What’s as icy as the North Pole, as tropical as a coconut grove, as colorful as a rainbow, and as refreshing as a ripe ‘n’ juicy pineapple? Shave ice: the tastiest treat in the tropics.

Most people travel to Oahu in search of the island’s iconic beaches and sunset vistas. For most of my visits, I too, swing this way: Beach, sunset, sleep, repeat. Yet, on a recent trip, I let my stomach do the planning (Bold move, I know).

I was in Waikiki with my sister when our stomachs audibly growled at the same time. To be fair, it was the morning, and we hadn’t eaten breakfast. The (mostly) healthy daughters my mother raised typically start our days with a protein- and veggie-packed meal, however, since we were a) on vacation, and b) in the land of shave ice, we decided to scour every inch of Oahu in search of the island’s icy icon.

Before I wax on about my favorite frozen finds, here’s a quick shave ice primer in case you’re a newbie. Shave ice is true to its name: Fine flakes are chipped from a block of ice and topped in flavored syrup. The end product should be packed like a snowball by your shave ice master’s hand (most wear plastic gloves). You should eat it with a spoon. If you want to get crazy, many outfits offer add-ons (or, really, add-INS) ranging from ice cream to a condensed milk drizzle. I highly recommend both options. Health nuts take note: Adding azuki beans at the bottom of your indulgence adds protein power!  

As I was getting over the guilt of eating flavored ice (and only flavored ice) for the day, my sister reminded me: “Shave ice is to Hawaii as gelato is to Italy—completely acceptable to eat for every meal.” With this, we set off to find our glacial bliss.

Shimazu Store

Serving up Waikiki’s coolest treat in a tiny storefront overlooking the freeway, Shimazu Store is the real deal. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for in taste. Homemade flavors include red velvet, peaches and cream, milk tea, and peanut butter chocolate. I tried the red velvet, which more than satisfied my sweet tooth and left my lips the perfect shade of rosy red. Expect large portions, no nonsense service, and a nod from locals if they spot you chipping away at a “Shimazu” on the street.

Viewfinder Tip: Most shave ice is served in a paper cup. Unless you can eat your treat in less than two minutes, upgrade to a plastic cup holder for an extra US$0.50.

Island Snow

To a tourist, this delicious shave ice counter seems out of the ordinary, tucked into the back of a skate shop in a strip mall. Once you realize it’s a block from Kailua Beach—one of the most beautiful ribbons of sand on Oahu—you get it. For the record, Island  Snow’s icy-come-creamy creations are my top choice (especially when paired with with ice cream AND drizzled in condensed milk). Turns out I’m not alone, President Obama stops by with the First Family every winter.

Matsumoto Shave Ice

Any trip to the North Shore calls for a stop at Matsumoto for Haleiwa’s most popular party-in-your-mouth. Housed in a tin-roof grocery store, this 60-year-old institution serves up a rainbow of traditional flavors such as strawberry, pineapple, lime, guava, and my sister’s favorite, lilikoi. On a busy day, they serve 1,000 shave ices to camera-toting tourists and barefoot locals.

Happily sipping shave ice from Matsumoto

Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha

The shave ice shop that provided us with the most nourishment (if you can call it that) was Uncle Clay’s in Hawaii Kai. This shop was opened in 2011 by a man-on-a-mission who uses all-natural, homemade syrups with none of the artificial flavors or colors found in most of the island’s frosty finds. While we could have ordered mango, coconut, green tea, or lychee, at dinnertime the kale-spinach-apple felt most salad-like (and guilt-free). Incidentally, it’s the only place our heart rate didn’t surge into sugar-buzz territory. Uncle Clay’s also gets bonus points for the most aloha staff on the island.

I realize you may not travel to the Hawaiian Islands for shave ice and only shave ice; there’s a lot other other stuff to see, as well. However, if you want to bolster your beach day with a taste of the tropics and a nudge of the North Pole, Oahu’s best shave ice only will enhance your personal paradise.

What treats do you seek out when you visit Hawaii?