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 surferworth his salt knows how to get there: The path is next to SunsetBeach Neighborhood Park and across the road from the restaurantwith the giant tiki standing sentry on Kamehameha Highway. Walkdown the sandy track past plumeria trees to the secluded, shadybeach. Right there, for as long as the winter break lasts, you'llfind some of the most radical surfing on the planet.

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

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

Epic surf

During the winter, powerful North Pacific storms send monsterswells south to crash onto the coral reefs of the North Shore.Between November and February, the surf often reaches 12 feet ormore from trough to peak―about triple the average summerheight―and can rise above 30 feet on a handful of days. "Inthe 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 onthe water."

To truly appreciate the majesty of this scene, it helps toimmerse yourself in the local surfing culture before hitting thebeach. Among the vintage photos and exhibits of the North Shore Surf & Cultural Museum, visitors will findbeautiful old balsa boards from the 1950s and images snapped duringepic days of surfing history. At Strong Current, classic surfboards from the '60sby legendaryshapers such as Dewey Weber hang from the ceiling. The shopprovides maps with mileage to surf breaks, and owner John Moorelovesto talk history. Next door, stop for a lemonade and shoestringfries at Kua Aina Sandwich Shop, a laid-back burger palace where thewalls are lined with autographed pictures from notables such as KenBradshaw, who rode the biggest wave ever, an 85-footer.

You probably won't see waves that big at the Triple Crown, butyou might feel the tension building as the first of its threesegments (each of which has both men's and women's events) getsunder way. Each event comes down to a 4-day contest that can takeplace anytime during a 12-day waiting period, when promoters try togauge the surf and pick the best day to start the competition. Thewaiting amounts to extended torture for the contestants, and duringthat time, they migrate to the targeted break to hone theirchops.

The first event is the Hawaiian Pro at Hale'iwa Ali'i Beach County Park (Nov12-23), followed by the Rip Curl Cup at Sunset Beach (Nov 24-Dec 7). The last legfeatures the jewel of the Triple Crown, the Pipeline Masters at Banzai Pipeline (Dec 8-20). Set at perhaps the mostdangerous surf spot in Hawaii, Pipeline's huge, tubular break wasfeatured in recent movies like Blue Crush and Step into Liquid. Pipeline Masters is where top pros likeKelly Slater and Andy Irons go head-to-head on 20-foottop-to-bottom peaks.

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

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

SURFING AND SURF WATCHING

North Shore beaches are extremely dangerous in winter; evenwading can be treacherous. Bring binoculars, sunscreen, anddrinking water; don't leave valuables in your car. For a travelplanner, contact the Oahu Visitors Bureau (877/525-6248 or www.visit-oahu.com).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPETITIONS

Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. Schedule on website is updatedat 7 a.m. daily through mid-December. Vehicle traffic can be heavy;go early and bring drinking water and food. www.triplecrownofsurfing.com 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.

IN HALE'IWA

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 ofboard). 62-595 Kamehameha; (808) 637-9887.

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