Oahu’s North Shore
Rich History & Beautiful Beaches
Oahu’s North Shore is most famously known as the birthplace of big wave surfing, but it has much more going on than just beaches and surf. A one hour drive from bustling Waikiki, this side of the island is the quintessential meaning of the local phrase “country.” This side of Oahu has a unique charm of old Hawai’i mixed in with the new. The North Shore, steeped in ancient mo’olelo (stories and history), has an exceptional grace and beauty that has been enjoyed for centuries!
There are plenty of things to see and do on the north shore. There are two directions in which to get to the north shore with the shortest being Kamehameha Highway which crosses Oahu’s central plains, passing the Dole Plantation and Haleiwa Town. This route is about an hour from Waikiki. The other takes longer but passes some of the most beautiful beaches on the island along the windward coast. From Waikiki highway 63 leads to highway 83 which follows the coast to the north shore. On this roughly two hour route, you’ll pass by Chinaman’s Hat, a famous offshore islet, the Polynesian Cultural Center, numerous restaurants and food trucks before arriving at the beaches and surf of the north shore.
The North Shore of Oahu has been inhabited since around 1000 A.D. The mountain valleys and streams produced fertile lowlands for the main crops of sweet potatoes and taro to flourish. The uplands contained forests of large Koa and Ohia trees for canoe and house building and the ocean waters provided fish for a plentiful food supply. Places like Waimea Valley were prized by ancient Hawaiians becoming reserved for the highest class of the society – the priests.
Hawaiian scholars believe that by the early 1200s A.D. voyagers from Tahiti began a steady migration back and forth to Hawaii bringing with them resources of foods as well as chiefs, high priests and warriors. Some say they invaded and overpowered the existing population while introducing a religion that made chiefs gods and wars a way of life. The Hawaiian settlements expanded to thrive in nearshore land and river junctions such as Waimea Valley and the Anahulu river at the eastern end of Waialua Bay which is today the town of Haleiwa.
Core samples from north shore ponds reveal a very high carbon footprint (charcoal from fires) by the late 1200 A.D. As the warrior society from Tahiti grew, villages and districts banded together to form chiefdoms for their own for protection. Throughout 600 years, entire islands, once fractured enclaves of chiefs and villages, would become ruled by individual kings. It is said these Ali’i Nui (high chiefs) would wage war with each other off and on for nearly 100 years during the 1700s. With the arrival of European and American ships, weapons would be plundered and bought by Kamehameha and his rivals in a renewed bid to rule the archipelago.
The first foreigners to set foot on Oahu were from Captain Cook’s ships returning from Hawai’i Island were the captain had just been killed at Kealakekua Bay weeks earlier. Captain Clerke, now in command, stopped at Waimea Bay in 1779 for water and provisions.
The first western settlement on the north shore was established by Protestant missionaries in 1832 who arrived aboard a Hawaiian built schooner. They created homes and a church within the native village. The church would eventually take the name Queen Liliuokalani Protestant Church, who was Hawaii’s last monarch and Hawaii’s only ruling Queen. In the 1830s the church was also attended by Kamehameha’s former high priest Hewahewa, who was living in nearby Waimea Valley.
After the death of Hewahewa in 1837 the rule of high priests came to a close. By 1850 Hawaiian society was moving away from absolute rulers and towards private ownership of lands and resources. Known as the “Great Mahele,” it instituted the western system of land titles and deeds. The missionaries helped the native Hawaiians secure their claims to the land called kuleana plots. Most all claims were achieved including Hewahewa’s granddaughter, Paalua, claim to Waimea Valley.
However, introduced diseases and famine reduced the native population from nearly 8,000 in 1832 to 1,100 by 1860 per annual missionary reports. Sugar plantations began to replace the native farms of taro and sweet potatoes along with rice farming and cattle ranching.
Oahu’s North Shore
The Waialua Sugar Plantation became the largest of three sugar plantations in the area and began its north shore operation in 1865 but soon failed. The plantation, sold in 1874, struggled with getting their sugar product to the steamships in Honolulu because of its remote location. The struggling plantation was sold to the large sugar corporation Castle & Cooke in 1898. They built a new mill along with a substantial surface water storage system which would produce the largest water storage capacity in the island chain. The company soon expanded its acreage and the newly built railway system, started in 1889, would extend from Honolulu to Haleiwa by 1897 enabling the transportation of sugar to Honolulu as well as passengers and freight from Honolulu.
The Oahu Railway and Land Company’s (OR&L) owner, Benjamin Dillingham, would build Hawaii’s first and finest grand Victorian resort hotel on the north shore in 1899. Dillingham named the hotel Haleiwa, which means “house of the iwa” (“iwa” is a Hawaiian frigate sea bird).
A weekend getaway to the “country” (an affectionate term for the north shore) from Honolulu to the Haleiwa Hotel cost $10 and included an overnight stay at the hotel, a carriage ride to the nearby town of Wahiawa in touring the pineapple plantation and a trip through the Waialua Sugar Plantation and its state of the art steel fabricated sugar mill. With the best water infrastructure in the islands, the north shore would sustain 10,000 acres of sugar cane production for nearly 100 years. The Waialua Plantation ceased sugar production in 1996.
Ultimately Waikiki would win the tourism battle, and the Haleiwa Hotel would shut down in 1943. However, the community that had built up around the hotel would formally take the name “Haleiwa” for itself.
Dole Pineapple Plantation
The history of pineapples on the north shore is the story of James Drummond Dole. He arrived on Oahu in 1899 and bought a 64-acre homestead near Wahiawa. After experimenting with several crops, he determined that pineapple cultivation was perfect for the north shore’s central plains. He would go on to corner the worldwide pineapple market with the most significant acreage of pineapples ever known, making his name synonymous with many different types of canned and frozen fruits and foods to this day.
Today the Dole Plantation sits on a portion of his pineapple fields minutes away from Haleiwa. It is one of the most popular visitor attractions on the island. It hosts the world’s largest outdoor maze, has an extensive store and snack shop and runs a narrow gauge train like the ones used decades ago by the Oahu Railway.
Both the sugar and pineapple farms would grow the north shores population as Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers created homes and communities alongside the Hawaiian families who have lived on this stunningly beautiful part of the island for centuries.
North Shore Oahu
In the early 1900s, the town of Haleiwa grew from a sleepy seaside village into an Oahu landmark with visitors steadily arriving by train. By the 1940’s Haleiwa was becoming the largest commercial center on the north shore and a popular destination for tourist, military personnel and residents alike. When the Japanese attacked on December 7th, 1941, two pilots were able to get their P-40 Warhawk fighter planes into the air from Haleiwa Airfield and managed to shoot down six enemy planes. Today it has been replaced by nearby Dillingham Airfield which is a popular airfield for skydiving enthusiasts.
Today the town has a lot of character with many of its old plantation building being preserved. Today the old buildings house gift shops, art galleries, restaurants, a grocery store, and surf shops. The town sits on a bay fed by the Anahulu River. The “rainbow” shaped bridge crosses the river in town, and a boat harbor and huge beach park make this a popular place to fish, surf (the nearshore break is suitable for beginners) and paddle boarding up the river.
On our circle island tour, we make a stop in this village for some great treats, like shaved ice and even lunch at Haleiwa Joes.
Maximum 12 Guests Per Tour Guide!
Most famous for its surfing, the north shore has some other activities happening throughout the year. Examples are hiking, snorkeling, shark cage diving, skydiving, kayaking, scuba diving, golfing and plenty of surf schools and lessons. There are also lots of food and treats at places in Haleiwa as well as multiple food trucks with items like shrimp and shave ice. Spots to visit include Dole Pineapple Plantation, Haleiwa Town, Waimea Valley and waterfall (you can swim under the waterfall here) and Turtle Bay Resort for a nice lunch or a round of golf.
Famed Sights & Experiences
The north shore has become one of the most iconic surf locations in the world. Known as the 7-mile miracle, Kamehameha Highway winds it’s way past some of the most famous beaches in Hawai’i. The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau estimates that over 3 million people visit the north shore each year. The North Shore’s enormous waves roll in from November to around March, but throughout the rest of the year, there is excellent swimming and snorkeling along this coastline too! Always remember to use “Reef Safe” sunscreen as it is now required by law.
Here are a few of the most popular beaches along the north shore that are worth a visit. Though there are multiple other coves and beaches to explore these are the most accessible with beach park facilities and parking. Starting from Kamehameha Highway (shortest route to the north shore from Waikiki) at Haleiwa, we list for you some of the main beaches and parks.
Located in front of the town of Haleiwa, Alii Beach Park is a sizeable 19-acre park and small boat harbor. The park is a favorite with residents with its large grassy area and plenty of picnic areas. In the winter months, the surf can churn up this beach making swimming here difficult. There are some surf breaks here with smaller waves close to shore and bigger ones farther out. During the summer months, the water is much calmer, and this beach park becomes popular with visitors and residents who enjoy surfing, kayaking, boating, fishing, and diving.
Opening to the sea at the mouth of this historic valley, Waimea Beach is famous for its 30-foot waves in the winter. It is one of the locations for the Vans Triple Crown surf competition and is also known for the Eddie Aikau Big Wave surf competition. Eddie was a famous north shore lifeguard whose family lived in the valley for decades, possibly even centuries! He was lost at sea in the late 1970s after the famous double-hulled voyaging canoe Hokulea capsized off Molokai and Eddie paddled away to get help. He was never seen again prompting the term “Eddie would go” still seen on bumper stickers and clothing today.
During the summer the water calms at Waimea and becomes a great swimming, snorkeling and diving location. The parking lot is small so get there early. Restrooms, picnic tables, showers, and a lifeguard round out the amenities at this beach park.
This 80-acre beach park is a Marine Life Conservation District of tide pools teeming with fish and coral. The tide pools are protected by a natural rock wall making for calm waters in the summer which feels like you’re swimming in an aquarium! Winter months can be treacherous here though as the large surf washes over the outer wall causing strong currents within the tidepools. Nearby Sharks Cove is also a great snorkel and dive spot in the summer. A small parking lot, restrooms and outdoor showers are here but no lifeguard. The marine life and visibility here in the summer rivals Hanauma Bay but is much less crowded than the popular east shore destination.
Ehukai ( means “sea spray” in Hawaiian) Beach is home to the world-famous Banzai Pipeline, a deep barreling surf break that can reach over 30-foot high in the winter months. Where Waimea Bay breaks offshore when the surf is big, Pipeline breaks closer to shore making it one of the most popular for watching the annual surf competitions. This is a dangerous beach in the winter with lifeguards well trained at treating broken bones! Calmer waters prevail in the summer with swimming and shade trees for picnics. The 1.2-acre beach park has some parking, but the whole area becomes quite congested (roadside parking is crowded too) when the surf is big, especially during surf competitions so arrive as early as you can.
Just past Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline) is Sunset Beach, a two-mile stretch of sand right next to Kamehameha Highway. Along with Waimea and Pipeline, this surf break is part of the Vans Triple Crown Surfing Contest during the winter months. First surfed in the 1940s, it gained fame in the 1960s as it featured in almost every surf film of the era. Today surfers come from around the world to test their metal at this famous break.
The 15 to 30-foot surf breaks quite a ways offshore here in the winter so if you’re visiting during competitions bring a pair of binoculars if you can. Parking is plentiful in the large (for the north shore) parking lot, and on most weekdays it’s easy to find a spot. But often on weekends or during surf competitions it can get downright impossible to find a place even to pull over. Again, the earlier you arrive, the better the parking.
In the summer this beach is a beautiful spot to bring the family for picnics, swimming, and beachcombing. The sandy bottom turns the water an incredible turquoise blue. Just be aware that the steep incline of this beach falls pretty quickly close to shore. This can create an undertow which can be a struggle. A beautiful pinnacled reef provides excellent snorkeling father out.
Last but not least are the sunset! Face west on this shoreline, and you’ll be looking straight down the beach. During the golden hour, the beach is framed overhead with colorful clouds as the sun sinks into the ocean. In the winter months, the sun sets a bit behind the mountains for a time and weather can block the actual view of the sun setting but even then Hawaiian sunsets are always colorful!
The main feature on this eastern end of the north shore is the 858 acre Turtle Bay Resort. Perched on a small peninsula and flanked by cove beaches on either side there are some five miles of oceanfront here. And yes, there are turtles. The Hawaiian name for these animals is “honu,” and they can be seen in the water and basking on the beaches near the resort.
Remember always to be respectful of the honu (sea turtles). Do not touch or harass these federally protected animals and keep at least 15 feet away. Don’t block their access either to or from the ocean and if they are on the beach avoid making loud noises or using flash photography.
The 410 room resort has ocean views in every room while back on the property are 42 cottages and numerous larger two bedroom and four bedroom Ocean Villas. Aside from the beaches of Turtle Bay and Kuilima Cove next to the resort, some others within walking distance are often secluded and empty. Stables Beach and Kawela Bay are farther away and are favorite turtle viewing spots. Kayak tours to these areas are popular.
Beach chairs and snorkel gear are provided for registered guests. Public access is granted (by law), and snorkeling, diving, and surfing can be good in the right conditions.
at Turtle Bay Resort
The resort also hosts two beautiful golf courses that can be enjoyed by players of any skill level.
The Arnold Palmer Course
Opened in 1992 the Arnold Palmer Course winds its way around the Punaho’olapa Marsh, a 100-acre wetland and bird sanctuary. Water comes into play on 14 of the 18 holes with fairway and green side bunkering. With five tees most players can manage the water hazards, and the back tees (making it a 7000+ yard course) will challenge even the best players.
The George Fazio Course
Opened in 1972 the George Fazio Course is a more compact 18 holes and generally more forgiving than the Palmer Course. Both nines have beautiful ocean views and are a favorite walking course with a flat layout and shorter holes with few forced carries over hazards. It still is an excellent test for golfers as this course hosted the LPGA Hawaiian Open and the first Champions Tour Skins Game. Arnold, Sam Snead, Gary Player, and Chi Chi Rodriguez have all played here.