Driving along Kalakua Avenue toward the northbound H1, I watch the hype and hoards of Waikiki fade from view in my rearview mirror. The notorious Honolulu traffic slides steadily forward, and I cruise toward Wahiawa where the road forks toward the Kamehameha Highway and the part of O'ahu that locals call the country.
A short burst of commerce in Wahiawa gives way to wide open farmland flanked by the lush Ko‘olau Mountains to the east and the equally verdant Wai‘anae Range on the west. All around me, freshly tilled terracotta-hued earth stretches to meet the mountains and as I crest the ridge that drops down into Hale‘iwa, I see the Pacific’s cobalt glow filling the horizon. Overcome by the urge to gloat, I push a button on the car’s Bluetooth to call my dad.
“You don’t even want to know what I’m looking at right now,” I say. My father loves the beach, but only in the tropics, where the ocean’s amniotic warmth assures a pleasant swim. “I hate you,” he says, when I describe the view and my plans for the day. But adds, “Have fun. Drive carefully please.”
The north shore has long been considered O‘ahu’s wilder side, with its pocket-sized beach cottages, free-ranging roosters, and tempestuous coastline. Case in point, from November to April, north shore surf is the stuff of legend — the swells at the 2016 Eddie Aikau big wave competition verged on 50 feet — but summer and fall deliver tranquil seas perfect for swimming and snorkeling with occasional waves just the right size for grommets and newbies.
Though conquering the Pacific definitely holds court, there’s more to the area than hanging ten. Hawaii’s vintage aloha spirit often eludes travelers in Waikiki, with its glitzy storefronts and chain hotels, but it blossoms on the north shore where a road trip along the Kamehameha brings back O‘ahu’s halcyon days. Here are some of the spots where a laid-back vibe and classic island charm still thrive.