Welcome to Oahu’s scenic North Shore—the Hawaii of your dreams (if you plan it right).
In This Hawaii Travel Article You Will Discover:
- Quintessential North Shore Towns
- Best Places to Eat on the North Shore
- Outstanding Whitesand Beaches
Leave Waikiki to the tourists. You’re visiting Oahu for an authentic experience, not to chow at the Cheescake Factory and browse for duty-free Ray Bans.
Head north, good traveller. While Oahu’s Windward side is lovely, even Kailua was too busy for our weeklong respite this May. The moment we arrived on the lush and quiet North Shore, though, we knew we’d chosen well. This is the Hawaii of your dreams: swaying palms border rolling surf and verdant mountains back whitesand beaches.
Tourists tend to bundle up on the crowded South Shore because the mega-resorts make it all-too-easy. A couple of clicks on Expedia and your vacation is set. Booking a getaway to the North takes a bit more planning. Where to stay? Where to eat? What to do? Read on to discover your dream Hawaiian vacation on Oahu’s North Shore.
(See map at bottom.)
Vacation Rentals are your go-to on the North Shore—in fact, there are only a couple of actual hotels. Look to sites like VRBO and read the reviews of each rental; they’ll often paint a more realistic picture than the listing. Google and/or Apple Maps are excellent resources too—with a little sleuthing, you should be able to find your prospective rental via satellite view. This will give you a good idea—shockingly good, actually—of the actual proximity to the beach or town centre, or even the general condition of the property.
OK, ready to book? Start with these locales:
Laie: Famous for being home to the Polynesian Cultural Centre, Brigham-Young University and the Mormon Temple, Laie is a sleepy, friendly rural town with a quintessentially North Shore vibe. We stayed here for a week and loved it. Laie is best suited for folks who cook most of their own meals and favour early mornings to late nights. There’s a Courtyard Marriott here, if you wish, and it’s also the birthplace of the shaka!
Turtle Bay Resort: The only upscale resort on the North Shore. Stay here if you want a relatively laidback vibe, compared to Waikiki, but crave high-end amenities, fine dining and pool bars. (You may recognize this place as the setting for the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)
Pupukea: Even smaller than Laie, the two reasons to track down a vacation rental here are: Waimea Bay and Pupukea Beach Park. The former is arguably the nicest beach on the North Shore, and the latter has undoubtedly the best shoreline snorkeling on the Island.
Haleiwa: The busiest of all North Shore towns, but still a whisper compared to Waikiki. Rather than chain-stores and high-rises, expect (mostly) Island-owned boutiques and food trucks and a country vibe—which is, unfortunately, why South Shore tourists tend to day-trip here in droves. Stay here if your ideal vacation includes browsing cutesy shops and people-watching from a patio.
Travel Tip: If you like sunrises and early-morning light, stay east of Turtle Bay. If you prefer to sleep in and love to savour sunsets, stay west of Turtle Bay.
Your kitchen, for starters. Make a trip to the local Foodland and stock up for the week. Kona coffee and fresh fruit on our breezy patio each morning was one of our trip’s highlights. Ask your vacation rental manager if they lend out Makai’i Cards for substantial discounts; Costco in Honolulu, near the airport, is el cheapo for booze, if you’re a member.
For on-the-go eats, start here:
Island Vintage Coffee: Yes, it’s a chain, but their cups o’ Kona are decadent and their banana bread is to die for. Multiple locations dot the Island—on the North Shore, look for it in Haleiwa Store Lots.
Coffee Gallery: Located at the south end of downtown Haleiwa, in the North Shore Marketplace, these baristas serve up coffee and baked goods that is every bit as good as their competitor above, but add a quiet covered patio to bolster their case.
Ted’s Bakery: The best mixed-plate lunch I’ve had in the entire state; and I’m still dreaming of the chocolate Haupia pie. We bought some Waimea Buns for sandwiches too, which were top-notch.
Seven Brothers: I’m a hamburger snob, and this place made the cut in spades. I had the Bruce Irons burger with a side of home fries. My only regret is that we just went the once. (Three locations, Laie, Haleiwa and “The Mill.”)
Kahuku Farms: Look for this fruit stand about one kilometre southwest of the turnoff to Turtle Bay Resort. Along with tasty local produce, the fried bananas are unreal. Trust me, you will become an addict. Grab a fresh coconut to rehydrate while you’re there.
Shrimp Trucks: Literally everywhere. And they’re all delish—I enjoyed the garlic shrimp I had at Camaron in Haleiwa and I heard Giovanni’s is also a solid bet.
M. Matsumoto Shave Ice: First tip—it’s “shave ice,” not “shaved ice.” Second tip—it’s basically frozen sugar. I recommend it, with a caveat. Order a delicate flavour, like watermelon, and ask for “a bit less syrup than normal.” On a hot day, this diluted version is a welcome cool-down.
Waimea Farmers Market: There’s a big sign across from Waimea Bay that reads: “Farmers Market, Thursday 2-7.” Ignore this sign—it ends at 6:00 p.m., info we wish we’d had so we could have enjoyed more than a 15 minutes’ browse. Though we didn’t sample much, what we ate was tasty and options abound. (Try the pizza!)
Pa’akai (Turtle Bay Resort): This is pretty much the only option for fine dining on the North Shore. I half-expected boring resort-fare, but was truly impressed by the inventive cookery, attentive service and lovely decor at Pa’akai. We celebrated our week on the North Shore with a grilled Caesar salad, Hawaiian Rancher’s Carpaccio and a Whole Crispy Red Snapper. We practically had to be carried out.
Here, it’s all about beach-life. However, during winter months (October to May), world-record surf rolls in and turns many famous sandy-spots into spectator-only beaches. I mean, you can try to surf at Waimea Bay or Banzai Pipeline in February—but watch this video first. Then decide where your skills are. #EddieWouldGo
Summer brings calmer water to big-wave hotspots; a better time to visit if you fancy more options for beach-hopping. There are just about as many beaches on the North Shore as there are grains of sand on each. Start here, and explore outward:
Laie Beach Park (Pounders Beach): So-named because of the wicked shore-break at the south end, Pounders is where to go to get pipelined on a boogie board. We’re not talking kid’s stuff—take that $10 board you bought at Longs Drugs and it will snap like a matchstick. Looking for a more relaxed swim? Follow the soft sand to the north end—near the old pilings—where the break is gentle and ideal for calm floats, especially in summer.
Hukilau Beach: This crescent of soft sand is a true gem. Usually visited by locals or in-the-know tourists, during the midweek you may just about have the beach to yourself. Expect warm water, rough-and-tumble waves to play in and cool breezes.
Malaekahana Beach: Right next door to Hukilau, head here if you want the cheapest place in Laie to rent stand-up paddleboards or surfboards (available from Malaekahana Beach Campground). Plus, it’s a friendly place to learn to surf in the summer months.
Sunset Beach: I’ll leave you to figure out the most popular time to visit this beach. Located right along the Kamehameha Highway—maybe even a little too close—this is part of the longest uninterrupted stretch of whitesand in the region. Ted’s Bakery is within walking distance, and there are often stand-up paddleboard rentals onsite. Legendary Banzai Pipeline is located just to the south—accessible via stroll from the parking lot at Sunset.
Pupukea Beach Park: Set your expectations high—this is some of the finest shoreline snorkeling in the entire island chain. Go early to beat the crowds. You can rent gear onsite ($16/day); there are locker rentals too. Most people flock to Shark’s Cove at the north end of the park—I snorkeled both there, as well as at the sandier southern section, dubbed “Three Tables,” and found the latter just as good, with fewer crowds, easier walk-in access and nicer spots to lay out afterwards.
Waimea Bay: Famous for brutish big waves in winter, during the dry season, Waimea is the nicest swimming beach on the North Shore. Of course, the secret is out—go early if you expect to find parking. The water is deep and clear, the waves are gentle and there is even a rock to jump from at the south edge of the bay. We spent most of an entire day there and had the sunburns to prove it.
Laniakea Beach (Turtle Beach): I’ve been to three different Hawaiian Islands on five different trips, and only spotted turtles twice. The first was a boat-access snorkel spot off Maui called “Turtle Town.” Oahu’s Laniakea Beach is much more casual—we parked on the Kamehameha Highway and immediately spotted two lumbering reptiles sunning themselves on the rocky shore, with a half-dozen more finning through the shallows. It was almost too easy.
There is so much more to do on, or near, Oahu’s North Shore. For example, check out Kualoa Ranch (Windward Side, a bit touristy, but gorgeous) and the Dole Plantation (Central Oahu, south of Haleiwa, a surprisingly fun way to spend an afternoon), or for active adventure, try the hike to Laie Falls or a jump from Laie Point.
Or, maybe, there’s so much less to do. That’s also a big part of the local vibe—just being mindful and present, immersed in beauty on Oahu’s wondrous North Shore.
Travel Tip: Thieves don’t break your car windows. They wait for you to go swimming, then grab your key-fob to locate your rental car and snatch your valuables. Solution? Keep your keys on your person with the Aquapac Keymaster Waterproof Case.