Travel

Kick back at Oahu's Turtle Bay Resort

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The gilt-trimmed high-rises of Waikiki offer a seductive escape from L.A. But those who rent a car — a convertible, please —- can find a simpler side of Oahu on the North Shore, an hour or so away, where locals and tourists carry surfboards instead of Louis Vuitton purses (real or fake) and debates about where to eat focus on which food trucks serve the best garlic shrimp. Residents call it "the country," and they want to keep it that way.

Haleiwa is the only real town on the North Shore, and it's mainly a line of one-story beach shops, cafes, bars and shave-ice outlets along the highway.

Even the North Shore's only large hotel, Turtle Bay Resort (57-091 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku; [800] 203-3650), is more comfortable than glamorous, although the ocean and bay views from many of the rooms in its three wings must be among the most spectacular in Hawaii.

Environmentalists have opposed parts of a proposed expansion (new hotels and more condos) at the 840-acre resort, with five miles of beaches and 36 holes of golf. But regular guests are pleased that Turtle Bay is renovating its 397 guest rooms and suites, two restaurants and spa.

The needed overhaul began in January and should be completed in mid-October, when accommodations will have a "contemporary beach house" look with new furniture, bedding and fixtures, as well as walk-in showers. The new spa will double in size to 11,000 square feet.

The Palm Terrace restaurant has been renamed the North Shore Kula Grilleand opened this month, with an emphasis on farm-to-table offerings and local seafood, meat and poultry. The hotel's 21 Degrees North will be renamed Pa'akai (salt) when it reopens in late May with an ocean theme and a menu that mixes and matches seafood with sauces and cooking styles.

After a day trip to the North Shore several years ago, my husband, Keith, and I returned in mid-January to stay at Turtle Bay Resort. We liked that T-shirts, shorts, flip-flops and bathing suits were the preferred attire, and that the pool was largely occupied by friendly Australian families with toddlers who gleefully splashed in the water.

The bed

I was concerned about online reviews of Turtle Bay that complained that the rooms "looked tired." Keith's response: "Like we don't?" Furniture was chipped in our spacious unrenovated room, which had a large dressing area, bathroom and balcony, but the paint was fresh. Each day we were there, we liked it more, easing into the laid-back lifestyle, watching surfers and a couple kissing under a beachside tree.

Staff seemed a little confused at times during the initial week of renovation, and there was debate about whether we got free breakfasts with our six-night package ($314 a night, plus tax, and a mandatory $25 daily resort fee, although at other times this package can begin at $219 a night). Two breakfasts cost about $60 without the deal.

The meal

Garlic shrimp. Giovanni's, Fumi's and Macky's were among half a dozen recommended garlic shrimp outlets, as was Romy's Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp (56-781 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku; [808] 232-2202. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily). We smelled the peppery, boiling shrimp at Romy's before we saw the roadside red shed and adjacent red tables and benches under a tent roof. I peeled my sweet and spicy shrimp with my fingers, while Keith devoured garlic shrimp, each $12.75. Worth the mess and shredded paper towels. Also, Foodland supermarkets sell good sushi, sandwiches and the best egg custard pie I've ever eaten.

The find

Waimea Valley (59-864 Kamehameha Highway; [808] 638-7766. Open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily, $15 adults, $7.50 children and over age 60). We drove by it several times, figuring it was comparable to the immensely popular Polynesian Cultural Center nearby (55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie; (800) 367-7060. Closed Sundays), a busy place introducing Polynesian island nations. But the nonprofit Waimea is gentler, a botanical garden and historic site with a three-quarter-mile trail (or an optional golf cart ride) to a modest waterfall. We happened upon a market, local vendors selling food and crafts, a delight.

The lesson learned

Turtle Bay says that every room has a water view, but some on lower floors look at the ocean and bay over broad first-floor rooftops, which reportedly will be planted with vegetation to improve the view. We were on the fifth floor of the southern wing, and the view was mind-boggling, worth the higher fee. All rooms are large, but one wing has balconies that are half the size of the others.

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