Skip the island’s tourist-packed South Shore, and head north to Turtle Bay.
All Photos Courtesy of Turtle Bay Resort
“I do not recommend jumping off the rock,” a lifeguard drolly warns over a megaphone. No one listens. Through my fingers, I watch as a tanned local hurls himself off the 25-foot-high cliff, does a backflip in the air, and plummets into the water. The other daredevils clamoring up the slippery rock pause and wait for him to surface, which he does, flashing the shaka sign and a huge grin. I can almost feel the lifeguard sighing.
When it comes to “Jump Rock” in Waimea Bay, local tradition—and more than a little bit of daring—rules. But that’s Oahu’s North Shore. Here, you can dip your toes into authentic Hawaii, with its local spirit and rough edges—whether you’re willing to take a leap of faith or prefer to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.
With its seven-mile stretch of white sand beaches and the rugged Ko‘olau Range separating it from Waikiki, the North Shore feels like an escape to a different world. The area shows so few signs of outside influence that it passed for a deserted island in Lost, a dinosaur habitat in Jurassic Park, and most recently, a postapocalyptic death arena for the second installment of The Hunger Games.
And I’m up for getting a little lost for a while. Luckily, I can explore without straying too far from comfort at Turtle Bay, the North Shore’s only destination resort. Resort may bring to mind tourists in gaudy palm tree prints, but Turtle Bay sets itself apart by providing creature comforts, without forgetting the surrounding community.
The resort recently remodeled its 397 rooms, spa, and two restaurants, and launched the Guides Club, which helps guests explore the North Shore and immerse themselves in the community and environment. I’m sold. I’m ready to sever communication with life on the mainland and devote my trip to discovering unoccupied waters, hanging with locals, and relaxing far away from the throngs of tourists milling around Waikiki.
First up? Becoming a waterman—a Polynesian term for the elite athletes who master coastal activities like surfing, paddling, and spear fishing. Luckily, there are plenty of instructors on hand at Turtle Bay’s Hans Hedemann surf school to help me tackle the coastal waters.
Outfitted with what looks like a surfboard on steroids, I practice paddle boarding through the calm waters of nearby Kawela Bay. Dipping my paddle into the quiet bay proves meditative. No screaming kids or sunburned tourists interfere with my calm. The only sounds are the occasional yelp and splash from a member of my group tumbling into the water.
“Who wants to try surfing on a paddleboard?” the group leader goads, pointing to the waves crashing just off the cove. Yeah, right. I’m having enough trouble on the protected bay; I’ll leave the bravura to the real watermen. I watch as one effortlessly catches a wave, riding it almost all the way back to the shore. Show-off.
Another way to get an up close look at the bay—without falling in—is in a “glass”-bottomed kayak. On a two-hour eco-tour with Shaka Kayaks, I float over many of Kawela’s large green sea turtles. I spot them from the flurry of bubbles they send to the surface and then pass mere inches above them, getting a clear view through the window in my kayak.
Halfway through the tour, we beach our kayaks and tour the bordering flora, including Lost’s infamous banyan tree and its sprawling branches and roots. Our guide shakes down a ripe papaya from a nearby tree and slices it up as a snack. On the way back, I’m persuaded to stand up in the kayak to spot the turtles’ bubbles better, and I manage to stay upright. Maybe this waterman thing isn’t so hard, after all.
The water-worshipping culture doesn’t go to bed when the sun goes down; it just moves to Turtle Bay’s Surfer the Bar. On Hawaiian music Mondays, local bands play a mash-up of traditional Hawaiian, modern rock, and reggae. I spot a few of my instructors from earlier in the day in the sea of faces, and my server takes a break to perform the hula for the enthusiastic crowd.
The bar attracts professional water sport icons to its TalkStory series, a Thursday night interview session. On my visit, tandem surfing pioneer Bear Woznick explains and then demonstrates how he performs complicated partner acrobatics with his wife on his surfboard. OK, OK, maybe I can’t count myself among the watermen quite yet.
Acting Like a Local
It’s easy to settle into Turtle Bay’s beachside bar for a blend of bananas and Kahlúa, or watch the waves lap the shore from your room’s balcony. But take the time to rent a bike from the resort’s Hele Huli adventure center to explore the neighboring towns.
Not far from the resort, I come across a small fruit market selling papayas, passion fruit, and other tropical offerings. A vendor lops the top off a fresh coconut and serves it to me with a straw. In the other direction, I hit the small town of Kahuku, which feels more than its four miles away from the plush resort. While the graffiti-covered Giovanni’s food truck doesn’t exactly beckon with its good looks, it serves some of the best breath-destroying garlic shrimp in the area. For a kitschy souvenir, I skip the ubiquitous Hawaiian shirts and shell necklaces, and pick up a coconut piggy bank hand carved in the shape of a very stout monkey. The gift, like the town, charms with its rough edges.
Back at Turtle Bay, touches of the community make their way onto the menu at Ola’s, the only restaurant in Oahu that is right on the beach. Chef Fred DeAngelo uses ingredients produced within miles of Turtle Bay in dishes such as ahi poke with North Shore limu and Kahuku sea asparagus, a salad of Pupukea field greens, and a 12-ounce grilled New York steak sourced from the North Shore Cattle Company. While devouring fresh farm-to-table fare, I can hear the waves and feel the warm ocean breeze.
Before saying good-bye to the North Shore, I make a final stop at the legendary Pipeline for one last look at daredevils on their surfboards. Seasoned pros from around the world prove their chops on the nine-foot waves, named some of the deadliest in the world. Watching from the shore, I’m in awe of those who throw themselves fearlessly into the waves and emerge on the other side with a smile.
I may need a few more visits before I can get up on a surfboard, much less catch a wave, but I’m more than willing to seize any excuse to return to Oahu’s North Shore. I’m just glad these watermen weren’t around to see me wuss out on the paddleboard.
Turtle Bay Resort, 57-091 Kamehameha Hwy., Kahuku, Oahu, (808) 293-6000, turtlebayresort.com.