Obama’s Hawaiian Getaway

Presidential candidate Barack Obama with his friend Marty Nesbitt on Kailua Beach | Photo by Mike Burley

Obama’s Hawaiian Getaway
Aired on American Public Media’s “Weekend America,” September 20, 2008
By Heidi Chang

In the midst of non-stop campaigning, presidential candidates need a place to rest and recharge. For Barack Obama, the Hawaiian island of Oahu serves that function. Obama was born on the island and he says it’s an important spot for him to check in and rejuvenate.  Only now, he does it with an entourage of media, something that certainly wouldn’t change if he became president.

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Barack Obama usually visits his family in Hawaii each Christmas. But he didn’t make it back this past holiday season because of the long primary campaign. Instead, Obama took a weeklong break over the summer, just before the Democratic convention. And he had his trip all planned out.

“I’m going to go get a plate lunch, I’m going to go get some shave ice. I’m going to go bodysurfing at an undisclosed location,” he laughed at a rally after he arrived.

First, Obama visited his grandmother in Honolulu. He calls her “tutu,” the Hawaiian word for grandma. His sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, also lives on Oahu, the island of his birth.

“This is a place where Barack can be very much himself, he doesn’t have to be ‘on,'” she says. “He can recline into a place that is more serene and more reflective. And I think he enjoys that. But I also think that beyond that, it’s sort of vital that he have the space to rest in Hawaii, to rest mentally and spirituality, and in all ways.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama walks along Kailua Beach during his vacation on Oahu. August 2008. Honolulu Star-Bulletin Photo by Mike Burley

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama walks along Kailua Beach during his vacation on Oahu. August 2008. Honolulu Star-Bulletin Photo by Mike Burley
















But now, when the Obamas come here to relax, the media follow them everywhere. The family rented a home on Kailua Beach, on the other side of the island. Mike Burley is a photographer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He was put on “Obama watch” the first day of the senator’s vacation. He snapped a front-page photo of Obama.

“He had this great big smile on his face,” Burley recalls. “You know, I could imagine after a long primary season, a long brutal season at that, just being able to finally relax and feel the sand between your toes, and feel the cool breeze coming off the Kailua Beach, it would make me smile, too. He looked like he was very relieved and just had a huge weight taken off his shoulders.”

Burley says he tried not to be too intrusive. He kept at a distance and used a really long lens. He was lucky to be the only photographer around that morning. Later that week, when Obama went bodysurfing on another part of the island, the media was out in full force.

“Well, I definitely didn’t think when I showed up for work, I’d be jumping in the water with Barack Obama,” says Peter Erwin, a lifeguard at Sandy Beach. The popular bodysurfing spot is open to the public, as are all beaches in Hawaii.

But that day in August, some Secret Service agents approached Erwin, and he ended up bodysurfing with them and Obama.

“I’d say he’s a pretty good bodysurfer. I’ve actually seen a lot more people that have come down here regularly that don’t look as good as him in the water for sure,” Erwin says.

That praise means a lot. It’s a challenge to bodysurf at Sandy Beach if you don’t know what you’re doing. Erwin has been bodysurfing here since he was a kid.

“We joke around with the lifeguards and say we all have gills behind our ears. You know, you get out of the water too long, your gills start to dry out. So you want to get back in the water and get them wet again,” he says.

I ask why he thinks Barack Obama loves to bodysurf.

“I think his gills were drying out,” Erwin laughs. “He wanted to get back in the water.”

And within hours, the whole world was watching Erwin and Obama catch the waves on YouTube.

Associated Press Video: Obama Beachside in Hawaii, includes bodysurfing at Sandy Beach.

Barack Obama’s Hawaiian Getaway won a first place award for General News/Enterprise Reporting at the 2009 SPJ Hawaii Excellence in Journalism Awards as part of a three-part series on Barack Obama’s Hawaii Roots.


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