The notorious Banzai Pipeline is called the world’s deadliest wave for a reason. It’s said to claim a victim a year on average, and in recent years at least three pro and semipro surfers have perished in its colossal clutches. The legendary Pipe makes its imposing home on the North Shore of Oahu—Hawaii’s most populated island. But despite the humans, this coastline keeps its primordial, untamed nature. Winter storms in the northern Pacific can whip up a frenzy of monster waves towering more than 7 m high. These moving monoliths of seawater draw the world’s top surfers to their frightening grandeur.
“Whoa, Pipe,” succinctly states John John Florence, a North Shore–raised surfer. “You learn that you can never trust it, you can never get too comfortable out there. As soon as you get too comfortable, the next thing you know, you’re going over the falls and you’re like, ‘Oh, God! What have I done now?’”
John John should know. At the age of 13 (and weighing just 38.5 kg), he became the youngest-ever contestant in the prestigious Vans Triple Crown tournament—the Olympics of surfing. Held on the North Shore every December, the three-stage contest is the culmination of the Association of Surfing Professionals’ yearlong men’s world tour. Forty-five of the globe’s most elite surfers (the list has included Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, Gerry Lopez) paddle out into the walls of water to snag a piece of the contest’s $425,000 in prize money.
The Crown climaxes with the Billabong Pipe Masters, appropriately held at the Mount Everest of the surf world: the Banzai Pipeline. Hundreds of spectators crowd the sands of the North Shore, feeling the crash of each dunelike wave as a little earthquake. The Pipe Masters happens over three days during the window of Dec. 8 to 20, but only when wave and wind conditions are just right. The exact contest days are only announced on the morning of the event, creating an instantaneous traffic stampede from Honolulu on the other side of the island.
If you feel like checking out Oahu’s legendary surfing but don’t fancy your chances with the Pipeline, don’t worry. The island is home to sublime and breathtaking surf spots to suit all skill levels and tastes. Our top five picks:
1. Waikiki Beach
Undeniably one of the world’s best places to learn to surf, this famous postcard of a beach faces a huge shallow bay with a sandy bottom stretching far out to the sea. This makes for gentle and consistent waves—and you’ll know it by the tribes of tourists on boards, bouncing in the surf like aquatic bumper cars. Under the wall of Waikiki’s oceanfront high-rise hotels, jaded vendors rent longboards by the hour to beginners. But flee the maddening crowds and follow the locals to the quieter eastern section of Waikiki (in front of Kapiolani Park). There you’ll find the personable Hans Hedemann Surf School (hhsurf.com), where instructors guide you to a serene, empty break under Diamond Head’s iconic jagged crater.
2. Ala Moana Bowls
For intermediate to advanced surfers, Bowls (a.k.a. Ala Mo) is the most “ripping” spot for muscular waves on Oahu’s South Shore, as weekend crowds attest. Poised at the mouth of Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, Bowls is a manmade surf spot created after the harbor channel was dredged deep. The hard-and-fast left-handers pick up the summertime swells from the South Pacific. You may need to scurry over rocks to launch your board, and the sea bottom is lined with prickly urchins, but Bowls is the best roller coaster of waves near Honolulu. Its popularity with city-kid cliques means you’ll need to patiently wait your turn.
Oahu’s lush eastern Windward Coast retains its ultra-green sheen thanks to Hawaii’s moist (read: rainy) northeasterly prevailing winds. A scattering of uninhabited islets lies just offshore, among them Popoia (Flat Island), a tiny bird sanctuary. Popoia’s shallow waters are a favorite of kayakers and windsurfers, but the gentle sandy bottom slows the waves down to a comfortable rhythm for novice surfers. Bring a longboard to enjoy the gentle breaks all around the island, at their best when the nor’easterlies are slightly pumped up (you’ll know if they’re too strong when the kiteboarders are ripping around you). Popoia also makes for the perfect picnic spot, presenting epic views of the Windward Coast’s carved cliffs and their ribbons of waterfalls.
4. Haleiwa Ali’i Beach Park
The North Shore town of Haleiwa is home to just 4,000 lucky souls, of which a good many are surfers. The well-known surf spot of Ali’i Beach Park is just walking distance away. Even when the summer ocean appears laid-back, keep your guard up: rocks, reefs and strong undertows all create hazards. But on a good winter day, the right breaks tower overhead in world-class fashion. No wonder the spot was chosen for one of the Triple Crown contests, the Reef Hawaiian Pro.
Although it’s just northeast of the Pipe, Ehukai may appeal to intermediate surfers. One of Hawaii’s primo sandbar breaks, it lacks the reefs and rocks that make the Pipe so tricky, but great barrel waves still roll up, albeit on a manageable scale. When there’s a calm summer ocean, even beginners may feel comfortable at Ehukai. And you can always sit and watch in wonder at the pros duking it out with the Pipe next door.