The history of surfing in Hawaii dates back to the 4th century when the first Polynesians settled on the islands, bringing their customs with them. While these early Polynesians initially enjoyed playing in the surf on their boards laying down, the modern practice of standing on top of the boards wasn’t developed until they reached Hawaii. In any case, certain surf spots were reserved exclusively for royalty while commoners had their own designated beaches. With the arrival of missionaries and Captain Cook in the 1800s, who discouraged Hawaiians from many of their traditions and culture, surfing in the islands became almost non-existent. It was legendary surfer and swimmer Duke Kahanamoku who is widely credited with popularizing the sport again in the 1900s.
Safety and Etiquette
When it comes to surfing in Hawaii, safety is paramount. Be aware of the hidden dangers that can include rip currents, spiky sea urchins, reefs, rocks, and rarely, sharks. Depending on the time of year and position on the islands, waves can get bigger, much more dangerous, and best reserved for professionals—hence the series of world-class surf competitions that take place on the north shore of Oahu every year. Be prepared by doing your research about which spots are best for beginners, intermediates, and experts ahead of time, as well as paying attention to beaches with lifeguards present before paddling out. As with all activities on the Hawaiian Islands, it is essential to be respectful, but this is especially so in busy surf lineups! Remember that the main islands offer plenty of surf schools and instructors that can accompany you into the water if you’re unsure of your skillset or want to be more adventurous.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Hawaiian wave scale is measured differently than other parts of the world. Most places measure the wave height using the face wave vertically from trough to peak. In Hawaii, surfers use the back of the wave to measure wave height. Conditions can change at a moment’s notice.
The “gathering place” has the most accessible beaches for all levels of surfing thanks to its influx of tourism and a higher number of residents. Waikiki is really the only place to start for beginners, and there are plenty of surf schools and rental shacks available to visitors and residents alike along the beach there.
- Canoes in front of the Moana Surfrider Hotel is considered the most beginner-friendly spot (and therefore one of the most crowded) on Oahu.
- Populars (also known as “Pops”) is just west between the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and Fort Derussy Park, providing a great workout thanks to the long paddle out and a higher chance for large swells.
- For those who want something a little more advanced than Waikiki, Diamond Head has at least three or four separate breaks that tend to attract more locals than visitors. The most famous break here is Cliffs, right in the middle. The level here depends entirely on the swell size since cross-currents on the more massive swells can get tricky.
- Puaena Point near Haleiwa Beach Park is a popular spot on the north shore of the island. During the summer months, when the surf is small, this is the perfect break for beginners hoping to catch their first wave.
- Also, on the north shore, you’ll find locals enjoying the long rides on their days off and visitors working with surf schools at Chun’s Reef. It is excellent for perfecting your technique on the calmers days and fun to watch more advanced surfers when the waves are abundant in the winter.
- Also on the south shore, Kewalos that breaks over a shallow reef and Ala Moana Bowls that offers an exposed reef break both have consistent surf for more advanced surfers.
- Any surf aficionado will have heard of the north shore staples, Pipeline and Sunset Beach, but keep in mind that novices should only hit these spots to observe from afar! Just like the best breaks on every island, these places require expert-level experience.
Hawaii Island is young and still growing due to the near-constant flow of volcanic activity on the island pouring into the sea and creating new land all the time. This island has fewer surf-friendly spots than the other main islands because of this, so the few areas tend to be more populated with advanced surfers and residents. Remote and quiet, the island is a place for relaxation and a taste of old Hawaii. That's not to say there aren't opportunities for beginners and visitors. Since surf spots are harder to find, a surf instructor is a good idea for tourists. Most are located on the Kona side, such as Kahalu'u Bay Surf & Sea and Kona Town Surf Adventures.
- Kahaluu Beach is known for being one of the best surfing beaches on the Kona side of the island for any level, especially for those who are still learning.
- Anaehoomalu Bay (also known as "A-Bay") on the island's west side is located near the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort. The beautiful surf spot also features a white-sand beach, tide pools, a fishpond, and a grove of coconut trees.
Second in popularity after Oahu, the island of Maui offers some fabulous breaks for all levels of surfers. This island is known for its crystal clear water and abundance of tropical fish and ocean wildlife, providing extraordinary opportunities for all types of watersports, including kayaking, snorkeling, paddleboarding, and of course, surfing. Maui is known as one of the windiest islands in Hawaii, so it's best to paddle out early in the morning.
- Just south of Lahaina, Launiupoko State Wayside Park is excellent for new surfers thanks to the smooth reef waves. You'll often find surfers from all walks of life here enjoying the waves and the water on their days off.
- Kihei Cove is excellent for both surfers and paddleboarders alike.
- Guardrails is best for intermediate surfers, so it is generally recommended to bring a guide along.
- Kaanapali Beach isn't just recognized as one of Hawaii's best beaches; it offers some pretty great waves for surfing as well. The bottom is nice and sandy, and the convenient location near the resorts makes it easy to find board rentals and surf instructors.
Kauai is the perfect escape for those who want a slower-paced vacation full of beach lounging and nature. Similarly to Big Island, a surf school is your best bet for surfing on this smaller island. Try Endless Summer Surf School Kauai in Koloa, Hawaiian Style Surfing inside the Sheraton Kauai Resort, or Hawaiian Surfing Adventures in Hanalei.
- On the southeast side, Kiahuna Beach forms some amazing waves for novice surfers closer to shore, with opportunities out past the reef for the more advanced.
- The famous Hanalei Bay is known for all types of water sports, and visitors should pay a visit regardless of if they plan to surf or sunbathe to enjoy the views. The beach offers three distinct areas for different skill levels as well, making it an excellent spot for groups of friends or families at different levels.
- Kalapaki Beach is widely regarded as the best surf spot in Lihue on the island’s east side. The beach is protected partially by a break wall, which gives it long, gentle waves throughout the year.