Bucket List Road Trip: Seclusion, Surf, and Shrimp on Oahu's North Shore
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.
Related: Where to Catch the Biggest Waves in the World
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.
Ponder castaway fantasies at Mokule‘ia Beach near O‘ahu’s westernmost tip, where sandy paths lined with napuka steer you toward secluded coral shoreline hugging the infinite blue Pacific. Set against the vibrant green backdrop of the Wai‘anae mountains, the feeling of isolation at Mokule‘ia, which means "district of abundance," is what made this untrodden swath of sand an ideal setting for the first season of the popular ABC series, “Lost.” The reward for the 10-minute detour along the Farrington Highway? Complete solitude. You’ll likely have the lucent, turquoise waters all to yourself.
Surfboards — sticking out of the beds of pick-ups, poking up from the backseats of convertibles, strapped to the tops of vans — are the first clue that you’ve arrived in Hale‘iwa, an old sugar mill town turned funky mecca for big wave disciples. A sea-green sign bearing a happy surfer and brightly painted hibiscus points the way toward an old section of the Kamehameha Highway, the town’s main drag. Hale‘iwa’s colorfully rustic buildings, which house boutiques, cafés, galleries, and surf shops that encourage browsing, maintain an architectural style, known as paniolo — Hawaiian cowboy — and many have protected landmark status. One Hale‘iwa institution is the sunshine yellow Surf n’ Sea, which offers surf lessons, snorkel tours, and kayak rentals. Or pop into another vintage favorite, M. Matsumoto Grocery Store, where you’ll find authentic Hawaiian shave ice in every flavor imaginable.
Delve into native Hawaiian history and spirituality at this 1,875-acre rainforest park and cultural center. Long known as the gathering place for the island’s Kahuna Nui, or high priests, Waimea Valley invites visitors to wander among ancient temples, shrines, and burial sites while learning about the earliest Hawaiian traditions. Short trails wind through this sacred Valley, leading past hibiscus, birds of paradise, and all variety of feathery ferns — over 5,000 different plants thrive at Waimea. Follow the main trail to the waterfall where you can take a dip in the large pool at its base surrounded by the rushing of the cascade.
One of the north shore’s most iconic surfing spots, crescent shaped Waimea Bay reached the pinnacle of its big wave fame in the mid-1980s with the inaugural Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, which has been held only nine times — conditions have to be perfect to create the enormous swells required to hold the invitational. Encircled by the lush Waimea Valley, Waimea Bay’s sparkling emerald-blue water comes into view as you round a bend in the Kamehameha Highway. One of its highlights is “Jumping Rock,” an enormous, craggy boulder that punctuates the bay’s western edge where daredevils leap from the cliff-like precipice into the sea during the calm summer season.
Kalua o Maua – Three Tables Beach
A brightly painted surfboard bearing eco-friendly messages greets you at Three Tables Beach, named for the trio of flat reef formations peeking above the ocean’s surface. Part of the Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District, Three Tables offers some of O‘ahu’s best snorkeling. Don your mask and fins in the shallows near the pristine shoreline and swim straight out from the beach — you’ll see a rainbow of sea creatures as soon as you dip your face beneath the surface. A bounty of subaquatic species also make their home among the boulders and tide pools at neighboring Shark’s Cove, an excellent snorkeling spot minus Three Tables’ wide, sandy beach.
Pu‘u O Mahuka Heiau
The Hawaiian Islands are home to many heiau, or temples, honoring everything from fertility to good fishing, agriculture, healing, and prosperity. Wind your way up the steep switchbacks of Pupukea Road to find Pu‘u O Mahuka Heiau perched on a bluff overlooking Waimea Bay. The largest of O‘ahu’s temples, Pu‘u O Mahuka, which translates as “Hill of Escape,” is thought to be a luakini heiau, a place of ceremonial sacrifice for success in war. Step lightly at this sacred site and feel the island mana while drinking in the sweeping views of the valley, mountains, and vast sapphire Pacific.
Ehukai Pillbox Hike
Forego the much more crowded Lanakai pillbox trail on O‘ahu’s windward coast in favor of a hike on this less trodden north shore path. Named for their resemblance to the square medicine boxes of the 1940s, two historic World War II bunkers, each decorated with a kaleidoscope of pacifistic graffiti, perch on the mountainside high above Ehukai Beach. The trail begins at Sunset Elementary School—parking for the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve trails is clearly marked—and climbs ever upward to the top.
A portion of the path is rutted with roots and rocks, so good shoes are a must, and a rope “bannister” tied to the trees helps hikers navigate the steepest sections.
The Banzai Pipeline
Surf’s definitely up — thanks to major winter storms in the northwest Pacific — at Ehukai Beach, home of the legendary Banzai Pipeline. One of the world’s most famous surf reef breaks, the Pipeline, known for its huge, barrel-shaped waves, hosts the final competition of Van’s Triple Crown, the holy grail of surf events held annually on the north shore in November and December. But before the Kona winds kick up, those gargantuan tubes remain a winter memory replaced by a wide, golden beach and tranquil aquamarine seas.
Turtle Bay Resort
If your time on the north shore consists of a day trip from busy Waikiki, you’re going to wish you could stay longer and the place to set down roots is Turtle Bay. The only resort of its kind on the north shore, Turtle Bay’s windmill-shaped trio of low-rise wings perch on a rugged outcropping framed by panoramic ocean views. On one side find Kuilima Cove, a sheltered azure bay with a wide, sandy beach and a protected reef excellent for a snorkel. On the other, try your luck with a few lessons at Hans Hedermann Surf School — you can even surf with Rocky Canon and his two canine instructors, Hina and Kahuna. Other activities throughout the 850-acre property include everything from horseback riding to helicopter tours and are arranged by the resort’s reimagined concierge dubbed the Guidepost. For a hefty dose of luxury, book one of the plush, newly renovated Beach Cottages steps from the ocean.
Kahuku Shrimp Trucks
Though food trucks dot the length of the Kam Highway, the mobile eateries begin in earnest when you round the bend into Kahuku. The north shore has long been a hotbed for aquaculture, with farmed shrimp occupying the top of the food chain. The perennial debate over which truck serves the best Kahuku shrimp is a heated one, with Giovanni’s, which now has an outpost in Hale‘iwa, possibly being the most well known of the bunch. Other nearby contenders include Romy’s, Fumi’s, and Famous Kahuku Shrimp. Regardless of which you choose, partaking of a heaping plate of garlicky, buttery prawns is a classic north shore affair to remember.
Cap off your trip to the north shore with a slice or three of chocolate haupia pie at Ted’s Bakery. There’s a reason Ted’s is always mentioned in conjunction with the north shore and you should believe the hype — this is chocolate-coconut-whipped-cream euphoria. Ted’s also serves traditional Hawaiian plate lunches and a long list of sandwiches. Grab a seat at a roadside picnic table — the lack of view means nothing will distract you from your pie.