Tony Heff

Hawaii’s 10 Best Waves

There’s no region as wave-rich as Hawaii. Go ahead, put our claim to the test: where else can you find the world’s most challenging yet consistent waves in varying degrees? Hawaii has career defining waves (Pipeline, Haleiwa and Sunset), big waves (Pe’ahi, Waimea), waves for weekend surfers (Honolua Bay, Laniakea) and longboard, mellow waves (Queen’s) and more. Read further as we break down the top 10 waves throughout our beloved island chain.


Ola Eleogram and Eli Olson Photo: Tony Heff

The most famous wave in the world, the Banzai Pipeline sits roughly 30 yards off shore on Oahu’s fabled North Shore. When west or northwest winter swells meet the three reefs at Pipeline – first reef, second reef and third reef – a perfect, hollow barrel is formed, giving surfers the rides of their lives while going left (Pipeline) or right (Backdoor). While much glory goes down at Pipeline, including world champions crowned at the Billabong Pipe Masters and legendary rides etched in surfing lore at contests like the Backdoor Shootout and Volcom Pipe Pro, there is also a significant amount of gore. Wiping out and falling into the razor sharp reef just a couple feet below the surface has caused drownings, near drownings, broken bones and bruises. Even with this inherent danger, the world’s best surfers make the annual pilgrimage to the North Shore every winter to test their talents at Pipeline, a wave also known as the Proving Grounds. – Cash Lambert


Dirk Brace Photo: Erik Aeder

On Oahu, Waimea is often simply called “The Bay” — hear the same term on Maui, and people are talking about Honolua. The Valley Isle’s most popular surf spot can give you the best ride of your life or the scariest hold-down ever, but the risk is well worth the reward. Honolua is best known today as the annual home of the final contest of the women’s World Championship Tour, and local standouts Carissa Moore and Coco Ho have shown a particular prowess here over the years. This wave gets crowded on good days and you’ll have to fight for a ride, but don’t get pushy — Maui locals know how lucky they are to have this wave and can be territorial. Maui is home to an exceptionally talented crop of young guns heading for the Championship Tour when they come of age, so don’t be surprised if half the people in the lineup are around or under age 14 and still smoking you. – Kyveli Diener


Photo: Tony Heff

Known as the Gateway to the North Shore, Haleiwa and its crown jewel – Ali’i Beach Park – is one of the first stops for tourists and visiting surfers alike. Primarily a powerful right hand wave, the venue is the site for contests including the first event of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the Hawaiian Pro, as well as homegrown contests like the Menehune Surfing Championship. On small days, the inside sees parents pushing their keiki on their first waves with locals out the back picking off fun-sized set waves. On bigger days, the area turns into a power surfing arena, showcasing open walls ripe for carving. Whether you’re experienced or not, the wave at Ali’i is dangerous, with the bottom terrain consisting of shallow, razor sharp reef. On the inside of the right-breaking wave sits dangerous Toilet Bowl, a circle that flushes exactly like a toilet bowl in an extremely shallow slab of reef. Don’t fall on this section, be respectful in the lineup and enjoy surfing the famed break. – Sara Aguilar


Photo: Chris Latronic

This deep-water gem is one of the most revered waves on North Shore Oahu. A placid swimming locale in the summer, Sunset Beach shows her true colors in the winter, when the waves are big and heavy. This two-mile stretch of sand has hosted various surf contests over the years, and plays an important role in the annual Vans Triple Crown of Surfing as the site of both the HIC Pro and the Vans World Cup every year. Sunset Beach has been the ideal site for multitudes of surf contests for decades, including being the original home of the Eddie Aikau Invitational in 1984. Sunset’s Hawaiian name, Paumalu, means “taken by surprise” and references the surreptitious west swells that can sometimes catch surfers inside if they are less familiar with the break. The consistent waves curling in over the northwest facing reef can hover in the manageable 4-6 ft range or leap up over 12-15 feet with a solid north swell, even reaching over 30 feet in XL conditions. Sunset offers a mixed bag of waves that are perfect for everything from wrapping turns to vicious hacks to deep barrels. – Kyveli Diener

Pe’ahi (Jaws)

Aaron Gold Photo: Keoki

Pe’ahi, better known to many as Jaws, is the most perfect big wave in the world. Standing on the cliffs above Pe’ahi Gulch and looking at the pulse in the water, you can feel the wave’s energy even in its sleepy moments when it breaks at just 7 feet. Though he wasn’t the very first, surfing at Jaws was truly pioneered by Laird Hamilton in the 1980s, and he served as godfather to the younger men and women who began towing and paddling in to Pe’ahi as young as 12 years old. The wave has been featured in multiple movies, been the subject of countless books and articles, and now annually hosts the Pe’ahi Challenge on WSL’s Big Wave Tour. With the right swell and offshore winds, the wave can rise up between 30-60 feet, and offers a cavernous barrel on the west inside section. The unwavering crew of Jaws regulars — Albee Layer, Dege O’Connell, Billy Kemper, Paige Alms, Kai Lenny, the Walsh brothers, Shane Dorian, Torrey Meister, and their friends visiting from as far as South Africa and Australia — will always be out when it’s big, and they will always have the waves of the day. – Kyveli Diener


Brian Keaulana Photo: Allen Mozo

Located on Oahu’s west side, Makaha is a fierce and powerful wave with a rich history. Home to the Makaha International Surfing Championship, a contest founded in 1954, the break is also regarded as the birthplace of big wave surfing, where surfers such as Buzzy Trent, George Downing, Greg Noll and more pushed the limits of what could be ridden from the 1940s to the 1960s. The reef at Makaha is a collection of interconnected breaks, with the most popular takeoff zone at the Bowl, featuring a steep drop that leads to what’s known as the inside reef, a tube that funnels into powerful shore break. Showcasing a colorful surf culture, surfers at Makaha on smaller days can be seen catching waves on tandem boards, outrigger canoes, bodyboards, longboards and shortboards, all crafts that are ridden in a contest format at the Buffalo Big Board Classic, a homegrown contest that began in 1977 and continues this year. With its unique culture and consistent winter swell, Makaha is a wave like no other and will give you an experience like no other. – Cash Lambert

Sandy Beach

Jamie O’Brien Photo: Chris Monroe

Sandy Beach, better known as Sandy’s, is one of the top hangout hubs for locals and tourists. Located on the southeast shore of Oahu, the beautiful secluded stretch of sand is known for its powerful shorebreak, which attracts bodyboarders and bodysurfers seeking deep barrels and high aerials. Sandy’s is also known for its danger: red warning flags and signs about strong currents, hazardous shorebreak and sharp coral dot the beach. The break mostly responsible for drama and action goes by the name Middles, the area with the biggest shorebreak. A variety of other breaks at Sandy’s includes Full-Point, Half-Point (which feathers into Pipe Littles), Cobbles, Chambers, and Last Man’s. Visit Sandy’s on any given weekend and you may catch a Hawaii Bodyboarding Pro Tour contest, with Hawaii’s best bodyboards battling in waves of consequence. – Sara Aguilar


Kai Sallas Photo: Tony Heff

Known for its slow, playful rolling waves, Queen’s is the beach for beginners as well as any surfers looking for a mellow yet rippable sessions. Located in Waikiki on the South Shore of Oahu, Queen’s was once the heroic playground for Hawaiian royalty and received its name from Queen Liliuokalani, who lived in a beach house near the surf break. It’s the iconic break where beginners are pushed on their first waves by beach boys and lifelong surfers expertly noseride towards shore. Paddle out on Queen’s on any given day, and you’ll find yourself in a lineup of surfers on a spectrum of boards, like longboards, SUPs, soft tops and shortboards. Because the break is so accessible, user friendly and fun, the lineup is usually heavily crowded. During big summertime south swells, when waves range from shoulder to head high, the inside ramp section is prime for progressive surfing. – Sara Aguilar


CJ Kanuha Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder

Whether you’re a young grom all the way up to the weathered Uncle, Banyans is the go to spot in Kailua Kona on the west side of the Big Island. Picking up west swells during the winter months and south swells during the summer, Banyans is a sure bet for waves year round. In the 1-3 foot range, Banyans is a playful wave but with a shallow reef main take-off, the initial paddle in can be daunting. Once you figure out the dynamics, small barrels and power pockets can turn into really fun sections going both right and left. Once the swell starts hitting the 4 foot and bigger, the takeoff moves out from the shallow reef shelf and the rides on the main right-hander can extend longer into the adjacent bay with plenty of open face and steep sections of blue water. While the wave can be a playground for almost any surfer, it is the main and most popular break in Kailua Kona and respect of the locals is a must. On any given day you can find the ‘Banyan’s Crew’ posted up, including local pro rippers like Shane Dorian and CJ Kanuha along with a long list of up and coming groms and stalwart Uncles. Banyans also plays host to a number of amateur contests in the area, including Shane Dorian’s annual Keiki Classic. – Tyler Rock

Ala Moana Bowls

Alex Pendleton Photo: Tony Heff

One of Town’s most iconic waves is a man-made left-hand reef break known as Ala Moana Bowls. Bowls was formed in the 1950s when two harbors, Kewalo Basin and the Ala Wai Small Boat Yacht Harbor joined together. During the construction, coral and dirt were extracted from the area, creating the “Bowl”. Credit can be given to legends like Gerry Lopez, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, and Larry Bertlemann for proving Bowls to be the core of progressive surfing and tuberiding in the 1970s. Primarily a left, Bowls is classified as a world-class mouth-watering wave. When a solid south swell graciously comes face to face with the reef, experienced surfers will be gliding through stand up barrels all day, while sharing the lineup with the South Shore’s best crop of talent. – Sara Aguilar


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