Oahu's Ultimate North Shore Road Trip
So you get to Oahu, you pick up your rental car and you’re ready to go. You want to explore and see what this island has to offer. It may be a small rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but don’t let that fact discourage you – there’s plenty of opportunity for the road trip of a lifetime. But where do you begin? How about a road trip on Oahu's North Shore? As a local that grew up here in Hawaii, I’ll give you my best personal recommendations and more in our Guide to Oahu's Ultimate North Shore Oahu Road Trip.
Oahu's North Shore
On one side, it’s a huge draw for visitors and locals alike, on the other hand it’s a dynamic and ever-changing beast, and the traffic can be a bit unpredictable. However, there are some indicators you can use to optimize your experience. For instance, the waves can get HUGE in the winter and that will drive a ton of traffic to the North Shore. You can check the surf report in advance on Surfline to determine if the waves are going off. On the flip-side, if it’s the middle of the summer, the crowds can still be large despite the small waves because kids are on summer break and many families like to head out to the North Shore to relax.
Surfing on North Shore Oahu | photo by Daniel Ramirez
Best time to Plan Your North Shore Road Trip
Ideally, the best time to drive to the North Shore is in the Fall or Spring, when the crowds tend to be smaller. But, if you’re traveling in the dead of winter or summer, don’t fret! If you head towards the North Shore early (before 9:00 a.m.) you can usually beat the crowds (especially if it’s a weekday). You may even get lucky and have the whole beach to yourself.
So you’re finally on your way and approaching the mythical land of waves, white sand beaches, and palm trees. Time to get together a plan so that you can have an edge over all the other tourists who decide to just wing it. I’m gonna break down the this ultimate North Shore road trip guide into three categories: what to eat, what to see, and what to do.
Best Local Food Choices for Your North Shore Road Trip
The island's North Shore is wonderland for foodies and hipsters alike – it’s fit with farm-to-table restaurants, vintage eateries, iconic hole-in-the-walls, and legendary food trucks. You can find your everyday American staples like burgers, steaks, and pizza – but you’re in Hawaii! Now’s the time to step out of your food “comfort zone” and try something new.
If you like seafood, then I have two must-try recommendations.
The first is a poke bowl: a Hawaiian take on a Japanese dish, it’s a simple blend of raw fish cubes (most often fresh caught ahi tuna) and fresh ingredients like soy sauce (shoyu), maui sweet onions, sesame oil, and fish eggs. Poke is served over a fresh bed of hot white rice, thus completing the poke bowl. This delicacy comes in many varieties and flavors, like octopus (tako) poke, spicy-mayo poke, and California roll poke – feel free to try them all! Also, if you don’t want to look like a tourist, make sure to ask for poke-eh, not poke-ee.
The cheapest and best option for poke in my opinion is at Foodland. It’s just a grocery store, but you can get fresh, local poke by the pound (I recommend a half pound) and a scoop or two of rice for less than $10. Don't worry, during your North Shore road trip there's a Foodland for you to try. You'll find it across the street from Shark's Cove.
Try another Local Delicacy
Our second recommendation is garlic Kahuku shrimp. There are multiple shrimp farms in Kahuku which means you can get the freshest shrimp money can buy! The best way to do this is to go to one of the many food trucks in Kahuku. My favorite is Romy’s (the big red one). However, the line here can be daunting, so make sure to call in your order in advance to save a ton of time! Their garlic shrimp plate is delectable and loaded with delicious garlic butter. Eating one of these plates is for sure a “hands on” experience and can get really messy, so try not to wear your favorite shirt!
Do you prefer terrestrial meat like chicken? then you HAVE TO give huli huli chicken a try! It’s basically rotisserie smoked chicken, but it’s the pineapple based marinade that makes it irresistible. My personal favorite is Ray’s, which is outside near Malama Mart.
Garlic Shrimp in Kahuku
Healthier and Vegan Options
If fruits and veggies are more of your thing, then I have some vegetarian and vegan friendly recommendations for you!
While in Kahuku, you can find food trucks and farm stands vending fresh, local fruits and veggies. A must try is grilled corn from Uncle Woody’s BBQ Corn stand near Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. Get your corn cob rolled in garlic butter, salt, and pepper, or baja style with mayo and parmesan. You can’t go wrong either way – it’s the best corn I’ve ever had the honor to taste!
At the farm stands you can try tropical fruits like pineapples, coconuts, papayas, lilikois (Hawaiian passion fruit), guavas, and avocados. In my opinion, Hawaii produces the tastiest, creamiest avocados in the world. If you’re an avocado lover, I compel you to get one! Otherwise, give a lilikoi or guava a taste! A local favorite snack is to put li hing mui (a sweet and sour powder) on fruits like mango and pineapple. It’s not for everyone, but you should give it a try!
Feeling trendy and hipster? Then you might want to get an acai bowl (it’s okay, I won’t judge you for taking Instagram pics). While acai bowls aren’t unique to Hawaii, the North shore sure does it right! My personal favorite acai bowl places are Banzai Bowls and Haleiwa bowls. It really comes down to personal preference, but Banzai Bowls is a little bit cheaper while Haleiwa Bowls are more aesthetic. Give either (or both) of them a try!
Matsumoto Shave Ice
What's For Dessert?
Finally, when you’re ready for desert in the warm Hawaiian sun, you gotta get some shave ice! It’s a world-famous Hawaiian classic, and the perfect compliment to a hot day.
If you didn’t know already, shave ice (often mistaken as shaved ice) is kind of like a snow cone but way better! Try a new flavor like pineapple coconut or guava. When you're feeling adventurous, get it with ice cream in the middle or snow caps (condensed milk) and li hing mui powder on top! When you see a long line at Matsumoto’s, then try Aoki’s for a similar taste with a much shorter wait time! However, some would argue that Matsumoto's is worth the wait.
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Amazing Must See Sights in the North Shore
So now you’re well fed and ready to go sight seeing while your food digests – I don’t blame you! While I highly recommend the more interactive experiences that North Shore Oahu has to offer, there are some sights to be seen.
What is the North Shore most known for? World-class surfing!
Hands down, if you get the chance to witness a surfing competition, DO IT! I can’t express how thrilling surf competitions on the North Shore are! Surfing professionals from all around the world come together at iconic spots like Haleiwa, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay. The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing is the main competition series held on the North Shore, consisting of three events: the HIC Pro at Sunset Beach, the Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa, and the Vans World Cup of Surfing. The world tour of surfing and the Triple Crown culminate with the Pipe Masters event at Pipeline. Keep in mind, these events are reserved for winter when the swells are just right.
Additionally, every few years when the waves get extraordinarily big the Eddie Aikau surfing competition is held at Waimea Bay. If you’re lucky enough to be on the North Shore during an ‘Eddie’, you better run to the beach! The only downside is that parking at Waimea Bay is a challenge on normal days– during the Eddie, consider hitchhiking from your hotel! (no joke brah).
But what if it’s the middle of summer and there aren’t any waves? I got you covered!
A spot I just recently found out about is the Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau. This historic landmark is may look like no more than a series of rock walls now, but 250 years ago it was a major temple on Oahu.
This site is worth stopping at for more than just the history. From the heiau there is a stunning view of Waimea Bay and Waimea Valley below. You will have an incredible vantage point of the Waimea River, running from the back of the valley to the river mouth at Waimea Bay. There is also a small walking path around the heiau if you want to get a bit of exercise while you soak in the surrounding beauty.
RELATED: Winter on Oahu's North Shore
Fun and Exciting Activities on the North Shore
Planning to do more than just sight see or eat? The North Shore still has more in store for you! Being a tropical paradise, if you’re on the North Shore you should be in the water. Want to try your hand at surfing but it’s your first time or you aren’t super comfortable in the ocean? Then you should make your way to Pua’ena Beach Park. Larger waves will break really far out, but the inside (waves closer to the shore) will remain small. Additionally, you can rent surfboards from one of the vans parked in the parking lot– super convenient! I would personally choose Pua’ena over Waikiki for surfing because there will be far less of a crowd.
If surfing isn’t you’re thing but you still want to go to the beach, Waimea Bay is a great option for all! The waves can be dangerous in the winter, but the water is generally calm and safe in the summer. There’s lots to do at Waimea, but the most popular activity for locals and visitors alike is cliff jumping off of the 30 foot rock jutting into the water. If 30 feet is too high for you or anyone in your group, there are lower ledges on the rock to jump off of – some of them as low as a couple of feet.
Cliff Jumping at Waimea Bay
More Water Activities
In addition to cliff jumping, you can also swim, stand up paddle board, kayak, and snorkel. Get there early enough in the morning (especially on a weekday) and you can try to find parking in the beach park’s parking lot. If the parking lot is full you can park on the street going back towards Haleiwa Town. But if the free options are totally full, you can pay $5 cash to park at the church across the street or pay to park at the entrance to Waimea Valley.
You can finish off the best day you’ve ever had by watching the nicest sunset you’ve ever seen – at, you guessed it, Sunset Beach! There’s a parking lot across the street with restrooms and you shouldn’t have too hard of a time finding a spot. Don’t forget your beach towel and some sunglasses, then sit back, relax, and reflect on everything you did while the vibrant reds, yellows, and pinks reflect off the warm, blue ocean in a magical combination… too good to be true.
PaulT (Gunther Tschuch), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Shaka Guide’s Grand Circle Island Tour and Legendary North Shore Loop makes it easy to see all of Oahu's North Shore while hearing the stories and history that will truly enrich your visit. Download the Shaka Guide Oahu app!