It was a time of innocence, of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and the search for the perfect wave. The age, Vietnam and Watergate changed all that. The Beach Boys were replaced by punk rock, the Eagles and Western Swing.

But sitting here on the North Shore of Oahu as 1980 prepares to bow out, it's 'Surfin' U.S.A.' once again. Only 46 miles from the blazing neon, the flesh merchants and the honky-tonks of Waikiki, it is as though the '60s, like Peter Pan, never grew up.

The cast is the same -- the hardbodied youngsters, their hair bleached by the sun, riding the four- and eight- and 12-foot waves in a tableau of sculpture in motion, their boards and their bodies a symphony of grace and pleasure.

On the beach, perhaps, life has changed, with cocaine replacing Coke, and Bo Derek and Richard Gere replacing Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. But somehow, some innocence remains.

The magic names also remain, known to surfers throughout the world: Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Beach. It is here that the great monster waves, the 30- and 40-footers, draw those whose macho drive compels them to go mano-a-mano with nature's fury.

The feeling of a winter's surfing day on the North Shore is summed up in this paragraph from one of the newest and best guides to Hawaii. It is called, unoriginally, "Hawaii," and is edited by Leonard Lueras. He writes:

". . . when Waimea Bay is breaking . . . hundreds of people quietly and respectfully line the cliffs on the bay's point like spectators at gladiatorial finals; and City and County fire engines with revolving red and yellow lights don't wait for a rescue call; and the waves are so thunderous and crazy the ground trembles a little bit underfoot; and the cars on the highway have to use their windshield wipers to take salt mists off the glass . . . that's when the dozen or so waveriders who are brave enough to do such things paddle out and begin to understand what it's all about when twenty to thirty-foot winter swells lift like glossy black holes on the blue-gray of the horizon."

How different from the gentle swells of Waikiki, where the legions of sun-blistered tourists cling to rental surfboards and fall with each brush of a wave. And how different from the beaches of Waikiki, where the highrise giants march row upon massive row under the brooding presence of Diamond Head.

In many ways, the North Shore is like a separate island. It is certainly less well known than the neighbor islands of Maui and Kauai, although it is but an hour's drive from downtown Honolulu. Few tourists find their way to the North Shore, and those who do usually pass through on their way to the Polynesian Cultural Center for the evening show. There is only one hotel of any note -- the Kuilima Hyatt Resort -- and few attractions other than the raw beauty of crashing waves and the cultured beauty of pineapple fields.

As you drive from Honolulu to the North Shore, raging up H-1, then H-2, four and six-lane raceways like superhighways everywhere, and you are in the midst of a man's world of concrete and glass. But as you get off H-2 near the Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, which the Japanese savaged during their attack on Pearl Harbor, you are in the midst of nature's world of greenness and grass.

Soon you sweep around a curve and behold the beauty of the other Oahu. Before are great fields of sugar cane and pineapple, and the sea. You see workers harvesting the pineapple for Dole and Del Monte. You see great billows of acrid smoke, as the sugar cane is burned off, its ashes raining down on the windshield of your car. You pass through pleasant villages, places like Haleiwa, which is as close to Key West as anything you are likely to find on Oahu, with surfers and ranchers, doctors and laborers, walking the streets together, buying gifts in the eclectic stores or finding a spare tire for their '47 Chevy. Here you can get a renowned shaved ice cone from the M. Matsumoto Store or a restored Hawaiian shirt at New Life For Old Things.

Not far from Haleiwa, along the spectacular Kamehameha highway, which skirts the pounding surf of the North Shore, is one of the leading tourist attractions of the North Shore: Waimea Falls Park. Although the falls themselves are modest at best (falling about 40 feet into a muddy pool), the park itself is a joy. Peacocks roam the grounds, orchids line the roadsides, and picnic tables are scattered throughout the lush grounds. It was here, so the story goes, that three crew members of Captain George Vancouver's HMS Daedalus were captured by natives of the valley in 1794. Although it is a bit expensive ($3.50 per person), the park offers a full day's relaxation in the lush surroundings of the tropics.

Continuing up Kamehameha Highway, you arrive at Waimea, which has the most spectacular waves on the North Shore. In 1969, more than 30 homes were washed away by a series of 50-foot waves that pounded this coastline with the fury of winter's swells. To avoid the waves, and for the best view of the North Shore, go to Puu-o-Mahuka, the site of an ancient Hawaiian temple. The old temple is one of the largest on Oahu, and it is thought that the sailors captured at Waimea Falls were offered in sacrifice here. To get to the temple, turn by the Sunset Beach Fire Station and struggle about a mile up the pockmarked dirt road. It's worth the bumpy ride just for the view, which is one of Hawaii's best.

At the northerly tip of Oahu is the Hyatt Kuilima Hotel, an 800-acre resort with a golf course, 487 rooms, jogging paths and horseback riding. Built by Del Webb in 1972, the resort had a bleak financial past, but the growing realization of the potential of the North Shore and the management of the Hyatt Corp. have brought it back to fiscal stability. On a typical weekend at the resort, most of the guests will be folks from Honolulu up for the weekend to enjoy the surf and the golf course.

Just down the Kamehameha Highway are two tourist traps; but rather well done, thank you.

The Kahuka Sugar Mill gives you a look at Hawaii's largest industry. Located in an actual sugar mill, which was productive until 1971, the attraction is of but passing interest to most tourists. If you really care how sugar is made, you can take the $3.95 tour of the now-retired mill facility, its c ogs and gears color-coded to show which wheel did what. If you don't care that much, you can walk through much of the plant, and all of the grounds for free.

Just across the road is the real Kahuku plantation village, with the tiny, tumbledown houses of the sugar workers still sheltering families. A walk along its colorful, flower-lined streets is more of an education than the mill tour.

Further down the coast is Laie (known as Salt Lake City of the Pacific), with 95 percent of its population Mormons. Its brilliant white Mormon Temple, which was built in 1919, is known irreverently as the Taj Mahal of Hawaii and is closed to all but the faithful. But you can walk around the grounds for free, take pictures and marvel at the industry of the 25,000 Hawaiian Mormons who have been living here since 1864. Here too, is Brigham Young University's Hawaii campus.

The biggest project of the Mormons, and the most successful tourist attraction on the North Shore, is the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center, almost entirely staffed by Mormon students from the Pacific, gives you a glimpse at the cultures of Tonga, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawaii, New Zealand and Fiji. As you walk through the grounds you can see Tongan games, Tahitian dancers, and Maori woodcarvers. Spectacular shows provide the entertainment, thatched roadside stands the food (a whole pineapple stuffed with rice cream seems to be the current favorite), and your money assures the upkeep and profit of this squeaky-clean (no cigarettes, no cigars, no liquor allowed) attraction. Just bring plenty of cash. The minimum-priced ticket for an adult is $8. If you want to see all the shows and have dinner, it will be $25.

But it doesn't cost you a cent to enjoy the beauty of the North Shore. The waves are free, the shows put on by the surfers are gratis, and the serenity and beauty of one of Hawaii's least known and most dramatic areas are timeless and mostly untouched by the commercialism to the south.