Oahu’s North Shore

By Hawaii.com Team

They call it winter on the North Shore when the waves roll in like salt-water breathing dragons and the beaches are lined with surfers hot to slay them. Of course, winter in the tropics is an arbitrary term, but the monstrous waves that roll in sometime in November are as reliable as the North Pacific storms that generate them.

Oahu’s North Shore is a pretty groovy place any time of the year, but it reaches its peak during the winter surfing season (December through February) when surfers from around the world show up to compete in professional and amateur competitions. They’re drawn by enormous waves — the world’s best — that often reach 20 to 30 feet and the prospect of going home with a big cash prize. Crowds of spectators come to see the show, and before you know it, it’s party time.

Pipeline on Oahu's North Shore. (HTA/Tor Johnson)

Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore. (HTA/Tor Johnson)

Big wave surfing is an awesome spectator sport. When a 30-foot wave crashes onto the shore with a tiny surfer riding its lip, the ground shakes, a misty salt spray fills the air and, well, you’ve got to be there. Remember though, the force and unpredictability of these swells make it dangerous to hang too close to the water. Children, supervised or not, should never be allowed to play at water’s edge except at North Shore beaches like Kuilima Cove (at the Turtle Bay Resort) and Haleiwa Beach Park.

Surf spots on North Shore beaches may best be found by watching for cars parked along the road. But driving Kamehameha Highway from Waikiki, they’ll appear in this order: Velzyland, Backyards, Log Cabins, Sunset Beach, Rocky Point, Banzai Pipeline, Back Doors, Waimea Bay, Laniakea and Chun’s Reef. Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach are the easiest to spot.

Oahu’s North Shore is not all freight-train waves and surfers. It’s a “surf culture” kind of place with a funky mix of attractions and shopping opportunities. On the drive up along the east side of the island, you’ll pass a shrimp farm, shrimp roadside diners, a wind farm — and in Laie (La-ee-ay), home of Brigham Young University-Hawaii and the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center draws more than 1 million visitors a year and is the state’s top paid visitor attraction.

The cultural center is spread over 42 acres and features seven Polynesian villages, an extravagant night show with more than 100 performers, an award-winning luau and a canoe pageant.

The North Shore’s largest town is Haleiwa, known for its surf shops, shave ice cones and shark adventures. Shark tours depart daily from Haleiwa Harbor equipped with a shark cage and passengers. At some point, the passengers get in the cage, which features plexiglass windows, and wait for the sharks to come by.

Haleiwa hasn’t changed much since it was established by missionaries in 1832. The former sugar plantation town is now a beach town that lights up in winter when surfers from around the world come to defy the big waves and party.

Officially designated a historic cultural and scenic district, Haleiwa thrives in a time warp recalling the turn of the 20th century, when it was founded by a sugar baron who built a railroad to link his Honolulu and North Shore plantations.

Haleiwa claims the only surf museum on Oahu. This collection of memorabilia traces the evolution of surfboards from an enormous, weathered redwood board made in the 1930s for one of Waikiki’s legendary beach boys, to the modern-day equivalent — a light, sleek, racy, foam-and-fiberglass board. Other items include classic 1950s surf-meet posters, 1960s surf-music album covers and old beach movie posters with Frankie Avalon and Sandra Dee.

Major attractions in the winter are the big surf contests. They include the prestigious Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Memorial Big Wave Classic, a competition held at Waimea Bay that only takes place when the waves crest over 20 feet. The other highlight of the season is the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing which includes: the Reef Hawaiian Pro, the Vans World Cup, and the Billabong Pipeline Masters.

Other North Shore highlights are the Waimea Valley Audubon Center, Turtle Bay Resort, and Malaekahana Beach Park.

Great snorkeling spots on the North Shore include Kuilima Cove, Sharks Cove (in the summer) and Pupukea Beach Park (usually not crowded).

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