The Surfer’s Travel Guide to the Best of Oahu’s Legendary North Shore

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Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock

For much of the year, Oahu’s North Shore sits in peaceful hibernation—a sleepy local community and respite for relaxed honeymooners and snorkelers. But when winter wave season rolls around every November, this stretch of coastline comes alive, transforming into Ground Zero for everything surfing. Wave riders from around the world join a strong contingent of local heroes all testing their mettle on legendary breaks like Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Rockpile.

From world-class waves to marquee events like the Billabong Pipeline Masters and the Volcom Pipeline Pro to a robust and evolving food culture, the North Shore can at once be as hectic as it is jaw-dropping.

With action at every corner and fluctuating swell and weather windows, it might seem daunting to plan a trip to the North Shore. Still, it’s one trip that every surfer needs to make (at least) once. We caught up with local pro surfer and YouTube star Jamie O’Brien during the recent Volcom Pipeline Pro (an event he has won) to figure out where to eat and drink, where to paddle out, and how to get the most out of your adventure in the sacred wave garden of Oahu.

Food Trucks Are (Still) King

It’s no secret that the best food on the North Shore comes from a truck—or rather, dozens of them. The area’s food truck scene is unmatched, serving up local favorites like poke and garlic shrimp, as well as flavors ranging from Thai to Mexican to brick-oven pizza.

Giovanni’s gets lots of Internet love for its garlic shrimp, but O’Brien says to skip the lines and head to Pupukea Grill, where they serve up massive poke bowls and a wide array of salads and smoothies featuring locally grown produce.

J.O.B North Shore Red Bull
North Shore stalwart Jamie O’Brien Domenic Mosqueira / Red Bull Content Pool

“[Pupukea] covers all the bases, the food’s amazing,” says O’Brien. “I don’t know where some of these trucks are getting [their ingredients], but it’s about as authentic as it gets.”

If you’re looking for something different, Aji Lomo slings Peruvian-inspired Hawaiian food in absolutely massive portions. Hawaiian ceviche anyone? Swoon.

Don’t Bring Your Board

Yes, we know you’re obsessed with your new Bonzer, but leave your stick at home and avoid the hassle (and harm) of lugging your board across the ocean. The North Shore has a strong core of rental shops with wide-ranging fleets of boards for any condition.

The North Shore Surf Shop by Sharks Cove will rent you anything from an 11-foot log to a zippy fish, and it offers a 24-hour rental policy that lets you get in an afternoon session in one day and the next morning before returning your board. Look into multi-day rentals, and don’t forget the rash guard; your pale winter skin will thank you later.

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Jamie O’Brien surfs Banzai Pipeline at the January 2020 Volcom Pipe Pro Brian Bielmann / Red Bull Content Pool

Where to Actually Surf

Chances are you aren’t dropping in at Pipeline or Rockpile this time around (but hey, what do we know?), as these spots are not only some of the heaviest in the world, but also some of the most localized.

Local respect is all but demanded on the North Shore, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of waves to go around. For intermediates, paddling out west of the Turtle Bay Resort Pool Bar offers a pleasant mid-range wave good for longboarders and fun-size shortboarders. Like most breaks along the North Shore, this wave is a reef break, but it’s usually uncrowded and is a great option when the swell is a little smaller.

Chun’s Reef offers a good chance to score long rides without getting pummeled by crazy currents and beefy waves. Chun’s can get big, so be sure to check the forecast.

For beginners, Kawela Bay is a heavily protected area that serves up a fun wave when the rest of the coast is going big. Sign up for a lesson at Turtle Bay Resort and get two hours of private or group instruction for $185 or $140, respectively.

Ditch the Car, and Rent a Bike

The only thing heavier than winter swell on the North Shore might be the traffic, as surfers, spectators, and vacationers alike jam Route 83 for miles at a time. More often than not, the best way to actually get around is on the North Shore’s network of bike trails. Instead of wasting precious hours in traffic, do as the locals do and explore the North Shore on two wheels. North Shore Surf Shop also offers bike rentals, coming in at around $20. The shop will also rent locks for an additional charge, but the time and stress saved is worth it.

View from the Ehukai Pillbox
View from the Ehukai Pillbox Kade Krichko for Men's Journal

The North Shore Isn’t All About Waves

While the North Shore is often a conveyor belt of world-class waves, sometimes the faucet does shut off—even in winter. If you find yourself stuck in paradise without a reason to paddle, take to the hills.

The Ehukai Pillbox hike starts right from Sunset Elementary school and heads up to two World War II–era pillboxes once used to protect American troops against the invading Japanese. Nowadays, they form some of the best viewpoints in the area. Make sure to head there with proper footwear, as the uphill can be incredibly muddy and slick.

O’Brien says his down days are still all about the ocean, whether it be snorkeling, spear diving, or sailing Hobie Cat catamarans. While visitors can rent snorkels just about anywhere the sand touches the water, non-charted Hobie Cat rentals are a little harder to come by. For those who want to explore Oahu by boat, Watercraft Connection in Haleiwa Town offers kayak rentals for $40 over a two-hour period.

Can’t Forget a Sushi Night at Banzai

Down in Haleiwa Town, the biggest municipality on the North Shore, Banzai is a great way to give the food truck merry-go-round a break and spend a night out. Known for its wide variety of fresh sushi (try the volcano roll or a Hawaii roll that is actually from Hawaii), Monsoon surprises with wagyu beef cooked on 800-degree lava stones and flights of Japanese whiskey.

Food like this doesn’t come cheap and the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, but this is one meal you might just have to splurge on.

Late-Night Drinks at Surfer Bar

Believe it or not, the North Shore isn’t a hot spot when it comes to late-night. Sure, there are some great house parties, but bars tend to shut down early and nightclubs are nonexistent.

When it comes to a nightcap, all roads lead to Surfer Bar at Turtle Bay Resort. Yeah, it may seem like a swanky place for the town watering hole, but on any given night, this bar will feature one of the best mixes of locals and tourists in the area.

Bonus points for showing up early and catching the sunset from the pool deck bar and patio. Don’t worry, entrance for Mother Nature’s light show is free.

Poke bowl
Poke bowl Kade Krichko for Men's Journal

Breakfast Revolves Around the Bakery (and Bowl)

Seemingly designed around early morning surf sessions, breakfast on the North Shore is all about efficiency. For many, that means hitting the bakery, a place full of mouth-watering pastries and breakfast sandwiches, and sure to serve up a mean cup of coffee. Ted’s Bakery is a local favorite that has turned into a tourist staple—and for good reason. Guava pastries, cream pies, and spam-laced breakfast sandwiches (don’t knock it until you try it) round out a wide array of tasty breakfast treats at Ted’s.

O’Brien tends to avoid the Ted’s crowd and scores his morning fix down the road at Paala Kai Bakery in nearby Waialua, a bakery specializing in pastries that maintains what O’Brien refers to as a “local’s vibe.”

He also recommends Banzai Bowls for that morning açai bowl. The chain was inspired by Oahu’s North Shore, and is now a prime location for visitors and locals alike.

To catch Jamie O’Brien and the rest of the 2020 Volcom Pipe Pro field in action, tune in to Red Bull TV and the Red Bull TV app to watch a replay of the competition or free highlights on-demand.

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