You've hiked to the top of Diamond Head, snorkeled at Hanauma Bay, visited the gurgling remains of Pearl Harbor and walked barefoot on Waikiki Beach. Go ahead and check Honolulu off your bucket list. But don’t say farewell to Oahu quite yet—a trip to the famed North Shore and the 50-year-old Polynesian Cultural Center is an island must.

Prepare to downshift from Honolulu's hectic pace when you reach Hawaii's North Shore.

The North Shore

An hour’s drive across the island, the North Shore is a departure in mood and pace from the skyscrapers, freeways and crowded resorts in the capital city. Known for legendary swells, luring surfers from across the world, this seven mile stretch of white sand beaches offers a nature-rich environment on Hawaii’s most populous island. A volcanic mountain range separates the North Shore from the rest of Oahu, bringing with it a wealth of unparalleled scenery from waterfalls and ancient temples to tree-covered trails freckled with thousands of species of shrubs and flowers. 

There’s only one major hotel on the North Shore, the Turtle Bay Resort, which sits on a peninsula at the northernmost tip of the island, surrounded by crystal clear waters and crashing waves. The resort opened its doors 42 years ago and last spring underwent a major renovation to its guest rooms, restaurants and spa, upping the chic factor and embracing an eco-conscious environment. Flanked by Turtle Bay and Kawela Bay, the resort has also drawn the attention of Hollywood with films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Soul Surfer and the second installment of The Hunger Games using the resort as a backdrop.  

Turtle Bay Resort is the North Shore's only resort.

If you’re a surfer, this is the place to be. Hardcore locals and surfers from around the globe dot the waters surrounding the resort as waves swell to 20, 30, 40 and, sometimes, 50 feet. If you’re not quite ready to get on the board, the North Shore is ripe with activities that put you in the center of the island’s beauty, from kayaking alongside giant sea turtles, shoreline horseback rides, Segway and helicopter tours, golfing on Turtle Bay’s two PGA courses and snorkeling amid brightly colored tropical fish in Shark’s Cove (named for the shape, not the inhabitants).

The Polynesian Cultural Center

Seven miles down the road, through the charming surfer town of Kahuku, in La’ie, the Mormon Church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center opens its carved, wooden gates to a world replicating the rich history and culture of the islands pin pricking 12 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.  Although  the center may be considered an amusement park, that label detracts from the attention to detail put into the cultural accuracy of each village, the daily evening luau and the impressive nighttime show, “Ha, the Breath of Life,” which features more than 100 Polynesian natives from Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti.  

The center recruits its performers and employees from the adjoining Brigham Young University-Hawaii, allowing students to share their island cultures with visitors. Though you won’t be aggressively proselytized, expect to be invited to learn more about the Mormon church.

Basket weaving in the Tahitian village at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Spend at least a day roaming from one traditional village representing a nation of islands to the next. By the end of the day, you’ll be so well versed in each of the villages’ traditions—from fireknife dancing in Samoa to the bamboo drums of Fiji and Tahitian spear throwing to Aotearoan warrior games—that the evening show will seem like a grand finale showcase of the center’s most exciting activities. 

Where to Eat

The dining scene on the North Shore is just about as laid back as the surfer scene surrounding it. 

For breakfast: Hit local fave Hukilau Cafe (55-662 Wahinepee St., La’ie) for the egg-topped fried rice with a side of Spam. 

For lunch: Stop at Kuhuku Grill (56-565 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku) for the garlic shrimp or sister restaurant Seven Brothers (55-510 Palekana St., Laie) for the Poniolo Cowboy burger topped with grilled pineapple, bacon, BBQ sauce and onion rings. 

For dinner: Head to Turtle Bay’s beachside restaurant, Ola (57-091 Kamehameha Hwy., Kahuku), and order the locally sourced Misoyaki Butterfish served with Hamakua Ali’i mushrooms and baby bok choy. 

For every day: Hawaiian shave ice from Aoki’s (66-117 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa) or Matsumoto (66-087 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa). Flavors range from cherry to papaya and pickled mango. Act like a local and get the ice cream and azuki on the bottom.

Back>>>Read other stories in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.