Surfing Safari — best places to watch Hawaii’s big winter surf
Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing. As the “sport” evolved (it was an ancient Hawaiian community activity long before it was ever a competitive sport) to include big wave surf, which became a global phenomenon, Hawaii remained the enchanting epicenter — it’s still the go-to destination to watch the boldest surfers in the world take on monster waves.
With the big wave season approaching (November to March), here’s our list of best places to watch — and we emphasize watch, these are killer waves only to be attempted by skilled surfers. If you can time it just right, go when these breaks are getting double overhead or above conditions in light winds: You’ll be mesmerized by the beauty and raw power of the waves, let alone the surfers taking them on.
If you’re going to spend a day watching surf, be sure to go early and bring binoculars. Get the latest surf conditions from Hawaii Beach Safety, so you know before you go.
Click on any of the links below to fly to these sites in 3D, where you can read about the spots, watch videos, click through photos, get directions and more.
Banzai Pipeline, Oahu
Oahu’s North Shore is littered with spectacular surf breaks along what’s known as the Seven Mile Miracle. The best places to watch are at some of its most famous breaks.
Pipe is considered one of the best breaks in the world: A perfect peak and tube wave off a treacherous near-shore reef. The break is so close to shore, you can watch from any spot on the beach and have a great view of the action. (Photo: Emyln Stokes/Creative Commons.)
You’ll see impressive feats here throughout the season by surfers who’ve been at this break their whole lives, but if you want to see the pros do their thing, the Billabong Pipe Masters competition is two months out: December 8-20, part of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
Sunset Beach, Oahu
The beauty of Sunset Beach is in its size and angle: Two miles long and elevated slightly above the bay into which powerful wintertime waves roll — like a Greek amphitheater for surfing. With multiple take off points among the breaks that fill this bay, it’s a feast for the eyes and your DLSR camera. (Photo: Karen Chan/Creative Commons.)
Go when it’s good, or go when the pros hit it for the Vans World Cup of Surfing (formerly the O’Neill World Cup), November 24-December 6.
Waimea Bay, Oahu
When it’s firing, you’ll get the best views of the action if you set yourself up along the cliffside on the northeast side of the bay (pictured). Not that you’ll be disappointed with the view from the beach and the opposite cliffs — when it’s big, Waimea’s a show, wherever you’re viewing it from. If you’re very lucky, you may get the opportunity to see the Eddie Aikau meet, which only runs if consistent sets of 20- to 25-foot waves (face height) come in between December 1 and February 29.
Looking for some food recommendations after a day on the North Shore? Check out our ‘Food Trip: Haleiwa‘
Honolua Bay, Maui
The elegant right that traverses most of Honolua Bay on Maui’s northwest side, known as Caves, throws up beautiful rolling sets during winter swells that brings surfers flocking the world over, the draw being the impressive length of the ride. (Photo: jongela19/Creative Commons.)
The bay is surrounded by cliffs from which you can watch the action unfold — the best view is from a land spit that intersects the bay. You’ll enjoy stunning views of Molokai between sets.
Peahi Bay, Maui
The beastly break commonly known as Jaws can, with the right conditions, throw up skyscrapers — waves in excess of 60 feet. It became a destination for brave windsurfers from nearby Hookipa Beach, who could manage the power needed to get into the break with help of wind. Later, it became the epicenter of the tow-in movement, created by surfing pioneers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, along with Derrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox. (Photo: Jai Mansson/Creative Commons.)
You’ll be watching this break from afar: The cliffs on the west side of the bay offer the best viewpoint.
Hanalei Bay, Kauai
Arguably the most picturesque of these big wave breaks, the expanse of Hanalei Bay affords lots of beach space (and pier space!) from which to watch surfers dance across the rolling sets. The best waves tend to hit the east side of the bay; set yourself up on the beach there to watch the action. 3D Hawaii
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