A Guide to Surfing the North Shore of Oahu
I had my head down, repeating my mantra as I stroked into what felt like a pretty big wave. “I’m committed, I’m committed, I’m committed!” But at the last second, I knew I was too late. I was going to get pitched on the drop. There was a girl on the inside of me also paddling for the same wave. I should have pulled back three seconds earlier and let her have it but at this point, if I didn’t go then either of us was going, and the wave would be wasted.
North Shore etiquette
North Shore etiquette says ‘it is better to paddle and get pitched than to paddle and pull back’. A lot of traveling surfers show up on the North Shore looking to score, but when they are in that position of ‘do or die’, they often pull back, unaccustomed to the power of the famous Hawaiian waves. This has become a pet peeve of the locals.
So I went for it, knowing I was going to take a brutal pounding but more scared to break the unwritten laws of surfing, especial at a place like Sunset Beach. Just as I attempted to get to my feet, the wave jacked up and sure enough, I got pitched. My board flying one way and me the other. That’s when I saw the even bigger mistake I had just made…
Did I really just drop in and fall in front of a world champ?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of green. Another surfer, already on the wave, deeper than me. Not only had I dropped in on him, but I had also fallen in the worst possible way, right in front of him…on an eight-foot day in critical conditions.
Coming up for air I looked to see who I needed to apologize to. The surfer I had burned was Billy Kemper – current big wave world champion, North Shore native and part of the Da’hui (local club of surf enforcers). I promptly looked for the next inside wave to exit the water but not before another local pro made sure to tell me I was dangerous.
Surfing the North Shore of Oahu might be the most intimidating place on earth to paddle out for the first time. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. Lucky I’ve made all the mistakes for you so I’m going to lay it all out.
How to Surf the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii
Oahu has one main airport, Honolulu (HNL). Honolulu is considered “Town” while the North Shore is considered “Country”. Town is about a 30-minute drive from the North Shore. Your best bet is to rent a car at the airport. Ride shares like Uber and Lyft will be about $100 one way and you will want a car once you get to the North Shore anyway. There is a fairly decent bus system but surfboards are not allowed on the bus.
When to come:
The season on the North Shore gets rolling mid-October and swells last until around mid-March. December is an especially fun time to visit since there are many WSL competitions for surf spectator enthusiasts. Swing season (Sept/Oct or March/April) is also a good option for less crowded lineups and better prices on lodging. The nice thing about surfing in Hawaii is that if there is no swell on the North Shore, you can normally go to Town and find waves there. It’s hard to get skunked on a surf trip to Oahu.
Where to stay:
On the North Shore AirBNB is your best bet. There is one major hotel on the far northern end, the Turtle Bay. This is a luxury hotel with a fickle right-hand point break out front. This hotel also has the nicest restaurants in the area. It is worth a walk around their campus even if you are not staying there. They have live music by the pool and a signature cocktail almost every night. This is open to the public. Turtle Bay also is the site of Surfer Bar, the only real night club on the North Shore.
A room at Turtle Bay Resort starts from $269 USD.
If you are on a budget there is the Backpacker’s Hostel, right in front of Sharks Cove, with very nice rooms around $30 per night. If you are looking to stay longer than a couple of weeks you will find a ton of room shares on craigslist and facebook groups such as Oahu for Rent. There is also a campground within a 20 minute drive where you can pitch a tent on the beach for about $10 per night.
Book your hotel without paying a deposit when booking through Booking.com. They also do loads of last minute discounts.
What to Budget
- $35 for a budget room
- $80-$350 for an airbnb
- $1.50 for water (please bring your own metal water bottle & fill up for free)
- $5 for coffee or save cash & brew at home using a portable Aeropress
- $8 for a smoothie
- $10 for a cocktail
- $4 for a beer
- $10-$20 for each meal
- $1 for fruit
- $40 for a rental car
ATM’s are located in Haleiwa, Foodland and at the Turtle Bay. Some surf shops will give a cash discount.
Where to eat:
Food trucks are the name of the game since the North Shore is very much “country” and undeveloped. You can find restaurants and shops in the town of Haleiwa on the south/west end of the seven-mile miracle. On the north/east end is the Turtle Bay Resort which also offers 3 restaurants. But in between, you will find mostly food trucks for dining. Here are a few of my top recommendations:
- Coffee: Hands down you gotta try the Sunrise Shack across from Sunset Beach. OMG their turmeric bullet coffee is what I dream about when I’m not there!
- Poke Bowls: This bowl of raw tuna and warm rice is definitely the meal of choice by local surfers after a long session. The best place to get a poke bowl is inside the Foodland grocery store. While standing in line for your bowl you are almost guaranteed to see one of your surf idols standing in line next to you since it’s the closest place for food to Pipeline
- Happy Hour: Haleiwa Joe’s. Sit at the bar so you can laugh at the dry humor from the two male bartenders who have been there for nearly two decades. Definitely, don’t skip the garlic shrimp!
- Loco Moco: Two burger patties, two eggs, smothered in gravy and served or rice? YES PLEASE! Ted’s Bakery is must stop for this delicious local food.
Oh my gawd you guys, you have to try Kiltie’s donation yoga class at the Sunset Beach Rec Center on Wednesday at 9am. Last time I went to her class Kia Lenny was shaking everyone’s hand at the door. This is a vinyasa class, and it’s hard! Check the full schedule of classes before you go.
Winds and Tide:
The winds can change at any time of the day. It can be blown out in the morning and clean the afternoon or the other way around. Best to jump on it when you can. The tides in Hawaii don’t change that much. Obviously, every spot has its optimal tide but for the casual surfer you don’t need to plan your session around the tide shift.
Surfboard are easy to find on the North Shore. If you are looking to buy a board upon arrival then you must head to SurfnSea. I’ve walked into that place looking for specific dimension on a used board at least four times and they have had exactly what I wanted every time, for decent prices. Used boards range from $100-$400 with an average decent shortboard being in the $200-$350 range. It’s also really easy to rent a decent board from the same shop if you prefer. By the way, the trend is to ride slightly longer boards in Hawaii.
Have a read of our recommended surfing packing list for all the other bits and bobs (including first aid kit), that you shouldn’t forget.
Travel insurance is highly recommended. You can buy World Nomads travel insurance after you left your country, they also cover surfing & all other activities you are likely to do plus donate money to sustainable causes and communities. There’s a 5% discount for Still Stoked readers with code STOKED5 using this link (unfortunately the discount isn’t available for USA and Canada residents ).
Map of the North Shore surf spots:
Where to surf on the North Shore:
The North Shore of Oahu is nicknamed “The Seven Mile Miracle” because there are dozens of world-class surf breaks within a seven-mile stretch. Many of the surf breaks are exactly what you think; heavily localized, crowded and expert level waves. But even if you are not a class-A pro, there are plenty of epic surf spots left to surf.
The most localized, likely to get kicked out of spots:
Pipeline, Backdoor, Rocky Point, Velvyland and Sunset on a big day. If you are not a pro or not paddling out with a local escort I wouldn’t recommend these spots. That being said, on small days with less than optimal conditions most of the pros and heavy locals stay home. These breaks are then run by a swarm of up and coming groms who surf better than I even dream of surfing. If you don’t mind waiting your turn behind a nine-year-old you can definitely catch a few rides.
The spots for girls who rip on longboards
(Also great intermediate level waves)
The North Shore has some of the best female longboarders on the planet (e.g Kelia Moniz). There are a few breaks with all the power of the north shore but a shape that lends itself well to longboarding. If you want to pull out your log try surfing Laniakea’s, Chun’s, Kammaland or Sunset beach on a small to medium day. But these spots are not at all exclusively longboard sports. They can be enjoyed equally on shortboards. Chun’s and Laniakea’s are great intermediate level waves for shortboards and longboard alike. Sunset Beach on a small day is also a good intermediate wave.
The less popular spots where you can actually get waves:
Monster Mush, Leftovers, Glassdoors (Army Beach) and the inside at Chun’s are all great options if you just want to avoid local pros and experience some of the power that the North Shore has to offer. These waves are all intermediate level waves. Keep in mind, it the waves are big then all the spots will be challenging. If you are looking for something a bit more manageable you might try surfing the West Side of the island. When the North Shore is overloaded the west side if often fun.
Puaena Point is your best bet. This interesting wave breaks and reforms several times creating sections for various skill levels. Paddle all the way out if you already are competent at dropping in and turning. Stay on the inside sections if you are just learning to pop up. But don’t be fooled by the beginner classification here. I once brought two friends to Puena Point to give them a surf lesson and spotted Kelly Slater in the line up next to us, testing out new equipment. While it may be user friendly enough for beginners, it is still a totally fun wave. Another use friendly beginner wave is the little point break at the Turtle Bay. This wave doesn’t really have a name but since it’s located adjacent to the the pool bar at the Turtle bay people have taken to calling in simply “Pool Bars”
Before you paddle out anywhere on the North Shore here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Blue water out, white water in. The reef is sharp and often shallow. The best way to navigate the paddle out is to look for darker blue (deeper) water. When coming in look for the white water since the blue water often has a strong rip heading out and you may not be able to paddle your way in through this. Always ask someone where to paddle in and out if you are unsure!
- If there is no one out, you probably don’t want to go out either. The waves can be deceptive. You can see a perfect looking wave breaking on the outer reef but if the conditions on the inside are messy you could be in real danger. The rips are incredibly strong on the North Shore. It is easy to get dragged directly into the worst part of the impact zone. What looks just a little messy could be life threatening. Trust the locals, if they aren’t going out, best to check another break.
- Reef friendly sunscreen…DUH! Hawaii actually banned toxic sunscreens. Did you know the chemicals in regular sunscreen actually cause the coral to lose its natural defence against UV light and end up killing it? Dead coral means the reefs change their shape and over time the waves stop breaking the same. Protect the waves. Wear reef friendly sunscreen! We’ve tested dozens of reef friendly products and have a full review of top picks and discount codes for you.
- The offshore winds can make paddling into waves super hard. What looks like manageable size can be very challenging conditions if the wind is strong. Know your limits. (That’s how I ended up dropping in on Billy by the way. There was so much spray in my face that I couldn’t see him. It was beyond my skill level and not at all fun).
- The swells hit Hawaii quickly. It can be two feet one minute and suddenly a 10 foot wave can take out the entire line up. Know the swell prediction before you paddle out.
Other local-isms you might want to know:
- Sandals are called “slippers” and are NEVER worn inside.
- Everyone refers to each other as Brah or Sis (for people your own age) and Aunty or Uncle to show respect for older people.
- Local people are incredibly giving. They will stop anything to help you. Whenever possible try to pay the same kindness forward.
- Methamphetamine is a huge problem in Hawaii. It is referred to as Ice. Don’t leave valuables in your car and always lock up. Use caution when going out alone at night.
- Traffic Sucks. There is only one road running the entire length of the 7 miles and it is almost always stop and go. Just plan on spending 20% of your vacation stuck in traffic. At least the view is great!
- Drive SLOW on residential roads, like really slow. The locals are pretty vocal about keeping speed down.
Somewhere over the rainbow
The North Shore of Oahu is like no other place on earth. There is no way I can describe it to you in words, that’s what they made music for. So hopefully someday I will see you…
….Somewhere over the rainbow,
way up high.
And the dreams that you dream of,
Dreams really do come true.