Big-pipe dreaming

Lance Richardson rides high on Oahu's North Shore, where the attitude is 'a little bit country' and the surf is legendary.

Franko's Oahu Surf Map, available at dozens of convenience stores across the island, reads like a private logbook stolen from an obsessive beachcomber. A full chart of Oahu is superimposed with photographs, fish and a tight scrawl. Sunset Point, for example, is described as "one of the world's great rights when on". Yokohama Bay - or "Pray for Sex Beach" - features "crunching shore break and park facilities".

Those in the know swear by its accuracy but to the uninitiated this mix of lingo and abbreviation renders the map less a treasure and more a Hawaiian curiosity. Franko's efforts offer a baffling glimpse into a surfing world immortalised by American films since the golden days of Elvis.

What the map also offers is a telling overview of the island's organisation. Surf tips and pointers are scribbled around the entire coastline but Honolulu, with its high-rises, highways and city sprawl, is rendered as an orange stain hemming in the base of the Koolau Range. The North Shore, by contrast, is painted completely green.

As for the even distribution of surf tips, this is because winds change with the season. In December to early February the North Shore has the best swells, levelling out as the air currents alter direction and make summer the optimum time to hit the waves in the south.

But while surfers in the south must battle with the urban congestion of Waikiki Beach, the North Shore can be summed up by the ubiquitous bumper sticker: "Keep the country country." This refers, it turns out, to aesthetics as well as attitude and density. While Honolulu struggles with the variegated architecture of its 1960s growth spurt, the north maintains strict regulations that mean even McDonald's must disguise itself as a weatherboard shack to fit in.

Add to this an ethos of laid-back community and Franko's colour scheme comes to seem almost symbolic. You can surf all over Oahu, one resident tells me, "but mecca is the North Shore" and when compared with Honolulu, their word of choice is "antidote".

At its heart is Haleiwa Town, sometimes referred to as "the surfing capital of the world". It is also designated a "State Historic, Cultural and Scenic District". To reach its artful decay from Honolulu, you take the highway through the centre of Oahu, past military bases and fields of pineapple and coffee. Surprisingly, Haleiwa actually paved the way for the tourist zone of the south.

Though it's long gone, the island's first luxury hotel was opened here on the banks of Haleiwa's Anahulu Stream in 1898 by a businessman named Benjamin J. Dillingham. Today you're more likely to notice the stark contrasts with Waikiki: the flaking paint and overgrowth, or people crowding around a van with a giant crustacean painted on the side.

While Macky's Shrimp Truck serves as an unofficial welcome sign to the area, it's only the beginning. Between Grass Skirt Grill and Cholo's Margarita Bar is a miniature universe of palms, retro vistas and bespoke swimwear. In the North Shore Marketplace, glass blowers sit alongside shops peddling shell jewellery and bone art.

The North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum is here, too, though a viewing of its contents is subject to a schedule as capricious as the weather. It opens, according to the sign, at "sometimes 11am, mostly 12pm" and closes at "6pm but sometimes 5pm". It's closed at noon when I visit, with another sign showing nothing but a sad face and the cursive signature of "Hurricane Bob". The general consensus is that he has probably gone surfing.

Though it's tempting to simply follow in his footsteps by hiring a board and heading to the beaches, there are other things to discover. The spiritual centre of Haleiwa Town is a nondescript grocery store named Matsumoto's, famous throughout Hawaii for what I mistakenly identify as the snow cone. "We definitely don't say snow cone," I'm quickly reprimanded by my local guide. "That's mainland talk."

Along with shrimp, "shave ice" has assumed a place as totem food for the surf set. Matsumoto Shave Ice has a cult following - the rough storefront is generally mobbed by visitors ordering giant mounds of lychee or white cake-flavoured ice. While it tastes much like you'd expect, the addition of Japanese sweet beans in a comically sized plastic flower cone makes an entertaining and unwieldy snack.

Because one sugary hit invariably demands another, I follow this with a quick drive to the neighbouring town of Waialua, where an old sugar mill has been converted into a honeycomb of independent factories.

Built at the base of the Waianae Mountains, the Waialua Sugar Company closed in 1996, signalling the end of large-scale sugar plantations on Oahu.

Travellers will find in its stead the North Shore Soap Factory, as well as a coffee and chocolate warehouse where cocoa pods are scattered around the back door. The piles of surfboards are also hard to miss, particularly because the Waialua Sugar Mill claims to house "more big-name surfboard shapers, glassers and airbrushers than any other place on Earth".

Head along the Kamehameha Highway and it's easy to understand why. At the doorstep of Waialua and Haleiwa are a series of beaches that provide surfers with endless variety and opportunity. Each spot has its own story and personality: Gas Chambers is named for its prevalence of air bubbles; the world-famous Banzai Pipeline is a notoriously dangerous reef that has claimed the lives of several experienced riders.

"With big waves, you can stand on the beach and feel the concussion in your chest," my guide says as we wander down Ehukai Beach, closest to the pipeline. Although there is no sign of any surf, a surfer stakes out the beach from his car, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he waits for something - anything - to happen.

A drive from Haleiwa all the way to Sunset Beach takes in everything the North Shore is famous for but among the 30 to 40 surf spots are two beaches particularly worth visiting. At the first, Laniakea Beach, surfers share the waves with protected honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles, which bask on the sand to rest and regulate their temperature. People have been known to sit on the creatures for photo opportunities, so now a volunteer guardian sits on the sand to keep watch.

The other beach is Waimea Bay, a sickle-shaped cove immortalised (and mispronounced) by the Beach Boys in Surfin' USA. Though a new generation of beach boys has been known to hang out here for the view (young women dive off the large rock and sometimes lose their tops on impact), Waimea Bay has a greater claim to fame. The North Shore's iconic lifeguard, Eddie Aikau, once patrolled here. Aikau's legend of fearlessness was sealed in 1978 when, trying to seek help for a sinking boat, he vanished in the ocean near the island of Molokai.

Waimea Bay now hosts the annual Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational, created in his honour and requiring swells of more than six metres before it can begin. The bravery required to take part in this competition is the whole point. Another saying - "Eddie would go" - has become a common dare and a popular bumper sticker.

It's in the spirit of Aikau that I find myself agreeing to try stand-up paddle boarding. The wind is hardly ideal, the waves are alarming and the horizon is filling with storm clouds but, hey: Eddie would go. "And if you don't fall in, you won't get cold," adds Heidi Burgoyne of Rainbow Watersports as she pulls out the boards from her multicoloured van.

After a dry run on the beach during which I'm shown how to turn and steer - all while standing up on a board the size of a coffee table - we cast off around the headland and up the Anahulu Stream, near Haleiwa.

Burgoyne and her husband wrote the book on stand-up paddle boarding. While I struggle to maintain equilibrium, she points out turtles and birds with her other hand. Perhaps it's her superior tutelage, or perhaps it's Aikau and the atmosphere of the North Shore, but this inexperienced paddler doesn't fall in once.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines and Hawaii Tourism.


Getting there

Hawaiian Airlines flies to Honolulu from Sydney (10hr non-stop) for about $1224 low-season return including tax; Melbourne passengers pay about $1465 and fly Virgin Australia to Sydney to connect; see Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at

From Honolulu, Haleiwa Town and the North Shore beaches are less than an hour's drive through the centre of the island.

While there

Surfboard rental is available all over Oahu. On the North Shore, Uncle Bryan's Sunset Suratt Surf Academy has board rental and surfing lessons on beaches every day; the location is weather dependent. Prices on application; see

Rainbow Watersports runs various stand-up paddle-boarding activities, including introductory lessons (two hours and two paddlers, $US89 ($89.30) a paddler) and a four-hour coastal run ($US197 a paddler); see The Stand Up Paddle Book is available from standuppaddle

Stores in the Waialua Sugar Mill are open daily, including the soap factory and custom surfboard shops. The sugar mill also houses a farmers' market; see for dates.

North Shore Shark Adventures runs cage-diving trips leaving Haleiwa Small Boat Harbour, from $US96 a person; see

Staying there

Accommodation on the North Shore varies from backpacker hostels to private holiday rentals and a five-star hotel named Turtle Bay Resort. It has 375 rooms and 42 beach cottages, though it's about a 25-minute drive from the centre of Haleiwa Town; see

For a range of holiday-home rentals (some of which sleep more than 10 people), see the North Shore Chamber of Commerce website,

An alternative is to stay in the hotel zone of Waikiki Beach and take the one-hour drive to the North Shore beaches.

More information

See For Franko's Oahu Surf Map, see

Three seconds of glory at Sunset

THE North Shore has several surf spots but when it gets big and clean the focus is on three: Pipeline, Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. Pipeline breaks hard and fast over a shallow coral reef and is all about the tube. Waimea only starts to break at 4 ½ metres, holds up to nine metres and is all about the drop. Sunset breaks in what seems like the middle of the ocean and is inscrutable and shape-shifting.

My favourite is Sunset. It combines every facet of big-wave surfing: harrowing drops, screaming bottom turns, giant carves and roaring barrels. On good days it's essentially a high-performance wave — on a jumbo scale.

I first surfed here in 1986. From the beach it looked more than 3 ½ metres and organised, but from the water it was a different story. The shore break alone was bigger than the waves I typically surf back home in California. The rip tide grabbed and bobbed me out to the break. Sapphire sheets of water loomed and detonated. Just when I thought I had found the perfect spot to sit, the horizon tilted skyward. Half a rugby field out to sea, a six-metre face crested and a pod of surfers scratched over the lip.

Over the years I've witnessed some stellar performances. On a stormy, victory-at-sea day in the early '90s, Tom Carroll slashed off the top as if it were head-high Newport Peak in Sydney. On a crystalline, north-swell day in 2006, Andy Irons danced under the lip with the bravery and panache of a matador.

Sunset teaches life lessons. Think too much and you will be paralysed by fear. Hesitate and you will be hurled over the falls. Get too cocky and you'll wear a 10-wave set on the head. Decades of surfing here lead less to mastery than profound humility.

My best ride was in 1992. It was late afternoon and the swell was out of the west, creating steep widow's peaks that yawned before pitching. On the inside bowl, death-or-glory barrels gasped and spat. The water was inky glass. The sky was smeared purple.

When a triple-overhead peak appeared, I wheeled my 2.3-metre pintail around, stroked and popped to my feet. In a low tuck I dropped weightlessly down the dimpled face. I set my rail and careened off the bottom. The wave stood up vertically. The lip whooshed overhead. Suddenly, effortlessly, I pulled high into the tube.

It was dark and roaring, a cocoon of spidery glass. Needles of spray stung my ankles. Time froze. I felt glorious, winged.

And then something grabbed my board from below and pitched me forward. My face slapped the water. The turbulence ripped at my limbs. I remember little of the brutal hold down but I can still see vividly that sawtooth gyre and the pale light on the other side.

- Jamie Brisick