Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle and cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives in Hilo.
Things to Do in North Shore, O’ahu
The North Shore of O'ahu, known around the world as the home of the Banzai Pipeline and big wave surfing competitions, is one of the loveliest scenic drives in Hawai'i. Though most visitors come to the island to see world-famous Honolulu and Waikiki, the real show-stopper is north of all that. Whether you're a kama'aina (native-born) or here for just a short time, carve a day (or two) out of your schedule to relax and unwind on the North Shore. Its scenic back-country is sure to take your breath away.
1. Stunning White Sand Beaches
Stunning beaches and gorgeous coastlines help to make the North Shore one of the most beautiful areas in Hawai'i. You'll be in awe of the year-round perfection of nature here.
The major beach parks you'll encounter are:
- Malaekahana State Park
- Turtle Bay
- Kawela Bay
- Ehukai (home to Banzai Pipeline)
- Sharks Cove
- Waimea Bay
- Turtle Beach aka Laniakea
Parking is in short supply in most areas, but nearly all of these parks have bathroom facilities. Not all have lifeguards on duty, however, so be aware of ocean conditions.
Unless you're on the North Shore during the big wave season of November to April, you'll be amazed at how often these stunning beaches are empty on weekdays.
Insider Tip: If you want to eat at the beach, buy something before you stop. There aren't any concession stands at the beaches, but there are often stores nearby. You could get lucky & find a lunch truck in a beach parking lot, but there's no definitive schedule you can count on.
Note: Be sure to put on sunscreen before spending a lot of time outdoors. The Hawaiian sun packs a punch. Also, please help keep these beaches beautiful by taking your trash with you when you leave.
Hawaii is the first U.S. state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing the coral-harming chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. The new law takes effect on January 1, 2021, but many visitors and locals are already trading in their old sunscreen for safer brands to protect the coral reefs.
2. The Mormon Temple in La'ie
Nestled between Hau'ula and Kahuku, La'ie is known as Hawai'i's Mormon gathering place. Settled in 1865, this remote and windy place was bought by the Latter Day Saint (a.k.a. Mormon) Church. La'ie is now a must-see for many visitors to Hawai'i. The Mormon temple there, built in 1919, was the first Latter Day Saint temple erected beyond the mainland U.S when Hawai'i was still a territory.
The Temple Visitors Center is open to the general public daily from 9 am to 8 pm, and there is no admission fee.
The Brigham Young University-Hawai'i campus is perched right beside the temple. The university is also next-door to the Polynesian Cultural Center. This small, rural area has been developed into quite a center for tourism and education.
3. Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC)
Nicknamed the "PCC," the Polynesian Cultural Center is Hawai'i's most popular paid attraction. In 1963, the Mormon Church opened the 42-acre PCC so that Brigham Young University's (BYU) Hawai'i students could work part-time jobs demonstrating their island cultures to visitors. Over the past 50-plus years, thousands of students have been educated at BYU-Hawai'i, and 70% of current PCC workers attend the university.
At the PCC, you'll spend time in seven villages like those found in the Polynesian islands of Fiji, ancient Hawai'i, Samoa, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. The villages provide a day-long cultural immersion with their traditional Polynesian languages, arts and crafts, music and dance. Visitors move from village to village, and featured shows in each village are timed so that you can visit all seven in a day. Other popular activities at the PCC are canoe rides, Imax Theatre, a daily afternoon Parade of Canoes, a delicious lu'au and one of the most authentic Polynesian night shows you'll ever see.
If your schedule doesn't allow you the time to spend a whole day at the PCC, you can visit the admission-free Hukilau Marketplace with its array of Polynesian-themed restaurants and specialty shops.
4. Malaekahana and Goat Island
In ancient Hawai'i, Malaekahana and the area surrounding it were known as a pu’uhonua or sanctuary. It was a place where those who had broken the law could find safety, refuge, and time for recovery before returning to society.
Spanning more than 30 acres of beachfront, the Malaekahana State Recreation Area is a wooded park on Malaekahana Bay. There are picnic tables and bathrooms with hot water outdoor showers. How many times have you been able to take a hot shower at the beach? There are also campsites for tent camping.
The nearby Malaekahana Beach Campground is privately operated. Campground accommodations include areas for tent camping, vehicle camping, and plantation-style beach cabins. You can also rent surfboards, paddleboards and kayaks. The bay at Malaekahana is a water enthusiast's dream. It's ideal for swimming, bodysurfing and shore fishing.
Goat Island, also known as Moku'auia Island, is only 600 feet offshore and is a seabird sanctuary. Numerous seabird species call this tiny islet their home. When the tide is low, you can make the trek to Goat Island, but be sure to wear a watch. When high tide comes in, it'll be a swim to shore if you've stayed too long. Yikes!
5. The Country Town of Kahuku
Kahuku is just a little blip of a town, but it has plenty of heart. You can saddle up and go horseback riding at several local stables. Drive slowly and look for posted signs, or stop at a store and ask the locals.
In addition to the freshly picked fruits and vegetables offered by roadside farmers, the Kahuku stretch is known for shrimp farms. Choose from a bevy of lunch trucks situated on Kamehameha Highway selling shrimp combo plates. Don't forget to try the 'Coconut Shrimp'. It's divine.
If you’re in Kahuku between September and December, you'll have fun attending a football game at Kahuku High. Kahuku's Red Raiders have extremely loyal lifelong fans and a voraciously active alumni association. In many parts of Hawai'i, high school football is important to island life; many games are televised on local TV and stadiums fill up quickly.
An unlikely neighbor to the quiet country life in Kahuku is the Turtle Bay Resort. An exclusive resort on 850 acres of gorgeous oceanfront property, it has been an iconic landmark on the North Shore since 1972. In addition to more than 400 rooms, beach cottages and ocean villas, the resort also has a championship golf course, restaurants, spas, and access to all types of island tours and ocean sports. The most special feature of Turtle Bay? Every room has an ocean view. And yes, sea turtles come ashore regularly.
6. Waimea Valley
Native Hawaiians have considered this 1,875-acre valley sacred ground for over 700 years. During ancient times, Waimea Valley belonged to the priestly class, and for centuries it was cared for by their descendants. In recent times, the City and County of Honolulu and the Audubon Society cared for the botanical gardens, but in 2006, the Trust for Public Land helped to convey ownership back into the hands of Native Hawaiians. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs and its non-profit, Hi'ipaka LLC, now steward the valley's unique physical and cultural resources.
There is an entrance fee to get into the valley that includes a guided Botanical Garden Tour and a guided Cultural Tour. There is also a nominal fee for a one-way or roundtrip shuttle bus ride from the entrance to Waimea Falls deeper into the valley. You are free to walk around the paths and view the sights at your own pace, making it easy to experience the beauty of Waimea Valley. There are often cultural demonstrations, Native Hawaiian artisans, and hula performances at different points in the valley.
The world-class botanical gardens contain over 5,000 different types of plants from all over the world. Culturally significant sites include the restored Hale o Lono heiau (an agricultural temple).
Be sure to have a camera with you. Bird-watchers should bring their binoculars, and swimmers should bring their suits for a dip in the pool at the base of Waimea Falls. There is staff on duty to watch swimmers, and you can rent water gear and life vests.
There is no other place in Hawai'i like Waimea Valley. It is a popular venue for weddings and other special events. Don't miss a visit to this beautiful place the next time you are on O'ahu!
Only in Hawai'i can you find a little back-country surfing town like Hale'iwa. If you've been to Hale'iwa before, you may or may not like the 2.0 version. It's still the "town that surfing built," but it's a bit gentrified now. A few years ago there was a restoration of the town to upgrade its appearance and bring it into the 21st century. The North Shore Master Plan included the commercial redevelopment of Hale'iwa.
Though it has changed considerably, it's still a fun place to spend a few hours. The old surfing town without sidewalks now has sidewalks, newly repainted storefronts, paved parking lots, a courtyard outside of Matsumoto Shave Ice instead of the dusty lot everybody would park in, and tons of new businesses. So that means more shopping!
The old favorites like Hale'iwa Joe's are still there, and the sought-after lunch trucks are in the same place. My new favorite lunch (or dinner) place is Killer Tacos. They have outstanding food and generous portions. Matsumoto Shave Ice got a facelift inside and out, and its competitor, Aoki Shave Ice, now sports long lines just like Matsumoto does. That must mean more people are coming to Hale'iwa than ever before. So maybe the redevelopment plan is working after all.
While in town, be sure to visit the Surf Museum, browse the art galleries that highlight local artists, and wander through boutiques and souvenir shops. I guarantee you won't leave Hale'iwa without buying something. There are too many intriguing shops and handcrafted items.
Regardless of recent changes, the soul of Hale'iwa has always been surfing and big waves, and this remote village hosts one of surfing's largest competitions, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, each year in November.
Once upon a time, Waialua was a town built around a sugar plantation and mill. Today, it's a serene stop on the bustling North Shore. Inland and away from the beaches, you'll see families together in the community park that is the center of life here. It's a nice place to savor a plate lunch under a shady tree, read a book, or put a blanket down and take an afternoon nap.
Make time to visit the North Shore Soap Factory located in the old Waialua Sugar Mill. It's definitely worth a stop.
Meandering through Waialua heading towards the end of the road known as Ka'ena Point, you'll travel through Mokulē'ia.
Although it's popular with windsurfers and local fishermen, Mokulē'ia Beach has no lifeguards on duty. This is especially important to remember in winter when rip currents abound. These can be dangerous to anyone not well acquainted with the ocean here, so take extra caution.
The Hawai'i Polo Club is the home team at the Mokulē'ia Polo Field and hosts competing teams from all over the world. Starting in late April and continuing through October, this area celebrates polo season.
Dillingham Airfield is primarily used by the military, but it is also a good spot for gliding, skydiving and flying charter groups.
10. Ka'ena Point
Congratulations! You've made it to the westernmost tip of land on O'ahu. That means that you've gone around the northern tip of O'ahu and have veered off to the west. The road stops here and vehicles can't go any further. You can take some nice photos from this spot.
If you want to continue by foot, there is a hiking trail leading to Ka'ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a scenic protected area that is home to native plants and seabirds. Whales are often seen offshore during the winter months.
The weather is usually sunny, hot, and windy; I'd recommend everyone wear a hat and sunscreen and drink plenty of water. Your hike could take one to three hours depending on your pace.
Note: Don't walk too close to the ocean if you are not familiar with the area. Hazardous ocean conditions include strong currents and high waves that can break onshore.
Accommodations on the North Shore of O'ahu
For overnight accommodations on the North Shore, there are numerous Bed and Breakfasts, vacation rentals, a Courtyard by Marriott in La'ie, and the Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku.
How to See O'ahu's North Shore in Two Days
After reading through this article, you may come to the conclusion that there is just too much to see in a single day. In all honesty, you'd be right. If your schedule allows, take two days to visit the North Shore.
I'd recommend starting out early and making your way up the coastline on the windward side of the island (Kailua, Kaneohe and all the sights along the way). The Polynesian Cultural Center in La'ie opens up at noon, so if you time it right, you can make it to La'ie and still have about six hours to experience the Polynesian villages before dinner and the Night Show. If you stay for the Night Show, you'll get out at about 9 pm.
Day two on your North Shore tour can take you past the Pipeline beaches, and still allow you plenty of time to visit Waimea Valley, Hale'iwa, Waialua and Ka'ena Point.
Driving on O'ahu's North Shore
The quickest route to the North Shore from Honolulu is to take Likelike Highway (Route 63) which starts in Kalihi Valley. You'll pass through the Wilson Tunnel and the Ko'olau mountains over to the windward side of the island in about 10 minutes. As you emerge from the tunnel, a beautiful panoramic vista opens up as you look down on the coastal towns of Kane'ohe and Kailua. It'll be tempting to continue a few miles straight toward the ocean, but remember where you're headed...North Shore...North Shore. Just follow the signs that say "North Shore" or "La'ie," and you'll be fine.
Even in the 21st century, there is only one main highway around the island. Kamehameha Highway is well-paved and an easy drive as it winds around the northern part of O'ahu, but don't let the word "highway" fool you. This is a Hawaiian highway, meaning it's still a two-lane road in many places, but a little wider than normal. Relax and be prepared for frequent stops as cars slow down to turn in front of you, and others decide at the last minute to veer off and make a beach stop. In certain areas, cars may even be parked along the side of the highway when beach parking lots are full.
What to Pack for a Trip to O'ahu's North Shore
All you need are shorts, a T-shirt, a bathing suit and towel, rubber slippers, sunscreen, a camera, a bottle of water, and a change of clothes so you can stay for the night show at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Don't worry about packing a lunch. You'll find plenty of stops along the way to taste the local food.
Fodor’s Is the Best Guide I’ve Seen for O’ahu
Even though we all love our cellphones and internet access, there’s nothing like a full-color travel guide that you can take along with you on the road. I love Fodor’s Guidebooks. Whenever I travel to a new city or state that I am unfamiliar with, I look for the Fodor’s guide for that location. Fodor is known for hiring local writers when they are putting together a guide, and it shows in their detailed descriptions of Honolulu and North Shore attractions. I also like their rating system for restaurants, stores, and shopping. The guide also includes many color photos and maps. If you’re anything like me, your Fodor’s O'ahu travel guide will be dog-eared and marked up before long. A sign of an informed traveler.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where is the Hawaiian rainforest hike?
Answer: I'm not sure which hike you are talking about, but here's a link to several popular hikes on Oahu: https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/content/6-great-oah...
The Island of Hawaii (Big Island) has more rainforest than on Oahu. Hope this helps. Aloha, Stephanie
© 2012 Stephanie Launiu