With a stunning mix of beauty, action, and culture, the North Shore is the place to go for a quieter and more authentic Hawaiian experience.
Just an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, you’ll find yourself on the North Shore of Oahu, where surfing is king. Home to the famed Banzai Pipeline surf competition, you won’t find bigger waves during the winter months than on this seven-mile stretch of beach - waves, mind you, for the pros. During the summer months, the waves are gentler, and the beaches are perfect for families. Plus, the small towns of Haileiwa and Laie are beautiful, funky, and fun. Simply put, the North Shore is sublime.
Where to stay?
Right next to the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Courtyard Oahu North Shore (55-400 Kamehameha Hwy., Laie) is a newer hotel with a fabulous resort feel. From the moment that you arrive, you’ll feel as though you’ve walked into paradise. This hotel is clean, crisp, and bright. Plus, it’s big - the lobby, the rooms, and the pool! We stayed in a spacious, one-bedroom suite, perfect for our family of four. Each morning, we grabbed a light breakfast and coffee and sat down to enjoy the beautiful lobby. The pool is as nice as almost any five-star resort pool that you’ll find on Oahu (and I’ve seen my fair share of them). My kids loved the water features; I loved that the pool never felt crowded. We only stayed two nights but wish we’d been able to stay longer. Room rates start at $220; suite rates start at $300.
KidTripster Tip: I’d recommend staying in a one-bedroom suite. It’s not much more expensive than a regular room, and you get a huge living room with a mini fridge, sink, and microwave. My kids found the pull-out, queen-sized, sofa bed to be very comfortable.
Photo courtesy: Courtyard Oahu North Shore
What to do?
On your way to the North Shore, make a stop at Kualoa Ranch (49-560 Kamehameha Hwy., Kaneohe). Established in 1850, Kualoa is a 4000-acre private nature reserve, as well as a working cattle ranch with more than 500 head of cattle. The company mission is to be stewards of the land by preserving, protecting, and enhancing Hawaii’s natural beauty and culture while developing recreational and agricultural enterprises that are compatible with the environment. If the views look familiar when you arrive, it’s because Kualoa has been the site of many films and television shows, such as Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, Pearl Harbor, and 50 First Dates, plus Lost, Hawaii Five-0 (the old and new versions), and Magnum P.I. It’s become known as Hollywood’s “Hawaii Backlot.” We took the movie set tour to see the movie sites and learn about the history of the ranch.
I’ll be completely honest: I don’t normally like cultural centers. So when I say that your family needs to go to the Polynesian Cultural Center (55-370 Kamehameha Hwy., Laie), or PCC as the locals call it, you need to go. The PCC was founded in 1963 to give visitors a better understanding of the Polynesian islands, including Aotearoa, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Hawaii. It works with native people to accurately portray and preserve their unique Polynesian heritage through presentations, events, performances, and re-created villages. There’s a true sense of pride that shines through every person who works at the PCC; they’re eager to share their culture with the world. My kids were were absolutely enchanted with the PCC. They especially enjoyed the Passport to Polynesia program. When kids enter the PCC, they’re given a passport. At each village, they earn a stamp for trying the cool games or activities that are indigenous to that village. If they collect six or more stamps, they can redeem the passport for a prize. My kids learned how to throw spears, canoe in a outrigger, and play an ancient Hawaiian bowling game. And my 9-year old got an awesome Maori (temporary) face tattoo! Watch here. We ended the night with the PCC’s Ha: Breathe of Life show. I can’t stress enough how magical and beautiful this show was. My 9-year-old son barely moved a muscle the entire time; he was so entranced by it. My 5-year old even paid attention the entire time. It was a wonderful way to wrap up our visit to the PCC. This experience isn’t cheap, but I think it’s worth every penny. We did the all-day Ambassador Luau Package which included admission to the center, the family luau for dinner, and then the Ha: Breathe of Life Show. Cost: Youth (3 & under) Free; Youth (4-11) $111.96; Adult $139.95. General admission cost only: Youth (3 & under) Free; Youth (4-11) $47.96; Adult $59.95.
KidTripster Tip: I would highly recommend that you buy the all-day package. We got there at 1 p.m. (opens at noon) and left when it closed at 9 p.m.
You must experience the beaches of the North Shore when you come to this side of the island. During the winter, you’ll want to stay out of the water and just watch the pros take on these monster waves. Our favorite beach on the North Shore is Waimea Bay. This is not a swimmable beach during the winter! Big wave season hits Hawaii from November to February, attracting the best surfers in the world. Waimea Bay is home to the Quicksilver surf competition. Between December and February, the sport’s elite surfers come to surf Waimea, but the waves must be a minimum 20-feet high for the competition to take place. This special competition has only taken place nine times in its 32-year history. However, during the summer months, there’s barely a wave to be found, and these beaches become great snorkeling and swimming areas. My 5- and 9-year olds loved swimming here. There’s also a rock outcropping in the bay that’s popular for locals to climb and jump off, even though signs warn not to do so. This beach gets busy, and parking is limited, so come early.
Spend some time in historic Haleiwa when you visit the North Shore. This cute eclectic town is the entrance to the “surfing capital of the world.” It’s full of unique little shops and restaurants. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Photo courtesy: Polynesian Cultural Center
Where to eat?
While hotels rates are similar to Honolulu, we found dining out to be much cheaper on the North Shore than other areas of the island.
Drop into Kono's (66-250 Kamehameha Hwy., Haleiwa) for the tasty and quirky menu. This eatery is known for its breakfast bombers and handmade milkshakes. The most popular bomber is the Chun’s with pulled pork, bacon, eggs, potatoes, and cheese, all wrapped up in a warm tortilla. The Chun’s was so good, we went back twice! Be prepared to wait a bit for your food, since everything is made to order. And because there’s little seating, plan to grab and go.
We really enjoyed the Polynesian Cultural Center’s luau. It’s family-friendly with a royal procession and ceremonial uncovering of the imu (pig baked in an underground oven). It’s a great way to experience traditional Hawaiian fare. My kids liked watching all the performances. Show and dinner package cost: Youth (3 & under); Youth (4-11) $67.96; Adult $84.95.
KidTripster Tip: If your kids love animals (like my 9-year old), skip watching the uncovering of the imu. It can be a bit traumatic for some kids to see an entire pig, baked.
Laie is a one-hour drive from Honolulu and serves as a base for exploring the North Shore.