Hawaii: Oahu's wilder side

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Haleiwa, Hawaii There's a place where the sun sets in moody pinks at the end of a deserted beach, where waterfalls and sea turtles are prime attractions. A place where the rain doesn't matter, a $12 shrimp plate can satisfy a family of four, and all lost surfboards go to heaven. It's the Ha...

By Toni Salama // 07.30.08
 

Haleiwa, Hawaii

There's a place where the sun sets in moody pinks at the end of a deserted beach, where waterfalls and sea turtles are prime attractions. A place where the rain doesn't matter, a $12 shrimp plate can satisfy a family of four, and all lost surfboards go to heaven.

It's the Hawaii so many people come to see and too few actually do. That hadn't oughta be, considering that this wedge of Hawaii lies only 30 miles northwest of Honolulu, along the island of Oahu's famed North Shore.

The largest waves on Earth thunder ashore here and have made the Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach renowned not just among surfers -- the Triple Crown of Surfing is won or lost here -- but familiar phrases to ordinary travelers who wouldn't know one side of a three-finned shortboard from the other.

And yet the North Shore's not just for surfers. It's an enriching day trip or overnighter for anyone with ambitions to explore beyond Honolulu and its fast-paced hotel zone of Waikiki.

Getting there

The most direct route out of Honolulu cuts directly across the island through the wide valley between the Waianae Mountains to the west and the Koolau Range to the east. Forty-five minutes and you're there, unless you stop for a frozen pineapple whip at Dole Plantation or pull off the road for a closer look at the coffee farms en route. You can drive this yourself or sign up for a day on The Surf Bus (808-226-7299; northshoresurfbus.com), an honest-to-goodness van whose surfing proprietors, Justin and Leila, pick up/drop off at Waikiki hotels, show you around the heart of the North Shore and allow you free time to do your own thing while there.

The long way 'round follows the eastern coastline of Oahu, mostly on Hawaii Highway 83, or Kamehameha Highway, with blue-water ocean on one side of the road and velvety-green mountain palisades on the other. Only the most hurried of souls resist stopping at one of the many beach parks. Compared to those of the North Shore, the waves are relatively gentler along this section of coastline.

It's hard to say exactly where the North Shore begins and ends, but the map that the North Shore Chamber of Commerce (808-637-4558; gonorthshore.org) hands out covers the island from the YMCA's Camp Erdman, a seaside pool and challenge course near the northwest tip of Kaena Point, all the way around to Kualoa Ranch and Kualoa Regional Park, a hillside adventure outfit across the road from a beach park, decidedly on the eastern coast.

Lay of the land

Between Kaena Point and the community of Haleiwa, the shoreline runs true east-west and is anchored by Mokuleia Bay Beach Park, where you're likely to see kite surfers testing the waves. The beach runs beyond park boundaries in both directions, with many a spot to park the car and have the sand and surf all to yourself. This is as good a spot as any to go wading -- don't go more than knee deep -- as long as you remember there are lava boulders lurking beneath the surface and respect the fact that the oceans of Hawaii can change in an instant from docile to dangerous.

If the beach and the mountains in the background look familiar, you've probably been watching the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning TV series "Lost," which is filmed here, in part.

Here, too, is Dillingham Airfield, where the TV series' burnt and broken airplane fuselage purportedly is stored between shootings, and from which you can take to the non-motorized skies with The Original Glider Rides (808-637-0207; gliderridehawaii.com). Rides for single/double passengers start at 10 minutes ($59/$98) and can last as long as an hour ($178/$316).

About 3 miles north of this shore, in the open ocean, North Shore Shark Adventures (808-228-5900; sharktourshawaii.com) lowers its shark cage into the water. Anyone who pays the fare ($120), can snorkel and has the nerve can jump in the shark cage for a look-see ... at whatever might be looking back. The boat puts in at Haleiwa Boat Harbor.

Going to town

Haleiwa, population 2,225, begins with the shrimp trucks, ends with the shave-ice stands -- or vice versa -- and reigns as uncrowned capital of the North Shore. There's a surf museum in a small shopping center that doubles as town square and seems to be closed -- the museum, that is -- more often than not. The surf board heaven is in the yard next door. That's where, between jam sessions, Ron Artis and his Family Band paint and display lost and broken surfboards, turning them into works of art.

The shrimp trucks are parked at the end of town. These days, there are usually three of them doing business in a clearing set with a few picnic tables near a creek. The most famous of these is Giovanni's, which doles out shrimp plates ($12) from the window of a graffiti-racked panel truck. The hefty servings are cooked either mild in butter and garlic or so spicy-hot, their sign warns, there's a no-money-back guarantee.

On the opposite end of town, nearest Hawaii 83, is M. Matsumoto Grocery Store (808-637-4827; matsumotoshaveice.com), the most revered of all places that serve Hawaiian shave ice. The treat is a snow cone (about $3) doused with tropical fruit-flavored syrups. But the most authentic versions start with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the base and covered with a layer of sweet azuki beans before the "snow" part of the cone is formed. They hand it over in a plastic cup with a wide, petallike collar to catch drips.

Moving on

From Haleiwa, the coast turns northeast. Hawaii 83, which follows it, soon brings you to Waimea Bay Beach Park. It's a relatively calm area for swimming where the Waimea River flows into the sea. Upriver is Waimea Valley ($10). A walk of its trails leads past the foundations of a village pre-dating Western contact, and the walk culminates at Waimea Falls. Conditions permitting, you can swim in the pool at the waterfall's base, safe in the knowledge that you are doing so at the only waterfall pool in the islands that has a lifeguard on duty. At the place where the Waimea River meets the sea, there's a protected, if steep, beach with facilities at Waimea Beach Park. It tends to attract swimmers and the pool-toy crowd.

A bit farther along the coast is Shark's Cove, popular with snorkelers. The bike trail that starts here follows the road past Ehukai Beach Park and on to Sunset Beach Park. Record-breaking waves aren't the only things that come ashore in this region. So do Hawaiian green sea turtles, looking so much like the weathered lava boulders it's hard to tell animal from mineral.

Near the northernmost tip of the island lays Turtle Bay, that is, the bay itself and the resort and golf course, all of which received wide exposure with the recent release of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Except for a roadside motel in Laie and vacation rentals scattered about, Turtle Bay Resort (800-203-3650; turtlebayresort.com) is the only place to stay on this side of Oahu, so it's just as well that the rooms have been renovated. Among the resort's offerings are shoreline horseback rides ($50) through an ironwood forest that figured in episodes of "Lost."

From the resort's pool you can see into the past. That hilltop on the other side of Turtle Bay is where the Opana Mobile Radar Station stood on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. At 7:02 a.m., the radar picked up a formation moving toward Oahu from the north. The two privates on duty who reported the movement to Ft. Shafter, at Pearl Harbor were told not to worry. The lieutenant there who took their report assumed the aircraft were a squad of B-17s due in from California.

Once you leave Turtle Bay and pass through the village of Kahuku, you're really on Oahu's eastern shore, headed southeast.

At Laie, the Polynesian Cultural Center (800-367-7060; polynesia.com) alone is worth a full day. Seven distinct villages re-create the cultures of Hawaii, Samoa, Maori New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Tonga. This also is where you'll see the canoe pageant memorialized in the 1966 Elvis movie, "Paradise Hawaiian Style." They spread a good luau here and stage "Horizons," the best Polynesian review anywhere (from $83 for full-day admission, luau and show). Kualoa Ranch and park are on down the road, a road whose scenery compares with that of Kauai's Napali Coast. It may even be better because you don't need a boat to see it.

In all, the trip from the Y's Camp Erdman to Kualoa spans about 25 miles. But it covers so much more than that. And you've been leaving it to the surfers all this time.