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Hawaii is home to some of the most famous waves in the world, and the north shore of Oahu is ground zero for surfing in Hawaii. The legendary surf breaks from Haleiwa to Kahuku have created a “scene” that’s a world away from Honolulu, and whether you’ll be on island during a big surf competition, just want to see the locals catching a wave, or you’re going during the summer when it’s totally flat, you don’t want to miss seeing Oahu’s famed north shore.
Haleiwa is the main town on the north shore and most visitors drive the area between Haleiwa and Kahuku/Laie making stops in between.
So here’s a rundown on what to do, where to eat, and where to stay (if you decide you’re interested in more than a quick day visit):
Things to Do in Haleiwa & North Shore Oahu
Shopping in Haleiwa: Haleiwa is probably one of the cutest towns in Hawaii. It’s picturesque, walkable, and full of cute shops and restaurants. Most of the shops in Haleiwa don’t open until 10 AM, so plan to circle back later in the day if you’re getting an early start cruising around. I especially love Guava Shop and Clark Little’s Gallery.
See Turtles at Laniakea Beach: A few miles from Haleiwa you’ll come to Laniakea Beach, which is a great spot to see honu (green Hawaiian sea turtles). There’s a bit of parking across the street, but you’ll probably have to park along the road. Plan to spend 20-30 minutes here admiring the turtles (but don’t get too close!).
Cliff Dive at Waimea Bay: Waimea Bay is one of the most famous beaches in Hawaii. It’s a gorgeous swimming and snorkeling (and rock jumping) spot in the summer, but it’s one of the biggest surfable waves in Hawaii in the winter. When the surf’s breaking, there’s nothing like watching the surfers here, but expect a huge crowd and a long walk from your car.
Hike to Waimea Falls: If you’d like to see a waterfall, Waimea Falls is pretty convenient. Park at Waimea Valley and it’s a one mile hike down a leisurely path through a botanical garden to the falls. There are also usually some cultural activities and educational workshops going on. $20 for adults and $12 for children. Closed on Mondays.
Snorkeling at Sharks Cove: At Pupukea Beach Park, this protected cove is an excellent snorkeling spot in the summer. There’s limited parking so arrive early and bring your own gear (there’s nowhere to rent nearby).
Watch the Surfers at Sunset Beach: This is probably the most famous beach on the north shore. It’s golden, wide, and beautiful. The Banzai Pipeline surf break is offshore along this stretch of beach. Expect it to be packed in the winter as it’s one of Oahu’s best surf sites (and home to the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing competition).
Do the Sunset Pillbox Hike: It’s impressive to see from the shore, but to get a true appreciation, you’ll need a little perspective. The Ehukai/Sunset Pillbox hike is short (it only takes about 30 minutes), but the views are great! Right behind the Sunset Elementary School, you’ll find the trailhead.
Go Diving with Sharks: Feeling adventurous? Start your day off swimming with sharks! Make reservations in advance here to go out cage diving with a variety of sharks. You’ll learn about the biology, physiology and behavior of sharks, how to safely interact with them and also current research efforts to help save these misunderstood animals.
Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center: There are plenty of different ticket packages you can buy to the PCC, but I recommend booking the Ali’i Luau Package. It’s about $122/adult and includes admission to the six island villages (starting at noon), the dinner buffet and show plus seating at “Ha: Breath of Life.” This is pretty much the basic package that includes the villages, dinner buffet, and the big luau show (Ha: Breath of Life). From there you can do add ons that include things like a flower lei greeting, prime rib and crab leg options on the buffet, preferred seating, private tours around the villages, etc. The highest tier package is about $243/person. Take a look at the options and see if any of it is worth the money to you, but if you’re on a budget, you’ll get a great value out of the Ali’i Luau Package. If you’re not interested in doing the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center (there’s no alcohol offered and that is a factor for some), it is possible to just purchase general admission to the park (to explore the six island villages) for about $65/adult and $52/child. The villages are open from 12-6.
Where to Stay on Oahu’s North Shore
Turtle Bay Resort: If the noise and crowds of Waikiki aren’t your thing, escape to Turtle Bay Resort on the north shore. It’s isolated location ensures a quiet and peaceful vacation but the resort offers plenty of amenities. It’s in the heart of Oahu’s north shore with it’s famous surf breaks, food trucks, and snorkeling spots. It’s also conveniently located for getting to Haleiwa, the Polynesian Culture Center, and Kualoa Ranch and it’s only about 45 minutes from Waikiki. Book your stay at the Turtle Bay Resort here.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Haleiwa & North Shore Restaurants
Haleiwa Bowls: I could eat these every day. Just a little stand in Haleiwa on the north shore, you can add toppings to customize your acai bowl. They also make smoothies and cold pressed juice.
Kono’s: The best hearty breakfast joint in Haleiwa. It’s a counter service restaurant (also open for lunch and dinner) that does local flavors and dishes with an organic/trendy twist. They also have great milk shakes.
Matsumoto Shave Ice: The most iconic place in Hawaii to get shave ice.
WowWow Lemonade: I’m not sure if this is the only fresh made lemonade on the island (I’m guessing not), but it’s my favorite and I wanted to include it on this list! There’s a location in Haleiwa and Wahiawa. My favorite is the lavender blackberry lemonade!
Haleiwa Beach House: Located on the water, this is the go to spot in Haleiwa for a nice (ish) lunch or dinner. They do fish very well and there’s a large bar upstairs that’s partly open air.
Beet Box Café: This vegetarian spot has a lot of options that are also vegan and gluten free and they use mostly organic and local ingredients. There’s also a location in Kailua.
Sunrise Shack: Probably the most famous acai bowl spot in Hawaii. This tiny shack across from Sunset Beach isn’t easily missed. In addition to avocado toast, they also do bullet proof coffee. I hate to say it but due to the size of this place, if you have an allergy, they often aren’t able to accommodate as a lot is premade.
Ted’s Bakery: This efficient bakery on the north shore has a whole bunch of goodies, but they’re most famous for their chocolate haupia (coconut) pie.
Seven Brothers: Local burger joint with locations in Kahuku and Laie. They’re famous for the burgers (locally inspired, fresh ingredients) but they also feature yummy fish and shrimp plates.
Giovanni’s: Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the north shore is easily the most popular food truck in the area (and there are a lot of them!). Try the shrimp scampi.
Romy’s Kahuku Prawns and Shrimp: Another go to shrimp truck on the north shore. They have quite a few more options/variations than Giovanni’s as well as sides.
Hukilau Café: Made famous by the movie “50 First Dates,” this restaurant isn’t actually on the water, but they do serve up Hawaiian/American comfort food. Great for breakfast and plate lunch.
Papa Ole’s: Local joint serving island favorites for breakfast, plus plate lunches. Cash only.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Oahu vacation rentals for your trip.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani.
If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center.
If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki.
And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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