volcanic overhang like a sacrificial virgin. Five more times, rinse, repeat. By the time I was done there was only one other soul left in the cove. Looks like the tour group’s hour had run out. A gave a nod and a lazy shaka to the last man standing and retreated from whence I came.
Excuse the poor image quality here. Water on the lens (#rookiemistake)
The trek back to the Lanikai-facing side of Moku Nui was far less labored than the approach, due in part to the euphoric daze that I was feeling. I arrived back at the bijou beach which was now almost devoid of people aside from a man approaching in a glistening outrigger canoe with the Hawaii state flag emblemed on its body. I prepared my gear, drank the remnants of lukewarm bottled water left in my wet bag, met, and chatted with the man with the nice boat, then pushed off the sand with my carbon paddle. The plan was to take my time back across the waterway, as I had been in a rush to explore up until this point. The waves and current had something else in mind. In a collaborative effort they gave me a push from behind, and glided my vessel forward forcibly, bringing the day to a faster conclusion than I preferred. A large sea turtle followed as I neared the shore, my aumakua ensuring that I made it back before sunset. Once ashore and dragging the rented yellow submarine, I shuffled through the powdery sands of Lanikai to Kailua, breathed in the air, and glanced at the island in the distance that was no longer foreign. I ceremoniously ran my hands along the pathway of palm trees that led back to the main road.
My journey was complete, and what was once a postcard image become a palpable experience to be remembered forever. Was this place the best place to paddle on Oahu, or in the world for that matter? Bill says so, and who am I to argue with that?
View more on kayaking to the Mokulua Islands, including information about where to rent a kayak, what to bring, where to launch, when to go, and when to return.