March 9, 2008

Hangin' 18

Less than 40 miles from the bustle of downtown Honolulu, Oahu's spectacular North Shore -- and its championship golf -- awaits

The 17th green at the Palmer Course, with the resort in the distance.

The 17th green at the Palmer Course, with the resort in the distance.

Flying to Oahu, Hawaii, without visiting the island's North Shore would be like traveling to New York and seeing only Times Square: You could do it -- but you'd be missing out on so much.

To get to Oahu's North Shore -- what locals call "the country" -- you drive 35 miles from downtown Honolulu and take a right onto a two-lane road, Kamehameha or "Kam Highway." Every bit as breathtaking as the famed 17 Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula, it's so spectacular that rubberneckers and the lack of lanes can result in midday Los Angeles-type traffic jams. The trip from Honolulu to the North Shore usually takes about 45 minutes.

On one side of the road there are vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, shaved ice and T-shirts. On the other you can watch the world's greatest surfers try to survive the waves of Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline or Sunset Beach.

Once you reach the North Shore, it's easy to understand why 2.5 million people visit each year (in addition to its 18,000 residents). There are miles of white-sand public beaches, bright-blue warm water and all the sun your skin could want. There's whale watching, and if you look close you might glimpse a pod of spinner dolphins roaming the North Shore waters. Much of the hit TV show "Lost" is filmed here, and it's where singer Jack Johnson, actor Sean Penn and producer Brian Grazer have homes.

Map by Jason Lee

The Turtle Bay Resort (turtlebayresort.com, 800-203-3650) offers visitors a high-end place to stay, eat, have spa treatments and play golf on two 18-hole courses. The Palmer Course ($155 for resort guests, $195 for others) is a challenging design that hosts tournaments for the Champions Tour in January and the LPGA Tour in February. In the typical two-club wind, a 10-handicapper playing the back tees will need to grind to break 90. Nearly all the holes are inland and somewhat protected by trees -- and given the wind conditions, that's really a blessing. The 17th green, which gives you an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean, is a photo-op.

The "other 18," the George Fazio course ($125 and $160), is a shorter, easier design -- better for couples and family golf, but it's just as scenic.

Turtle Bay's owner, Oaktree Capital Management, is "looking to sell it or for partners to help develop it," says John Dowd, tournament chairman of the Turtle Bay Championship. In January, Gov. Linda Lingle announced the state might buy the 850-acre resort. "I have proposed that the state purchase the property in order to protect the remaining areas and allow the community to shape its preferred future," she said. The community seems clear about what it wants. The locals wear bright green T-shirts that read, "Keep the COUNTRY COUNTRY!" It's hard to blame them. It's one of the most incredible pieces of land in the country.

Regardless of who owns Turtle Bay, it shouldn't have any impact on visitors. The resort recently underwent a $70 million renovation, which covered everything on the property. The 42 oceanfront cottages, if you can afford $950 a night, are honeymoon-worthy. There are oceanfront villas that rent for $1,200 to $2,500 a night. The hotel also has 443 guest rooms and suites that cost closer to $460 a night. Turtle Bay has four restaurants, two pools, a surfing school, spa, helicopter rides, horseback riding and hiking.

Frank Kares brings his two kids from Danville, Calif., every December. "We came out last year, we came out this year and we're coming back again next year," he says, getting ready to tee off on the 18th hole of the Palmer Course. "Tomorrow we're going to the Polynesian Village. Last year we did Pearl Harbor. There's a lot of stuff to do. I even went on the 40-minute helicopter tour -- and I'm afraid of heights."



LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

A FINE NINE

A few miles down the country road from Turtle Bay is the Kahuku Golf Course (co.honolulu.hi.us/des/golf/kahuku.htm). With four holes running along the Pacific Ocean, it's arguably one of the greatest deals in nine-hole golf. Out-of-towners play for $10. You can fit the amount of pretension at Kahuku (right) on the tip of your tee.

TRADITION

Immerse yourself in South Pacific culture at the 42-acre Polynesian Cultural Center (polynesia.com), where you can take in "the largest Polynesian song-and-dance show in the world." There's a luau every evening.

FEELING CHUMMY?

How about climbing off a boat into a cage and going face to fins with such sharks as the Galapagos, grey reef and the occasional tiger or whale shark (sharktourshawaii.com)? The price: $120, or half that for kids under the age of 12.

RACK 'EM UP

Lei Lei's Bar and Grill, next to the golf shop of the Palmer Course, is a great spot for food. The fish is as good as you'd expect in Hawaii, and the fall-off-the-bone pork ribs are memorable. The Tiki-torch dining and casual atmosphere make this a more fitting option than 21 Degrees, which is very formal for Hawaii and whose service is sometimes slow.