A traveler’s guide to surfing Hawaii
Surfing is maybe one of top the things Hawaii is famous for. Hawaii is the world’s surfing mecca, and nowhere else on Earth is the sport more cherished. The Hawaiian Islands are more isolated than any other archipelago, and this distance allows swells to come from all directions. Surfing has played an instrumental role in Hawaiian life for around 1,500 years, and that history flourishes today. From the tsunami-like waves of north shore Oahu to the sparkling waters of Maui, Hawaii is home to the world’s best surf.
For decades, Hawaii has hosted the world’s premier surf competitions that bring the sport’s best to its shores. Many legendary surfers also live in the Hawaiian Islands to catch big waves in their backyard. Surfers who don’t have the luxury of living in Hawaii salivate when staring at 30+ ft swells near the shoreline. Even spectators can feel the contagious energy by watching pro surfers race through picture-perfect barrels from the beach.
If you’re a surfing fanatic like myself, Hawaii is truly the GOAT of surf destinations. Whether you plan on riding the waves of Oahu, Maui, or Kauai, Hawaii is a surfing paradise. There are surf spots for beginners and pro surfers, so you’re guaranteed a thrilling adventure. Read below for more travel tips to plan the ultimate Hawaiian surf vacation.
A traveler’s guide to surfing Hawaii
Hawaii Surf Culture| Hawaii Surfing Social Rules | Hawaii Surfing Tips | Best Hawaii Surf Spots | Famous Surf Spots | Honolua Bay | Hanalei Bay | Kiahuna Beach | Diamond Head Cliffs | Big Wave Surf Spots | Banzai Pipeline | Sunset Beach | Peahi | Waimea Bay | Beginner-Friendly Surf Spots | Populars | Thousand Peaks | Lemon Drops | White Plains Beach |
Hawaii Surf Culture
First time visiting Hawaii? Then maybe you didn’t know this about Hawaii but the sport of surfing is deeply ingrained into Hawaiian culture with it’s long surfing history. Although the ancient beginnings of surfing date to Polynesia, Hawaii is where it became mainstream. Traditional Hawaiian culture held surfing as a sacred practice and even referred to it as the sport of kings. Hawaiian royalty had exclusive access to the biggest swells and frequently practiced the sport.
However, once westerners arrived on the Hawaiian Islands, surfing and other Hawaiian traditions ground to a halt. But the late 19th century witnessed a resurgence in Hawaiian culture that swept across the islands. Duke Kahanamoku played a strategic role in revitalizing surfing to its former glory in Hawaii. Soon after, surfing demonstrations in places like California, Australia, and New Zealand sparked the birth of modern surfing and created hot spots for surfing in California and Australia.
Thus, Hawaii is not only the spiritual home of surfing but where modern surfing first began. Although the sport wouldn’t hit its popularity boom until the 1950s and 60s, it wouldn’t be possible without its Hawaiian roots.
Hawaii Surfing Social Rules
Everyone is eager to catch the next big wave when paddling out on the Hawaiian Islands. Despite the temptation of going after every swell, you must follow the proper surfing etiquette. Failure to adhere to the local protocol could make your Hawaii surfing experience an unpleasant one. When you’re surfing in Hawaii, stick to these basic rules to not overstep your boundaries on the water. Not only does it protect you, but it ensures all surfers around you also stay safe while enjoying the surf. Ost importantly, bide your time, you might have to paddle out many times and not get any waves before you are accepted and granted waves by the locals.
- Only one person gets to ride each wave. The surfer closest to the peak has the right of way.
- Do not drop in and take another surfer’s wave.
- Paddle out away from other surfers when going after your next wave.
- Do not throw your surfboard in the path of other surfers and risk their safety.
In addition to safety rules, there is a code of conduct you must follow. While these ground rules apply in most surf settings, they’re extra important in Hawaii, and breaking them comes with the serious threat of injury as well as retaliation from local surfers. When all surfers abide by these unwritten rules, it ensures everyone has a good time. Before you hit the surf in Hawaii, study these rules to follow surfing etiquette.
- If the surf is too challenging for you, don’t enter the lineup.
- Paddle around the lineup whenever possible.
- Don’t back paddle or cut in line to steal extra waves.
- Never leave your board unless you face a serious risk of injury.
- If you lose your board, you’re responsible for any injuries or damage it causes.
- Beginning surfers should remain out of the lineup and only attempt waves not taken by others.
- If you accidentally drop in on another surfer, safely exit the wave.
- Correct novices who break surfing etiquette and apologize if you accidentally break etiquette.
Hawaii Surfing Tips
It helps to plan ahead and surfing in Hawaii is no different. Before you attempt to paddle out, review these crucial Hawaii surf tips:
- Know the surf seasons – It’s possible to surf year-round in Hawaii, but you should know when to visit according to your skill level. The winter season (October-April) brings fierce swells to the northern shores, while the summer season (May-October) sees bigger waves on the southern shores.
- Stick to a big board – If you’re a beginner, stability will be your best friend. A longer, wider surfboard helps you stay upright when navigating your first waves.
- Start with smaller waves – Although I know it’s tempting, don’t jump the gun and attempt monster waves on your first outing. Head to surf spots where the waves are calmer and less competitive, then work your way up.
- Get a solid rash guard – You’ll be beneath the beaming Hawaiian sun for hours and will surely wipeout many times. Rash guards protect your skin from UV rays, chafing, and abrasions.
- Be mindful of sharks – Although shark attacks are rare in Hawaii, you must be aware of your surroundings. Precautions to take include surfing with others, avoiding dusk, dawn, and night, and staying out of the water with open wounds.
Best Hawaii Surf Spots
With such a diverse selection of surf spots, it’s key to know which ones are suitable for your skills to get your best surfing in Hawaii in. That’s why I’ve divided the best Hawaii surf spots into 3 distinct categories. You have famous surf spots, big wave spots reserved for pros, and beginner-friendly spots for newbies.
Famous Surf Spots
1. Honolua Bay
Honolua Bay has reliable surf and receives some of the largest crowds anywhere in Maui. With its lush coastline and crystal-clear water, it draws many tourists seeking a slice of Hawaiian paradise. But for surfing, its exposed reef is mostly for advanced surfers looking for the insane winter swells. The shallow reef makes it dangerous for newbies, and it’s advised to watch the show. Honolua Bay is also where the women’s WSL final is held each year so that should tell you what level of surf this wave demands.
But those winter storms bring surfers from around the world to Maui to line the rocky shores of Honolua Bay. If you’re itching to visit Maui and experience the action, arrive at the crack of dawn to find a parking spot. For those who find themselves at Honolua Bay during summer, it’s one of the best places in Maui to view marine life.
2. Hanalei Bay
With a dramatic mountain backdrop, Hanalei Bay is the most famous surf spot on Kauai’s North Shore. The half-moon bay attracts both newbies attending surf camp and seasoned surfers riding its larger barrels. Since the beach stretches for about 2 miles, Hanalei Bay produces a wide range of surf conditions for varying skill levels.
More intense sections could witness barrels at heights of 12 feet, while other surf breaks produce waves of 2-3 feet. Strong waves crash into the sandbars, and newbies can watch pros from afar before tackling calmer surf. Since Hanalei Bay features an exposed surf break on Kauai’s North Shore, the winter months can be exhilarating for experienced surfers.
3. Kiahuna Beach
Situated beside Poipu Beach, Kiahuna Beach is a favorite summer surf break on the island of Kauai. It’s among the rare places that offer waves suitable for all skill levels and attracts hefty crowds. The key for surfing novices to remember is sticking to the waves between the reef and coastline. Once you paddle out beyond the reef, you’re entering the more advanced territory.
While it’s exciting watching the intense swells in deeper waters, it’s a recipe for newbies to get injured. Kiahuna Beach has a top-notch surf school next door, and the instructors will teach you the basics. Similar to other spots on Kauai’s South Shore, summer offers the optimal conditions for all surfers.
4. Diamond Head Cliffs
Head to Oahu’s South Shore for the rare chance to finding a Hawaii surf spot suitable for all skill levels. Diamond Head Cliffs are one of several surf breaks just offshore, but its perfect location provides an edge for bigger waves. Its combo of south swells and east wind swells produce primetime surf conditions that draw veteran surfers.
But Diamond Head also witnesses calmer waters that are more suitable for surfers still getting their feet wet. Swells are calmer during the morning, while faster barrels usually start rolling in mid-afternoon. Due to its wave diversity, Diamond Head usually attracts heavy crowds when the surf is up. Surfing etiquette is uber important here, especially in the ripe wind conditions of summer.
5. Banzai Pipeline
Located in Ehukai Beach Park on the North Shore of Oahu, Banzai Pipeline has arguably the sport’s most dangerous waves as well as the most famous ones. Swells in the Banzai Pipeline form perfect barrels and monstrous waves, but near vicious reefs that lurk beneath the water. Wipeouts riding these waves can turn deadly, so only the most experienced surfers should paddle out here. But the chain of reefs produces swells upwards of 25 feet or more that draw surfing’s biggest names to its shores. Names like John John Florence, Makua Rothman, and Kelly Slater have made their mark here on the North Shore.
When winter rolls around, the Banzai Pipeline becomes one of the greatest spectacles in surfing. Winter surf breaks create giant swells that are practically unheard of at most surfing destinations in the world. Wave peaks on the ‘First Reef’ can easily hit heights of 12+ feet, while the Second and Third Reefs in deeper waters reach gargantuan sizes. But it’s an extremely risky endeavour even for pro surfers paddling out at the Banzai Pipeline, and several surfers have tragically died here.
Pipeline or ‘Pipes’ hosts the men WSL finals every year as well as other top-level surf competitions.
Big Wave Surf Spots
6. Sunset Beach
Around 2 miles from Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach boasts a storied reputation for big waves on Oahu’s North Shore. For decades, this surfing gem has hosted competitions that brought the world’s best surfers to its shores. West-to-Northeast swells produce clean waves upwards of 30-40 feet that entertain pro surfers for hours.
But ask anyone familiar with Sunset Beach, and they’ll tell you that winter is when the real surf arrives. Summers at Sunset Beach are lame for experienced surfers, but December and January are when it transforms into one of the world’s surfing meccas. Although the beginning and intermediate surfers should NOT paddle out here in winter, watching the surf competitions is a treat. With coral formations and offshore winds, average surfers risk serious injury at this hallowed Hawaii surf spot.
Nicknamed “Jaws,” Peahi is Maui’s premier spot for big wave surfing. Swells at Jaws Maui are notorious for their unpredictability and can be treacherous for even the most talented surfers. Strong winter swells produce waves upwards of 60 feet and thrilling rides pro big wave surfers dream about. Watching these ginormous waves break off shore is incredible and definitely one of the most interesting things you can do in Maui.
Due to the danger of huge fast-moving waves, surfers only access the surf via tow-in surfing. The technique transports surfers to the waves by jet ski. Big wave surfers from across the globe flock to Jaws in winter for the death-defying swells seen nowhere else. Professional tow-in surfing competitions take place at Jaws, and the nearby cliffs allow surfing fanatics to watch the daredevils in action.
8. Waimea Bay
Skipping back over to Oahu’s famous North Shore, Waimea Bay is another exposed reef break with monstrous waves. Swells can reach heights upwards of 30 feet, and pro surfers lick their chops during the fierce winter months. Northwest swells crash into a lava shelf to produce massive waves near the shoreline. Spectators gather on the shores during winter to watch the sport’s best tackle the rolling barrels offshore.
But it’s not all fun and games for daring surfers who must navigate ferocious rip currents while paddling out. Although other North Shore locations have gained prestige, Waimea Bay holds a special place as the birthplace of big wave surfing. The famous surf break has hosted numerous competitions over the years, and it remains a popular spot for spectators.
Beginner-Friendly Surf Spots
For beginner surfers hoping to soak up the laid-back vibes of Waikiki beach, Populars is the best spot for you. Most waves won’t be over shoulder-high, and more advanced surfers opt for bigger swells. And the lack of competitive surfers creates a more easy-going atmosphere compared to other Waikiki spots. Given its relaxed nature, Populars ranks among my most recommended spots for visitors. You can’t go wrong with that chill attitude that makes Waikiki a surfer’s paradise.
While it’s possible to find long rides any time of year, summer produces the best action on Populars. Once May arrives, you could face overhead waves that could challenge intermediate surfers. But there will be plenty of smaller waves if you’re still learning the ropes. Populars gets quite crowded, but the endless swells give you lots of practice time.
10. Thousand Peaks
If you’re a surfing newbie residing in Maui, Thousand Peaks is a reliable spot to catch your first waves. Aptly named for its endless peaks breaking from both directions, Thousand Peaks has enough space for everyone. While there are plenty of places to wait for breaks, the long paddle out can be tricky for beginners.
Fortunately, Thousand Peaks is a fantastic spot to take surf lessons and find a quiet location away from the crowds. If you’re not into packed surf schools, you could book private lessons to learn the basics. When you’re ready, Thousand Peaks will have long rides suitable for beginning surfers. While summer tends to provide the best conditions, Thousand Peaks is a year-round spot to learn the sport.
11. Lemon Drops
If you’re looking for a low-key spot for beginners only, Lemon Drops is among your best bets. Situated on Poipu Beach, Lemon Drops has gentle waves and a relaxed environment to learn the basics. Poipu Beach boasts a beautiful setting of palm trees and turquoise waters while riding your first waves. There are surf schools near the beach that can teach you tips before you attempt more challenging shores.
Since Poipu Beach is on Kauai’s South Shore, summer produces the ideal surf conditions. While the waves at Lemon Drops won’t eclipse more than a few feet, you’ll get tons of practice. After mastering the basics, you can up your surf game at the nearby PK’s surf spot.
12. White Plains Beach
While the North Shore steals the spotlight for its big wave surfing, its South Shore has more beginner-friendly swells. The slow-moving waves break in each direction, and the vibe is calmer compared to other locations. Although there’s year-round surf, summer brings the most consistent waves to its shores.
The only downside is White Plains can get quite crowded when the surf’s up. However, the number of people here doesn’t compare to the chaos that you’ll see at Waikiki. It’s a great spot for surf lessons, and you can rent equipment for a relaxing day on the water.
Are you looking for big or small waves while surfing Hawaii? Let us know in the comments below.
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