Oahu’s verdant North Shore and windward East Side are just over an hour’s drive from busy Waikiki, but it feels like a world apart. This is the real Hawaii: beautiful lush mountains and valleys, pristine beaches and small towns with island-style cultures setting a subtly addictive, laid-back pace to daily life.
We recently spent a week exploring these Oahu shores and, as the Hawaiians say, it was “no ka oi”—simply the best. We ziplined over the lush terrain of a working farm, swam off picturesque, world-famous surf beaches, and wandered through lush tropical gardens to a rushing waterfall.
At the sprawling Polynesian Cultural Center, we soaked up entertaining and educational presentations on the native food, music and cultural traditions of six Polynesian island nations. We tackled red dirt roads in all-terrain UTV vehicles in lush, mountainous valleys made famous by Jurassic Park and many other films. And after the ride, we took a boat across an ancient fishpond to a hidden beach for an afternoon of stand-up paddle boarding, sandbar wading, kayaking and hammock time.
Fueling our adventures: tasty, local-style meals at the colorful food trucks and shrimp shacks that line the coast-hugging Kamehameha Highway. We even squeezed in a charming, cowboy-style lu’au during the week.
A five-hour direct flight brought us from Oakland Airport to Honolulu, where we started our Oahu exploration with a leisurely morning drive from the airport to colorful Hale’iwa town. We paused for plates of butter garlic shrimp over rice at Jenny’s Shrimp truck — one of many food truck options in town — before heading to our hotel for two nights, Turtle Bay Resort, the only luxury hotel on the North Shore.
Set on Kuilima Point between a small crescent-shaped cove and a pristine, wave-swept beach, Turtle Bay is a recently remodeled and re-imagined resort and the choice of many Oahu visitors seeking an upscale North Shore stay in dreamy oceanfront rooms and bungalows. Turtle Bay, which has two championship golf courses (one designed by Arnold Palmer), is within reach of all the area’s main attractions: Hale’iwa town and the renowned North Shore beaches — Sunset, Waimea Bay and Banzai Pipeline — famous for their world-class winter surf and placid summer swells. The resort is also close to Kahuku Point, the northernmost point of land on Oahu.
Our first evening on the island eased us into Hawaii time as we enjoyed the resort’s small scale Paniolo Lu’au (“paniolo” means cowboy in native Hawaiian) held in a tented space near the resort’s stables (they offer guided horseback rides along the shore.) Before dinner and the show, we sipped mai tais, checked out traditional native Hawaiian games, learned some basic hula moves and petted cute miniature horses before being entertained by Hawaiian dance, music and fire knife performances.
For dinner, we feasted on banana leaf-steamed fresh catch, huli huli chicken, barbecued corn, colorful fresh taro rolls and savory Kalua pork, a lu’au staple cooked traditionally in a nearby “imu” or underground pit oven. A post-luau stroll along the wonderfully sandy shore of Kawela Bay brought us back to the resort. Turtle Bay was a perfect start to our week of North Shore and East Side adventures.
Up early, we headed just down the road to Kuilima Farm for an hour-long walking tour, including a peek at their fascinating hydroponic produce growing facility that supplies produce for Turtle Bay Resort and the surrounding community.
We learned about Oahu’s ancient land divisions and traditional farming practices while strolling the orchards, taro fields and row crops, tasting produce like vine-ripe tomatoes, sugar cane, and ripe papaya along the way. The food stands on the farm’s road frontage are packed with bananas, pineapple, coconut, corn, watermelon, dragonfruit, papaya and freshly made local delicacies such as fried banana lumpia called “turon”, a classic Filipino snack.
The following morning was dedicated to the famed beaches of the North Shore: ‘Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline), Waimea Beach, Sunset Beach and Chun’s Reef, a great beach for all ages. We wrapped up with an afternoon visit to the lush botanical garden and waterfall of Waimea Valley, a sacred historical site. The paved trail to Waimea Falls is about 3/4 of a mile and takes about 30 minutes to ascend to the falls, where you can take a swim (free lifevests are required).
There are several gravel paths off the main corridor for more adventurous hikers to explore the entire botanical garden collection of 52 themed gardens and more than 5,000 documented types of tropical and subtropical plants, including native Hawaiian and globally endangered species.
We also stopped at the valley’s Hawaiian cultural sites along the way, such as Kauhale, an ancient Hawaiian living site. Here, we learned about the life and culture of early Hawaiian people from resident artisans, each of whom have a traditional Hawaiian craft to share.
The next morning of this action-packed trip, we headed Climbworks, a zipline tour outfitter at Keana Farms, where we joined a thrilling three-hour tour that flies above a working farm. The ziplines range from 500 feet to nearly half a mile long (Hawaii’s longest) on eight dual lines. Along the way you also do two rappels, cross three sky bridges and enjoy panoramic ocean and mountain views of the North Shore.
After ziplining, we headed to Laie and a new hotel, the Courtyard Oahu North Shore, next to the Polynesian Cultural Center. After checking in, we walked over to the PCC for a full immersion in the 42-acre parklike complex celebrating the traditions of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Hawaii. We wandered the center’s villages to play a Maori stick game, made stamp prints on cloth, saw how a coconut is cracked and how coconut bread is made, and learned how poi is pounded. We topped off the day with the center’s Ali’i lu’au and a spectacular show, Ha: Breath of Life, in the expansive, open-air Pacific Theater.
Topping off our Oahu adventure was a visit to the East Side and the sprawling, 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch, a private nature reserve and a breathtaking location on the eastern shore of Oahu at Kaneohe Bay. Nestled in valleys sacred to ancient Hawaiians, the ranch has served as a set for numerous movies and TV series, including “Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park,” “Hawaii Five-0” and “Lost.” Activities here include ATV and UTV “Raptor” expeditions, jeep expeditions, e-bike tours, ziplining, horseback riding and a boat excursion to a “secret island” beach for SUP, kayak and sandbar wading activities.
We chose the three-hour UTV tour, with a guide leading us deep into scenic valleys and remote areas, tackling dirt roads and dusty trails and crossing seasonal streams. More than 200 Hollywood movies and TV shows have been filmed on the ranch over the past 75 years.
After the tour, we hit the beach on Kulaloa’s “Secret Island Beach Adventure,” where a flat-bottomed boat spirits guests across an ancient Hawaiian fishpond to a quiet strand of sand near the ranch for an afternoon of kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, sandbar wading, beach volleyball, table tennis and horseshoes. We sampled a few, then wound down the week simply relaxing in a hammock under a swaying palm tree, a suitable Hawaiian-style end to our big North Shore and East Side Oahu adventure.
If You Go
Jenny’s Shrimp Truck: Open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily at 66528a Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa.
Turtle Bay Resort: The Paniolo Lu’au ($195-$225) is held from every Wednesday evening, with shuttles departing the resort at 5 and 5:30 p.m. and returning at 8 p.m. 57-091 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku; www.turtlebayresort.com.
Kuilima Farm: Farm tours ($25-$45) offered at 9 and 10:30 a.m. Wednesday-Friday at 57-146 Kamehameha Highway in Kahuku. Make reservations and learn more at https://kuilimafarm.com.
Waimea Valley: Normally closed on Mondays, the Waimea Valley will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except holidays, from Nov. 20 through Jan 2. Admission is $14-$25. 59-864 Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa; www.waimeavalley.net
Climbworks: Book a 3-hour tour ($180, ages 7 and up) at Keana Farms on Oahu’s North Shore at www.climbworks.com.
Courtyard Oahu North Shore: This Marriott hotel is located at 55-400 Kamehameha Highway in Laie; www.marriott.com
Polynesian Cultural Center: There are five ticket packages available, including Islands of Polynesia and Ha: Breath of Life ($96-$120) with access to six Polynesian villages and admission to the “Ha: Breath of Life” show ($96-$120), and the Ali’i Luau package ($152-$190), which includes the villages, “Ha” show and a luau buffet. 55-370 Kamehameha Highway in Laie; https://polynesia.com/
Kualoa Ranch: The ranch offers a wide range of tours and activities, from a secret island beach adventure ($52) to a UTV “Raptor” tour ($145), in Kaneohe on Oahu’s Windward or East Coast; kualoa.com.