This is my ode to the “Country” – Oahu’s North Shore. Big thank you to this marvelous land for sharing its aloha spirit.
Hawaii’s aloha vibes attract countless visitors from around the world every damn day. It’s no wonder that Hawaii is one of those places that receives endless attention from the travel media. The islands’ balmy temps, exquisite beaches, soulful spirit and easy flights make Hawaii an all-time favorite of just about everyone including our Surf Stoked Little Fam.
We met Grandma halfway last month instead of Vagabond Valle and I going all the way to L.A. or Grandma Gigi coming to Sydney. On arrival, we stayed a few days in the tourist trap that is Waikiki, ate raw fish at liquor stores, revealed in all things pink at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and then got the hell out of dodge and headed for the North Shore.
This was the best decision EVER. The contrast of town vs. country (as the locals called Honolulu and everywhere else, respectively) made relax, slow down, and get happy. When planning this trip, I had my reservations about the North Shore. I was worried that a week in the “country” might be too long and boring. The Seven-Mile miracle proved me wrong. There was plenty to do, see and eat even when the surf was small.
I also was concerned that the waves would be too gnarly for me to surf, especially if a large swell arrived. I am stoked to say I busted down the door of that myth. While we didn’t get an XXL winter swell, we did 2.5-3 meters of surf on the final weekend of our stay. I found somewhere to surf every day including a couple spots that were totally non-terrifying. The scariest moment I had was actually on a relatively small day out at Pipe (click the link to read about How I Surfed Pipeline, Got Absolutely Worked and Lived)
NORTH SHORE STAYS
As you drive north out of Honolulu, say goodbye to high-rise hotels and mega-resorts. Oahu’s North Shore is home to very few hotels but is dotted with a plethora of vacation rentals. Coming from Australia, I think it is helpful to point out the prevalence of VRBO in addition to Airbnb. We booked one place on Airbnb and one place on VRBO. Many places are on both sites but many are not, so it’s best to search both. We split our time between Rocky Point and the Sunset Beach neighborhood near Velzyland. To be honest, we really enjoyed both locations. Rocky Point is close to Pipeline and all the action but we loved surfing Velzyland. You definitely need a car and want to stay in a place along the stretch from Log Cabins to Velzyland.
SEE & DO – SURFING
Let’s start with surfing because that’s what Surf Stoked Moms and Oahu’s North Shore is all about.
If you pay attention to surf culture or have seen the movie, North Shore, you know that this coastline is revered for its powerful waves, critical barrels, and as a proving ground for performance surfing. If you’re a full-blown mom grom like me, you’ve spent most of your life watching the waves of Oahu’s North Shore from the safety of a magazine, computer screen or movie. You not only have memorized the famous line from North Shore, “When the wave break here don’t be there, or you gonna get drilled,” but you can imagine taking the beating of a lifetime just by looking at pictures of waves like Pipeline, Rocky Point, Sunset, and Off the Wall. If you’re anything like me, the mere thought of surfing these waves scares you shitless from 1,000s of miles away.
Buttttt, I’m still here – living proof that an average mom surfer can survive Oahu’s North Shore and have fun.
Let’s start with the small days… From September to May, even when the swell is down, you can still find a few fun waves around the North Shore or the east side. On the really small days (1-3 foot), I paddled out at Pipeline, Off the Wall, Rockies, and Velzyland. The waves around Pipe tended to just be punchy and short little shorebreak waves while Velzyland still had a long, carvable wave even at knee-to-chest size. I also surfed the rolling rights at Gas Chambers on a moderate swell (2-5 feet).
As the swell grew to overhead and then to double overhead, it was time to seek out more protected breaks like Laniakea, Chuns, Jocko’s, Puaena Point and my favorite, Velzyland. Velzyland absolutely pumps. Stickered up groms and surfing royalty caught bomb sets and rode barrels clean into the channel. But the amazing thing was that you could stay out of the way of the big sets and still pick off a few wide ones without ever getting cleaned up. Don’t get me wrong, Velzyland is not a beginners wave when the swell picks up and it’s anything but uncrowded. It’s fast, steep and highly competitive but doable. I snagged some decent waves on the biggest days and had a ball with the scraps of the dropping swell.
In general, all of the waves on the North Shore break over the reef, shallower in some parts than others. The cool thing is you generally don’t have to cross sharp reef to get out to the break so I didn’t need booties like I would in Indonesia. Be prepared to wait, stay calm and be humble.
SEE & DO – NON-SURFING
During my trip, only one day was truly too small to surf so I logged a lot of water time. On the smallest day, we hiked the Ehukai Pillbox above Sunset Beach Elementary School (John John’s alma mater BTW). The hike almost entirely uphill and the effort will left me drenched in sweat. At the top, we found the first pillbox, a bunker that looks out over all those famous surf spots from Off the Wall to Sunset. The view is spectacular. We climbed through the bunker and then set off to find the second pillbox. If you are facing the ocean, turn right and continue walking along the ridgeline towards Sunset. 20 wild goats meet us at the second pillbox which has an even more panoramic view of the North Shore.
During my first or fortieth trip to Foodland (the only supermarket on the North Shore) on a flat day, we stopped for a swim in the protected pools at Shark’s Cove. This is an amazing place to snorkel as the fish congregate around the ledges and caves created by the coral heads and large boulders throughout the cove. Be on the lookout for turtles and eels. Two things to keep in mind: (1) this is a flat day activity, if the swell is pumping go surfing, (2) there’s no sandy beach here so keep little ones in the shallow tide pools.
As many of you are likely to be traveling with massive Moana fans, I would cautiously recommend a trip to the Polynesian Center located about 20 minutes to the east of the North Shore in Laie. I am cautious because your enjoyment of this place will depend on a few factors including:
• whether you are traveling with your partner (don’t go),
• whether you adamantly dislike anything related to religious zealotry or Mormonism (don’t go),
• if you are short on time or money while on Oahu (don’t go),
• if you are traveling without children (don’t go),
• if you are highly offended by religious misappropriation (don’t go).
Ok now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, if you have a three-year-old who loves Moana, singing, and dancing, the Polynesian Center is a must. Here are some tips that will take you hours to distill from Tripadvisor… People come from all over Oahu on giant tour buses and pay hundreds of dollars to spend the day here and eat at one of the luaus. They pay extra to be “VIP” and get a semi-private tour. All of this is unnecessary and can turn a fun day into a long, arduous day. Here’s the best way to approach this Disneyland of Polynesian culture: first of all go when you’re staying on the North Shore. Book your general admission tickets to the Polynesian Center online before you go. Drive over around 12 and stop for lunch on the way at one of the shrimp trucks (Giovanni’s is the most famous) near Kahuku. Pick up your tickets, enter the Centre and go to one of the shows – chose whatever is on and interests you most. Make sure that you go early to the parade and get a front row seat because all the performers come to you on boats during the parade. Afterward, pick a couple of shows you would like to see and stay as long as your child can handle. When you leave, kindly refuse the tram tour unless you really, really want to spend 30 captive minutes learning about the Mormons. Get your car and drive straight to Lei Lei’s at the Turtle Bay Resort.
Nothing will taste better than one of Lei Lei’s famous mai tais after a day with the Mormons. Have a snack and watch the sunset over the green as the kids run amuck on the golf course.
Another beautiful way to pass a flat day is at the botanical gardens and waterfall in Waimea Valley, a sacred area for traditional Hawaiian culture. We did the hike to the falls with a three-year-old and didn’t find it too challenging. We all enjoyed a refreshing swim under a 45-foot waterfall at the end. Afterward, we spent the rest of the day at Waimea Bay which aside from giant winter swells, is a calm place for a swim. If you’re up for it, climb to the top of the rock and leap into the ocean.
Fifteen minutes to the west is Haleiwa, which has a bigger selection of restaurants and cute little shops for you to get a present for family back home.
EAT & DRINK
Outside of Haleiwa, the food choices are exactly abundant. Other than Ted’s Bakery and the Turtle Bay Resort, most of the restaurants on the North Shore are on wheels. Our favorite food truck overall was definitely Pupukea Grill. This inexpensive food truck is located just down the street from Foodland and probably has the best poke bowls in the area. Think massive scoops of seasoned raw fish, rice and veggies. Our vegetarian friends also loved their salads and wraps.
Just as often as we had poke at Pupukea Grill for lunch, we had the grilled prawn plate at the Limo Aji Truck in the food truck area next to Foodland and across from Sharks Cove. Limo Aji puts a South American spin on the Hawaiian favorites. Besides the shrimp, order the coconut ceviche.
The beauty of renting an Airbnb is that you have a full kitchen and can save money by eating in some nights. However, groceries in Hawaii are not cheap especially on the North Shore where you are a captive audience. Foodland is your only option. Go there for groceries, poke, chicken wings, cakes, beer and to socialize. It’s quite the scene and I can say we went there at least once every single day.
You can always find an acai bowl being served out of a truck near Pipeline, the most famous being Banzai Bowls at the Texaco Gas Station. We got an acai smoothie from here every day and often immediately canceled out the health benefits by heading to Ted’s Bakery near Sunset Beach from some bakery treats. Because balance is key.
Haleiwa could be a post on its own with lots of delicious stands and restaurants. But one place I must mention because it surprised me so much was Matsumoto Shaved Ice. Yes, there’s a massive line and it’s super touristy, but the mango, pineapple flavored shaved ice with condensed milk was out of this world. Being anti-cheap sugary-highs, I was so surprised how good the flavors complimented the cold ice on a hot day.
Last but not least, if you’re craving a bit of luxury and a tropical cocktail book dinner at Roy’s at the Turtle Bay Resort. Let’s face it, sometimes you want something a little more classy than a food truck. Roy’s is the antidote and the perfect place to celebrate your last night in Hawaii, a birthday or an anniversary. We ordered double mai tais and wagyu beef. Go big or go home.