Discover Oahu’s North Shore Mystique
History, Hawaiian foods, and where to rest your head: A four-part series exploring Oahu
By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas March 28, 2023
Hawaiian Renaissance Renewed
A buzz raced across the island of Oahu, from the North Shore to Waikiki, from local Hawaiian diners to plush hotel bars: The Eddie was on! The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is one of the rarest events in sport, having taken place just ten times since 1984 due to its unique stipulation: surfable wave faces much reach a minimum of 30 feet high at Waimea Bay.
The rise of professional surfing in the ’60s gave way to prestige big-wave surfing on the North Shore. The Hawaiian Renaissance renewed global interest in the local indigenous culture, from the rekindling of the Hawaiian language to the appearance of poke, spam, and plate lunch on every hipster menu in the country.
Eddie Aikau’s status as the first lifeguard of Waimea Bay — with more than 500 saves to his credit — foretold the growth in tourism, as many of Hawaii’s iconic activities gradually became more visitor friendly.
The Road to the North Shore
Today, the North Shore of Oahu is still filled with mystique. It’s a surfer’s paradise, famous for its towering waves and stunning beaches. Just one hour’s drive from Honolulu, it’s a must-visit for anyone spending time on Oahu.
Choose between the highway to Haleiwa, a straight shot through epic valleys, or a drive on the coastal road from Kaneohe, which offers glimpses of one stunning beach after another. Taking the coast means visitors can grab a bite at Waiahole Poi Factory, which serves locals-approved poi, laulau, lomi salmon, and haupia.
Catch a Wave
Swimsuits on – it’s beach time! The massive North Shore swells happen in winter, but in the summer, the water is usually calm enough for swimming, snorkeling, and SUP. Some visitors follow the North Shore Triple Crown by visiting Waimea, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline. Others prefer the calm and isolation of northeast beaches like Laniloa Beach in Laie. For a real adventure when the sea is calm, swim, paddle, or even wade to Goat Island, off Malaekahana State Park. If you’re lucky, you might have the entire tiny island all to yourself.
The Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie is a living museum that showcases the culture and history of Polynesia. Although it can feel a bit like Disneyland, the history and culture of Polynesia (Aotearoa, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, and Hawaii) are respectfully represented. Luau and evening show packages are the best reasons to visit. The luau celebrates the life of Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch, and serves a bounty of traditional luau food, like slow-cooked kalua pork. The live performance, Ha: The Breath of Life, closes with the most exhilarating and heart-pounding display of fire dancing, eating, and throwing that you will ever see.
[Of note: Laie is a dry town due to its long history of Mormon influence and settlement. Stop at the unassuming but historical Ching’s on the coast for the freshest poke, with its homemade sauce in the fridge. Grab some adult beverages before entering Laie city limits.]
For more thrilling adventures, zipline through lush Hawaiian forests with soaring views of the coast at CLIMB Works. Keana Farms takes its role as a purveyor of produce seriously. In ancient times the Hawaiian Islands were completely self-sustaining, yet today the islands are highly dependent on outside trade for food. While visitors stretch their potential throughout the course, they also read and learn about the fragility of the ecosystem.
Move from the trees to the sea — if you dare! Brave visitors can get up close and personal with ten-foot Galapagos sharks thanks to One Ocean Diving. These majestic creatures swim right up to the boat while guests observe them through snorkel gear. The passionate shark-lovers at One Ocean educate swimmers about the myths and facts about the apex predators while encouraging awareness of conservation. Highly recommended: give back to the kai (sea) by joining One Ocean’s beach and reef cleanups.
Rest and Relax
One of the reasons the North Shore is so peaceful is that the area has not been overdeveloped for tourism. There are still a handful of solid lodgings. Turtle Bay Resort is a luxury property that sits on 850 acres of pristine beachfront property and offers a range of amenities, including golf courses, spas, and restaurants. Courtyard by Marriott in Laie is a great family-friendly option with pickleball and a massive swimming pool plus it’s next door to the Polynesian Cultural Center and a secluded beach. Airbnbs also make a great option to live like a local for a few days.
Any location filled with surfers usually has healthy food at good prices, and hungry travelers can feast on the North Shore as well. Hit up local institutions like Ted’s Bakery for breakfast, Kua’Aina for sandwiches, and Matsumoto for shave ice.
The North Shore is renowned for its food truck scene, where you can find more ono grindz (delicious eats) like acai bowls and poke. Giovanni’s certainly attracts the tourist throngs, so locals might point you to the excellent Famous Kahuku Shrimp truck if you don’t want to wait in a long line.
For a sit-down meal, check out Pounders at the Hukilau Marketplace in Laie, which serves up tasty Hawaiian dishes like ahi poke nachos, and macadamia nut crusted catch of the day.
Haleiwa passes for “town” on this rugged stretch of coast. On your way back to Honolulu, enjoy a tasty meal at Maya’s Tapas & Wine and prepare to reenter the “busy” world. The North Shore will always be there, waves pounding, surfers shredding, and scenery filled with mystique.
Natalie and Greg have written for Travel + Leisure, Fathom, Food52 in addition to Seattle magazine. They’ve been to 117 countries combined. Inbetween trips they live in a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union.