November 18, 2014

10 Things to Do on Vacation at the North Shore Oahu

Kelly Slater getting barreled at the 2013 Billabong Pipe Masters
The North Shore Oahu is world famous as a surfing mecca. Even though the modern worldwide interest in the ancient Hawaiian past-time of surfing was kindled in Honolulu, HI (Oahu) by Duke Kamehameha and the Waikiki Beach Boys, North Shore Oahu played a major role in the evolution of surfing into a professional sport. Today it is the sight of major professional surfing events and where the best surfers in the world often go just to prove themselves.

But North Shore Oahu is not just a place to surf. It's also a great place to spend part or all of your Hawaiian vacation. If you're looking to get away from the Waikiki beach crowds and soak up the sun on emptier beaches for just a day or your entire vacation, the North Shore is definitely a place to go. It's only about a 45 minute to an hour drive in a rental car up from Honolulu.

And if you're looking to do more than just sit on the beach, there is plenty to do on the North Shore. Here's a list of the 10 fun things you can do to get the most out of your North Shore experience. You might be able to do a few on a day trip from Honolulu or you might be able to do them all during a longer stay at nearby Turtle Bay Resort or a North Shore vacation rental.

1. Visit the North Shore's World Famous Surf Beaches and Breaks

Mural of map of North Shore surf beaches and breaks
on wall of North Shore Surf Shop
Okay, this one should be obvious. Just visiting one or several of the North Shore's surf beaches and breaks is a must-do for every traveler. After all, it is what the North Shore is most famous for.

Of course, it is not recommended that novice surfers try surfing some of these beaches and breaks, especially during the winter months. They are for expert surfers. But just to sit on these beaches and watch surfers go out and do their thing is an experience in and of itself. And if you're in Oahu between November 12-December 20, you can check out the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of 3 professional surfing events sanctioned by the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals.)

Although there are numerous beaches and breaks up on the North Shore, there are three that should form the core of your itinerary. Conveniently, they are only a few minutes drive apart on the same road, Kamehameha Highway, which runs along the North Shore. They are Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach, and Sunset Beach. You'll see the biggest waves and some of the most impressive surfing at these beaches in the winter months, November-March, but they are worth visiting year-round.

Waimea Bay should be your first stop as it is the first major surf beach you pass as you drive along Kamehameha Highway heading east. Not only is it an important historical big wave surf beach, it is also the site of The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau (you should Google him if you don't know who he is.)  Otherwise known as The Eddie, The Quiksilver is a big wave surfing event that usually takes place once every few years between Dec. 1st and Feb. 28th. It takes place intermittently because the waves have to be big enough.  It's also the site of Waimea Rock, which was featured in a Bing commercial a couple of years back, showing people jumping of it into the bay.

When you visit, the bay will probably appear placid (though there's often a strong shorebreak), contrary to its reputation. Waimea Bay is an all-or-nothing surf beach, so you probably won't catch many surfers there.  Still, it's a landmark worth seeing.

A few minutes up the road is Ehukai Beach. It is the site of the famous break known as the Banzai Pipeline, or simply Pipeline. It's where the Billabong Pipe Masters, the third event of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and perhaps the most coveted event on the ASP World Tour, takes place. Just about any day you go there, there will be surfers in the water.

Finally, a few more minutes up the road is Sunset Beach where the Vans World Cup of Surfing, the second event of the Triple Crown, occurs. Like Ehukai Beach, there will be surfers in the water just about every day.

If you hit at least these three beaches, you will have covered hallowed ground. And if you bring your camera or video camera at least to Ehukai Beach and Sunset Beach, you should be able to snap some photos or take some videos of some pretty amazing surfers.

2. Eat at Local Grub Spots

Shark's Cove Grill
You can find some pretty tasty food up at the North Shore. There are a few eateries in particular that are both local favorites and North Shore institutions.

For breakfast, you should stop by Shark's Cove Grill, right across from Shark's Cove, and order the Shark's Cove Breakfast of eggs, Portuguese sausage, and Hawaiian-style fried rice. For a lighter breakfast, try one of their delicious smoothies.

For lunch, you can go to Kua 'Aina Sandwich Shop in Haleiwa and order either the Avocado Burger or Teri Chicken sandwich, two of the most popular menu items.

For dinner, you should drive up Kamehameha Highway and eat at Ted's Bakery, where the Garlic Shrimp is highly recommended. You get eight shelled, jumbo-sized shrimp (much bigger than other places) in a zesty garlic sauce with sides of macaroni salad and sticky white rice. If shrimp isn't your thing, try the Chicken Katsu, tender fried chicken cutlets, with the same sides.

For dinner dessert, you can order a slice of cake or pie at Ted's Bakery or make your way back to Haleiwa to order some Matsumoto Shave Ice from the Matsumoto General Store.

Follow this menu, and you will have tasted some of the best food the North Shore has to offer.

3. Go Snorkeling
Shark's Cove Tidal Pool (taken with disposable)

Hanauma Bay in southeastern Oahu, about a 20 minute drive from Honolulu, is widely considered to be the best snorkeling spot in Oahu. But the North Shore has some really good spots for snorkeling too.

The first is Shark's Cove. Don't worry, it's not called that because it's infested with sharks. It got it name from the shape of the cove, which looks like a shark took a bite out of the coastline. Shark's Cove is usually calm enough to snorkel, but in the winter months it can be a little rough. Luckily, there is a tidal pool right next to it, and its waters are calm year-round. You will see a wide variety of Hawaiian fish there. And because it's Hawaii, the water is warm, almost like bath water, so you can snorkel all day.

If you don't have your own snorkeling gear, you can rent some from North Shore Surf Shop right across the street. They also have lockers you can rent for cheap if you don't want to leave your wallet or other valuables in your car or on the beach (recommended.)

A second snorkeling spot on the North Shore is Kuilima Cove. It is a beach adjacent to Turtle Bay Resort, which itself is located at the northeastern corner of Oahu. It's a public beach, so Turtle Bay allows you to park in their parking lot to access it. If you need to rent snorkeling gear, you can get it from Turtle Bay.

Quick tip #1: Shark's Cove and its tidal pool are very rocky (Kuilima Cove less so), so you're definitely going to need some reef shoes just to wade out. Moreover, if some water goes down your snorkeling tube, you might panic a little and feel the need to stand on a rock, which requires shoes. You can purchase some before you go, or you can purchase a pair at the nearby North Shore Surf Shop or even Foodland (the local grocery chain store near the surf shop.)

Quick tip #2: Bring or purchase a waterproof camera. A disposable one will do, but a high quality camera (see below) will produce much better photos. If you don't bring one with you, you can purchase a disposable one at either North Shore Surf Shop or Foodland.

4. Hike Kaena Point

Slumbering monk seals at Kaena Point
Kaena Point is the northwestern tip of Oahu, and it is the locale of a couple of powerful Hawaiian myths. One is that it was the jumping off point for souls leaping into the afterlife. Another is that an ancient demigod attempted to pull the neighboring island of Kauai towards Oahu with a magical fishook and line, but failed.

Today it is a scenic lookout that can be reached by hiking a mildly demanding trail (due to walking up a slight upgrade) of a couple of miles from the North shore entrance (there's another trail on the eastern side of Oahu.) As you hike the trail, you can pause to admire the rocky coastline and the pounding waves. Though it's not too demanding, be sure to take plenty of water and sunscreen to be safe.

Once you reach the top of the trail you may be treated to two special pleasures, other than the view. For one, if you hike Kaena Point between October and late spring, you should be able to see dozens of protected Laysan Albatross breeding pairs caring for their young. The breeding area is roped off, so don't cross it or you might accidentally step on something you shouldn't. The pairs are close enough anyways to take pictures with a lens, and some are close enough to take pictures without a lens. And if you're lucky, you'll be able to see some of the young chicks.

Secondly, you might catch a glimpse of sun-basking monk seals. They frequent Kaena Point year-round. They are also protected, so don't disturb them by getting too close. You should be able to get your pictures in any case.

5. Visit the Puu O Mahuka Heiau

A heiau is an ancient Hawaiian religious ceremonial site, and one of the most sacred is located on the North Shore Oahu.

Puu O Mahuka has a vivid history, some parts speculative, other parts confirmed . Possibly constructed in the 1600s, it was the site of religious ceremonies, royal births, and purportedly even human sacrifice. Following a skirmish with the sailors of Captain George Vancouver's ship the Daedulus, which was anchored in nearby Waimea Bay, three sailors were allegedly sacrificed there. King Kamehameha I's high priest also performed ceremonies there. It became a national historic landmark in 1962.

Interestingly, it sometimes doesn't even appear on tourist maps. More than likely, there won't be more than one or two other cars parked nearby, if any. Besides pictures of this historic sacred place, you can also take an amazing picture of Waimea Bay from above.

Because it's not on some paper maps (though it is on Google Maps), it might help to know that you can get to the site by turning onto Pupukea Road from Kamehameha Highway where the Foodland is located. Soon after you start up the hill, a steel guard rail will appear on your right. Shortly after the guard rail ends, you will turn right into the Puu O Mahuka Heiau State Historic Site. Pay attention to the guard rail because it's sometimes easy to miss the turn off. Once in the park you will follow a paved road directly to the site.

6. Visit Laniakea Beach aka Turtle Beach
Laniakea Beach

Laniakea Beach is halfway between the town of Haleiwa and Waimea Bay on Kamehameha Highway. It's also known as Turtle Beach because at a certain spot green sea turtles like to come up on the beach and bask in the sun.

The best time of the year to catch turtles on the beach is in the summer when the North Shore waves are smaller. Still, there's a good chance you can see them year-round.

Parking at Laniakea Beach basically involves parking along Kamehameha Highway. It's not exactly difficult to park as there is usually someone pulling out of a spot (people can only stare at and take pictures of turtles for so long.) However, you must exercise caution as you will have to cross a pretty busy highway (the two-lane Kamehameha Highway is not a freeway by any means, but it is heavily traveled.)

7. Go on a Shark Adventure
View from the shark cage (taken with a disposable)

There are basically two tour companies on the North Shore that offer about a 1.5-2 hour "shark adventure."  Leaving out of Haleiwa harbor, they are North Shore Shark Adventures and Hawaii Shark Encounters. You can book your adventure online, by phone, through a local Haleiwa surf shop, or a hotel concierge. They are priced about the same and offer pretty much the same experience. If it matters, North Shore Shark Adventures has a bigger boat.

Your adventure starts with a short boat ride about 3 miles out into the ocean where crabbers have laid many of their traps. Claiming to be environmentally-conscious, the tour operators explain that they do not chum the waters to attract the sharks. The sharks are attracted to the sound of the boats, associating them with food because of the crabbers. They practically guarantee that you will see sharks.

The boat's destination is a floating cage covered in plexiglass that is anchored by a buoy. In groups of about 6-8, you and your fellow adventurers get into the cage, and you get to see the sharks underwater.

Now you're not going to see any great whites out there. Hawaii's most feared shark, the tiger shark, is rarely seen.

Most likely you're going to see Galapagos and reef sharks. Still, a shark is a shark, and it's exhilarating to see them live and in the ocean, not in a tank.

Quick Tip: The tour operators offer a video of your time in the shark cage, but it's very pricey. You're better off bring your own underwater camera or video camera. A disposable camera is fine, but for the best photos and videos you'll need a high quality camera or video camera.

8. Visit Waimea Falls

Right behind Waimea Bay is Waimea Valley, a historic nature park, which contains a visitor center, botanical gardens, and a nice waterfall called Waimea Falls. Operated by a non-profit organization, Waimea Valley has an admission fee ($15 for adults, $7.50 for seniors, and $7.50 for children aged 4-12, with other discounts.) From the visitor center, where there are often cultural events, it is about a 3/4 mile trail through the botanical gardens to the waterfall. There are usually lifeguards at the waterfall, so you can actually go into its pool.

9. Take a surf lesson

Okay, I did say at the start of this post that there was more to the North Shore than surfing. But keep in mind that 8 of the 10 items on this to-do list have nothing to do with surfing. And as I stated in the first item on this list, surfing is what the North Shore is most famous for, so you would be remiss to avoid surfing. And how cool would it be to tell people that you surfed the North Shore?

I also said in the first list item that most spots on the North Shore are not for beginning surfers. But there are a few more relatively-calmer surf spots where instructors can provide safer surf lessons, like Haleiwa Beach Park.

It's not hard to find an instructor. Just google "North Shore surf lessons,"and you should find plenty. If you'd like a little more confidence in your selection, you can stop by just about any Haleiwa surf shop, which will give you more reliable recommendations than the internet or even let you meet an in-house instructor face-to-face before you hit the water.  Check out my posts on North Shore surf shops.

10. Watch the Sunset
Fire sunset at North Shore December 2012

North Shore sunsets are pretty amazing. After a long day of doing many of the things to do on this list, it's great just to sit on the beach, listen to the waves pound the shore, and watch the sunset. With the frequent sunshowers that occur as water-logged clouds come over the hills and hit the shoreline, there is a wide range of precipitation for sunlight to work with. Not only do you often see rainbows on the North Shore, you are likely to see a cool sunset every day.

There you have it.  10 fun things to do on the North Shore Oahu while you're on vacation.  You might not be able to do them all, but even if you manage to do just a few, you'll have some experiences you'll never forget.

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