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Escape to Oahu's far shore

By Michael Martinez, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The rustic North Shore of Oahu is home to only one major resort
  • Visitors will find old sugar mills, roadside fruit stands and tranquil beaches
  • Beginning surfers can find friendly waves when winter passes

Kahuku, Hawaii (CNN) -- On Hawaii's capital island, there's the glitz of Honolulu, and then there's the side less traveled.

The North Shore is the rustic and rugged counterpart to Honolulu's highrise urbanity. They're near polar opposites on the Oahu island. Nature is so prized on the North Shore that locals almost chase off visitors by posting "Keep the Country Country!"

Old sugar mills, roadside fruit stands, beaches where sea turtles nibble your knee, reefs providing a beginner's surf, villages free of restaurant chains and shanty-like hamlets -- the North Shore's attractions evoke the solitude of a remote Pacific isle.

The largely undeveloped coast features only one major retreat, the Turtle Bay Resort, an 880-acre hotel, golf course, beach compound that's better known as the setting for TV shows and films such as "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."

Forgetting is apt. Forget the traps of Waikiki Beach. Forget sprawl. Forget your worries.

The North Shore is really the far shore.

It's up the coast from where President Obama and the first family occasionally vacation in Kailua. After all, the president was born on this island, in Honolulu, a leisurely 90-minute drive away.

Travel Snapshots: Hawaii

The east coast drive features awe-inspiring cliffs and valleys, a landscape so primordial that genesis seems a mere day old. In fact, the prehistoric imagery of this lush land was used as the setting for the film "Jurassic Park" and the TV series "Lost."

Among the many natural beauties was one I never thought possible: a white rainbow.

This appeared shortly after sunset.

Just enough darkness fell, but not too much to hide the sun rays as they appeared to bend around the horizon. Hawaii is full of brief showers, and one evening, rain fell gently.

Whatever light curved around the planet's edge, it was just enough to create a classic Hawaiian rainbow, but because it was night, you couldn't see the full prism. Just one color emerged: a faint white arc over the ocean.

Too bad I didn't have an Ansel Adams-like camera to capture this ghost.

Travel Snapshots: Romantic getaways

Upon sunrise, a visitor can select from a host of worthwhile doings while hanging on the North Shore:

Surfing

Pros love the North Shore for its giant crests in winter, but there's room for novices in remaining seasons.

You can take a lesson by signing up at a hotel's surf shop. Instead, I went to Haleiwa Beach Park this spring and struck up a conversation with a surf instructor outside a truck advertising lessons and holding surfboards.

For $80, a surfer named Schuyler (pronounced Skylar) of Uncle Bryan's Sunset Suratt Surf Academy gave me a two-hour lesson at Chun's Reef.

Schuyler knows all the spots for beginners. After instructing me on the beach, I took to the water where the waves were manageable, and the 20-something instructor joined with his own board.

Like all good coaches, Schuyler gives a beginner a push in the right direction once a good wave comes, and he will catch a wave himself, rendezvousing with you at the end of your ride and offering to tow you back out to find the next wave.

Travel Snapshots: Island escapes

Bring an underwater camera when you visit the sea turtles.
Bring an underwater camera when you visit the sea turtles.

Sea turtles

Most people don't, but you can wade knee-deep and witness sea turtles swim right next to you at Laniakea Beach.

"Please stay 6 feet away from them!" one of the women volunteers admonished me.

A handful of Malama na Honu (Care for the Turtles) volunteers monitor the beach and offer information on the threatened sea turtles. They had even set up a cordon around one turtle, Isabella, who was resting on the sand. Isabella was a 250-pound adult female who is 30 to 35 years old.

Tourists snapped their cameras at her. I preferred the playful ones.

"You can let them come up to you, but don't go to them," the woman told me as I was one of the few visitors willing to get wet.

One sea turtle even nibbled at my knee. The conservators surmised it must have been Mana, a female known for being a little territorial.

Bring a water-resistant camera, and you can photograph the turtles swimming around you.

Travel Snapshots: Tropical drinks

Waimea waterfall

Take a half-hour or so walk through the botanical gardens of the Waimea Valley, a 1,875-acre river valley of flowers and trees. Adult admission is $13. The flora are abundant, 5,000 types of tropical plants in all. Peacocks strut the grounds. And you can view up close one of the planet's endangered species, the 'alae 'ula, or Hawaiian moorhen, as the small black waterbird tiptoes through a marsh.

The park is also home to stone monuments and the remnants of a living site belonging to ancient Hawaiians.

The walk under the monkey pod trees and along the Kamananui Stream delivers you to the waterfall. If you're adventurous, lifeguards offer boogie boards for paddling out to the waterfall (bring the waterproof camera). Watch out, though, for the rocky banks as you enter.

Good eats

There's no shortage of quality fare to refuel for your next North Shore adventure.

Roadside stands: They offer some of the island's juiciest, sweetest fruit. The vendors hand-cut the fruit and sell it in plastic bags for $1 to $3. I visited Trini and Marina of Ricky's Brand fruit stand at a three-vendor stall called Kahuku Land Farms. The two women sold bags of freshly cut pineapple, coconut, mango, melon and papaya.

Best family restaurant: Lei Lei's Bar & Grill at Turtle Bay Resort. This restaurant sits next to a golf course, where the kids can play on a practice putting green after sunset. It features outdoor seating, modest pricing and excellent mai tais, but then again, in Hawaii, every restaurant claims the best signature drink of the islands.

Best eats on the run: Kono's, in the quaint harbor town of Haleiwa, offers the best wraps. Try the breakfast wheat burrito wrap of eggs, cheese, potatoes and roasted vegetables. Sit outside where the marketplace porch looks upon the two-lane Kamehameha Highway, the main road ringing the isle.

Best fine dining: 21 Degrees North Restaurant inside the Turtle Bay Resort hotel. This expensive, white tablecloth establishment features the best of surf and turf, and it offers a view of the rugged coast and pounding surf. There's even outdoor seating, if you want to get closer to nature.

Best pie: Everyone talks about visiting the shrimp trucks for cheap eats. Some of the roadside trucks have clearly seen better days, but the shrimp is indeed tasty. I also visited the roadside shrimp shack of Ted's Bakery in Haleiwa, where the garlic shrimp and breaded shrimp lived up to the North Shore's high standards for the tasty crustacean. But hands down, you must try the chocolate haupia pie, a cream concoction that's institutional on the island. Heck, this treat alone is worth the five-hour flight to Hawaii from Los Angeles.

Fun shopping: The Old Sugar Mill in Waialua. Yes, this place was once an old sugar mill. Now it's a shopping enclave and is home to a coffee farm and Oahu's only working coffee mill. Buy a bag of beans, get a cup of Joe, or stock up on Made-In-Hawaii souvenirs. It's an end-of-the-line attraction with aging structures, apropos to this far-flung shore of the Pacific.