Beach villages to restaurants: 8 places in Hawai‘i for a surf culture fix
The idea of hanging ten off one of Hawai‘i’s famous beaches has long been a major drawcard to the islands, and here is where you can get your surf fix.
As the most isolated landmass in the world, it’s no wonder Hawaiians live their life immersed in the ocean. The islands were settled by voyagers travelling from Polynesia in double-hulled sailing canoes and in the hundreds of years that followed surfing went from giant, heavy wooden boards surfed by Hawaiian royalty to the light, quick boards we see in competitions today, with plenty of shapes and styles in between.
The best way for travellers to immerse themselves in Hawai‘i’s surf culture – whether you’re a surfer or not – is to seek out the state’s top beaches, spend time in its seaside villages, and shop and dine in surf-themed restaurants. Here are some of the best.
1. Waikiki Beach, Oʻahu
Home to one of Hawai‘i’s most famous surfers, Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968), Waikiki is tourist central, and for good reason. Not only will you find great hotels here, such as the pretty-as-a-picture Royal Hawaiian, and a ridiculous number of places to eat and drink, but Waikiki is the place to learn to surf.
In the early 1900s, local men, who became known as “Waikiki beach boys”, offered surf lessons to keen tourists, and today there are a number of kiosks where you can book tuition or hire a big foam board and ride mellow waves.
Sheraton Waikiki Beach Resort even has its own water-sport kiosk and instructors on hand to take hotel guests out for lessons directly in front of the high-rise.
2. Haleʻiwa Town, Oʻahu
If you want to join the big wave surfers, there’s no going past Oʻahu’s North Shore, with the northern hemisphere winter the best time to watch the pros in action at beaches such as Waimea Bay, home to the Eddie Aikau Big Wave International.
But to soak up the surf vibes without getting wet, you want to head to Haleʻiwa Town, a charming community of art galleries, boutiques, surf shops and restaurants.
As the gateway town to the North Shore, you’ll find plenty of other tourists here but the pace is much more chilled than Waikiki. For cool threads, make a beeline to Number 808, which sells tees and jumpers with vintage tourist slogans, fluoro surf stickers, and sunglasses.
For classic coastal homewares, take your time looking through the ornaments, jewellery, books and art at Kai Ku Hale, and then step into The Green Room surf art gallery to chat with local artists and pick up a souvenir you’ll be proud to hang on your wall at home.
3. Aloha Art Gallery, Oʻahu
You’re not short of surf-themed eateries on Oʻahu, and likely the most famous is Duke’s Waikiki, honouring the legendary surfer. But if you’re after somewhere less touristy but still with plenty of funky souvenirs and within easy walking distance of Waikiki hotels, grab a table at Aloha Art Gallery on the main thoroughfare of Kalākaua Avenue.
Enjoy your morning caramel macchiato and a waffle with acai while admiring the stack of brightly-coloured surf art on the walls. There is also live music every night.
4. Launiupoko Beach Park, Maui
The second-largest Hawaiian island, Maui, is famous for being one of the best places in the world to kitesurf, with kitesurfers and windsurfers flocking to its North Shore beaches. But if you want to go surfing, and ride where the locals ride, make your way to Launiupoko Beach Park.
This West Maui spot is popular with families because it has a rock pool for wading, and the waves just beyond the wall are gentle. It’s a good break for beginner surfers, longboarders and stand-up paddleboarders. The park also has a large grassy area with shade, picnic tables, toilets and a small car park.
Launiupoko Beach Park is not far from Lāhainā, a popular town devastated by fires in 2023, so if you do venture here be mindful that you’ll likely meet locals who’ve gone through a lot of recent hardship and compassion in and out of the water is paramount.
5. Makawao, Maui
It may not be by the coast, but that hasn’t stopped Maui residents from carrying their surf culture to Makawao, a town with strong paniolo roots. Hawaiian cowboys have been wrangling cattle in Upcountry Maui since the late 19th century, and there’s even an annual rodeo.
Although the two main streets are lined with timber buildings that scream “frontier”, step inside the buildings and you’ll feel like you’re back by the sea. Shop shelves are full of seashell-shaped candles, swimwear, big-wave surf tomes, marine-printed baby clothes and stylish surfwear for adults.
For authentic Hawaiian surf attire, pop into Holoholo Surf, where the dresses are hand-dyed, the swimmers range from skimpy to retro full briefs, and the boardshorts are in classic floral Hawaiian prints. You will also be mesmerised by the vintage surfboards, beautiful board fins, and rattan furniture decorating the shop.
6. Poipu Beach, Kauaʻi
If you’re holidaying on Kauaʻi and are keen to go for a surf, you won’t be disappointed with Poipu Beach. Split into two beaches by a sandy spit topped by a rockshelf, Poʻipū Beach Park has two crescent-shaped bays that attract locals and travellers.
Located on Kauaʻi’s South Shore, this gorgeous spot is perfect for the entire family, as kids can comfortably snorkel and swim in the gentle bays, while Mum and Dad take turns riding the small waves further out.
If you want surf lessons, there are a handful of local schools. The beach is also patrolled by lifeguards and has showers, picnic tables and toilets, and you may even find yourself lazing on the sand with a sea turtle or monk seal.
7. Honoliʻi Beach Park, Island of Hawaiʻi
There is more to Hawaiian beaches than white sand and clear water; some of its coastline is made up of rugged strips of volcanic black sand, offering a beach outing you may not have experienced before.
Although the Island of Hawaiʻi is frequented by a lot of honu (turtles) and is fantastic for snorkelling and scuba diving, you can also surf here, and Honoliʻi Beach Park is a favourite.
Not far from the town of Hilo, this striking cove is ideal for experienced surfers who can handle strong currents. In Downtown Hilo you will discover centuries-old timber art galleries, restaurants and shops.
8. Kona Village, A Rosewood Resort, Island of Hawaiʻi
A scuba diver’s dream, Kahuwai Bay on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi offers a fascinating underwater landscape of lava rocks. At the same time, above water, you will discover Kona Village, A Rosewood Resort. This retreat isn’t officially a surf resort but it may as well be as it’s steeped in Hawaiian history and ocean culture. Reopening to guests in mid-2023, the resort is on the shores of Kahuwai Bay, in a former fishing village.
Instead of kitsch surf memorabilia, this is a place that honours Polynesian settlers through authentic cultural experiences and sustainable practices that connect visitors to place and people.
Sleep in a thatched-roof hale (a modern take on a beach shack), go for a sunrise paddle in an outrigger canoe, partake in Hawaiian healing practices and enjoy a cocktail at a bar made out of a sunken sailboat retrieved from the bottom of the bay. This “village” is much more than your typical beach resort.