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Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay


Oahu’s North Shore: An Insider’s Guide to a Wild Side of Hawaii

By: Jess Moss

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The Hawaiian capital of Honolulu is a cosmopolitan oceanfront city with enough attractions to entertain visitors for weeks.

But it’s also Hawaii’s air hub and the gateway to the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. So after you’ve climbed to the volcanic crater at Diamond Head, toured the historic site of Pearl Harbor and shopped for the perfect aloha shirt in Waikiki, hit the road to explore another side of Hawaii: Oahu’s North Shore. Less than an hour’s drive north of Honolulu you’ll find a world where time moves slowly, shoes are optional and life revolves around the land and sea. Stretching from Kahuku to Kaena Point, the North Shore is a corridor of jungle valleys, sprawling farmland, small communities and some of the world’s most famous surf spots.

How to Get to the North Shore

Renting a car is the best way to explore the North Shore. A bus runs from Honolulu, but having your own car provides the flexibility to stop and see beaches and other attractions at your own pace.

The most scenic way to get to the North Shore is to drive east on Interstate Highway H-1 and Highway 63, then north up Highway 83 (Kamehameha Highway) along Oahu’s windward coast, stopping at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie to learn about the cultures that make up the islands of Polynesia, including Hawaii.

Once you reach Kahuku and round the island’s northernmost point, the North Shore unfurls. The highway runs along the coastline, past flat farmland and beaches before dipping inland to Haleiwa town with its art galleries and surf shops. From here you can continue west to the end of Highway 930 toward Kaena Point, or loop back to Honolulu through central Oahu.

There are a few must-see beaches on the North Shore, but a lot of the area’s charm lies in its small-town culture and low-key way of life. Don’t rush your visit and don’t stick to a schedule — just take your time.

Road trip to Oahu's North Shore

Road trip to Oahu's North Shore
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Embrace Hawaii’s Surf Culture

The North Shore is most famous as the center of Hawaiian surf culture. Strung along the coastline are some of the sport's most legendary beaches: Sunset Beach, Pipeline and Waimea Bay. Big-wave season runs from November through February, when swells can reach 9 meters or more and draw champion surfers from around the globe. Park your car along the road near one of the beaches and spend the day watching the pros. Note: When the surf’s big, many people come out to watch, causing major traffic.

If you want to do more than watch, get in the water. A number of surf schools and private teachers can introduce you to gentler waves along the North Shore. Uncle Bryan’s Sunset Suratt Surf Academy and North Shore Surf Girls are two popular schools.

A wave on Oahu, Hawaii

A wave on Oahu, Hawaii
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Explore Beyond the Surf

When the waves are calm, some North Shore beaches offer excellent snorkeling and scuba diving. Look for sea turtles, colorful reef fish, eels and more. You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards up and down the coast.

The lack of major commercialization on the North Shore also makes it a fantastic place to hike, with trails that lead far from civilization. For an easy nature walk, visit Waimea Valley, which boasts nearly 61 hectares of botanical gardens, 78 archaeological sites and several cultural activities. A 2.4-kilometer round-trip trail leads through the jungle to a waterfall that plunges nearly 14 meters into a pool you can swim in.

For a wilder experience, head to Kaena Point, the westernmost tip of Oahu. The point can only be accessed by foot. It’s a moderately difficult trail that rewards hikers with dramatic views of the island’s volcanic shoreline, the Pacific Ocean and wildlife, including albatross, monk seals and humpback whales (from December to May).

Kayak in Hawaii's waters

Kayak in Hawaii's waters
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Where to Eat and Stay on the North Shore

The North Shore is an easy day trip from Honolulu. But to really appreciate the laidback lifestyle on this side of the island, spend a night or two. Two hotels serve this side of the island: the upscale beachfront Turtle Bay Resort and the mid-range Courtyard by Marriott.

Overall, the North Shore is not a fancy place, and its restaurants reflect that. The only true fine dining experience is Paakai at Turtle Bay Resort. Beyond that, expect a beachy vibe at local eateries, many of which are located in Haleiwa.

Some of the best food on the North Shore, however, doesn’t come from a restaurant. Stop at the farmers markets and food shacks that dot the highway to sample fresh seafood, fruits such as pineapple and mango, and banana bread.

Finally, no trip to the North Shore is complete without a shave ice at Matsumoto in Haleiwa. The flavored ice cones are a cool treat on a hot day.

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