From world-famous Waikiki and the North Shore’s Banzai Pipeline to mellow summer waves on Kauai, here’s where to watch world-champion surfers, or try it for the first time.
What’s not to love about Hawaii’s perfect waves?
The water is so warm, you’ll never hear the words “wet suit” on the lips of locals. The sea is crystal clear, and many places are surrounded by lush, green hills and pristine, sandy beaches that will make you feel like you’ve found a slice of heaven.
For some, Hawaii is where they fell in love with surfing, with warm water inviting to newcomers and the islands’ rich history a lure for inquisitive adventurers. For experienced surfers, Hawaii has long been the proving ground where someone looking for fame can charge big waves and land on the cover of a magazine or earn respect among surfing peers.
Whether you’re a novice just learning how to pop up on your board or an expert seeking monster surf, Hawaii has it all for every level. Here are a few places to check out if you want to ditch the mainland’s chilly waters.
1. Waikiki, Honolulu, Oahu: The long, rolling waves are well-known at this surf spot in the heart of Honolulu. The forgiving surf is perfect for beginners or for longboarders who like slow-peeling waves. If you’re bringing your own board, be prepared to park in a lot in the middle of a bustling city. And be warned, Waikiki is crowded — very crowded — and you may have to navigate through some heavy traffic in the water.
If you’re looking for a lesson, make sure to check out Faith Surf School (faithsurfschool.com), operated year-round by the Moniz family, who have run the school since 2000. They have three locations throughout Waikiki and offer group or private lessons. They also offer personalized surf tours, stand-up paddle lessons, outrigger canoe surfing and surfboard rentals.
Post-surf grind: One of my favorite finds was a Vietnamese/Hawaiian fusion restaurant in Waikiki called The Pig & The Lady (thepigandthelady.com). Don’t miss the pho French dip sandwich, made with a tender beef normally found in the traditional Vietnamese soup in the center of crisp French bread, with the broth used as a dip.
2. Pipeline, North Shore, Oahu: Who hasn’t heard of the Banzai Pipeline? While this area is flat as a lake during summer months, the beast awakens during winter and produces what some say is the best barrel in the world. The heaving tubes crash over a shallow reef right off the beach, making it a spectator favorite for those who want to post up on the sand and watch the show.
Each year, the best surfers in the world battle it out on these waves during the Pipe Masters, the last contest of the year for the competitive surfing circuit (next dates: Dec. 8-20). Even if you miss the event, you can see some of the best surfers in the world take on this heavy wave during winter months. There’s even a good chance you can see current World Tour champion John John Florence charging Pipeline since he calls the break his front yard, with his house just a stone’s throw away.
Don’t even try it: If you’re not an expert, stay on the sand with your camera.
3. Waimea Bay, North Shore, Oahu: Another legendary spot, where pro surfers in the early days of big-wave surfing took out their big guns to prove their worthiness in the lineup.
The waves from November through February draw some of the best surfers in the world. It’s where an invitation-only group competes at the In Memory of Eddie Aikau surf contest, which only takes place when the waves are at least 20 feet tall. The famous saying is “the bay calls the day.”
During summer, the waves go into hibernation and the bay is calm enough for swimming.
Where to stay: Nearby Turtle Bay Resort. The two-bedroom condos can be reasonably priced, especially if split among a larger group.
4. Hanalei Bay, Kauai: Go to this area surrounded by lush mountains in winter months and you’ll find 60-foot waves. If you’re on a summer trip, you’ll find fun little 2-foot peelers perfect for beginners.
Sitting out in the turquoise water at Hanalei Bay is breathtaking, especially if you look back toward land, where waterfalls spill down lush hillsides.
The small town nearby has a few surf shops to rent boards, and plenty of quaint shops to check out post-surf.
Get a drink: The Dolphin restaurantis a fun stop after a day of catching waves. Outside tables overlook a river, where kayaks and other small boats saunter downstream.
5. Kealia Beach, Kauai: This punchy beach break has plenty of spread-out surf peaks, with the north end of the beach heavier than the middle.
While the waves aren’t necessarily the best in Hawaii, it’s what the beach represents that makes it so special. On the shore, a modest memorial honors Hawaiian legend and three-time surfing world champion Andy Irons, who died in 2010 at age 32. A blue sign reads: “Aloha Andy Irons, mahalo for everything. Kaua’i loves you.” The break is about 20 minutes north of the airport on the east side of the island.
Post-surf adventure: Drive another 20 minutes to the north end of the island to check out Princeville Ranch Adventures (princevilleranch.com) for an afternoon of zip-line tours, horseback riding or riding ATVs to waterfalls.