Three unexpected treats on Oahu’s North Shore

Last October, when my wife and I visited Oahu for a week, we spent the first few days happily exploring the attractions and activities we’d plotted before the trip: the artfully educating exhibits at the Bishop Museum; the snorkeling splendors of Hanauma Bay; the tranquil and transporting Byodo-In Temple; Chef Ed Kenney’s acclaimed organic cuisine at Town restaurant; and the then-just-opened Japengo restaurant in the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, which promised – and as it turned out, delivered – a palate-expanding fusion feast (three faves: the Tootsie maki with crab, avocado, shiitake and lobster; the scallop butter yaki; and the coconut crème brulee). I’ve already written about two other highlights from those first few days: a night of multi-course culinary magic at Alan Wong’s restaurant in Honolulu and a visit to life-changing MA’O Organic Farms in Wai’anae.

But a quarter-century of serendipity has taught us that some of the most memorable on-the-road experiences come from listening to residents after you’ve landed in a place, and on this trip again three of our finest discoveries – all on Oahu’s less-visited North Shore – came from locals’ impromptu advice. If you’re going to Oahu, here are three North Shore sites we’d recommend you add to your own must-do map.

1. Waimea Valley: This 1,875-acre valley preserve on the outskirts of Hale`iwa, near Waimea Bay, doesn’t billboard its wonderfulness. In fact, that’s one of the many things we loved about it: how humble and low-key it is, despite– or perhaps because of? – its riches.

Waimea Valley comprises one of Oahu’s last examples of the traditional land use system called ahupua’a. In this system, the islands were divided into wedge-shaped slices of land, ruled by a local chief and often overseen by a priest, that ran from the mountains to the sea and incorporated all the kinds of topography and resources residents needed to thrive. You can learn much more about the ahupua’a system here.

If you have time, Waimea Valley offers a many-layered immersion in traditional Hawaiian nature and culture, with daily activities that teach Hawaiian games, stories, hula-dancing, lei-making and other creations, special events such as the Kanikapila celebration of music, and guided hikes that range from 2 to 7 miles and take visitors through streams, into forests and up ridges for spectacular views.

Waimea is so inexhaustible that you could easily spend a few days here or make multiple visits – and amazingly, 80 percent of the valley is still virtually unexplored — but even if you have only part of an afternoon, as was our case, it’s still a thoroughly edifying and enchanting place. All we did was walk along the path that has been thoughtfully paved through the cultivated part of the preserve. The three-quarter-mile trail wanders through a luxuriant profusion of plant life: thick ferns slick and shiny as green rubber, flaming red ginger plants, sun-burst yellow hyacinth, cloud-white lilies and flamboyant festoons of purple bougainvillea. The world we wandered through was so lush and bright that it was as if the preserve had removed the filters from our eyes.

The best thing about Waimea Valley for us was this: Even though we weren’t machete-ing our way through dense underbrush, those paths seemed to lead us ever deeper into a wonderland of tropical flowers and plants, so profligate and prototypical that they became a splendid synecdoche for wildness, and ended in the Edenic sight of a deep green pool backdropped by plunging Waimea Falls. While we never had to worry if we would make it back in time for our sunset horseback ride, by the end of our afternoon visit, we felt cleansed, renewed, in a way that only wilderness can confer.

2. Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck: When we told locals we were going to spend a couple of nights at Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku, they told us we had to save one meal for Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck, located a few miles away just off Kamehameha Highway.

So as soon as we checked in and got settled, we meandered down the road, past a few other trucks advertising Kahuku shrimp and other fresh-caught seafoods, until we spotted the sign “Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck” and the gloriously graffiti-covered vehicle itself. We splashed into a muddy parking space and made our way to a roofed and paved pavilion area with perhaps twenty picnic tables and benches. Half a dozen people were waiting in line at the truck, where the menu was posted on the side.

We chose the classic “Shrimp Scampi” combo plate: a dozen grilled shrimp marinated in olive oil, fresh chopped garlic, and lemon butter, served with two generous scoops of rice, and the whole drizzled with lemon garlic butter and flakes of carmelized garlic.

To complement that, we bought grilled corn on the cob – “picked this morning,” said the kindly farmer behind the grill — from a stand at the opposite end of the pavilion, and fragrant slices of pineapple from a third truck bordering the pavilion area. And then we dove into the greasy, buttery, corn-kernelly, garlic-shrimpily, pineapply pool. Oh man! This is how you spell DELICIOUS! For about 20 minutes, we both journeyed to a place of silent savoring bliss. For $20 apiece, we’d found Kahuku heaven.

3. Twenty One Degrees North: At the other end of the budget spectrum, we saved one final splurge for our last-night-on-Oahu meal – and it was absolutely worth it. Ten minutes by car from Giovanni’s, we ate at Turtle Bay’s flagship Twenty One Degrees North restaurant. Presided over by exuberant executive chef Hector Morales, this was the white-tablecloth-and-china yin to Giovanni’s picnic-table-and-paper-plate yang. The welcome was warm and gracious, the setting subdued and elegant without feeling uncomfortably formal. One could be equally at home here in an aloha shirt or a sportcoat, we thought. And the setting was spectacular, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked onto the beach, the swaying palm trees and the ever-swashing sea.

Even more spectacular was the food. Because we were celebrating one of the finest trips we’d had in years, we went all out and ordered a multi-course extravaganza. Our favorite dishes included the Diver Scallops, a single splendid scallop served with melted leeks in an Asian pear and poached fruit reduction; the Crab-Crusted Hawaiian Sea Bass nestled in a cannellini bean cassoulet, with spinach and roasted tomatoes; the Opakapaka, served with a savory pipikaula risotto and an audaciously delicious pea and mint puree; the Kahuku Shrimp, Avocado and Hearts of Palm, the shrimp grilled perfectly and accompanied with buttery local avocado and hearts of palm; and the Ahi Tartare, a palate-piquing marriage of smoothly scrumptious ahi with a piquant chili mango salsa.

Our delight in these dishes was deepened by the knowledge that we had field-tested and -tasted many of their ingredients earlier in the day on a visit to Al and Joan Santoro’s wonderful Poamoho Organic Producefarm. This convivial couple, who had retired from their careers as a naval intelligence officer and computer systems engineer to become organic farmers, embodied Oahu’s inspiring new sustainability ethic, and their joyful collaboration with Chef Morales exemplified the farm-to-table spirit that we had encountered throughout the island – and that infused the Twenty-One Degrees North menu, from the shrimp and fish caught in the sea just outside the restaurant’s windows, to the fruits and vegetables harvested from family farms just down the road. Our sense of culinary apotheosis culminated in the chef’s signature chocolate soufflé – which simply and sweetly lifted us away. Overall, we felt the cuisine at Twenty One Degrees North was every bit as enlightening, delighting and delectable as the creations at Alan Wong’s – and that is the highest compliment we could pay.

As we drove to the airport the next morning, we silently thanked the locals whose tips had bestowed these unexpected gifts of Oahu’s North Shore – and began to plot how soon we could return to discover even more.

Photos by Kuniko George