We're retracing some of our favourite travel memories along Oahu's North Shore.
The North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii's most populated island, is one of the world's most famous surfing spots. But I am one of the world's most famous wimps - how is it possible that I fell head over heels in love with such a daredevil destination?
Sometimes opposites really DO attract. I've been telling people by word of mouth just how much I love the North Shore for years now. It was one of the very first trips Ryan and I ever made together and we often get asked for recommendations. How can it be that we've never written it all down? So here it is - a story of love at first sight, sandy feet, gourmet treats, and a little bit of everything for everyone.
Hit the North Shore beaches, even if you don't surf
So you don't surf? So what! Even if you DID surf a little, the North Shore is in a whole other league. This is where the waves are as serious as the competition - and it's a fantastic place to watch the best of the best in action. We saw some spectacular surfing just by checking out what was going on beside a busy parking lot or two and we also had some luck at smaller beaches too.
Curiously, while some beaches were PACKED - with surfers, with families, with visitors - we saw several beaches that were empty. Not just quiet, but 100% empty. We were the only people there. It made for some beautiful walking and our day was a nice mix of peacefulness and excitement. (We also found some fantastic beach glass at a tiny strip of sand that wasn't so much a beach as just a rocky, sandy spot by the highway. If you're a collector, keep your eyes open for the non-beach beaches that aren't as pretty).
A few tips... If you see a parking spot, grab it. Some beaches have no real lot and so side-of-road parking isn't unusual. If you're just driving through, slow down and keep an eye out for distracted kids. And while the waves are at their biggest and most dramatic in winter, these are waters that should be respected year round. So should the sun. I used Neutrogena Oil Free SPF 110 (yep, SPF 110 exists!) and I'm very pleased to report that I didn't turn into a lobster.
Get "Lost" searching for coffee in Waialua
It's hard to find a community that Ryan and I love quite like Waialua. This wee town was driven by a sugar mill - until it shut down in 1996. Oahu's North Shore may be a slice of paradise but Waialua could be any town, anywhere, fighting back from economic problems. And it's fighting back with aplomb. There's a farmer's market on Saturdays and also Wednesday (with a late afternoon opening). There's a good bakery (Paalaa Kai Bakery). And there's the Old Sugar Mill itself, now a hive of creative activity. The Soap Factory there is always popular but our favourite stop in the complex is Island X.
Island X looks like a bit of a general store - you can get souvenir shirts and such. But there's much more going on here! They sell our favourite coffee in the world. Grown on site, it's known as Old Sugar Mill Brand Waialua. You can pop in any time to sample the brews and also get a quick look at the coffee trees, providing that it's not too busy. Ask for a lesson in the difference between washed and natural dried process coffee and if you see any of their peaberry coffee for sale - grab it all cost! (A "peaberry" is a natural mutation found in just 2-5% of all coffee beans. It's a bean that doesn't split in half and retains its round, or pea, shape. And it's just phenomenal).
They also sell their own chocolate, processed from cocoa grown on site. I'm told it may just be the rarest single source chocolate in the world. The milk chocolate is a crowd favourite and the dark chocolate is quite unusual. It tastes a bit wine-y and fruit-y. Very intriguing!
You can also buy pure cocoa nibs. I did, and I held onto my bag for years, knowing that I needed to buy them but not sure what to do with them. In the end, I ground them using a coffee grinder, making my own glorious cocoa powder, and ultimately the best brownies.
I'm not normally a big shopper when I travel but Island X is unique. In addition to their lovely coffee and chocolate, they also carry a few other products I really enjoy. That includes their own house brand of pineapple flavored pancake mix and "For J's" brand pineapple flavored sugar. Definitely pick some up when you're there!
Whatever you do, don't leave without asking the way to the "Lost" beach. Even if you're not a fan of the TV show, it's a beautiful, quiet beach to explore. It's proper name is the Mokulei'a Army Beach and it was once reserved for military personnel. (Note: This is a beach for admiring and relaxing, not swimming. In general, the water is too dangerous).
The North Shore is perfect for cruising and exploring
Where were these photos taken? Hmmm... it's hard to say. Judging from my photo roll, it's close to the "Lost" beach. I suspect it's not too far from Ka'ena Point. This is what the North Shore was for us - endless exploration, intriguing side roads, and mysterious little turns. Even if you didn't plan for any proper stops, a road trip along the North Shore will be hugely rewarding.
As with any great roadtrip, there will be some bumps along the way. "No Trespassing" signs in Hawaii are to be taken seriously and respected. Appreciate the limits of your rental vehicle on unpaved roads. And secure your car and valuables. Break ins aren't unheard of in seemingly quiet areas.
Explore the artistry along the way
How amazing is this graceful natural stone arch at Laei Point? It's one of the many moments of beauty we encountered along the North Shore. But we only discovered it by making a friend along the way. We popped in to the gallery of legendary North Shore artist Kim Taylor Reece in Sacred Falls. Reece is an award winning photographer whose work has taken him to 37 Pacific island to document dance, costumes, and culture. He specializes in breathtaking black and white hula dance photos. (You can learn more about his book here.)
We were lucky enough to meet Reece himself when we popped into the studio. He generously gave us the tip about the stone arch at Laei Point and autographed some small prints we purchased. Our stop was a good reminder that the North Shore is so much more than surfing - and that you'll always be rewarded by making friends on the road.
Our favorite food on the North Shore
We didn't sample any of the North Shore's famous shrimp food trucks. Ryan is allergic! Happily, there was still lots of yummy things for us to try.
We visited Ted's Bakery in Haleiwa, home of chocolate haupia (creamy coconut) pie - it was well worth the journey and of course we got way more dessert than any person should reasonably eat.
Before that, the creative burgers and sandwiches at Kua'Aina in Hale'iwa were the perfect fuel for a day of exploring and getting over our jet lag (though I was annoyed, in true frugal-gal fashion, that prices didn't include sides like fries). Bring cash for your journey - it's often the only payment accepted by food trucks, bakeries, and roadside stands.
And, while I'm not exactly proud of this per say, I'd be remiss if I didn't include one of my strongest food memories connect to the North Shore. On our first visit, we woke up in Honolulu, the morning after we flew into Hawaii. Ryan and I just started laughing. We were so happy that we had had managed to stay awake until a reasonable bed time and then managed to sleep through the night. Take that, jet lag!
With high spirits, we were ready to explore headed out for breakfast - only to find that the place listed in our guidebook was closed. Dejected, we drove around in frustrated circles until we found a Starbucks in Honolulu. Maybe I was just deliriously happy to be reunited with carbs (a very real possibility), but suddenly the offerings of a Hawaiian Starbucks seemed gloriously intriguing.
I still remember picking up some baked goods not offered at our local coffee shop (I think the berry oat cake was one of them), as well as buying a coconut mocha frappuchino. At the time, coconut syrup hadn't even been introduced to Canadian menus. I was overwhelmed by the "Hawaii-ness" of it all! And it was pretty darn awesome, driving up to the North Shore in a convertible, sipping an "exotic" coconut beverage, and being overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. Yep, I was everyone's image of cheesy tourist - and I loved it unreservedly.
You don't have to be a world class surfer to love the North Shore. Nor do you have to fall in love with fancy coffee like me! But know that this is a destination for everyone and it stands to be the highlight of your trip to Oahu.
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