In ancient Hawaii, the sport of surfing was a sacred activity reserved for royalty and kings. Though commoners were still allowed to surf using small, lightweight boards, the best surf breaks with the largest waves were strictly for the use of the ali’i (chiefs), whose olo boards were reputed to measure as long as 24 feet. With the arrival of European missionaries, however, the sport of surfing was heavily discouraged for its ties to traditional culture. Fewer Hawaiians continued to surf, and for a tenuous period of about 100 years it appeared that surfing might die. As the missionary influence faded, however, and the Kingdom of Hawaii was controversially overthrown and annexed as a United States territory, the sport of surfing gradually regained prominence to become the sport that it is today.
Everywhere you seem to look in Hawaii, from the heart-shaped shore of Hanalei to the rocky coastline of Hilo, there are young groms (kids) and experienced adults who have a passionate view on surfing. Visitors, too, can get in on the fun by taking surfing lessons in Hawaii, but perhaps the most thrilling way to experience this sport is to watch the surfers who famously “ride mountains.” With the recent advances in board technology and the advent of jet-ski assisted tow surfing, surfers in Hawaii are now tackling waves of 70 feet or higher. In some cases, bearing witness to this level of aquatic courage can be more exciting than riding the wave yourself.
Before you get too excited, however, it’s imperative to understand that the largest waves only occur during the months of November-April. The 30- or 50- or 70-foot waves which grace the covers of magazines are only found on the north shores of the islands and only make appearances during the winter. In the summer months of May-September, the north shores of the islands are completely flat and the surf can be found on the south shore. While the surf in the summer can occasionally get large and grow to 12 feet or more (see photo below), the best places to watch big wave surfing is along the famous north shores of the islands. Should you find yourself traveling during the winter, however, and want to experience the heart-pounding excitement of watching the world’s best watermen, the following are some of the best places to watch big wave surfing in Hawaii.
OahuMore so than any other island, the island of Oahu is the global mecca for watching big wave surfing. The stretch of shoreline from Haleiwa to Turtle Bay is so perfectly aligned towards the northwest winter swells, and offers so many different breaks in such a relatively small area, that surfers have dubbed it the “Seven Mile Miracle.” Every surfer who has ever waxed a board dreams of surfing the north shore of Oahu, although with waves this powerful and the world’s best surfers all vigorously vying for the waves, the overwhelming majority of visitors will only watch from shore.
Of all the surf breaks on the North Shore of Oahu, Waimea Bay is where you have the best chance of seeing the largest surf. This is the site of the Eddie Aikau Invitational, a surf competition featuring 28 of the best big wave surfers who hail from all corners of the globe. The catch with watching “the Eddie,” however, is that the contest is only held when the waves at Waimea reach a minimum of 30 feet. The conditions have to be exactly right for the competition to commence, and there have only been eight years that the Eddie has been held since its inception in 1984. The holding period for the Eddie is from December 1 until the last day in February, so if you happen to be visiting during a huge winter swell and it’s determined that the Eddie is a go, fight the traffic to the North Shore of Oahu to be part of one the surfing world’s largest spectacles.
Other than Waimea and the fabled Eddie, Ehukai Beach Park is the next best place for watching big wave surfing on Oahu. This is the site of “Banzai Pipeline,” and what makes this wave so exceptionally dramatic is how it breaks so close to the sand. When compared to a place such as Sunset Beach where the waves break much farther out, the wave watching at Ehukai is far superior to anywhere else on the North Shore. In terms of when to visit, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing is held from November 12-December 20 and takes place along this stretch of the North Shore. While the crowds and the traffic can definitely be a deterrent, this is your chance to watch the world’s best surfers tackle some of the world’s best waves. Or, if you would simply prefer to see some large surf and watch locals instead if professionals, places such as Makaha on the west shore of Oahu can get waves of 20 feet or higher.
MauiWhile Maui might not have the level of fame as the fabled North Shore of Oahu, there is one trump card that Maui is holding in the arena of big wave surfing: Jaws.
Also known by the Hawaiian name Pe’ahi, “Jaws” is a wave on the north shore of Maui that can make Oahu waves look like mere ripples. Due to the way that the offshore trenches are aligned in a certain pattern, the wave here can grow to over 70 feet when surrounding breaks barely top 30. If you plan to watch the surfers at Jaws, however, you better cross your fingers that you visit during a time when a large winter swell rolls through. The wave at Jaws only comes to life a handful of times per winter, and be sure to bring binoculars or a telephoto zoom since you have to watch from the top of a cliff.
For a more consistent chance of watching big waves when visiting Maui in the winter, Ho’okipa Beach Park near the town of Paia can get waves of nearly 30 feet, and it’s also one of the best places to watch windsurfing on Maui. On the northwest shore of the island closer to Ka’anapali and Kapalua, Honolua Bay is one of the island’s best waves and a favorite of Maui surfers. This long, barreling, right-hand point is three miles north of Kapalua, and you can get panoramic views from the top of the cliff which looks out over the bay.
KauaiMuch like the islands of Oahu and Maui, it’s the north shores of Kauai which see the largest surf and are the best for watching big wave surfing. The waves on Kauai can be a little more raw since they are closer to the source of the storms, and while the surf on Kauai can be just as good (if not better) than the surf on neighboring Oahu, the local surfers of the “Garden Isle” aren’t quick to advertise its perfection.
For visitors who want to watch big wave surfing the easiest place is Hanalei Bay. This long stretch of sand is backed by lush mountains that rise dramatically into the blue sky, and the horizon is often frothing in whitewash thanks to the point where ocean meets reef. For an elevated perspective of the waves at Hanalei, consider venturing out towards the St. Regis Resort and the cliffside overlooks of Princeville. Many of the best offshore reefs on Kauai are a long distance out from the shoreline, so the elevated perch of standing on the bluffs makes a better vantage point for viewing.
Traveling farther west towards the end of the road and the start of the Na Pali coastline, the “Cannons” surf break past Ha’ena Beach Park has been called the “Pipeline of Kauai.” This barreling wave breaks close to shore and is a favorite of Garden Isle chargers, and this is a good place to get a photo of surfers while standing safely on the shoreline.
Big Island of HawaiiYes, the Big Island of Hawaii gets its fair share of very good surf, but due to shadowing from the other islands, and surf spots which are exceptionally remote, the Big Island of Hawaii isn’t one of the best places to watch big wave surfing in Hawaii. Nevertheless, as long as you aren’t looking for 40 foot waves which are visible from an easy vantage point, there are still a number of standout spots to watch some scintillating surf.
Since the Kona coastline of the Big Island of Hawaii faces nearly due west, there can actually be surf during all months of the year — though the winter will still be larger. South of Kona, “Banyans” is one of the most popular surf breaks of experienced locals and professionals. “Pine Trees” is a spot located close to the airport that breaks pretty far out from shore, and on the largest of west swells during the winter months, “69 Point” at Waialea Beach can occasionally see 10-foot surf. On the east shore of the island, not far from Hilo, Honoli’i Beach Park is the best best for watching big surf in Hilo. The waves here can be warbly and windy since they are exposed to the easterly tradewinds, but the local surfers seem to make the best of the large, challenging conditions.
These of course, are just a handful of places where you can find big wave surfing in Hawaii, and if you remember one thing from all of this info, it’s that the best places to watch big wave surfing in Hawaii are almost all along the northern facing shores. Be sure to pack a fully charged camera battery and slather on layers of sunscreen, because watching the world’s best big wave surfers is an activity that is tough to leave.