After my fifteenth backwards bail, arms-and-legs and bad words flying everywhere, I knew I was in some trouble. My surfing lesson – with a couple of legendary Hawaiian watermen, no less – wasn’t going well. My feet, thanks to a couple of crashes on the coral, were bloodied. And my spirit wasn’t faring much better. But I got over it quick. After all, I was on Hawaii’s North Shore. And I was surfing (kind of). And I was stand-up paddleboarding (had a lot more success with that). And, because I’m actually capable of it, I was golfing (didn’t break any course records).
Oahu’s fabled North Shore– a gorgeous 7 mile swath of sand and surf – is the Mecca, the epicenter, of the surfing world. Here giant swells roll in from the north and pound the palm-lined shores. In winter, when things really ramp up, the swells get mind-blowing big. Try 60 feet high. And, with boards strapped to their rooftops (VW vans are still the mode of choice), they come. From all over the world, they make the pilgrimage. And the North Shore becomes a playground unlike anything else in the world.
However, as powerful and permeating as the surfing culture is here, there are other forms of recreation that are alive and well on the North Shore. The golf scene, for example, is pretty potent in its own right. Famous course designers such as George Fazio, Arnold Palmer, and Dick Nugent have stamped their mark here. In fact, the North Shore is home to three of the best golf courses in Hawaii. Unquestionably, it was the golf that initially piqued my interest, but I left with a hip – and, yes, somewhat humbling! – cultural experience I didn’t expect.
For golfers and surfers – or anyone in between – one of the best places to hang your hat is the Turtle Bay Resort. Clutching the wave-smashed rocks on a rugged promontory, the resort, by far the largest on the North Shore, is surrounded by pristine beaches and some of the hottest surf spots on the strip. In fact, guests of the resort can lounge poolside and watch some serious surfing go down on the gnarly break just a few feet from the shore. For viewing the action, it simply can’t get any better.
Of course, as good as the break at Turtle Bay is, the beaches located just down the road are far more famous. Sunset, Waimea, and the most famous break in the world, Pipeline, at Ehukai Beach Park, are a short distance away. For my wife and I, watching “the show” at Pipeline (a pod of fifty chiseled dudes, or so, were out there ripping it up when we arrived on our first evening), was a memorable experience. The beach was lined with hundreds of people ogling the action as, wave after wave, ten or fifteen surfers would hop on their feet and shred some of the biggest, baddest waves I’ve ever seen. Sitting on the beach photographing the action I couldn’t help but ponder the possibility of me giving it a go. Of course, I would have been snapped in half in 30 seconds, guaranteed. My time, on waves a quarter of this size, would come soon.
Unquestionably, I’m much more comfortable – and safer – on the golf course (the people on the fairway to my right, not so much). Before I could muster up enough courage to try surfing myself (my wife and I had lessons booked on our third day), I needed to gain some sporting confidence on the golf course. Or, at least, that was the plan.
Boasting two excellent 18-holers, the Turtle Bay Resort is also the epicenter of the North Shore golf scene. While the original (it was built in 1970) Fazio Course is a pleasant, albeit somewhat unspectacular, resort course, “The Palmer” is the undisputed “king” in these parts. The 7,200-yard layout, although routed over relatively flat terrain, is laced with excellent golf holes that combine to yield one of the best tests of golf in Hawaii. If there is one complaint here it’s the lack of ocean frontage. While there are nice ocean vistas, particularly on the 17th, the ocean itself is really a non-factor.
With a steady 30 mph trade wind blowing, I had a tough time getting in-sync on the front nine on “The Palmer.” However, by the seventh or eighth, I settled in and found some rhythm (something that eluded me on the surfboard!).
The closing hole, a daring risk-reward par-5 with water fronting the green, is probably the best hole on the course. And, lo and behold, I managed to make a birdie from the bunker! It was, in terms of my sporting accomplishments, the high point of the week.
By the third day – after playing additional rounds at nearby Ko’olau, which is often touted as the hardest golf course in the world (it has a sky-high slope of 152) and the laid-back Fazio course at Turtle Bay– it was time to recalibrate. It was time for the golf, which was highly memorable (I lost twelve balls and laughed my way to one of my highest scores ever at Ko’olau), to take a back seat to the compelling surf scene that overrides everything here.
The Hans Hedemann Surf School, which is located at Turtle Bay, specializes in teaching newbie surfers and paddleboarders the ins and outs of riding the waves. Surprisingly, my first attempt at paddleboarding was a rousing success. And my wife, Dawn, was also smitten with the sport. The gentle waves of Turtle Bay and the expert instruction from Rocky (his dog, Pulu rides along with him on the board!) made for an awesome experience.
The next morning, our final day of the trip, a surfing lesson was on the docket. Hans Hedemann himself, a legendary waterman in these parts, as well as Buzzy Kerbox (he was one of the pioneers of big wave tow-in surfing) joined the group for added, well, pressure. Needless to say, I was somewhat nervous.
I’d love to blame my lack of success on the quality of the instruction or something of that nature (perhaps I ate too much pineapple at lunch?) However, truth be told, I’ve never excelled at sports that require an incredible amount of core strength, extreme agility, innate balance, and impeccable timing while negotiating a constantly changing environment (honestly, how does ANYONE surf?).
However, to be totally honest, floundering around with Hans and the boys was kinda fun. I burnt a lot of calories. I used four hundred muscles I hadn’t used in a decade. And, of course, I reminded myself just how much – especially on the North Shore- I love the game of golf.
For more information on Oahu’s North Shore visit www.gohawaii.com/oahu and www.turtlebayresort.com. Andrew Penner is a golf writer and photographer based in Calgary, Canada. You can visit him at www.andrewpenner.com.