Kauai is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful surf destinations in the world. The island is blessed with the Aloha spirit, heavenly scenery, and high-quality waves to surf all year round. Kauai is a paradise for surfers of all skill levels.
Kauai is the northernmost big island in the Hawaiian archipelago. It has dozens of beach breaks, reefs, and points that range from mellow and fun to intense and dangerous. Kauai’s north shore has the best waves in winter, while the south shore produces the best waves in summer.
There are so many places to surf on Kauai that it’s possible to score waves perfectly tailored to your individual surfing needs and preferences. Knowing where to go and when to go there will help you find the waves you’re looking for during your time in this tropical paradise.
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Surfing In Kauai: What You Need To Know
Kauai is known as The Garden Island — a significant designation given how lush and green the other islands in the Hawaiian chain are. The island’s natural splendor matches the quality of waves along the coastline, which offers everything from mellow beach breaks to intense barreling reefs.
Kauai has all the qualities of a classic tropical surf destination. The coastline is characterized by clear, warm ocean water, thickly forested cliffs, majestic mountains, and roughly 50 miles of white sand beaches (more than any other Hawaiian island). Kauai is almost unrealistically beautiful and has been featured in many Hollywood movies for this reason.
The island has 113 miles of coastline, though half the coastline is inaccessible from the land because of the cliffs that precipitously line vast stretches of the Kauai shoreline. Nevertheless, there is ample coastline for surfers to find a dizzying variety of high-quality waves.
Kauai has waves throughout the year, but different parts of the island work better at certain times of the year. The north shore, which is the epicenter of surfing on The Garden Island, is at its best in winter. The south shore tends to have the best waves in Kauai during the summer months.
Some of the most popular places to surf on Kauai include:
- Tunnels Beach,
- Hanalei Bay,
- Kahili Quarry,
- Kealia Beach,
- Shipwreck Beach.
Many breaks in Kauai can be mellow and fun. Nonetheless, it is crucial to remember that this is Hawaii — vigilant alertness and common sense are always necessary regardless of when and where one is surfing on the Kauai. The ocean here is exceedingly powerful and unpredictable and always demands respect. It is also vitally important to be aware and respectful of the local contingent of sharks and surfers.
Tourism is the foundation of Kauai’s economy, so the island is well-equipped to meet the logistical needs of visiting surfers. Kauai has several surf shops and surf schools and myriad options for accommodation and eating out. There are also many local companies offering surf tours and boat charters around the island.
When To Surf In Kauai
There isn’t a wrong time to surf in Kauai. The island has phenomenal waves and pleasant, tropical weather all year. Air temperatures range from 73F in January to 80F in September, and water temperatures stay between 77F and 80F year-round.
The prevailing winds in Kauai blow from the northeast and are mildest during the summer months. Southwest winds are favorable for some of the north shore surf spots but these winds are less common, and mostly hit Kauai in winter.
Swell Conditions In Winter
Depending on the time of year, swell conditions in Kauai vary considerably from the north to the south shores. In wintertime, the biggest and best waves on Kauai are on the north shore. At this time of year, the island gets battered by giant swells originating in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
The waves are much smaller on the south shore in winter. There are often decent-sized waves on the west shores during wintertime, while the east shore tends to be windy and disorganized.
Swell Conditions In Summer
The south shore is the best place to surf in Kauai in summer. Massive, long-period swell arrive from the winter storms in the southern hemisphere, producing solid, powerful waves at the surf breaks along Kauai’s south shore between May and August.
The west and east shores also receive south swells in summer and have some fun waves in summer. The surf breaks on the north shore of Kauai are usually small to flat in summer. Still, it is sometimes possible to find fun waves at spots exposed to northeast trade wind swells.
Ha’ena Bay is on the western end of Kauai’s north shore and has a beautiful beach and several surf spots. The reef breaks at Ha-ena Bay are world-class in winter, with solid-sized barrels breaking over shallow coral. At this time of year, most of the reefs are suitable for experienced, intrepid surfers only.
Starting on the western end of the north shore is Cannons, a heavy barreling left-hand reef situated on the west side of Ha’ena Beach Park in the small town of Wainiha. This break has one of the most famous waves in Kauai and is world-class in winter.
The paddle-out at Cannons is from the beach. The spot works best on big north swells and is suited to experienced surfers due to the size and intensity of the waves here. Visiting surfers should also be mindful of the local surfers who dominate Cannons.
Tunnels is a surf break on the east side of Ha’ena Beach Park, which is probably even more famous than Cannons. Tunnels is a big, hollow right-hand point break outside the barrier reef at the top of Ha’ena Point. To get to the reef, one must paddle out about 500m from the beach.
The waves range between six to eight feet but can get considerably bigger on winter swells. When it’s working, Tunnels has long, fast walls with some shallow, spitting barrel sections.
This spot is potentially hazardous and is reserved strictly for experienced surfers. The waves break over a sharp coral reef far from shore, and sharks often pass through the deep channel behind the reef.
Around the next headland to the east is Hanalei Bay are several of the most well-known surf spots on Kauai. There is a long, gently-sloping beach at Hanalei Bay, with waves catering for novice and advanced surfers alike.
Waikokos is a powerful reef-break situated on the eastern end of Hanalei Bay. The waves break about 200m from shore, along the fringes of the barrier reef. Waikokos is a peak that breaks both ways. The left has long walls running down into the bay, while the right breaks towards the shore and is shorter and hollower.
Pine Trees is a well-known beach break in the middle of Hanalei Bay. The waves at Pine Trees are generally mellow and beginner-friendly. When the swell and wind conditions are favorable, there are fast, rippable walls and clean, hollow barrels.
Pine Trees is worth checking out because it’s a consistent surf spot that usually has a foot or two of swell and fun rippable waves, even in onshore conditions.
At the far eastern end of the beach near the river mouth at Hanalei Pier is the classic surf spot called The Point, a long, right-hand point, breaking over a shallow reef to the east of the pier. The Point holds a wide range of swell sizes, so the waves vary from fun to scary.
The Point has long, super-fun waves and is ideal for beginner surfers, though a degree of caution is required because the reef can get shallow on low tides. The outside section has long, fast walls and solid barrel sections for advanced surfers when the swell gets bigger.
Kealia Beach is on the east shore of Kauai, about 6 miles from Hanalei along Hawaii Route 56. The beach is just north of the town and has two main sections.
Most of Kealia Beach is exposed to the open ocean and has a fairly steep gradient. The waves at this section of the beach are powerful but fun on smaller days. On bigger swells, the waves are overhead and heavy, though it is often quite messy when the prevailing northerly winds are blowing.
The northern end of Kealia Beach is tucked behind a rocky jetty, sheltered from open ocean swell and onshore winds. The waves here are mellower than the rest of the beach and are perfect for beginners.
A few miles down the east shore is Kalapaki Beach, nestled in a small bay called Nawiliwili, between a harbor and a rocky headland. Kalapaki Beach has ride-able waves in the shore-break, but the prime surf spot is a reef that breaks on the west side of the bay, near the harbor.
The reef at Kalapaki is predominantly a right-hand break. It’s usually small to medium-sized and fun due to the protection of Nawiliwili Bay. The waves at the reef work best in the two to four-foot range. It’s a shallow spot with a quick take-off and hollow barrels, so beginners should exercise caution.
Poipu is one of the main areas to surf on the south shore of Kauai. There are several beach and reef breaks in Poipu. The waves are world-class in the summer months. Here are just a few of Poipu’s most well-known surf spots.
PKs is a reef break located near Baby Beach. The take-off zone is a short paddle from the beach and the waves are mostly fun rights that range from one to four feet. The reef gets overhead on big swells. PKs also has fun, beginner-friendly left-hand waves closer to the beach.
Acid Drops is a powerful, super-fast right-hand reef break located west of Kaihuna Beach. The spot is accessed by jumping off the rocks and paddling across a narrow, deep-water channel. At Acid Drops, one can find high-performance waves that work on four to six-foot swells, with clean, hollow barrels on offshore days.
Further east along the Poipu coastline is Waiohai Reef, which breaks off the rocky headland at Poipu Beach. Waiohai Reef is a playful wave with some hollow, shallow sections on good days. It’s primarily a left-hand wave. You can go right at Waiohai Reef, but the lefts are longer and faster.
At the back of Waiohai is First Break, an outer reef roughly 500m from shore. First Break is a hollow right-hand wave for experienced, physically-fit surfers only. It gets much more solid than Waiohai because the reef is exposed to open ocean swell. First Break handles six to eight-foot swell easily.
At the far eastern end of Poipu is Shipwreck Beach, a rippable and super fun beach break in the corner of a small cove. The waves at Shipwreck Beach break close to shore over shallow sandbanks and are short, fast, and powerful. There are hollow, make-able barrels on clean days.
Kekaha is one of the most popular surf spots on the west shore of Kauai. There are several breaks along Kekaha Beach, including:
- First Ditch,
- Second Ditch,
- Rifle Range.
The main break is Inters, located west of Kekaha town along Route 50. Inters is a sand-bottom point that beaks just off the beach. It’s a long, right-hand wave that is a mellow and playful one to two feet in summer.
In wintertime, Inters gets a lot bigger (four to six feet) and more intense, providing lightning-fast, hollow right-hand walls that speed down the point.
Though Inters breaks close to shore, there is a lot of water moving around on bigger days, and the sandbanks are shallow. Beginner surfers should probably go to one of the more protected parts of Kekaha Beach when the swell is over three feet.
Surfing In Kauai: Important Logistical Information
You can get to Kauai by flying to Lihue Airport, just north of the town of Nawiliwili. Unfortunately, there are no ferries between Kauai and the other big islands.
Once you’re in Kauai, you can get around with taxis or public buses. Hiring a car is probably the best option for exploring the island and its more isolated surf spots. A host of tour companies can also take you to the best places in Kauai.
Kauai is among the most expensive Hawaiian islands to travel in, and it’s considerably more costly than other tropical surf destinations like Indonesia. Having said this, the wide variety of food and accommodation options on Kauai means surfers should find affordable places to stay and eat.
It’s worth emphasizing that Kauai can be a dangerous place to surf. The waves and currents on the island are notoriously powerful and unpredictable. The shallow coral reefs, assertive locals, and sharks add to the potential hazards of surfing in Kauai.
Caution and common sense are vital at all times. Beginners should probably stick to the beaches where lifeguards are posted. In addition, all surfers should be cautious surfing near river-mouths when the water is muddy and opaque due to the increased possibility of shark encounters.
Kauai is a surfers paradise. The people, weather, majestic tropical scenery, and wealth of quality waves make this Hawaiian island one of the most idyllic places to surf on the planet.