Location, Location, Location — The North Shore of Oahu
There is a reason why so many Californians choose Oahu when going on a Hawaiian vacation—it’s the easiest island to reach, has consistently less expensive airfares, and an array of hotels to fit every budget. Most travelers envision the nightlife, shopping and excitement of Waikiki when thinking about a trip to Oahu. Perhaps visitors will add a day trip up to the North Shore to see the Dole pineapple plantation or stop at one of the famous “big wave” beaches like Waimea or Pipeline. Several years ago my family and I greatly enjoyed our one day tour of the North Shore and decided to stay there on our next trip to Hawaii to get a better sense of the Hawaiian “country.”
My wife and I wanted a full-service hotel for this vacation and when we researched the lodging scene, we quickly realized that this is a category of one: The Turtle Bay Resort (www.turtlebayresort.com). To put this property into perspective, compare it to the most famous spot on Oahu. All of Waikiki Beach is approximately 600 acres, has thousands of hotel rooms and is steps away from a major urban metropolis. Turtle Bay has less than 450 hotel rooms and sits on 880 acres and five miles of beaches. The resort also includes several condominium and time-share developments near the entrance and on the golf course, but only one small cluster of top-of-the-line villas are next to the hotel’s location on the sand. These villas are also available for rent through the management company at the resort.
As you drive up to the open lobby, you realize that the hotel itself sits on a rocky outcropping, with all three of its wings facing water — each with varying degrees of ocean and coastline views. Room categories are driven by the view and either a “Juliette balcony” with barely room for two (as in “wherefore art thou, my balcony?”) or a traditional lanai. Given how many hours we spent watching the sunsets, I would strongly recommend that you spend the extra money and take a room with a full lanai facing Southwest—“Sunset” alley. If we weren’t otherwise on the beach or in the pool, we were watching as the sun dropped to the horizon seemingly a few yards from our room. Make no mistake, this resort has a spectacular location.
The main hotel itself is several decades old and faces an incredible amount of weather issues — wind, seawater and rain conspire in a dance of aggressive erosion. Given that beating, management has recently completed a “freshening” of the rooms to add new paint and carpeting. The room decor was generally tired, but comfortable. We understand that flat screen televisions and other upgrades are arriving in the near future. The overall value of the resort — especially the stunning views and miles of beaches — more than made up for any minor shortcomings inside the room. The hotel also offers “beach cottage” rooms — familiar to those of you who watched the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” These are fully updated modern rooms directly on the beach with scattered semi-private hammocks. Additionally, for those of you who want to splurge or are traveling with a family, the villas are on the sand and absolutely beautiful, with full kitchens and contemporary furnishings.
The resort has a number of restaurants, which are consistent with what you would expect for this caliber resort — pool-side noshing, plentiful breakfast and dinner buffets and a nice “dining with your feet in the sand” option at Ola (make sure to order the edamame appetizer). It is important for the food to be good, as close by the hotel the dining options are limited. We found that a trip to Ted’s Bakery (www.tedsbakery.com) for breakfast or lunch was a nice break from the buffet (and much lighter on the wallet). Ted’s donuts at breakfast and BBQ pork sandwiches at lunch were off the charts and solicited knowing smiles from the valets when they saw me emerge from the rental car toting my bags of food. Additionally, you will not be allowed to leave the North Shore without a trip to one of the roadside “shrimp trucks.” A plate loaded with garlic, shrimp, butter and rice — enough said. Finally, for those of you who think that coffee means running to a certain ubiquitous green and black logoed-store, do yourself a favor and drop in at the Coffee Gallery (www.roastmaster.com) about 20 minutes away in Haleiwa. They roast almost daily, so you are getting beans right at their peak. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable and after a cup you will understand why people make a big deal about Hawaiian coffee.
One of the surprises at the resort is that it includes an honest-to-goodness “foodie” destination: 21 Degrees. Executive Chef Hector Morales has been closely working with local farmers to bring their produce to the quality level necessary to be featured in high-end cuisine. As a result of this patient development, the resort is now able to satisfy its goal of sourcing significant portions of the menu’s ingredients from the islands. The restaurant’s tasting menu is seasonally-based and updated approximately every three months. When we ate there, the kitchen presented scallops, sustainably aquaculture-raised Kajiki, Colorado lamb chops, fresh Opakapaka, filet mignon and chocolate soufflés among other items. The star of the evening was the ahi tar tare, which was accompanied by a thin taro chip to contrast with the silky smooth tuna and accented with a chili mango salsa for heat and sweetness. Each course was matched with a thoughtful wine pairing. Interestingly, the restaurant does not staff a formally-trained sommelier; however, we found the lead server (a self-taught wine expert) to be one of the most approachable wine guides we have encountered. Chef Morales and his Chef de Cuisine John Armstrong delivered a meal which would be at home in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco. If you are a foodie, or just want a special and memorable dining experience, make sure you get to this restaurant if you are staying anywhere on Oahu.
The hotel pools, positioned cliff-side, include a large pool as well as a smaller kid-friendly pool with a slide. For those of you wanting a pool-based vacation, you’ll be pleased. At sunset, many of the hotel’s guests would collect by the pool to sip mai-tais and watch the local surfers backlit by the sun sinking to the horizon. To the delight of children and adults alike, a blow-hole located a few steps from the pool bar erupted every few minutes with the oncoming wave sets.
You come to the State of Hawaii for sand and ocean and this resort is a great base of operations. In fact, if you never left the property you could practically spend your stay just exploring the beaches within walking distance. Directly adjacent to the hotel is a large lagoon featuring ocean swimming, small keiki waves and some snorkeling opportunities. It seemed like most guests alternated between this mild beach and the regular hotel pool. I note this, as we would literally stroll a few minutes along the coast in either direction from the main resort and enjoy large stretches of sand to ourselves. On one particular day hike, my son (8 years old) and I climbed over rocks and sand to come across a shallow dry coral bowl filled with water and sea life stranded from the high tides. Our only company was a middle-aged fisherman who spoke with the easy pride of one whose “office” is the sea. He enjoyed regaling us with the day’s catch and describing the fishing in the area. For those of you who are fans of the television show, “Lost,” many scenes were filmed on the North Shore and around the resort. My wife and I found ourselves routinely starting sentences with, “Hey, isn’t that where…” while walking the property.
As nice as the resort is, to truly enjoy the North Shore you need to get off property and start exploring the multitude of beaches found within a 30 minute drive. These are unforgettable sand and sea experiences which you won’t be able to replicate elsewhere in the United States.
The clear local favorite for us was Malaekahana State Beach. Like many State beaches, it had free parking, full bathrooms and even grassy picnic areas with benches looking out to the sea. During a five-hour stretch on one visit we encountered a total of six other people on a beach that went horizon to horizon. There were collections of driftwood at the tree line for the kids to explore and perfect white sand. Uniquely there is a small island bird sanctuary just a few hundred yards off-shore, which is accessible by a combination of walking, wading and swimming. I crossed during low tide and was glad that I was wearing secure water sandals to assist with the slippery submerged rocks. Emerging from the ocean to an uninhabited stretch of beach on a small islet off the coast of Oahu…yes, I’ll say it…it was paradise. Once I reached “Goat Island,” as it is called, I was completely alone, walking on a small white sand crescent beach leading to a small “bay.” How often in this life do you get to walk on a beach without footprints? I spent a perfect hour lounging in the sun, alternating between floating in my own private ocean pool and lying on the beach.
Much more crowded, but no less thrilling, is Laniakea Beach. The snorkeling is just ok, the parking is difficult and it has a narrow strip of sand. However, the beach is a natural sanctuary home to the endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles who come to rest here and bask in the sun. These are magnificent creatures whose grace in the water is oddly in contrast to their lumbering crawl on land. We were able to see several turtles transition between water and sand over the course of an hour. Thankfully the turtles are protected by volunteers who post roped stakes around resting turtles to keep the unbelievably aggressive tourists at bay (actual quote, “we have to keep people from putting cigarettes in the turtle’s mouth for a picture”). I know that we humans can sometimes be overwhelmed when confronted with “nature,” but what some people think is acceptable behavior never ceases to amaze me.
The hotel offers many side trips and activities, including horseback riding, helicopter tours, golf, surfing school, and guided hikes. We decided to splurge on the sea kayaking tour offered through Shaka Kayaks. While not inexpensive, this is an adventure to consider for those of you traveling with kids or if you really enjoy seeing sea turtles. The affable and knowledgeable owner, Captain Scott, picks you up in the lobby and drives you a few miles through the jungle of the expansive resort, to a small protected lagoon (again, site of many scenes from Lost and will renew the chorus of “Didn’t Jack and Kate…” and “Wasn’t that where Hurley and Jin…”). The view from the glass bottom kayaks revealed undersea wonders, both natural and man-made. A few paddle strokes from shore you will come across a train car swept to sea many years ago by a tsunami. Most striking, however, were the frequent sea turtle sightings alongside and under our kayak. We never tired of drifting with the gentle current looking through our window into the sea. Throughout our tour, Scott and our other guide, Sheila, made interesting and educational observations regarding the sea life, history of the area and the protected bay. To the delight of the kids, the tour culminated with a great treasure hunt through the jungle.
Even after a week we were not ready to return home. On our last morning before heading to the airport, the kids got to pick one last activity. I figured they might jump in the pool to hit the water slide. They surprised me by selecting a hike to an isolated swimming spot we had discovered earlier. We stood alone in the water, gently pushed by the incoming tide while watching darting fish. This tranquil scene hit home how happy I was that we chose the North Shore: a direct flight into Oahu, spectacular ocean views from our hotel room, adventures for the whole family, and easy access to pristine uncrowded beaches. Just like real estate, a vacation is all about “location, location, location.”