HAWAII IS THE MOST geographically isolated landmass on the planet, and for some that means only one thing: groundswell.
Everywhere, in every direction, the currents of the Pacific are churning up the winds, storms, and fetch that ultimately source these islands with their world class waves. Below is a list of the best places to get wet if you have never been to Hawaii.
To be sure, there are far better waves than those listed below, but they are unlistable for various reasons. Take Kauai, for instance; there is nothing more to hide – the world already knows what waves exist, just look at a map, but why then is any photo of Kauai’s best wave still flipped, and never named, when it’s printed in any surf mag?
Because respect is a crucial element of the Hawaiian surfing experience; and with reason – the island juice is no myth; ocean conditions here are worlds away from your local beach break.
But still, come surf, it’s Hawaii, the Duke would have wanted you to. For the full rundown of breaks, grab “Frank’s Map” at any surf shop. In no particular order….
Ehukai Beach Park (North Shore, Oahu)
Straight out from the parking lot of the same name, are several shifting peaks that work on everything from a west to a windswell wrap from the east. Sandy bottom is scattered with random fingers of rock. Generally a good place to come if you are beyond a beginner, but still getting used to things.
Great place to get the feel of Oahu’s North Shore. Pipeline is immediately to the left, and when it’s big enough, it essentially swallows all the peaks of the beach park. Come here to watch Pipe or sight Tom Curren; across from Sunset Beach Elementary.
Laniakea (North Shore, Oahu)
On a big north, Lani’s is a freight train right that can connect for an extremely long, fast ride, with four or five makeable sections. Deep water wave, but still barrels with the right conditions. Very consistent with any swell that has a bit of north in it; doesn’t work at all on pure west swells.
Good place if you’re looking to blend in – the “town” crowd from Honolulu loves this wave, and thus there are always different faces in the water. There is a shorter, hollow left as well, that can be very fun. Seen in the big opening along Kam Hwy as you head east from Hale’iwa. Caution: parking lot thieves run amuck.
Backyards (North Shore, Oahu)
The first time I surfed ‘Yards it went from a playful head high to a widow-making triple-overhead in 40 minutes, and I had to paddle out and around the entire point in a heap of anxiety to get in, so take note.
Very fast, advanced wave with a steep wall, thick lip, and shallow reef below. Good barrels. Swell magnet from all directions, but works best on a NW swell. Can get very, very big, and often has less of a crowd than other spots. Further out on the point from Sunset. Access from the shallows at the tip of the point.
Caution: reef, clean up sets.
Sunset (North Shore, Oahu)
Sunset is one of the most fabled right hand points there is, and thus attracts many a soul the world over. In that sense, you can surf it without worry (crowd-wise) if you let your hyper-paddling habits subside. Surely not a wave to be taken lightly though, even at a playful three feet Hawaiian. The wave turns very fast and hollow as it emerges and walls up quick from deep water; famous inside bowl throws way out for a good, heavy barrel.
You need some length and paddling strength in your board here; very thick wave and can be difficult to get into. Prepare yourself to get washed and bashed around on the reef when you see that rogue set swing wide from the west; you’ll certainly be caught inside.
Caution: shallow reef, heavy lip, clean-up sets.
Hookipa (Paia, Maui)
Between Haiku and Paia is Maui’s most consistent wave, or waves, and it happens to double as one of the best windsurfing spots in the world. All the various peaks can be seen from the bluff along the Hana Hwy heading east from Paia. The most hierarchical spot is Pavillions, the right that comes off the far east point; otherwise, there is much range of skill found in the lineups of the other peaks; still, keep respect.
Catches everything from the big WNW’s to the easterly windswells. Very exposed to the wind, so get up early before the wind does, and then hit it again late in the afternoon; with Kona winds, you score! Park in the parking lot below the bluff, and follow someone else into the water (and out).
Honolua (North Shore, Maui)
Honolua is one of the magical waves of the world, a flawless right point that seems to peel into infinity – when you happen to catch one. The crowd here is dense, but the joy of one ride makes it all worth it, especially that crisp barrel through the cave section.
Somewhat sheltered from the islands to the north, the swell window here is smaller than most other spots, and thus it works much less often; best on a big NNW swell. The trades that plague most of the rest of Maui, work fine here, to make a consistent side-offshore breeze. Again, when you connect one, the wave is simply magical.
Park on the bluff above, follow someone out.
Velzyland (North Shore, Oahu)
Everything considered, VLand is probably the most risky inclusion on this list. Shallow, extra sharp reef, a heavily localized pack, and a barrel that seems to suck dry, make for a serious North Shore experience. Respect here (for everything) is vital.
This marks the end of the “seven mile miracle,” the opposite end being Haleiwa’s Ali’i Beach Park. Park along Kam Hwy, and walk through the gate at Sunset Beach Colony. Paddle out from directly in front of the peak. The wide open barrel is unreal, but caution: sharp reef, shallow, crowd factor, locals.
Hanalei (North Shore, Kauai)
This is maybe the only wave on Kauai that you are allowed to mention in a public arena. Lucky for us, it’s a great wave, a peeling right point that works on most winter swell directions. Good fun when it’s smaller to grab a longboard and go make friends in the lineup – then you might find out about those other waves around the way. The bay here is pristine, and so is the town by the same name. On the far north east side of the point, towards the Princeville. Can get very big, and very good.
Canoes (South Shore, Oahu)
This is the jumping off point for the Waikiki surf adventure, and the rest of the south shore as well. Every surfer must come at least once, and there are few waves as friendly to teach your new ladyfriend. While generally a friendly wave, this whole shore turns on several times a summer, firing off exceptional waves. Those roadbumps beneath your board are not coral heads – they’re either the innocently ignorant Japanese tourists, or the equally benign, pasty-white Oklahomans.
On the south shore you can surf fifteen different spots in a single session, so paddle around and explore – that’s what the Duke did. Straight out, fittingly, from the Duke Kahanamoku statue in Waikiki. For more juice on this side of the island, seek Bowls, Kaisers, or the wave in between the two, aptly named Inbetweens. L
ooking out towards Diamond Head, imagine the Hawaiian legend of the wave the Duke caught way out on the point and connected all the way to the sand, right where you get your favorite mai-tai – the restaurant by the name of Duke’s.
***Surf tip of the day: Apply that sunscreen twenty to thirty minutes before you hit the water to preserve the ever-fragile coral reef. Coral really is an animal, not a plant, and it literally suffocates from the sunscreen that leeches off your back! And don’t walk on the reef – you wouldn’t walk on any other animal!
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Spencer Klein resides on Oahu's North Shore. Feel free to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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