Hawaii escapes: Exploring Oahu’s North Shore and windward East Side

The verdant North Shore and windward East Side of Oahu are just over an hour’s drive from bustling Waikiki, but they feel a world away. This is the real Hawaii: lush mountains and valleys, pristine beaches, and small towns with island-style cultures that set a subtly addictive, relaxed pace to daily life.

We recently spent a week exploring these Oahu shores, and it was “no ka oi”—simply the best, as the Hawaiians say. We ziplined over a working farm’s lush terrain, swam off picturesque, world-famous surf beaches, and strolled through lush tropical gardens to a rushing waterfall.

We soaked up entertaining and educational presentations on the native food, music, and cultural traditions of six Polynesian island cultures at the sprawling Polynesian Cultural Center. In lush, mountainous valleys made famous by Jurassic Park and other films, we tackled red dirt roads in all-terrain UTV vehicles. Following the ride, we boarded a boat across an ancient fishpond to a secret beach for an afternoon of stand-up paddle boarding, sandbar wading, kayaking, and hammock time.

Tasty, local-style meals from the colorful food trucks and shrimp shacks that line the coast-hugging Kamehameha Highway fuel our adventures. During the week, we even fit in a charming cowboy-style luau.

We arrived in Honolulu after a five-hour direct flight from Oakland Airport, where we began our Oahu exploration with a leisurely morning drive from the airport to colorful Hale’iwa town. Before heading to our hotel for two nights, Turtle Bay Resort, the only luxury hotel on the North Shore, we stopped for plates of butter garlic shrimp over rice at Jenny’s Shrimp truck, one of many food truck options in town.

Turtle Bay, located on Kuilima Point between a small crescent-shaped cove and a pristine, wave-swept beach, is 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 close to all of the area’s main attractions, including Hale’iwa town and the renowned North Shore beaches of Sunset, Waimea Bay, and Banzai Pipeline, which are known for their world-class winter surf and calm summer swells. The resort is also near Kahuku Point, Oahu’s northernmost point of land.

Our first evening on the island was spent at the resort’s small-scale Paniolo Lu’au (“paniolo” means cowboy in native Hawaiian), which was held in a tented area near the resort’s stables (they offer guided horseback rides along the beach). We sipped mai tais, played 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 before dinner and the show.

We ate banana leaf-steamed fresh catch, huli huli chicken, barbecued corn, colorful fresh taro rolls, and savory Kalua pork, a lu’au staple traditionally cooked in a nearby “imu” or underground pit oven. We returned to the resort after a post-luau stroll along Kawela Bay’s wonderful sandy shore. Turtle Bay was the ideal way to begin our week of North Shore and East Side adventures.

We got up early and drove down the road to Kuilima Farm for an hour-long walking tour, which included a look at their fascinating hydroponic produce growing facility, which supplies produce to Turtle Bay Resort and the surrounding community.

We learned about Oahu’s ancient land divisions and traditional farming practices while strolling through orchards, taro fields, and row crops, sampling produce such as vine-ripe tomatoes, sugar cane, and ripe papaya. The food stands along the farm’s road frontage are stocked with bananas, pineapple, coconut, corn, watermelon, dragonfruit, papaya, and freshly made local delicacies like “turon,” a traditional Filipino snack.

The next morning was devoted to the North Shore’s famous beaches: ‘Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline), Waimea Beach, Sunset Beach, and Chun’s Reef, a great beach for all ages. We finished with an afternoon visit to Waimea Valley’s lush botanical garden and waterfall, a sacred historical site. The paved trail to Waimea Falls is approximately 3/4 mile long and takes approximately 30 minutes to ascend to the falls, where you can swim (free lifevests are required).

More adventurous hikers can explore the entire botanical garden collection of 52 themed gardens and over 5,000 documented types of tropical and subtropical plants, including native Hawaiian and globally endangered species, via gravel paths off the main corridor.

Along the way, we stopped at Hawaiian cultural sites in the valley, such as Kauhale, an ancient Hawaiian living site. We learned about early Hawaiian life and culture from resident artisans, each of whom has a traditional Hawaiian craft to share.

The following morning of our action-packed trip, we went to Climbworks, a zipline tour outfitter at Keana Farms, where we joined a thrilling three-hour tour that flies above a working farm. On eight dual lines, the ziplines range in length from 500 feet to nearly half a mile (Hawaii’s longest). Along the way, you’ll do two rappels, cross three sky bridges, and enjoy panoramic views of the North Shore’s ocean and mountains.

A visit to the East Side and the sprawling, 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch, a private nature reserve and a breathtaking location on Oahu’s eastern shore at Kaneohe Bay, capped off our Oahu adventure. The ranch, which is nestled in valleys sacred to ancient Hawaiians, has served as a set for a number of films and television shows, including “Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park,” “Hawaii Five-0,” and “Lost.” 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 are all available here.

We chose the three-hour UTV tour, which included a guide who took us deep into scenic valleys and remote areas, navigating dirt roads and dusty trails, and crossing seasonal streams. Over the last 75 years, the ranch has been the setting for more than 200 Hollywood films and television shows.

Following the tour, we went to the beach on Kulaloa’s “Secret Island Beach Adventure,” which takes guests across an ancient Hawaiian fishpond to a quiet strand of sand near the ranch for an afternoon of kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, sandbar wading, beach volleyball, table tennis, and horseshoes. We tried a few, then spent the rest of the week relaxing in a hammock beneath a swaying palm tree, a fitting Hawaiian-style end to our big North Shore and East Side Oahu adventure.

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