In ancient Hawaii, surfing was a sport that was reserved for kings and other high-ranking nobility. And not that much has changed over the last couple of centuries; the surfers who ride Maui’s largest waves today are essentially considered island royalty. Maui is one of the proving grounds for the global surfing fraternity, and if you can handle the largest of Maui’s waves, then you should be able to handle XXL surf nearly anywhere else in the world. The sport of tow surfing was partially invented here on the island’s North Shore, and when a winter swell brings a high surf warning and the computer models go purple, plane tickets are purchased, boards are waxed, and the world’s best surfers flock in droves to Maui’s outer reefs. If you happen to be in town during a mega-winter swell, here are some of the best spots for viewing the heart-pumping action.
For big wave surfers and professional watermen this is the Holy Grail of surfing. It only breaks on the largest of swells between October and early April, although the biggest days can often have waves higher than 70 feet. While the dirt road to the viewpoint requires 4WD, a strategic offer of a cold 6-pack can get you a lift to the bottom.
If you don’t have an hour to devote to Peahi but there’s still a northerly swell, this clifftop lookout three miles past Pai‘a is a panorama of thundering surf. Waves can close out and be unrideable when larger than 20 feet, although neon sailed windsurfers still tackle the monsters once regular surfers have gone in.
A rumble goes out though the surf community whenever “Da Bay” is breaking. This world-class wave is legendary among surfers—and consequently can be packed—so to get the best viewpoint of the barreling action, park on the dirt road leading down Lipoa Point when a winter swell rolls through town.
Punalau Beach (“Windmills”)
Known to surfers as the “Maui Pipeline,” this large, sucking, barreling left breaks north of Honolua Bay. The best viewpoint is from atop the cliff before the road to Punalau beach, and with a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens, you might see Clay Marzo and his acrobatic cutbacks dissecting the 20-foot surf. Winter brings the largest waves, and mornings the cleanest conditions.
Not traveling to Maui during the winter swells? There’s a chance that even summertime visitors can find pumping south-shore surf. Waves in the summer top out at just 12 to 15 feet, but at a place like Dumps at the south end of Makena, surfers ride heavy, powerful waves that break over razor sharp lava rocks. Needless to say, it’s experts only.