Surfing Oahu’s Famous North Shore

Surfing isn’t a hobby; it’s an addiction. Tom Austin, contributing editor of Travel + Leisure, takes a look at Oahu’s famous North Shore while following those lucky enough to get all the fixes they need there. Read about it in his article World on a Wave.

“Since the halcyon era of the fifties, when a handful of madcap California surfers drove north from Waikiki to stoke themselves silly on their quaint long boards, the world’s coolest village has been in the business of myth, churning out visions of paradise. This 26-mile stretch of beach and the surrounding hills—called the country on Oahu—does have very real surf breaks: Hammerheads (named after a nearby shark breeding ground), Himalayas, Avalanche, Marijuana’s, Banzai Pipeline, Gas Chambers. In season, from October through March, truly monstrous waves—with faces up to 25 feet tall—turn the North Shore into the mecca of surfing, which pretty much means it also becomes a stomping ground for international pop culture.

I traveled to the North Shore from my hometown of Miami—another tropical frontier that is part of America in only the broadest conceptual sense—and Sunset Beach came as a wistful lesson in what Miami Beach could have been if towering condominiums hadn’t devoured the culture of the street. Sunset Beach is a miraculous place, the most organic, pedestrian-friendly, and resolutely democratic town imaginable. America has become a land of gated communities, but Sunset Beach proves that every socioeconomic class can play nicely with others, though many North Shore natives resent that they can’t afford beach houses anymore. (A 1,166-square-foot beach house that went for $750,000 in 2000 would now, according to various brokers, sell for $3 million or more.)

The sport of Hawaiian kings has evolved into a multibillion-dollar global phenomenon. Naturally, monolithic corporations are also chasing the youthquake edge of surfing, that mystical yet eminently marketable chimera of sun, fun, freedom, and unemployment. Like hired gunslingers, young North Shore surfers—many of whom were taught the sport by their hippie-dippie parents—will say they ride for Roxy or some other outfit. The teen icons of surf world, who can make a quarter-million dollars a year, are compelled by contract to be walking billboards of surf leisure clothes, though they barely process the sixties notion of selling out.”