Surf's up in blue Hawaii

See the West's biggest waves―and the world's best surfers―at classic beaches along Oahu's fabled North Shore

Alex Salkever

You can't find Rocky Point on standard road maps of Oahu. But every surfer worth his salt knows how to get there: The path is next to Sunset Beach Neighborhood Park and across the road from the restaurant with the giant tiki standing sentry on Kamehameha Highway. Walk down the sandy track past plumeria trees to the secluded, shady beach. Right there, for as long as the winter break lasts, you'll find some of the most radical surfing on the planet.

It all gets started in November, as winter surf begins to build along the island's North Shore and surf pros begin arriving in Honolulu with bags of boards. They've come to tune up for the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, which includes two of the world's biggest back-to-back surf contests. The competitions run through mid-December and draw thousands who watch from the sand; other surfing contests take place as well, occurring almost weekly through mid-January. Still, locals and savvy visitors know that some of the best surfing and surf watching in Hawaii can occur here almost any day.

One good beach is Rocky Point. When the pros want to rip a new aerial or try risky freestyle moves that they haven't perfected yet, they go to Rockies. "At contests, they play it pretty safe," says Guy Pere, a soft-spoken Honolulu lifeguard stationed on the North Shore and an accomplished semiprofessional surfer. "But they risk it all when they are free surfing to try new stuff."

Epic surf

During the winter, powerful North Pacific storms send monster swells south to crash onto the coral reefs of the North Shore. Between November and February, the surf often reaches 12 feet or more from trough to peak―about triple the average summer height―and can rise above 30 feet on a handful of days. "In the winter, you feel this buzz out there in the lineup," Pere says. "The ocean looks different―more alive and moving constantly. The spray from the waves is so thick, it seems like there is fog on the water."

To truly appreciate the majesty of this scene, it helps to immerse yourself in the local surfing culture before hitting the beach. Among the vintage photos and exhibits of the North Shore Surf & Cultural Museum, visitors will find beautiful old balsa boards from the 1950s and images snapped during epic days of surfing history. At Strong Current, classic surfboards from the '60sby legendary shapers such as Dewey Weber hang from the ceiling. The shop provides maps with mileage to surf breaks, and owner John Moore lovesto talk history. Next door, stop for a lemonade and shoestring fries at Kua Aina Sandwich Shop, a laid-back burger palace where the walls are lined with autographed pictures from notables such as Ken Bradshaw, who rode the biggest wave ever, an 85-footer.

You probably won't see waves that big at the Triple Crown, but you might feel the tension building as the first of its three segments (each of which has both men's and women's events) gets under way. Each event comes down to a 4-day contest that can take place anytime during a 12-day waiting period, when promoters try to gauge the surf and pick the best day to start the competition. The waiting amounts to extended torture for the contestants, and during that time, they migrate to the targeted break to hone their chops.

The first event is the Hawaiian Pro at Hale'iwa Ali'i Beach County Park (Nov 12-23), followed by the Rip Curl Cup at Sunset Beach (Nov 24-Dec 7). The last leg features the jewel of the Triple Crown, the Pipeline Masters at Banzai Pipeline (Dec 8-20). Set at perhaps the most dangerous surf spot in Hawaii, Pipeline's huge, tubular break was featured in recent movies like Blue Crush and Step into Liquid. Pipeline Masters is where top pros like Kelly Slater and Andy Irons go head-to-head on 20-foot top-to-bottom peaks.

Of course, the locals know you don't need a contest to get a great surfing show here. As lifeguard Pere will tell you, "The competitions are exciting, but the free surfing on the North Shore is an amazing thing to watch. People just go for it."

Back at Rocky Point, surfers hurry to catch the evening glass-off, when the winds die down and conditions are perfect. Rushing down the path, they hurl themselves into the water to catch what they hope will be the perfect wave. They've come to the right place.


North Shore beaches are extremely dangerous in winter; even wading can be treacherous. Bring binoculars, sunscreen, and drinking water; don't leave valuables in your car. For a travel planner, contact the Oahu Visitors Bureau (877/525-6248 or

1. Hale'iwa Ali'i Beach County Park. A classic right-hand break that's best on days with lighter winds.

2. Lania-kea. On a big north swell, this impressive right-hand wave can be the best on the North Shore.

3. Waimea Bay Beach County Park. On rare days, big-wave warriors gather to ride 50-foot faces. Good viewing from cliffs above and the beach below.

4. Off the Wall. Favorite spot for hot-dog surfing 100 yards west of Banzai Pipeline.

5. Banzai Pipeline. Barreling right and left waves break very close to the beach; park at 'Ehukai Beach County Park.

6. Rocky Point. This high-performance left and right break is just yards from shore; good only on medium-size surf days.

7. Sunset Beach. A big, long right that breaks far out; the best place to see graceful carves on gigantic faces.


Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. Schedule on website is updated at 7 a.m. daily through mid-December. Vehicle traffic can be heavy; go early and bring drinking water and food. or (808) 638-7700.

Other contests. Check with surf shops on the North Shore; lifeguards usually know where the pros are practicing. Surf report and competition information: (808) 596-7873.


Kua Aina Sandwich Shop. 11-8 daily. 66-214 Kamehameha Hwy.; (808) 637-6067.

North Shore Surf & Cultural Museum. 11-6 Wed-Mon. 66-250 Kamehameha Hwy., North Shore Marketplace; (808) 637-8888.

Strong Current. 10:30-6:30 daily. 66-208 and 66-214 Kamehameha; (808) 637-3406.

Surf-n-Sea. Lessons at mellow breaks. 9-7 daily; $69 for three-hour group lessons (includes use of board). 62-595 Kamehameha; (808) 637-9887.

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