The legendary surf mecca’s towering, glassy winter waves attract the world’s best surfers, while smaller and gentler summer waves are ideal for family beach days. But what else is there to do on the North Shore of Oahu to make it worth the one-hour drive up from Waikiki or a weekend add-on? Here’s a local’s guide to this stunning, nature-rich area of Oahu, the total opposite of the cities of Honolulu and Waikiki.
Take It From Locals – North Shore Oahu is Worth Time on Your Vacation Itinerary
When I lived on Oahu as a kid, we regularly visited the North Shore. In the winter months, we’d watch the mind-blowingly large waves and surf competitions, and during the rest of the year, we’d boogie board on the smaller waves and spend countless Sundays at beautiful Waimea Bay Beach Park in southern North Shore.
So if you’re visiting Hawaii and coming through Oahu, save time on your itinerary for a road trip to The North Shore Oahu. We’ve asked Oahu locals and the surfing experts at Hans Hedemann Surf School to recommend the best things to do on the North Shore Oahu. You won’t regret adding this to your vacation must-do list!
Enjoy The Journey to North Shore Oahu, Not Just The Destination
It’s time to head to the countryside and explore the laid-back North Shore! It just a one-hour push from bustling Waikiki to the Hawaiian countryside.
You know you’re almost there when you pass the Dole Plantation and travel through the pineapple fields. Continue driving down the ridge, admiring the spectacular view of North Shore Oahu. As you approach the rustic old Haleiwa Town, roll down your windows and breathe in the fresh, cool salty air. It’s a different kind of Hawaii than Honolulu that everyone should experience.
What Months are the Best to Visit North Shore Oahu?
During the peak winter months, the beaches of the North Shore Oahu, which stretch for more than 7 miles, host the world’s premier surfing competitions, including the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (November – December).
Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline), and Sunset Beach are all great places to sunbathe and stroll along the beach. Leave the big waves to the pros because they can be very dangerous for inexperienced surfers.
Want To See Big Wave Surfing?
The months of November through February are ideal for big wave surfing on this part of the island. The massive waves can sometimes swell to thirty feet or more, making them dangerous even for experienced surfers, so always pay attention to warning signs and don’t take them lightly.
The waves subside on the North Shore Oahu from May to September, creating a more tranquil environment for surfing and swimming. Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District has calm water in the summer (May-October) for snorkeling among colorful coral and fish. It’s also a lot less crowded than the tourist spot Hanauma Bay, which is so visited you now require a reservation.
11 Things to Do in North Shore Oahu from a Local
Haleiwa town is filled with independent galleries, surf shops, and Hawaiian plate-lunch joints, while the Dole Plantation offers tours of its pineapple fields and tropical gardens. There’s so much to see and explore on North Shore Oahu! Here are our ten picks.
1. Explore Haleiwa Town
The charming Haleiwa, about a one-hour drive from Waikiki, will most likely be your first stop along the North Shore Oahu. Haleiwa is more than just a laid-back surf town; it has local style and country ambiance, cool surf shops and boutiques, charming art galleries, and understated restaurants housed in plantation-era buildings.
Haleiwa is a far cry from the excitement of Waikiki, and the people of the North Shore prefer it that way.
Haleiwa Is a Great Place To Grab Lunch, Dinner or Dessert
Haleiwa, rich in island history, is now the North Shore’s social and artistic hub. Surfers can fill up at one of the town’s many food trucks before hitting the famous beaches of Waimea Bay, Ehukai (Banzai Pipeline), and Sunset Beach.
Locals and visitors can also unwind with shaved ice at the iconic Matsumoto’s Shave Ice after a day in the sun or shopping at boutiques filled with one-of-a-kind gifts that allow you to bring a piece of Hawaii home with you.
2. See the Banzai Pipeline
While Waikiki Beach is the perfect calm spot to learn how to surf, in the winter, drive to the North Shore Oahu to watch the world’s best surfers ride the massive waves at Banzai Pipeline from the safety of the shore. Waves can reach 25 feet or more, especially during the winter months.
Lifeguards, picnic areas, restrooms, phones, and showers are available, adding to the convenience.
Location: Ehukai is on Highway 83 between Sunset Beach Park and Waimea Bay.
3. Spend the Day at Waimea Bay
Waimea is well-known for its 30-foot winter waves and is a great place to watch some of the world’s best and bravest surfers. Waimea Bay’s history as a global surf destination dates back to the 1950s, when Oahu’s first big wave surfers, including the legendary Eddie Aikau, pioneered the spot and introduced Hawaiian waves to the world.
Waimea Bay is now known as the “Cradle of Big Wave Surfing.” Every winter, the big sets still roll into Waimea, which remains a spot for experts only. This is not the place to learn to surf, and beginners should stay on the beach. The best way to enjoy the bay’s surfing is to attend local competitions and events, such as the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.
It’s Also a Great North Shore Beach for Families
Waimea Bay Beach is known for its excellent snorkeling, rock jumping, underwater tunnels, sea turtles, rock climbing, and spectacular sunsets in the non-winter months when the waves have subsided.
In both the summer and winter, it’s one of my favorite beaches on Oahu. If you’re traveling to Hawaii with kids and want an age-appropriate way to experience the North Shore Oahu, this is it! Please note, the parking lot is small, so you’ll need to pack your patience when looking for a spot.
4. Enjoy Gorgeous Sunset Beach
Sunset Beach is another North Shore Oahu surfing mecca not to be missed. During the winter, it’s a great Oahu Beach to watch big-wave surfers in action. Sunset Beach has one of the world’s longest stretches of rideable surf. The wide sandy beach is ideal for families to play in the sand.
During the winter, big-wave surfing with swells up to 30 feet high is possible, as are world-class surfing competitions, including the Vans Triple Crown of Surfers (November-December) and the Big Wave Tournament in Recollection of Eddie Aikau.
5. Enjoy Hyper Local and Fresh Shrimp
Did you know that long before Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii, locals were already experts in aquaculture? Continuing this tradition is the town of Kahuku, not far from Sunset Beach. Home to numerous freshwater shrimp farms, it’s an excellent stop for a delicious and affordable Hawaiian food when visiting The North Shore Oahu.
Giovanni’s first opened in 1993, but now there is a handful to choose from, each with its special dishes and cult following. If you stop by at lunch, be prepared to wait about 20 minutes, as it is a popular place to grab a plate lunch.
6. Drop Right into North Shore’s Vistas
If you’ve always wanted to experience the rush of skydiving, there’s no better place than Oahu’s North Shore. Begin your adventure at Dillingham Airfield and fly to one of the most beautiful drop zones on the planet. Fly thousands of feet above the breathtaking North Shore coastline.
Feel the tension rise as you approach your tandem jump with your instructor strapped to your back. Before you know it, you’ll be freefalling at 120 miles per hour, taking in a rarely-seen panoramic view of Oahu’s green mountains and deep blue waters. It’s an unforgettable experience.
7. Capture Forever The North Shore Of Oahu
Don’t just go to Oahu; focus and capture! TripAdvisor ranks Oahu Photography Tours as the best photo tour on the island. The original tours take you on a photographic adventure around Oahu, and they recently added a North Shore Tour. You can not only see and learn about a very different part of Oahu far away from Honolulu’s busy streets but forever capture it in your own photographs.
It’s Photography Pros Favorite Place to Take Hawaii Pictures
Born and raised in Hawaii, Zak Noyle has traveled the world capturing the best waves and best surfers, but Hawaii is still his favorite place to photograph.
“Being an ocean photographer, Hawaii is the most ideal location in the world to live and shoot! It would be easy for many to overlook a sunset in Hawaii or a beautiful tree or clouds. Still, I am constantly stopping and admiring the amazing beauty surrounding me in Hawaii,” Noyle said. “I’m fortunate to have my work displayed in real life size covering the walls of the Outrigger Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel so guests can feel immersed under our waters.”
Hawaii visitors can drop by Noyle’s favorite photography spots and take their pictures to remember their vacation. His top places on his home island are Queens Beach in Waikiki, Sandy Beach at sunrise, and The Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, where he first fell in love with surfing photography.
8. See North Shore Oahu Sites from The Air
While visiting Hawaii, Paradise Helicopters allows you to make memories that will last a lifetime. With departures from The North Shore’s Turtle Bay resort, you waste no time seeing all the North Shore of Oahu offers.
This tour features views of the North Shore coastline, Waimea Bay, Kawela Bay, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline. Additionally, you’ll get the chance to see the 1,000-foot tall Kaliuwa‘a (Sacred Falls), which can only be seen by helicopter.
9. Don’t Forget About Sarah Marshall
Even if you’re not staying over in the North Shore, have a meal or a drink at Turtle Bay Resort. It’s not just a beloved, iconic hotel, but it was the hotel featured in most of the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Take pictures in your favorite spots and check this off your bucket list.
10. Play World Class Golf
Turtle Bay Resort offers a lot of things, and one of them is fantastic golf. It features two golf courses, including one designed by the legendary player turned golf course designer Arnold Palmer.
He meticulously picked landscapes to give players a much-needed respite from the almost constant wind at the shoreline. It is one of the best courses in Hawaii and features a natural wetland, dense jungle, and jaw-dropping ocean vistas.
11. Experience Thrills and Stunning Views on Oahu’s Longest Zipline
The second location of CLIMB Works, this excursion combines the best of outdoor adventures plus an experience to Challenge, Learn, Inspire, Master, and Believe in yourself. And it’s not on any land; it’s a working Hawaiian farm, a decades-long agricultural marvel that today produces millions of pounds of produce for Hawaiian residents and visitors.
3 More Places to Stop On Your North Shore Oahu Road Trip
If you want to plot a couple more activities on the way to or from the North Shore of Oahu, here are some additional recommendations to round out your day or time on the North Shore.
1. Take a Drive Down the Pali Highway
The Nuuanu Pali Lookout, located five miles northeast of downtown Honolulu, provides panoramic views of the sheer Koolau cliffs and lush Windward Coast. As you drive up the Pali Highway through tall trees and dense forests to the lookout, you’ll notice the city fade away, and the tranquil beauty of Hawaii’s natural landscape emerge.
The stone terrace, perched over a thousand feet above the Oahu coastline amid cloud-shrouded mountain peaks, overlooks the areas of Kaneohe and Kailua, and the University of Hawaii’s marine biology research center, Coconut Island.
Other notable landmarks include the Windward campus of Hawaii Pacific University, the Kehoe Marine Corps Base, and the Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, which is part of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens.
2. Climb the Volcanic Cliffs
The Waianae range on the west side separates Central Oahu from the Leeward Coast and is the oldest part of the island, dating back approximately four million years. The leeward (west) side is generally much warmer and drier than the east. The Koolau mountain range stretches for about 34 miles along the island’s eastern coast, from Kahuku in the north to Makapuu in the south.
The Koolau Mountains separate Oahu’s Windward Coast from Central Oahu. Thousands of years of constant gales have carved beautiful rippling rock faces, near-vertical ridges, and precipitous cliffs on the windward (east) side. The Nuuanu Pali Lookout provides an excellent view of the Koolau cliffs.
3. Go to Jurassic Park While Seeing Windward Coast Sites
Mokolii, the tiny island pointing up from the sea, is impossible to miss as you drive along the two-lane highway. Stop by a park to stretch your legs or enjoy a picnic. Just across the highway, you’ll find one of Hawaii’s most-seen but least-recognized locations by name: Kualoa Ranch.
The scenic valley of this generations-old family-owned ranch has served as the backdrop for numerous movies and TV shows, including Jurassic Park and Lost. Visitors can enjoy horseback riding, ziplining, ATV tours, and various other activities.
From here, the Kamehameha Highway meanders past Kaaawa (“Ka-ah-ah-vah”), gentle Kahana Bay, and around the northernmost tip of the island to the North Shore.
The North Shore Oahu’s Accommodations
The North Shore, about a one-hour drive from Waikiki, has various lodging options. Pick from condo rentals, the exclusive oceanfront Turtle Bay Resort, or the new Courtyard by Marriott North Shore Oahu next to the Polynesian Cultural Center if you want to spend more than a day’s exploring this beautiful part of the island.
What To See On the Way Back To Waikiki
Consider the following places on your way back to your Waikiki or Honolulu accommodations
- On the way back take a short drive to Haleiwa Town, a charming surf town where you can shop, eat like a local, and cool off with rainbow-flavored shave ice.
- Continue to Lie to the Polynesian Cultural Center which opens at noon and stay one of its award-winning night time shows (voted some of the best in Hawaii)
- Or stop by the historic plantation town of Kahuku for shorter road trip.
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