The towers of Waikiki Beach cast such long shadows over Oahu that it seems daunting, in the mind's eye at least, to escape them when weighing a visit to Hawaii's most populous island.

But it can be done, and we did. Odysseus-like, I lashed my hands to the mast of a Kia Optima for a week this spring while my family crew and I motored around the island's perimeter, ignoring Waikiki's siren song. We planned a clockwise path from the evolving resort area of Ko Olina to the laid-back North Shore to the breathtakingly beautiful windward (eastern) side to the doorstep of the Diamond Head State Monument.

Less than a tank of gas later, we had seen and experienced aspects of Oahu that we had underappreciated - or been blissfully unaware of - during previous trips.

Looking back, as I search for words to capture nearly deserted gold-sand beaches, gentle surf carved by our kayak or the graceful underwater meandering of a green sea turtle, I'm inclined to yield the floor to an earlier Oahu visitor. Author Samuel L. Clemens had adopted the pen name Mark Twain just before he visited Hawaii in 1866, and years later wrote of "its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore . . . in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago."

Advertisement

Far from the madding crowd, we experienced Oahu's spectacular beauty in, on and around the water.

On the roughly half-hour drive to Ko Olina from the airport, we made a quick stop at Pearl Harbor to visit the memorial and the USS Missouri, which is docked nearby. Together, they serve as bookends to World War II. It's always humbling to visit the sunken USS Arizona to remember the 2,403 American lives lost on December 7, 1941, and fascinating to then stand in the spot on the USS Missouri where Japan signed its surrender nearly four years later.

Then on to Ko Olina. Its name, which translates to "fulfillment of joy," dates to when Hawaii's royal family fished there. The development is clustered around four man-made lagoons ringed by white sand.

We had marvelled at the location during a visit five years before, due in no small part to the magnificent Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. Opened in 2011, it features one of the world's largest private collections of Hawaiian artwork.

"Everything here tells the story of Hawaii," said Manako Tanaka, who is the current "Aulani Ambassador," a staff member who serves as a cultural envoy to the guests. Disney characters hang around the place, but, like the Mickey Mouse icons cleverly hidden in the wallpaper, require some effort to find - and the resort's Hawaiian storytelling doesn't revolve around a road trip with Goofy. Instead, as Tanaka described, it's found in events such as an evening luau that traces how sugar interests cleared the land, and how Portuguese plantation workers introduced a funny little four-stringed instrument that the Hawaiians called a ukulele.

Or it's found in astronomer Greg McCartney taking us on a tour of the night sky via two beachside telescopes, from twinkling Canopus to sparkling Sirius to Hoku-lei (Capella), the brightest in a circle of five stars that owes its Hawaiian name to hoku (star) and lei (wreath).

Aulani's neighbour, and the newest addition to the development, is the sumptuous Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. It opened in June 2016 after an 18-month makeover of the former J.W. Marriott Ihilani, and served as our base for two days of exploration.

Children play in one of the man-made lagoons at Ko Olina, with the Disney resort Aulani rising behind them. Photo / Alex Pulaski
Children play in one of the man-made lagoons at Ko Olina, with the Disney resort Aulani rising behind them. Photo / Alex Pulaski

My wife, Mica, and I arose before dawn our first morning to start a 45-minute drive north along Route 93 past the hardscrabble communities of Waianae and Makaha.

The roadway peters out into a muddy, lumpy, impassable road. From there, we began the 4km hike to our day's objective: Kaena Point State Park, the island's western tip, and a place that according to Hawaiian custom signifies the "leaping place of souls," a sacred spot where mortals can rejoin their ancestors in the afterlife.

We stayed tethered to terra firma, but the coastal scenery - black volcanic arches, bleached-white coral deposits, verdant hillsides - lent the place a spiritual quality. Wildlife abounds: red-crested cardinals, monarch butterflies, Laysan albatrosses riding air currents.

The ocean never feels very far away, even at dinnertime, when locally caught seafood steals the show. We trolled through platters of pink snapper and shrimp and noodles at Mina's Fish House one night, and followed up the next night with mahi mahi, a curried fish stew and lobster-topped devilled eggs at Monkeypod Kitchen.

Our last morning in Ko Olina found my son, David, 21, and me aboard the Office, a 32-foot scuba charter operated by Nani Kai Dive Adventures & Academy. Matthew Lipscomb, the dive instructor, cautioned us about two outfall pipes that send warm water from an electric power plant into the ocean.

"You can go over the flow, or under it - you just don't want to be in the middle," he said. "It can push you a quarter-mile out to sea."

With that warning prominently in mind, we steered clear of the pipes but stayed close to the plentiful tropical fish. A green sea turtle, friendly or unafraid or both, kept us company, effortlessly gliding through the water.

Certain constants come to mind in relation to Oahu's North Shore. Surfing, for starters. Shrimp trucks. Shave ice in quaint Haleiwa. We stopped for the latter two essentials, and for some local insight into surf conditions as a precursor to a planned stand-up paddleboard outing.

"Watch out for the currents," cautioned Vince Wells, manager of T&C Surf Designs.

Similarly, Heidi Burgoyne, whose gear-rental service would supply my paddleboard, warned against strong winds.

Now, before we get to the part where I dismissed all this perfectly good advice, in my defense I had not yet seen the North Shore roadside markers where extremely experienced surfers encountered their last wave. Nor had I met the surfer walking back to the pullout for Kapaeloa Beach, the forlorn halves of his surfboard tucked under each arm.

"I break one just about every year," he told me.

With that established, let's just say I would have been better off not taking my paddleboard into the 6-foot-high waves taunting me from the beachside house we rented northeast of Haleiwa. They won Round 1, but I remained intent on a rematch the next morning, this time on a surfboard, with a little help from new friends.

Center, balance, patience - this was the counsel from surf instructors Noah Manning and Nate Fletcher of Hans Hedemann Surf School. They drove us to Kawela Bay, a sheltered spot with waves about half as high as those I'd tackled the day before.

Both my son and daughter Sophia, 12, were up on their boards quickly and coasting toward shore. I managed to stand for about two seconds on one pass - score that as a victory - and on my final try Fletcher promised that the incoming wave had my name on it.

North Shore beaches draw surfers for the world-renowned waves but are often sparsely populated on the shoreline. Photo / Alex Pulaski
North Shore beaches draw surfers for the world-renowned waves but are often sparsely populated on the shoreline. Photo / Alex Pulaski

I paddled hard, stayed centred and balanced, did a three count and . . . concluded that my Hawaiian name must translate to "Wipeout."

Hands-down, the day-long drive from the North Shore around the island's windward side stole the show as far as unspoiled natural coastal beauty. From tiny Kahuku south to bustling Kaneohe, Route 83 (the Kamehameha Highway, named for the king who unified the islands) hugs the shoreline for long, deserted stretches.

Then, from endearing Kailua around the southeastern tip to the urban fringes of Honolulu, Route 72 winds past stunning views of Makapuu Beach and the twisted lava formations around the Halona Blowhole. Just past the turn to Hanauma Bay (an ideal snorkelling spot), civilisation intrudes again.

We broke up the drive with stops for morning mountain biking at Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve, lunch, and kayaking in Kailua Beach Park's calm surf.

Our last night was spent at the foot of Hawaii's most recognisable feature, the serrated green ridgeline of Diamond Head State Monument. Most visitors see it from the northwest, in Waikiki, but we were on the east side at the Kahala Hotel & Resort, an elegant oasis with the added benefit of a dolphin lagoon. That allowed us to get face-to-face one morning with a 10-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named Hua.

Later, we began the hour-long switchback trek up the Diamond Head Summit Trail. The massive volcanic cone had served as a barrier between us and Waikiki, but when we reached the top, the long beach and its attendant high-rises swallowed the view.

Twain, standing on just such a spot, described how "the distant lights of Honolulu glinted like an encampment of fireflies."

The city's population then numbered roughly 15,000 - a far cry from today's roughly 400,000. I don't know what barbs he might aim at ultra-busy Waikiki, but I'd like to think that if he had circumnavigated the rest of Oahu with us he would still hold these words to be true today:

"There they lie, the divine islands, forever shining in the sun, forever smiling out on the sparkling sea . . . and whosoever looks upon them once will never more get the picture out of his memory till he die."