The beaches along the North Shore of Oahu are what dreams are made of. Sand, waves, tropical trees swaying in the breeze and a magical mix of colorful sea life and majestic turtles. What you may not know however, is how distinctly unique each beach is. Want to learn to surf? Castles might be your best spot. Want to see world class surfing? Then it’s Banzai Pipeline all the way, baby!
We love the North Shore, and we know you will too! So, along with coming to spend a day with us here at The Polynesian Cultural Center, give yourself another day to explore the beaches. Or considering all the variety, maybe you ought to just spend the week! We promise, the vibe here is laid back island paradise at its best!
One bit of advice before we start – and this is very important: The surf along the North Shore can change drastically in very little time. Winters are typically when the rough, high surf comes in. Even in the calmer summer months, rogue waves, surface currents and powerful undertows are a constant issue. Vacationers who over estimate their skill level keep the surf patrol and emergency responders very busy. Take it easy, be aware, and never turn your back on the ocean.
Now, for the fun stuff! Starting from the upper eastern edge of the island and working our way north and then west, here is what you need to know to plan the perfect day of fun in the sun:
Laie Beach Park aka: Pounders
Focus: Boogie Boarding
Facilities: Basic – no toilets; yes shower; yes parking
This shoreline is called “Pounders” for a reason. The wave comes up and then pounds straight into the sand. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to wish you did. But if you have both guts and experience, this beach gives you some of the most gnarly boogie board rides around. Want to step it up a notch? Over by the lava point the waves come together to form a double curl, first the rider heads in one way, and then, as the other wave approaches from the side, they ride up under it and flip. Just like that. Only thing is, if you’re not careful, you end up stuffed into razor-like rocks, so again, this is NOT for novices!
Clissolds Beach aka: Bikini Beach
Focus: Swimming and SUP
Facilities: Primitive – nothing, nada, zilch
You enter through a pretty little grassy walkway across from the beautiful Courtyard by Marriott to access Clissolds Beach. This very long and narrow stretch may require water shoes in places. Like many Hawaii beaches, the coral and lava rocks seem perfectly placed to stub little toes. But the swimming is easy, and on calm days, you’ll also find it great for stand up paddle boarding (SUP).
A word of warning: Literally, there is NO parking.
La’ie Bay aka: Hukilau Beach
Focus: Swimming/Boogie Boarding/Kite Surfing
Level: Beginners to Intermediate
Facilities: Basic – no toilets; yes shower; yes parking
Where the houses end on the beach side of Kam Hwy as you exit La’ie you’ll find the world famous Hukilau Beach . Named after the crowd favorite hukilau (group net fishing activities) held at this spot in the 50s and 60s, this great, sandy expanse is one of the best spots for family outings on the North Shore. The waves are largest right in the middle of the bay straight in from the parking lot. Just 40 feet to the left (looking out to the ocean) the waves are much smoother. So boogie boards and little children all have a place to go. And at this spot on the beach, the floor of the ocean is all sand until far past the point you can’t touch bottom any more.
A word of warning: The parking lot and grassy area in front of Hukilau Beach is open to the public 6 days a week. The parking lot closes at 8:00 pm each night and all day Sunday. You can still access the beach, but if you’re going to be out there at night, plan to park on the street.
Malaekahana Beach aka: Castles
Facilities: Fair – yes toilets; yes shower; yes parking
This is where the locals go to teach their kids how to ride a wave. Malaekahana Beach is actually rather long. Towards the south-side (to the right side) is a state park with a simple campground, while towards the north (left) you will find a private campground and rustic cabins. This is a great place to hang out and even better, a convenient place to spend a few nights. It is on this north-side that you will find some great waves for surfing.
A word of warning: To get to the good surfing area, don’t drive in to the state park, which brings you very close to Goat Island. It is very rough both in and out of the water there. The entrance you are looking for is a developed parking lot just barely south of the town of Kahuku, not too far from the entrance on the opposite side of the highway to Climb Works (which by-the-way, is a great zipline spot if you’re looking for land based adventures.) Its easy to site – as that is where you will find the restrooms.
Kuilima Cove at: Turtle Bay Resort
Focus: Snorkeling for the whole family
Facilities: Good – Yes toilets; yes shower; yes parking lot; yes dining facilities
Everyone assumes that this is Turtle Bay. It’s not. BUT it is where the Turtle Bay Resort is. Confused? Don’t be. Just figure that this medium sized bay on the right is what people are talking about when they tell you that you’ve got to go to Turtle Bay to snorkel. For beginning to intermediate snorkelers this is a dream spot. Gentle waters, lots of room on the beach, and on the right side of the cove towards the very large seawall there is awesome snorkeling practically all year around. Beginners may want to stay closer to shore. Those with more confidence can go explore the interior part of the reef island. Either way, fish are always there and when you’re done, you can shower off and head over to one of the many delicious (and pricey) resort restaurants including Roy’s, which offers dining right there on the beach.
Immediately to the left of Turtle Bay Resort is the far east corner of REAL Turtle Bay. Just a few steps down from the resort’s swimming pool is where you will find the surfers (lessons and rental equipment available through a vendor at the hotel).
Most of the giant parking lot is reserved for the guests. Just look for stalls that indicate ‘beach parking’ and you’ll be fine.
A word of warning: At low tide, the water by the sea wall gets very shallow. It’s a real knee-banger if you get too close. Just be careful and you’ll be fine.
Kawela Bay aka: Turtle Bay
Focus: Swimming, SUP
Facilities: Primitive (away from the resort) – nothing, nada, zilch
The locals know that this quiet, relaxing area can only be accessed by parking directly off of Kam Highway. Just find a spot along the road close to the first fruit stand (going from east to west). You will find a hidden gem perfect for relaxing, romantic strolls, and even a bike path. But what you won’t find are any facilities, so pack it in and pack it out. It takes a couple of minutes to walk in – but as an extra treat you’ll walk past a wonderful banyan tree that has been featured in both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Lost episodes.
A word of warning: This is not the place to find an abundance of turtles. Head towards Turtle Beach for that.
Facilities: Fair – yes toilet (across the street); yes shower; yes (limited) parking; yes life guard
One of the favored stops for the APP World Tour Surfing competition. Although there can be calm days, this beach is for experienced surfers. But don’t worry, you’ll have a great time watching the pros show the world how its done.
A word of warning: Listen to the lifeguards. They will be very happy to let you know whether this is a good or bad day for the average Joe to enter the water.
Ehukai Beach Aka: Banzai Pipeline
Facilities: Fair – yes toilet; yes shower; yes (extremely limited) parking; yes life guard
There is no sign indicating that you have found the world famous Banzi Pipeline. That’s because Pipeline is not the name of the beach. It is the name of the beautiful curling wave that professional surfers from around the world round dream of conquering. This is extreme surfing at it’s best, so bring a beach chair and enjoy the view.
A word of warning: Really, this is not the place to push your luck.
Pupukea Beach Aka: Sharks Cove
Focus: Scuba diving in the bay, snorkeling in the lagoon
Level: Easy to moderate
Facilities: Fair – yes toilet; yes shower; yes parking; yes food (across the street)
So, technically, the ‘sharks cove’ section is the bay to the right of the tide pools. First lets talk about the scuba possibilities: When the weather and surge is mild, this spot is near to perfect. Over to the right are some great underwater tunnels, but they are a bit long and very dark, so bring a flash light, and if the waves are at all present, don’t do it. Getting blown around that reef would not be a good experience.
As far as the snorkeling goes, the place to go is into those tide pools on the left. Look towards the middle. If the waves are popping over the top, this will not be your day (usually in winter). If the tide is out, you’ll need to keep an eye out for shallow reefs. But on most days, you are going to have lots of fun.
An added bonus are the cluster of food trucks just across that VERY BUSY street. Do yourself and all of those anxious drivers a favor, use the cross-walk at the light.
A word of warning: Some people climb down the steep rock cliffs. Getting into the water at this point can be pretty difficult. I suggest you walk down the hill to the left of the bathroom and enter from the sandy beach. You will still have to work your way around underwater rocks, but it’s definitely better.
Three Tables Beach
Focus: Snorkeling and scuba diving
Level: Depends on the surf
Facilities: Basic – yes parking; yes restrooms (but it’s a walk); no shower
It’s definitely a local favorite, as the beauty and variety of fish here are awesome. You’ll see plenty just inside the reef, but if the water is flat, head out to the other side where the bottom of the floor drops to see some of the big boys! Three Tables has a tiny parking lot, but just up the street is lots more parking. Just be patient and be kind. Life’s too short to let parking hassles ruin your day. As far as restrooms goes, you’re out of luck, but a really old restroom is just a couple of minutes walk heading towards the stoplight and full facilities are just on the other side of the fire house at Sharks Cove.
A word of warning: If the waves are washing over the table-like reefs, the conditions are too rough.
Focus: Swimming, body surfing, boogie boarding, surfing, rock jumping
Level: You better know what you’re doing
Facilities: Basic – yes toilet; extremely limited parking; yes shower; yes life guard
A constant at Waimea is its strong undertow. The waves come up a steep incline and create a strong pull as they rescind, so they are strong even when they are small. True story: I was walking the beach one busy, sunny day. Families were playing in the surf, having a marvelous time. The ever present life guard was riding up and down the beach with a megaphone, and this is what I heard him say: “You parents see those children in the water? If they are your children, you are very bad parents. You should be ashamed of yourself. The undertow is very, very bad today. Someone is going to die. Get them out of the water NOW!” (jaw drop). Talk about some passionate lifeguards! Bottom line, follow the earlier advice. DO NOT turn your back to the waves here!
Over to the left is the famous ‘rock’. During high tide, many people climb up it, passing the ‘DANGER, KEEP OUT’ sign and jump off it into the sparkling blue below. You decide.
A word of warning: Besides obviously trying to give you a straight up warning about being careful, I’ll let you know that there are other places to park either on the highway as it heads up towards the west or up and around the east corner at the church. You will find paths to get you down to the bay from there. The traffic tends to be terrible during the middle of the day however, so be careful out there.
Laniakea Beach Aka: Turtle Beach
Focus: THE place to find giant green sea turtles
Facilities: Primitive – nothing, nada, zilch
Green sea turtles love to relax on this beach – so if your child’s greatest dream is to see one of these massive beauties in the wild, this is the place to bring them. Just remember that state law protects them from even being touched. As a matter of fact, shortly after a turtle decides to haul itself up for some sunbathing, a volunteer will quickly appear to tape off a 10′ – 20′ circumference around it (including the water.) Take them seriously, unless you like being ticketed for thousands of dollars (and getting booed by all the locals). If the water is calm, you can easily swim among the ever present turtles around the point on the right side – but if the surf is up, please…..remain safely on the beach.
A word of warning. There is no official parking at this beach. That said, you will see many cars stacked across from the beach along Kam Hwy. But it is clearly posted not to, and even though being towed or ticketed may not happen often, there’s no saying it won’t happen to you. Also, it is really difficult to cross the highway at that point. It is not uncommon to see a pedestrian being hauled off to the local emergency room. Don’t let it be you.
Kaiaka Bay Aka: Haleiwa
Focus: Surfing, kayaking, SUP, swimming, and more
Level: Beginners to intermediary
Facilities: Good – yes toilet; yes shower; yes parking; yes food; yes camping; yes rentals
It’s true! Haleiwa has it all!!!! You can rent a paddle board, kayak, surf board and more in Haleiwa and launch right there on the bay. For leisurely paddles, enter by the bridge and head up the lazy river that empties into the bay. You may even spot a large turtle or two sunning on the banks. If you’re looking for some great surfing, head over to Pua’ena Point (look for Kaiaka State Park) which is on the far east side, past the restrooms. If you are a beginner and would like some help, there are large trucks/vans filled with surfboards parked along the main road waiting to teach you how to hang ten!
A word of warning: Traffic gets very heavy during the afternoon, so come early, stay late.
Nina Jones, a mainland gal from way back, is now a transplanted Islander. With her husband of 40+ years, she volunteers at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Her hobbies include swimming, traveling, studying and writing about what she is learning from the various Polynesian cultures. Her blogs focus on their history, beliefs, practices and – as an added bonus – delicious food! To her, Polynesia is not just a place to visit, it is a way to live and she is very honored to be able to be a part of this amazing world.
Thank you for the lowdown. Great info and well written!!!
Brilliant – I really enjoyed this tour with you. Loved your writing style and the blog was extremely informative. I will have to print it off for when we come over next. Thanks so much, Nina
I have body boarded on the east coast of the US since the early 70s. I’m 71. I hope to check some of these spots out on Oct. 13 after zip lining. Say a little prayer I can read these waves.
Be careful, Steve – the winter waves are coming and they can be gnarly! Most of all, we hope you have the time of your life!