How to Surf on Oahu

Four coastlines. Four swell directions. Though Oahu isn’t the largest island in the Hawaiian chain, it certainly has the widest variety of  setups, capable of handling everything from 50-foot waves to ankle-slappin’ beginner surf as well. 

With so many options, we reached out to Beau Flemister, a former SURFING Magazine editor and talented writer to get his perspective to surfing on Oahu. Raised in Kailua, he’s lived off-and-on Oahu for most of his life.

Of course, diverse surf requires a diverse board selection. You can Awayco at four locations on the island, two of which are walking distance from those crystal clear waves on the south shore. So find your dream stick, slather on that reef-safe sunscreen and get out there!

Surfing on Oahu at a Glance

Fly into: Honolulu International Airport
Drive from: 45 minutes to Haleiwa; 30 minutes to Kailua
Ideal season: For the North Shore, September through May. On the South Shore, March through October
Ideal swell direction: West to Northwest works for the North Shore, and the south shore lights up during south swells 
Ideal wind direction: With four coasts, the wind is always good somewhere. On the North Shore, you want the tradewinds from the east. 
Wetsuit: 1mm vest for the mornings
Budget for a long weekend: $1200
Nearby Awayco locations: Kekoa Collective, The Stokehouse Waikiki, Eric Arakawa Surfboards, Surf Garage
Oahu Fun Fact: Hawaii is very conscientious of its environmental impact use. Oahu is currently phasing out single-use plastics for businesses and restaurants, and the state will have mandatory reef-safe sunscreen by 2021. 

Pipeline — Look but don't touch. Photo: Trevor Moran
Embracing Pipeline. Photo: Trevor Moran

Where to surf

For beginners:
Waikiki is a longboarders dream, with a ton of good, mellow spots, including a fun wave called Canoes. Grab a board from The Stokehouse Waikiki, which is literally across the street from the main strip. 

On the North Shore, there’s Puenna Point and Turtle Bay Resort, but small Haleiwa can be fun as well. There you can ride an Eric Arakawa Stubby or a Sling Shot, both of which have plenty of foam upfront.  

For the advanced:
Up north, Rocky Point is a good option. There’s also Sunset Beach and Laniakea. On the South Shore you’ve got Ala Moana Beach Park and Ala Moana Bowls, Diamond Head. If you’re on the west side, check out Makaha. 

For the experts: 
Pipeline, Backdoor, Off the Wall, Rocky Rights. Maybe Ala Moana Bowls when it gets big. But remember, these are challenging waves breaking on shallow reef. When it’s on, use proper judgment and be sure to check in with the local lifeguards. If you are really committed to going out, we recommend a little paddle power with an Arakawa Stun Gun

Eric Arakawa shop
Legendary North Shore shaper Eric Arakawa has a full range of boards just waiting for you at his Waialua showroom.

Where to stay

There are so many options to stay here, a lot depends on your lifestyle. There are some backpacking spots between Waimea and Sharks Cove, or if you’re a high-roller, the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore is very nice. The Surfjack is a plush hotel in Waikiki that often plays surf movies. They’ve cracked down on Airbnbs on island, so they can be tough to find. 

What to pack in your carry-on 

I swear this is true: If you are flying on Hawaiian Airlines and you give the flight attendants a few items from Trader Joes, they’ll hook it up, give you drinks or whatever. They absolutely love Trader Joes because there are none on island. 

Car or no car?

Yes, with variable swell and weather, conditions change quickly and if you want more options it pays to be mobile. If you want to stick to the North Shore, a bike would suffice.

John John Florence. Photo by Trevor Moran
John John Florence. Photo: Trevor Moran
Sunrise Shack
Hit the Sunrise Shack for your bullet proof coffee with a side of yellow.

Best place for a coffee?

On the North Shore, check out the Sunrise Shack just across from Kamiland. It’s owned by the Smith brothers and Koa Rothman, who you’ll often see hanging around. In Moana, Morning Glass is the call. The owner, Eric, is a really cool guy. 

Best place for a post-shred beer?

Smith’s Union Bar in Chinatown has great karaoke. If you want to make friends, try Encore

Where to eat

Try Olive Tree Cafe, it’s really good Greek food in Kahala. Not to confused with the Olive Garden. 

Good hole in the wall

Be sure to check out Makai Bowls, which served amazing acai bowls in Kailua. Aside from the food trucks on the North Shore, hit up Ted’s Bakery near Sunset Beach for excellent pies, and Cafe Haleiwa has a solid breakfast. Also, Korean barbecue is a popular choice all over the island. 

Kekoa collective
The Kekoa Collective is just across the street from Ala Moana Beach, and has a diverse quiver length of Firewire and Slater Designs.

If you feel like doing something selfless

Sustainable Coastlines is a really cool nonprofit. They organize huge beach cleanups and do a ton of outreach and educational programs all over Hawaii. 

Recommended reading/viewing 

For an interesting history lesson, “Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell is a compelling history of the United State’s annexation for Hawaii. For a dated but still funny deep dive into the local culture, check out Hawaiian comedian Rap Reiplinger’s impersonations on YouTube.  [Editor’s Note: Beau Flemister wrote the only book you need to read about Hawaii, In The Seat Of A Stranger’s Car. He’s just too modest to claim it.]

The surf is flat. What do I do?

If you’re active, there’s plenty of kayaking around, and there’s beautiful hiking all over the island. I recommend the Pillbox hike above Sunset Elementary for an epic view of the entire North Shore. In the summer, you can jump off the rock at Waimea Bay. There’s even skydiving, if you’re so inclined. 

Pillbox hike, North Shore

More to explore

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