Surfing was always a spectator sport for me, even during the early 80s when I was wearing OP shirts and calling my friends “dude.” Four years of college in Southern California didn’t change that.
Luckily my kids didn’t inherit any of my hang ups. So when they found boards stashed under our vacation rental’s balcony on a recent trip to Oahu, they made a beeline toward the monster waves without hesitating. (That’s me behind them shouting something unintelligible about riptides and dangerous shoals.)
Once we figured out that they had a healthy respect for the vortexes of water churning in the distance, and were just interested in riding their boogie boards on the wavelets breaking on the beach, the adults settled into a healthy argument about the best places to take kids surfing in Hawaii.
I love Maui, and one of the highlights of my trip to the island in 2011 was visiting Jaws, the legendary surf spot. Remember that interview with Dave Kalama in National Geographic Adventure a few years ago? That left an impression.
I couldn’t believe a 70-foot wave existed — let alone that it could be surfed — until I saw it with my own eyes. Wave is an understatement. It was a wall of water.
This is the place to watch surfing, I thought.
(But if I ever saw one of my kids try it, I’d go into cardiac arrest.)
Now here we were in this rental on the North Shore — right on the beach. With a view this great, you couldn’t help but admire the waves.
It’s around this time of year that the really big ones start coming. They form thousands of miles away in the Aleutians and come thundering ashore.
When the waves are high, the road outside our rental becomes a parking lot. Along a narrow strip of public beach, you can see professional photographers with their tripods and telephoto lenses, trying to get the perfect shot of these aquatic daredevils.
On our second day in Oahu, the owner of our rental — a Minnesota transplant who was transferred to Hawaii decades ago and never left — stopped by to say hello.
“You know about the camera on the roof, right?” he asked.
Turns out a surfing magazine runs a “live” cam that streams images of the North Shore online. It’s right up on the roof, because that’s the best spot to see the waves.
Hawaii doesn’t have a shortage of terrific surf spots, but Maui and Oahu are two standouts. When people ask me which one’s better, I feel conflicted. If you’re going to watch surfing, you can’t go wrong with either place. The North Shore has more of a scene, with the surf museum, surfer hang-outs, and shave-ice shops. But Maui is breathtakingly beautiful and less developed than Oahu. It’s a hard choice.
In fact, there’s a rift in my own family. My middle son and I are big fans of Maui, but the rest of the family is all about the Oahu experience. And, yeah, I’ve gotta admit, the camera on the roof was pretty cool.
Christopher Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home. Follow him on Twitter.