December 7, 2023 in Hawaii

Aloha Haleiwa: Tracing the History of Hawaii’s North Shore Surf Town

Post placeholder image

Early History

The land that is now Haleiwa and the surrounding North Shore region of O’ahu was originally inhabited by Native Hawaiians who lived in small fishing villages along the coast. Descendants of the early Polynesian voyagers who had settled the islands around the 13th century, they lived a mostly rural and subsistence lifestyle fishing, farming, and harvesting the region’s natural abundance.

In the early 1800s, American missionaries, whalers, and traders began arriving on the island of O’ahu. Many of them established businesses and plantations in the Waialua area, displacing Native Hawaiians from their ancestral lands. One of the first large-scale plantations was the Waialua Plantation Company, founded in the 1860s to grow sugar cane. The influx of Western settlers drastically impacted the traditional Hawaiian way of life in the region.

In the late 1800s, under the Kingdom of Hawaii, the land that would become Haleiwa town was designated for school lots and set aside for development. The fertile soil and abundance of fresh water made it an ideal location for establishing commercial agricultural operations. By 1899, the Waialua Agricultural Company had transitioned from growing sugar to the more profitable pineapple, marking the start of the pineapple plantation era on the North Shore.

Development of Haleiwa Town

The roots of Haleiwa as a town began in 1897, when Benjamin Dillingham opened the Haleiwa Hotel along Kamehameha Highway. This stately Victorian building brought tourists and commerce to the north shore of Oahu.

To support the hotel and other businesses sprouting up, a village was established nearby to house plantation workers. The charming plantation-style homes and buildings from this era still stand today in Haleiwa town.

With a bustling hotel, harbor, and village of workers, businesses began opening up around the hotel and harbor to serve resident needs as well as visitors. The commercial center of Haleiwa took shape around the social and economic activity generated by the Hotel.

What started as a hotel and plantation village grew into a small but vibrant town and commercial hub for Oahu’s north shore. The early development of Haleiwa set the stage for it becoming a famous surf town and thriving community into the present day.

Pineapple Industry

James Dole, founder of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, purchased 61 acres of land in Wahiawa in 1899 and began developing pineapple plantations in the area. Dole grew pineapples in Hawaii and shipped them to the U.S. mainland.

As the pineapple industry expanded under Dole’s leadership, Haleiwa became established as the center of Oahu’s pineapple operations. Huge fields of pineapples surrounded Haleiwa and nearby villages.

Dole built a pineapple canning factory in the town which employed many local residents. Railroad tracks were extended into Haleiwa to transport harvested pineapples to the cannery. At its peak, the Haleiwa cannery packed over 250,000 cases of pineapples per day.

By the 1930s, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company had made Haleiwa an economically thriving company town devoted to pineapple production. The pineapple industry brought jobs, infrastructure, and commerce to the North Shore region. Haleiwa served as the hub for planting, growing, harvesting, canning, and shipping Oahu’s pineapple crop.

Military Presence

During World War II, the U.S. military established several bases on Oahu’s North Shore, bringing an influx of soldiers to the area. The Army set up camps at Waialua and Mokuleia, while the Navy occupied land near Haleiwa town. The military buildup provided an economic boost to Haleiwa as off-duty soldiers frequented local businesses.

Restaurants, bars, and shops saw a surge in revenues thanks to the wallets of young servicemen looking to enjoy their leisure time. In fact, the popular Haleiwa Joe’s restaurant first opened in 1946 to cater to the military crowd. It became a longtime fixture in town and a favorite watering hole for generations of North Shore residents.

Even after WWII ended and the bases closed down, the military maintained a presence in the area. The Dillingham Airfield near Mokuleia continued operations and hosted various Army and Air Force units over the decades. While not as robust as during the war years, the local Haleiwa economy still benefitted from the patronage of military personnel stationed on Oahu’s North Shore into the post-war period.

Surfing History

Haleiwa’s identity as a surf town was cemented in the 1950s when the huge winter swells at Waimea Bay were discovered by surfers. Waimea Bay, located just west of Haleiwa, gained fame for its massive waves that could reach heights over 25 feet during the winter months. This led to Haleiwa becoming a hotspot for big wave surfers wanting to take on the gigantic waves at Waimea and elsewhere along the North Shore.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the early pioneers of big wave surfing, like Greg Noll, Buzzy Trent, and George Downing, flock to Haleiwa and the surrounding beaches during the winter. Epic swell events drew surfers from around the world hoping to make a name for themselves riding the giant waves.

In 1968, the first surf contest focused on big waves was held at Haleiwa, the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. The contest helped showcase Haleiwa and the North Shore as the premier big wave surfing destination. Many surf competitions have been held around Haleiwa since then, focusing on the massive winter swells.

Today, Haleiwa remains a major gathering point for big wave surfers each winter when the swells arrive. The town serves as a home base from which to explore the North Shore’s famous big wave spots, including Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Pipeline. The waves and surf legacy have made Haleiwa one of Hawaii’s most famous surf towns.

Architecture and Landmarks

Haleiwa is home to numerous historic buildings and cultural sites that showcase the town’s diverse history. Many plantation-era structures built in the early 20th century still stand today, remnants of Haleiwa’s origins as a plantation town.

Noteworthy examples include the historic Haleiwa Hotel built in 1901, and the former Haleiwa Elementary School built in 1914, which now serves as an art gallery and community center. Haleiwa also features traditional Hawaiian thatched homes called hale, originally built by Japanese immigrants.

In addition to the town’s architectural landmarks, Haleiwa contains important Hawaiian cultural sites. Puu O Mahuka Heiau is the largest heiau (Hawaiian temple) on Oahu’s North Shore. This impressive three-tiered stone structure dates back to the 16th century. Kawai Nui Fishpond is an ancient coastal fishpond over 200 acres in size, built hundreds of years ago solely from rocks, corals and sand.

These historic buildings and cultural sites offer windows into Haleiwa’s multi-ethnic history and development over centuries. They represent the plantation era, native Hawaiian heritage, and diverse communities that all left their mark forming Haleiwa’s distinctive architecture and landmarks.

Local Business and Economy

Haleiwa’s economy was historically driven by pineapple plantations and the military. Today, tourism and small local businesses are the backbone of the town.

Haleiwa is filled with charming locally-owned shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and cafes along its main streets. Many businesses cater to surfers and tourists but still retain the laidback North Shore vibe. Popular stores sell surf gear, Hawaiian souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, art, and snacks.

The commercial fishing harbor provides jobs and supplies seafood restaurants in the area. Fishing charters and boating tours also operate out of the harbor, attracting tourists looking to spend a day out on the water.

While large chain stores are sparse, Haleiwa offers a unique shopping and dining experience focused on showcasing local brands, artists, and food. Supporting small businesses helps preserve the town’s heritage and independent identity. The revitalization of old buildings into new businesses has maintained Haleiwa’s historic charms.

With its proximity to world-famous beaches, Haleiwa has become a major tourist destination. Surfing competitions, festivals, and museums like the Haleiwa Surf Museum bring in visitors from around the world throughout the year. Tourism provides a vital boost to the local economy and jobs.

Culture and Lifestyle

Haleiwa is known for its laid-back beach town atmosphere and strong Native Hawaiian roots. The community embraces the Aloha spirit and slow-paced “Hawaiian time” lifestyle.

The town has a vibrant surfer culture, with surf shops, shave ice stands, food trucks, and surf competitions. Locals and visitors enjoy beach activities like surfing, fishing, snorkeling, and swimming year-round with the tropical climate.

Haleiwa hosts various cultural events that pay tribute to the town’s history and ethnically diverse population. The annual Haleiwa Arts Festival in July showcases over 100 artisans, cultural demonstrations, live music, and local food. The Haleiwa Surf Competition in February draws top professional surfers and crowds to watch the surf action.

The North Shore area also holds the influential Polynesian Voyaging and Hokule’a festival celebrating the ancient Polynesian practice of non-instrument navigation and canoe voyaging. Residents carry on native traditions through oral histories, traditional Hawaiian arts, and passing down generational knowledge.

Natural Environment

Haleiwa is surrounded by natural beauty and ecological habitats. The town is situated between two estuaries, the Anahulu River and the Waialua River. These surrounding wetlands are home to native waterbirds like Hawaiian stilts, Hawaiian ducks, and Hawaiian coots.

The scenic Haleiwa Beach Park provides access to the protected waters of Haleiwa Harbor and Ali’i Beach Park. Snorkelers and divers can explore the vibrant coral reefs just offshore that are teeming with tropical fish and sea turtles. During the winter months, humpback whales can even be spotted breaching offshore as they migrate to Hawaii’s warm waters to mate and give birth.

Visitors to Haleiwa can also hike to hidden waterfalls located in the nearby mountain valleys. For example, Lulumahu Falls is a seldom visited 50-foot waterfall and swimming hole located just 5 miles up the Anahulu River valley. Experiencing the area’s natural waterfalls and swimming holes offers a refreshing escape from the beaches.

Notable Residents

Haleiwa has been home to many famous surfers, musicians, artists, and community leaders over the years.

Famous Surfers

Some of the most influential surfers that emerged from Haleiwa include:

  • Eddie Aikau – Known as the “Hawaiian Lifeguard” and pioneer big wave surfer. He was the first lifeguard hired by the City & County of Honolulu to work on the North Shore.
  • The Ho family – Patriarch Solomon Ho’opi’i Ka’ai’ai is known as the “Father of Modern Hawaiian Surfing.” His sons David, Solomon Jr., and Ben were standout surfers in the 1960s and ’70s.
  • Gerry Lopez – Legendary tube rider known as “Mr Pipeline” for his mastery of the Banzai Pipeline break. He grew up surfing the North Shore in the 1960s.

Local Musicians

Famous musicians from the area include:

  • Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – Renowned Hawaiian musician best known for his popular medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.”
  • Jake Shimabukuro – Ukulele virtuoso who helped popularize the ukulele outside of Hawaii. He spent his childhood in Haleiwa.
  • Jack Johnson – Singer-songwriter and filmmaker who grew up surfing on the North Shore. His music reflects the laidback lifestyle.

Influential Community Leaders

Some key figures who impacted the Haleiwa community:

  • Joseph Akana – Longtime resident known as the unofficial “Mayor of Haleiwa.” He owned the iconic Haleiwa Joe’s restaurant.
  • Uncle Sonny Kamahele – Surfer and beachboy who co-founded the North Shore Community Land Trust to preserve land along the North Shore.
  • Aunty Elizabeth Lee – Cultural practitioner who led the restoration of the Haleiwa Hula Mound, an ancient Hawaiian hula platform.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By browsing this website, you agree to our privacy policy.
I Agree