Blue Diamond

North Shore surf plus Honolulu nightlife—proof that you can have it all

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the "Pink Palace of the Pacific," on Waikiki Beach.     Photo: courtesy, Tourism Hawaii

I GET IRRITATED WHEN PEOPLE disrespect Oahu—letting you know, smugly, that when they travel to Hawaii, all they do in Honolulu is catch a flight to one of the "other islands." The rap is that Oahu is too urban, too touristy, too whatever. The great abomination is supposedly Waikiki, the 1.5-mile-long resort-and-beach strip just east of downtown Honolulu whose loud garishness represents everything modern island travelers think they ought to avoid.

These gripes miss a larger truth: Oahu's many parts, both kitschy and genuine, come together to form a wonderful whole. There's more than enough nature, outdoor sports, beaches, mountains, and solitude to please anyone, and Oahu's urban life is a strength, not a weakness. Honolulu and Waikiki are a blast, home to classic luxury hotels (my wife, Susan, and I stayed at the fabulous Royal Hawaiian, called "the pink palace of the Pacific" for its Pepto-Bismol–colored stucco coat), rich history, beautiful public spaces, cool bars, and friendly people. Waikiki's beachfront nightlife connects you to a magical past, when honeymooners wiggled toes in its sands and Hawaii Calls—a globally syndicated radio program broadcast from the Banyan Courtyard, at the Moana Hotel—sent out a musical aloha every Saturday night.

Today, Honolulu and Waikiki hum with Pacific Rim energy, and you can have plenty of fun just sunning, bodysurfing, strolling, shopping, and watching the limo-powered migrations of Japanese wedding parties. I especially liked the Ala Moana Center—a mall with an entire store devoted to ukuleles—and the huge, thrice-weekly flea market at Aloha Stadium. I bought used flippers; Susan picked up a few bushels of inexpensive jewelry and the first in her now alarmingly large collection of carved tikis. These weren't mass-produced junk, either, but grimacing, two-foot-tall mini-masterpieces chipped out of monkey pod wood by local craftsmen.

Honolulu residents characterize a trip to the North Shore—where we spent several days at the spiff Turtle Bay Resort, an oceanfront golf-and-luxury spread near the island's northernmost point—as going to the country. But you can get there in 45 minutes from downtown, so it's more like going from San Francisco to Stinson Beach. We soon realized we could build busy days around my doing outdoor stuff in the morning, Susan going on urban adventures in the afternoon, and us doing something romantic together at night.

On a typical morning, I would surf (Turtle Bay's resident pro, Hans Hedemann, taught me the basics), snorkel, or sea-kayak (in Kailua, you can paddle to a pair of offshore islands). Then I'd pick Susan up at lunchtime and we'd floor it to the nearest coconut stand. We'd either explore the North Shore—home to legendary beaches and surf spots like Waimea Bay and Pipeline, as well as Haleiwa, the main town for local hipsters—or we'd head back to the city, usually via the more scenic route on the island's eastern shore. After a drink with a new pal like Lloyd Kandell—cofounder of Don Tiki, an Oahu-based band that specializes in the "exotica" sounds made popular in the fifties—we'd zoom north and stake out a hot tub at the resort. Our favorite offered a tiki-torch-framed view of Turtle Bay with a surf-powered blowhole going off in the foreground. The full moon came at no extra charge.

The last thing I did in Oahu wasn't my usual scene: I signed up for a day of sportfishing out of Honolulu's Kewalo Basin on a boat that, in its time, had landed a 939-pound blue marlin. This wasn't one of those times, and by 9 a.m. I intuited that the adventure would be defined by eight hours of smelling diesel exhaust and watching hooks drag through the water without result.

Luckily, this was Oahu, so one of the other clients was my kind of boat mate: a spirited, chain-smoking divorcé;e from Los Angeles who made it clear with her friendly chatter that she was determined to have fun. Before long she noticed me sitting in the fighting chair looking glum.

"Were you wanting a beer or anything?" she offered.

I checked the time: 9:30. Yes.

"Kinda. But I didn't bring any, so—"

"Hey, man," she rasped, "I brought two six-packs and a bottle of Mr. Boston rum. And I'm not planning on taking any of it back."

I saw her differently then. She was a sweet goddess, offering the rarest of island nectars. What could I say but mahalo?

Access & Resources
Hole Up: The 387-room Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa, at Ko Olina, in Kapolei, dominates a cliff-backed spit of sand on Oahu's west coast. In a full day here, you can snorkel the private lagoon, play 18 holes of golf, and still have time for a spa treatment. Doubles from $370; 808-679-0079, www.ihilani.com » With five miles of prime North Shore beach, 443 rooms, and two 18-hole golf courses, Turtle Bay Resort offers luxury on a grand scale. Snorkel the bay or take surf lessons with Hans Hedemann, then hit 21 Degrees North for martinis. Doubles from $400; 808-447-6508, www.turtlebayresort.com » If you yearn for the quiet comforts of life on a Hawaiian beach, try one of the B&Bs available across the island—including the hotel-free eastern side—through Affordable Paradise. Studios from $55; 808-261-1693, www.affordable-paradise.com

Dine: Chai's Island Bistro, in downtown Honolulu, has upscale seafood, perfectly mixed cocktails, and a crack waitstaff in an unpretentious environment. 808-585-0011, www.chaisislandbistro.com » North Shore locals swear by Giovanni's shrimp truck, with its $11 garlic-laden scampis. It's always parked on the Kamehameha Highway in Kahuku. 808-293-1839 » For the Waikiki experience, try the Mai Tai Bar, at the Royal Hawaiian. Tiki torches, Hawaiian music, and hula dancers complete the vibe. 808-923-7311, www.royal-hawaiian.com

Get Out: Even novice sea kayakers will enjoy the reef-protected islands near Kailua Beach Park. Guide Steve Haumschild, of Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks, will lead you to some good snorkeling and teach you how to boat-surf waves along the way. From $39; 808-262-2555 » Wild Side Specialty Tours provides uncrowded (no more than 16 guests) dolphin- and whale-watching and swimming tours from a 42-foot catamaran off the west coast. From $95; 808-306-7273, www.sailhawaii.com » Wake up early and hike a mile and three-quarters to the top of 760-foot Diamond Head volcanic crater for the best view of sunrise over Honolulu and Waikiki. » At Mokuleia's Dillingham Airfield, Honolulu Soaring offers 15-minute to hourlong rides in an aerobatic glider. You can't beat the cockpit view, riding updrafts above the North Shore surf. $129–$228; 808-677-3404, www.honolulusoaring.com » Or try a tandem jump with Skydive Hawaii. $225; 808-637-9700, www.hawaiiskydiving.com

Shop: Seek out the talented (and hilariously grumpy) Tongan tiki carver Kini at the International Marketplace on Kalakaua Ave, Waikiki's main drag. 808-971-2080, www.internationalmarketplacewaikiki.com

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