If you ever wondered why surfing is so synonymous with Hawai‘i, look no further than the North Shore of O‘ahu, where huge swells deliver world-renowned waves every winter. In summer, those breaks mellow out, offering many opportunities for water sports – scuba diving, snorkeling, free diving, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding.
Here’s how to spend a day on the North Shore:
North Shore Beaches
Depending on the time of year, the water off the North Shore can be extreme calm (summer) or extremely dangerous (winter). This is why it makes sense to plan your beach day based on the season:
(high surf, from ~November through March): Hawai’i is home to some of the world’s best surfing for a reason – you can expect large, ripping waves and strong currents from November through March. This means that swimming in the ocean during those months is often not advised but, along with that comes the opportunity to experience O‘ahu’s iconic surfing subculture.
Three of the world’s most well-known breaks, Sunset Beach, Pipeline (Ehukai beach park), and Waimea Bay, frequently hold competitions and attract top surfers. Easily viewed from shore, these breaks are a great hangout on a Hawaiian winter day.
Get your swimming and surf conditions for the North Shore from the Hawai’i Beach Safety website.
(low surf, from ~April through October): In summer, you’ll have the chance to jump in the water yourself. Shark’s Cove offers good snorkeling and diving, and Haleiwa is a nice Waikīkī-alternative for surf lessons. If you’ve never seen a sea turtle, it’s a safe bet you’ll find them at Laniakea Beach at some point.
Definitely check out the big name beaches above, but don’t forget to explore more. There are other great, beautiful beaches that attract less fanfare, like Mokuleia leading out to Ka‘ena Point.
Activities / Adventures
There are enough things to do on the North Shore to keep you busy for a week so you are going to have to make some “tough” choices. The super adventurous among our readers should consider shark diving, with or without cages, which is a popular outing from Haleiwa.
If shark diving is not your thing you can also give the following things a try:
Hiking and state parks
Ka‘ena Point is one of the most well-preserved sections of O‘ahu. A coastline park and seabird sanctuary, it offers hiking, fishing, and picnic opportunities. The 2.7-mile Ka‘ena Point Trail hugs the rocky coastline, ending with a view of the west side and the Waianae Mountains.
Overnight campers will want to look into nearby Peacock Flats in the Kuaokala Forest Reserve. Another great, short hike is the Ehukai Pillbox Trail that provides an overlook of the North Shore coast.
The Waimea Valley Botanical Garden
For those interested in botanical gardens, Waimea Valley has a large collection of native and non-native plants found in Hawai‘i, as well as cultural events throughout the year. You can also swim in a waterfall there, which is one of the only lifeguarded waterfalls in all of Hawai‘i.
Paddle out for a local view
If you want to get a glimpse of local life on the North Shore, grab a paddleboard at one of the many local rental shops and go on a calm adventure up the Anahulu River in Haleiwa. Along the way you’ll pass houses and rural outposts, offering a different perspective of life on O‘ahu. Pack a picnic and settle in somewhere along the coast at Ka‘ena Point, where locals love to fish.
Of course, if the surf is pumping, there’s nothing more local than to dig your toes into the sand and watch the pros at Waimea, Sunset, or Pipeline.
In the following 2-minute video showing North Shore highlights you can see several of our suggested activities (Waimea Beach, Shark’s cove snorkeling, surfing, and the Waimea Valley waterfall):
Get a taste of the local life
Haleiwa is the main hub of the North Shore where you’ll find the most restaurants, shops, and services. In town, try Haleiwa Joe’s for fish tacos, grilled fish, and ceviche; the Beet Box Café for vegetarian; and Haleiwa Bowls for acai and fresh fruit bowls and smoothies.
The North Shore is also home to some of the island’s institutions. Ted’s Bakery is famous for its chocolate haupia pie (local tip: day old pies are significantly cheaper, and just as delicious). The North Shore shrimp trucks, headlined by Giovanni’s and Fumis, get their shrimp locally from Kahuku (east side).
Collections of food trucks can be found in a few areas on the North Shore, including downtown Haleiwa and across from Shark’s Cove. The latter is where you’ll find the Pupukea Grill truck and its killer poke bowls. For dessert, try the shave ice from the infamous Matsumoto’s.
If you’re looking for a seaside place to kick back a few drinks, you are out of luck on the North Shore. Most bars are attached to restaurants and found inland on the main drag of Haleiwa.
Putting it all together: a sample 1-day itinerary for the North Shore:
You can easily spend two full days exploring the North shore but if you are short on time can take inspiration from our sample 1-day itinerary.
Rise early and start the day with a bowl or smoothie from Haleiwa Bowls. Before it heats up, hike out to Ka‘ena Point for some early-morning serenity and a view of the West Coast.
Grab a healthy lunch at Beet Box Café and rent a paddleboard for the afternoon. Depending on conditions, take a spin off Haleiwa Harbor and down the Anahulu River. If it’s the season, choose a surf break like Sunset or Pipeline to people watch and rest, then jump in the water (conditions permitting) at Sharks Cove for a late-afternoon snorkel.
Have an early dinner at one of the food trucks at Pupukea before finding some sand for the sunset. Do some reading and retire to bed early… north shore style!
More 1-day itineraries for O‘ahu
We have made other “1 day in …” itineraries for O‘ahu which are very useful to help start planning your trip:
- 1 day on the south shore (Honolulu)
- 1 day in Kailua
- 1 day on the leeward coast
- 1 day on the windward (east) coast
- 1 day in Central O‘ahu
Or, if youʻd rather have an easy start, have a look at our highly customizable 7 day itinerary in which you can explore all sides of Oʻahu.