Pro Surfer John John Florence’s Guide to Oahu
Florence, a world champion, grew up exploring this Hawaiian Island. Here are his favorite off-the-radar places to surf, hike, sail, and chill on empty beaches.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor are must-see attractions for most visitors to Oahu. Iolani Palace and sunset luaus are also popular. But John John Florence has other ideas of how to spend your time on Hawaii’s most touristed island.
The 30-year-old North Shore native, two-time world surfing champion, and member of the inaugural U.S. Olympic surf team was born and raised here. When he’s not dropping into a set wave or sailing, he enjoys meditative land-based pursuits: gardening, beekeeping, and mountain biking are three favorites.
Florence doesn’t often spend time in town, as locals call Honolulu, but he does have a set of places he frequents that don’t necessarily make it into his Instagram posts. (You have to keep some secrets from 1.5 million followers.) From the nicest beaches to the healthiest cafés to surfing, sailing, and hiking, here are his suggestions on the best ways to round out a trip to Oahu.
OUTSIDE: Oahu welcomed more than three million visitors in 2021. That’s a lot of people! Where would you send friends who want to see stunning beaches as well as get a sense of the wild side of the island but avoid the crowds?
FLORENCE: Oahu as a whole is a really beautiful place, and I enjoy every side of the island, but I’ll share a few stops from some different areas. Starting with the North Shore, pretty much anywhere you decide to pull over the car is going to be a really nice beach. Waimea Bay is a special place and perfect for a beach day. On the south shore, I like spending time in the Ala Moana area of Honolulu—the waves are fun, there are plenty of great restaurants, and the sailing scene and Friday-night races are rad. Lastly, I’d recommend checking out some of the nature reserves: the bird sanctuary at Kaena Point [the island’s westernmost tip], Sharks Cove on the North Shore, and Hanauma Bay [in the southeast], to name a few.
What are your recommendations for visiting the North Shore: What’s the best month, and where do you go if you’re up there to see pro surfers on big waves? And do you have any tips for amateurs surfing that stretch of coast?
I might be biased, but I think visiting the North Shore is fun any time of the year. Summer and winter have different faces, but both offer great things. I could give a big list, but instead I’ll shoot you an ideal day: During a contest day, head down to Pipeline and watch a few heats. It’s a fun environment and really cool seeing waves that big up close. Head over to Pupukea Grill for some food before heading into Haleiwa town to check out the local shops. If you’re looking to learn to surf, head over to Uncle Bryan’s surf school at Puaena Point for an afternoon lesson and sunset. That’s a pretty good day on the North Shore.
After surfing and sailing, what are your favorite outdoor activities on the island?
Recently I’ve gotten into biking, both road biking and mountain biking. They’ve been a lot of fun to learn about and use as another method of training. Also, I’m part of a solid crew of people who go downwind foiling. Foil boards are essentially surfboards on top of a large foil. We move with the wind—downwind—and basically see how far we can go without dropping back into the water. It’s a lot like snowboarding in powder, but in the ocean. I do that a lot.
If you only had time for one hike on Oahu, what should it be and why?
That’s a tough one, but I’d say Koko Head. It’s fairly well-known but not too long and offers great views on the southeastern side of the island.
I know you grow a lot of produce yourself, but when you’re out and about, where do you go to eat healthy, and what kind of local farmers’ markets or local farms would you encourage folks to seek out while they’re visiting?
There are definitely great farmers’ markets around the island. I also use an awesome resource called Farm Link; it groups together offerings from all the organic farms into one marketplace for purchase. They’re great. Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s Learning Farm—Kim and Jack Johnson’s nonprofit—is a fairly new farm and retail space in Haleiwa. It’s a really cool place to visit, learn about farming, and volunteer. As for healthy cafés, I like the Country Eatery and Raised by the Waves, both in Kahuku.
What do you do on a rainy day in Oahu?
I guess it depends how rainy it is. If it’s a flooding type of rain, there isn’t much you can do but we get a lot of light rain, too. That usually doesn’t stop my normal activities—surfing, mountain biking, or foiling. I suggest doing the same things you’d do on a sunny day. Rain passes quick!
Most mainlanders know that Hawaii is famous for poke and shave ice. Where do you go to get these? What other places with traditional food do you frequent, and do you have any favorite orders there?
Ha, we are kind of famous for those. I don’t have a shave ice place, but if I’m getting poke, I’ll stop by Kahuku Superette. The best, though, is when a friend catches fish and makes fresh poke at a BBQ or something. Some other food places I really like are Kahuku Farms and, in Haleiwa, Haleiwa Joe’s, Haleiwa Bowls for acai, and Pupukea Grill—everything at the grill is amazing!
As a sailor, do you have any recommendations for seeing the island that way, either with a company or with your own boat? Any off-the-radar coves or areas with notably more sea life or a fantastic swim or snorkel?
Yeah, definitely. There are a ton of great tours you can take. On the North Shore, Island View Hawaii has a really cool pelagic tour where you get to swim with the sharks outside of Haleiwa. That’s a great experience. In town, there’s a tour called Hawaii Glass Bottom Boats that will take you out around the Waikiki area to see all of the sights. Both are great ways to see different parts of the island.
What local shops have a good selection of unique homemade items from Oahu?
There are a lot of great local shops on the North Shore. The Cove Collection sells household gifts, jewelry, and art. That’s right at Sharks Cove. In Haleiwa, there are a bunch of cool art galleries and surf shops. I like Surf N Sea and North Shore Surf Shop. You don’t need to go far to find what you’re looking for in the way of gifts.
Do you follow any local musicians?
If you have the opportunity to see Hawaiian artists like Paula Fuga, Kimie Miner, Jack Johnson, or Ron Artis, I’d highly recommend it. My friend Martin Saito is another amazing musician on the rise.
Have you ever considered moving to another Hawaiian Island?
I enjoy visiting all the islands—they’re all amazing in their own way—but I haven’t thought much about moving to another. Oahu is home!