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A practical guide to planning your trip to the North Shore of Oahu

Oahu’s fabled North Shore is the destination of dreams, an Hawaiian surfing paradise, home to iconic waves and massive winter surf.  Waimea Bay, Pipeline, Back Door, Off the Wall, and Sunset Beach, sit side by side along this beautiful stretch of coastline.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean about a 5-hour flight time from anywhere, the Hawaiian Islands are remote.  Fashioned from volcanic lava and surrounded by cavernous reef, this tiny collection of islands are almost as far as you can go from our cold British shores.  But is it worth the trip?  Having been the owner of that dream, and 15 months later just returned from the North Shore, the short answer is of course yes!  However, this is not a destination for the faint hearted, the financially challenged or those who are not willing to put in a bit of hard work organising their own trip.

Taking the drop – Pipeline. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

The North Shore is not visibly touched by the trappings of tourism, making a small Cornish seaside town look a bit brazen in comparison.  The biggest place Haleiwa, is reminiscent of a town from the wild west, but its wooden clad structures and walkways have an Hawaiian charm of their own.  This town has history and is the creative and cultural hub of the area.  It is also the home of the surf stores and some great food and coffee outlets.  Here you will find the Bank, Doctors Surgery, Supermarket, and all the practical stuff as well as Matsumoto’s General Store with its famous shave ice – very much worth a try.

Haliewa – Surf n Sea. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

This is however a real community not just a tourist town.  The iconic Anahulu Stream Bridge, gateway to the North Shore is also here, a curved steel structure painted white which is as good a landmark as any.  But thank God that’s it!  From there on heading north there is no visible tourist specific development, until you get to the Turtle Bay Resort right on the northern tip of the Island.

Haleiwa -Anahulu Stream Bridge – Gateway to the North Shore. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

The North Shore does not shout about itself, neither does it peddle surf culture, it just quietly gets on with the job of being the home of world class waves and surfers.  You could easily drive by Waimea Bay without really noticing it’s there; denoted only by a small car park and a modest sign, you could easily miss it if it weren’t for the Waimea Valley Park opposite.

Each of these world-famous surf locations have at most a small car park or some roadside parking, and that’s it.  Whether this is a cunning planning on the part of the Hawaiian state authorities or just that development has not got that far, I’m not sure, but I pray that it will remain untouched and unsullied by the trappings of mass tourism.

So, speaking as someone who has had the dream, saved the money, planned the trip, arrived, survived and returned, here are a few of my top tips and in some cases hard learned lessons, which might help my fellow travellers out.

Plan Ahead

Start planning your trip as early as possible!  Availability and affordability of flights, accommodation and key essentials are maximised by booking early, leave at least 6 months and longer if possible.

Timing

If you’re going for waves and to see the world’s best surfers in action, choose the Winter.  The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing runs up to late December, choose your event and make sure you book for the entire duration if you can.  Weather conditions and waves are unpredictable, so within the event window you cannot predict the daily conditions.  Do not assume that it will all be over by the end of the first week or you may be disappointed.  The call is often made early on the day, and posted on social media and at the event location.

Pipemasters from above. Photo: Anya Gilbert

It’s a long way to go and may not be worth the journey if you can only stay for a short time.  Bear in mind the time that it will take you to get there.  With a minimum flight time of around 17 hours from the UK, it takes a good while to get there, and with a 10-hour time difference you can write off at least a couple of days just traveling.  Leave yourself at least 2 hours between your connecting flights, especially if you are changing over in the US.  The US authorities require you to go through passport control and security, to collect your hold luggage and for it to go through screening and be rechecked in.  It then has to get onto the plane as well as you!  All this can take rather a long time and delays can reduce this time further, so be wise and give yourself 3 or 4 hours, and save yourself the sprint across the airport!

Obvious things like your passport having at least 6 months before expiry at the end of your trip and getting an ESTA are almost not worth saying, but I will just in case!  You can buy a plane ticket without them but they won’t let you in if you don’t!

Flights

My very top tip regarding the purchase of flights is to use a specialist to book these.  They can all go on one ticket which may help you if anything goes wrong.  This is not like flying in Europe where you can select a budget carrier and go for the cheapest flight.  The market is highly complex with a variety of carriers and a multiplicity of changeover destinations.  By all means look online and get a good idea of who you want to fly with, on what day, at what time and how much this is going to cost you.

I would then advise that you speak to a reputable company who specialise in booking long haul flights, I used Flight Centre UK but there are others.  They were not only able to match and even improve upon the online price, but much more importantly did all the hard work when Air Canada cancelled my flights 4 months prior to the date of travel!  They negotiated with the airline and got us onto new flights within my time frame and at no extra charge.

The intercontinental aircraft flying out to your changeover destination are more spacious and comfortable than the smaller aircraft that will take you on to Honolulu, so make this portion of your trip the longest leg and you might actually get some leg room!

Money

It’s expensive!  Everything about this trip will be expensive, so make sure that you have enough money to cover your flights, accommodation, food, transport and spending money before you book anything!

Accommodation

There is one hotel on the North Shore – The Turtle Bay Resort and it’s not cheap, so unless you are happy to spend a sizeable amount of money, you will be staying in a private rental, or the Backpackers Hostel/Plantation Village.  My approach was to book the entire stay in the Backpackers using Booking.com, where you can amend or cancel your booking free of charge, then as I booked other rentals reduced my time there until it was down to 3 nights.

VRBO and Home Away provided a wide range of rentals in a variety of locations, there are also Airbnb properties. But read the blurb carefully, as some Airbnb listings are bedrooms within a shared house, where other guests will be sharing the facilities with you.

Bear in mind that the headline price on all the websites is the price without tax and or cleaning fees.  Tax is currently 13.96%, and if you stay at The Turtle Bay resort, there is also a resort fee of $41.98 per night.  Cleaning fees in the private rentals can also be substantial.  You will be lucky to find anywhere decent to stay below £120 per night all in, so expect to pay around £130 – £150 per night if you want a nice rental and more if you stay at the Turtle Bay Resort.

North Shore Post box. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

An essential thing to bear in mind before booking anywhere to stay is the location and how you are going to get around.  The coastal plain is relatively small and some rentals are located in mountainous areas only easily accessible by car.  This may not be instantly apparent by their distance from the beach, so again read the details carefully and take a look at Google Maps!

Your proximity to the supermarket and food trucks is also a consideration. Foodland is the only Supermarket on the North Shore between Haleiwa and Laie and is located in Pupukea on the Kamehameha Highway. The food trucks situated right beside it.  As there are no restaurants between Haleiwa town and the Turtle Bay Resort, these will be key to your stay.  If you do not have a car or a bike you might want to stay within walking distance of these.

Food

Food is expensive! With a carton of milk at around $3.50 and bread, cheese or fruit juice at around $6, a modest food shop can quickly become very costly.  Foodland has a discount scheme the Maika’i Card, so join it at the outset.  This is done by giving a 10-digit phone number to the person at the checkout, you then quote this phone number each time you shop.  The large yellow prices on the shelves show the discounted price, so if you don’t join the scheme you will end up paying the higher price on the smaller white ticket!

The food trucks are permanent fixtures with lights and seating areas.  They represent good value for money compared to the cost of buying the ingredients yourself.  There are a variety of cuisines, the Thai ‘Elephant Truck’, was our top choice giving generous portions, gluten free options and a choice of the level of spice.

Food truck. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

Just a tip, take or buy some insect repellent and use it before you go out!  Even for those of us who don’t normally fall prey to insect bites, these invisible silent predators can reduce your limbs to something akin to the pox.  So, unless you want to be the only stupid Brit on the beach with your legs looking like a war zone, use repellent from the start!

Fresh Poke, Hawaiian raw fish salad is a tasty speciality sold in the supermarket and at roadside stalls.  Ted’s Bakery, situated just beyond Sunset Beach is popular for plate food, cream pies and pastries.  Farmers markets and roadside stalls are a good place to get fresh produce.

Transport

I really would recommend hiring a car as it will greatly increase your capacity to enjoy the Island, particularly on lay days when the conditions aren’t right for competition.  There is some public transport but it’s limited and if you’re going all that way it’s worth making the most of it!  A sat-nav is vital particularly for finding your way around greater Honolulu.  You can hire one with your car and you will be glad that you did!  The road network in Honolulu is complex with multiple six lane highways stacked upon each other, it’s a challenge to navigate with a sat-nav, let alone without one!

Car rental sites have many cars available but the Economy range was ample, the size of a UK family car. All rental cars seem to be automatic and left hand drive, so if you’re not used to an automatic, an hour with a driving instructor in an automatic car might be really helpful before you go.  There seems little point in spending more than you need to on a rental car, and believe me there will be plenty of other demands on your purse!  Be careful – under 25’s can only hire cars as a main driver and must have made the booking in their own name using their own credit card.  They cannot be an additional driver, even if a young drivers fee is paid!

Just a note about fuel, our car did not have any guidance on what fuel it should take, a vital piece of information when you need it!  It seems that ‘Regular’ is the grade of fuel used by domestic cars, so armed with that information we headed to the fuel station.  Be warned, there aren’t many of these along the North Shore either!  There are a couple in Haleiwa at the far end of town by the roundabout.  Warning, if you are going to pay for your fuel by cash, you are required to give the cashier the money up front, before dispensing your fuel.  (They do give you back the change if you don’t spend it all!)  Top tip, the holster that holds the nozzle needs to be tipped up before the pump will work, just another thing that caught me out!  Fuel seems relatively cheap compared to most other things, so there are some pay backs!

You will probably need to return your car to the airport full, and I would advise you not to leave this to the last minute, as there don’t seem to be any visible fuel stations near the airport.  So, avoid the last-minute potential for getting completely lost in Honolulu and make your last fuel stop in good time.  The last obvious gas stations on the road from the North Shore were at Wahiawa.  I fueled up here and had no problem arriving back with a full tank.

Bikes

Beach cruisers are a good way of traveling from your accommodation to the surf break of your choice.  There is a cycle path along the North Shore for about 3 miles starting at Pupukea and heading north towards Sunset Beach.  Sometimes bikes are included with your rental property but you can hire them too.  Not all beach cruisers have brakes, so you need to peddle backwards if you want to stop!

North Shore Cycle path – garden gate. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

Medicines

Of course if you have any prescription drugs, take them with you, but it’s worth taking some extras too.  I would particularly recommend antihistamines, for when the blighters do eat you, and antibiotics, if you can get your GP to prescribe you some just in case.  With the long flights and the recycled air, we ended up with chest and sinus infections.  If you’re ill it will be a bit of a bother to get antibiotics as they are not available over the counter and you will need to have them prescribed by a Doctor.  This will inevitably involve, fuss, time and expense, so save yourself the time, money and doctors’ fees by asking your GP to prescribe some.  This will also avoid the tedious claim on the travel insurance on your return!

Other useful tips

Sunscreen and a waterproof – Winter in Hawaii is warm but it can be overcast and wet, as well as hot and sunny, so think about being prepared with sun screen and a light waterproof.  Did I mention that things were expensive?  Perhaps best to take them with you!

ATM’s – There is one at Foodland but it wouldn’t accept my UK card.  The banks at Haleiwa had ATM’s that worked fine with my British plastic.

SIM cards and Wi-Fi – I went with a SIM free phone, assuming that I could pick up local SIM card and thus avoid using my UK phone contract.  This did not work. I only ever saw one place where local sims were available and this was at the airport when we left.  Even then, I am not sure that they were aimed at the British traveller.  Best to contact your UK phone provider and discuss call and data charges.  It’s useful to have the ability to make a call, even if it’s only in emergencies.  Wi-fi is not readily available, your rental may have and Turtle Bay does.  So, if this is important to you, make it a priority when choosing your place to stay.

Activities

Thankfully loitering about on the beach watching the world’s best surfing talent perform on the waves is absolutely free, but if you want to do anything else budget for that too!

Our top activities

The North Shore – looking north. Photo: Anya Gilbert

Doors off Helicopter ride –This was a real highlight and well worth it.  We even saw migrating humpback whales whilst flying over the North Shore!

Whale watching – There are specialist small trips that will take you whale watching and give you chance to swim with dolphins and spot the sea turtles all on the same trip.  We didn’t do this but wished we had.

Pearl Harbor – Dignified and free to visit.

Sharks Cove – Local free and a great place to paddle, snorkel and see reef fish.

Sharks Cove. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

Sea Turtles – Play in the waves and you can sometimes see them from the beach.  We found a good spot at Laniakea Beach to view them, but just look and admire them from a distance, don’t attempt to touch, feed or bother them.

Waimea Valley – Wear your insect repellent to visit this Hawaiian version of a National Trust garden.

The Polynesian Cultural Centre – For a Luau, Hawaiian dancing, food and culture.  Again expensive but they are pros at this, so if you want a bit of a show, this has to be the place.  Apparently, it’s Oahu’s top tourist attraction, so all those people can’t be wrong, can they?

Watch the sunset from the beach.

Look at the stars – The night sky is stunning!

Lastly go and have a blast!  Take a good camera and enjoy.  It will cost, but if you plan in advance, and take time to prepare, it will certainly be worth it. When the North Shore is pumping, heaven and earth will contrive to meet at your feet, and you will be in paradise!

Featured image: Sharks Cove by Suzanne Gilbert

Sunset – Three Tables Beach. Photo: Suzanne Gilbert

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