All amazing photos in this Oahu Surfing Guide are courtesy of Matt Heirakuji.
Surfing isn’t just a sport. It’s the bond shared between people and the ocean that humans have known for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of years. It’s an expression of self, of culture, and of one’s innermost longings to find stillness in world of chaos. And it all began right here in sweet sweet Polynesia.
Lucky for us, surfing has evolved to capture a broad audience, with breaks and boards to suit all tastes. The art of wave riding is now enjoyed in just about every corner of the world, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about, is it? That’s right, we’re talking about sliding in Hawaii. Oahu surfing, to be exact. Mmm, it’s the sweet spot of the sport. A mecca for the die hard surf enthusiasts as well as a training ground for soon to be sliders.
Close your eyes and picture yourself on your board. It’s just you and the clear blue ocean with perfect sets rolling in for eternity. The sun is warming your back and kissing your face, and you could live in this moment forever.
Now open them so you can continue reading this, and hopefully find the perfect place to catch some waves. Whether you’re new to the game or have been shredding your whole life, this Oahu surfing guide will give you the low down on the breaks, the etiquette, and the vibes of some of the best surfing spots on Oahu.
South Shore Overview (aka “Town”)
“Town”, or anything within the reaches of Honolulu, is home to some super fun waves and is also one of the best places to learn if you’re just now embarking on the journey to surfdom (yes, I just made that word up. Quite fitting though, isn’t it?). Waves on Oahu can be found year round on the south shore, but summer is peak season, and therein lies the shreddable balance my friends.
Oahu Surfing Breaks of Waikiki
Waikiki. A place as magical as it is iconic. No matter how many people paddle out into the many lineups, this legendary surf destination never loses its luster. There are lots of breaks that dot the shores of this world famous beach, but I’ll just mention a few of the more popular ones.
First you have Canoes, the most popular spot in all of Waikiki. You can easily find it by heading to Waikiki Beach and positioning yourself between the Duke Statue and the Wizard Stones, then looking straight out. This is a super mellow, slow rolling, soft break that you can go left, right, or (most often for beginners) straight on. The sandy bottom lends a forgiving cushion for a wipeout or two. There are a lot of beginners here so watch out for other people in the water, but that also means everyone is super friendly and won’t call you off their waves. Pros and cons, am I right?!
Queens is another favored spot in Waikiki. It’s a notch up in wave quality which brings a slightly more local and experienced crowd. You’ll mostly find longboarders here sliding to the left and right of the peak. Like anywhere else, be respectful and if you accidentally drop in on someone (catch a wave that somebody else is already on), make sure you say sorry!
A short walk towards Diamond Head from Waikiki is another break called Publics.
Pros: Publics is not nearly as crowded as Waikiki, which offers you a chance at catching a wave that no one else is on. There is also an inside break as well as an outside break with increasing levels of difficulty, so you can pick your poison, I mean wave, according to your level of experience.
Cons: REEF. BREAK. Allow me to elaborate. During low tide, jagged reef will literally be sticking out of the water in certain spots, so be careful. Getting cut on the reef here is super common and something to be aware of. Just check Surfline Oahu for the surf report and tides. Also, there are no board rentals on the beach, so if you’re renting a board you will have to walk it about a quarter mile down the road.
Ala Moana Bowls
Bowls is arguably the best wave in Town, drawing a very local crowd of surfers who know what they’re doing. On bigger days Bowls can be well overhead, perfect for shortboarders, and smaller days are a longboarder’s delight. No matter when you paddle out, show respect, say hello, and spread aloha.
*Tip* The Surfline Oahu app has a surf camera for this break, so if you’re subscribed to premium you can check the waves and conditions before you head to the beach. Heck to the yes.
Concessions is just one of the many breaks that you can get to from Ala Moana Beach Park. If you go to the middle of the park and look straight out, Concessions will be slightly to your right. It’s mostly a left break that draws a local, friendly longboard crowd. You have to walk across the reef to paddle out, so be careful and watch so your board doesn’t get dinged on the reef on the way in, because no one likes a dinged board.
East Side Magic
The East Side of Oahu is famous for her turquoise waters and pristine beaches, unfortunately that doesn’t leave much room for SHREDDING THE GNAR. Alas, there is some hope for all you who seek he’e nalu (surfing) on the glorious East Side.
(The Beloved) Sandy’s
Sandy’s is one of the top favorited beaches for locals. Considering the mellow nature of the East side of Oahu as far as waves go, Sandy’s is one of the only places that rarely disappoints. This is a strong shorebreak where you’ll find bodyboarders and body surfers galore, and the occasional shortboarder or longboarder a little further out.
This is both a beach and a reef break that provides consistent waves on Oahu year round. Sandy’s provides fun left and right breaks, and on days with sizable swells it’s not unusual to get barreled.
The local vibes here are as strong as the waves, so throw shakas to your friends (howzittt) and share aloha! Visitors are often found here too, but as the waves are dangerous and need experience to maneuver, you’ll mostly find them chilling at the beach watching people surf.
Makapuu is another fairly consistent spot for East Side waves on Oahu, and is also a breathtaking beach. Cliffs and rocks surround this mystifying margin, which require you to climb down in order to reach your destination.
This is a shorebreak, which means it attracts a large bodyboarding/bodysurfing crowd. Although this beach is supposed to be limited to bodyboarding, sometimes people paddle shortboards or longboards out and will catch the waves a little further out. Either way, it’s a fun Oahu surfing spot if you’re looking for some East Side action.
The scene is pretty local at Makapuu, but it’s a little more mellow than Sandy’s and a little less crowded.
West Side Best Side
The West Side of Oahu can provide some pretty incredible waves, but most famously at Makaha. Makaha is legendary for its winter swells and annual surfing competition called Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic, which is like the Pipeline Competition of the West Side.
There are four distinct breaks at Makaha: Point, Bowl, Blowhole, and Inside Reef. These are right reef breaks, but when the winter swells roll in, waves can get massive and the lines aren’t as clear.
This is one of the most local beaches/breaks on the island, so paddle out with a local friend if you have one! If not, make some. Say hello, do your very best to be respectful, and for the love of surfing do not drop in on anyone.
White Plains/Barber’s Point
White Plains is one of the most beginner friendly breaks on the island of Oahu. This is an exposed reef break that breaks year round and offers fun mid-sized lefts and rights. There are waves that literally break over the entire stretch of the beach. The outside waves beckon more experienced surfers, while the inside break is safe for beginners yet still provides enough power to allow you to catch something. Although consistent and fun, White Plains can often be mushy, choppy, and windy. But when it’s glassy BOY IS IT GLASSY. Check the wind conditions on your Surfline Oahu app.
There is a mix of a local and military crowd here, and if you have a military ID you can rent boards! A huge plus since there are few places that offer beachside board rentals on the West Side. The mixed crowd means that people here are super friendly, perhaps the friendliest of any break on the island. You might get dropped in on a time or two but hey, what break doesn’t have its drawbacks?
Okay You’ve Finally Made it…
You literally cannot talk about surfing on Oahu without talking about the North Shore, that would be sacrilege. It’s the pinnacle of Oahu surfing, arguably the world, and if you are ever blessed with the privilege to visit or live on the North Shore, then you have lived a blessed life indeed. Tales have been told of the monstrous waves that have been conquered in these treacherous waters. Movies, books, magazines, pictures, and tv shows have all tried to capture the mystifying magic of the enchanting spell that the North Shore seems to cast on all who enter. Here, legends are made and never forgotten. This. Is. DA NORT CHOREEE HOO HOWZIT (a little bit of pidgin for your arsenal of cultural references ;)).
Now who’s ready to get into some waves?! Well, read about them at least. The North Shore is packed with breaks all along what’s known as the Seven Mile Miracle — the stretch of coastline from Haleiwa to Sunset Beach (or Turtle Bay, depending on who you ask) with waves for days.
Haleiwa Alii Beach Park
Simply known as Haleiwa when referring to the break, this wave supplies a steep drop and both lefts and rights to enjoy. Longboarders and shortboarders alike frequent this spot, and there is always a fair share of groms catching the inside waves.
Like many breaks on the North Shore, this is a pretty local spot, but as it’s a good distance from the serious breaks (aka the likes of Pipeline) it’s a little less intimidating.
About a half mile up the road from Haleiwa is Puaena Point, offering waves to the spectrum of surfers from newbies to intermediate/advanced on bigger days.
It’s a reef break with better lefts on the outside but slidable rights as well. Puaena Point brings a somewhat mild crowd of locals, military, visitors, and lady longboarders who are working on their noseriding. It’s one of the chillest spots on the North Shore, and it’s calling your name.
Chun’s — the Waikiki of the North Shore. This is a super popular reef break that can bring a diverse crowd, but with really good pro or sponsored female longboarders for regulars.
Chuns’ primary break is a right, and it’s lovely. Provided along with the North Shore guarantee, waves will be stronger here and much more powerful than town waves of the same size. Watch for the reef as you paddle out and back in.
This is a high performance shortboarding spot, where you’ll rarely find longboarders out except for maybe super tiny days. Some would say it’s the best wave on the North Shore to do aerials, and a lot of the best surfers are out here working on their tricks — sort of like a skate park in the water.
The wave breaks both left and right on the rocks, an aptly named location. Warning: grom training ground. First they master Rocky’s then they go to pipe once they’re gnarlier.
Pipeline. The holy grail of the North Shore. The proving grounds. The most famed prestigious wave in the known universe. Pro surfers from all over the world make their pilgrimage to Pipe and stay in houses owned by Billabong, Volcom, Quicksilver, RVCA, Redbull, and other huge brands — all a stone’s throw away from the iconic wave.
Left break. If you go right it’s called Backdoor. Once the wave hits over a twenty foot face, it can’t manage the swell and washes through. Open ocean swells travel uninterrupted for thousands of miles until they unload on the shallow shelf that is Pipeline. This is what causes the wave to produce THE best tube rides in surfing history.
This is the most dangerous wave in the world. More surfers die at Pipeline than anywhere else on the planet (claims a local source). Water photographers risk their lives attempting to get the best shot of the season.
Contests are held here annually, most notably the Billabong Pipeline Masters, where the world champion is crowned.
Whether you’re a surfer, glider, slider, shredder, ripper, dancer, noserider, or nose diver, I hope you feel slightly more acquainted with the waves of Oahu and all that her majesty has to offer. In true Hawaiian fashion, stay humble, share aloha, and SHRED UM BU!
Gabrielle is the founder of Destination Copy, where she writes for businesses within the travel and tourism industry. Surfing is her leisure activity of choice, writing – her greatest intellectual pleasure, and reading – her mental running wheel.