Review: The Newly Renovated Turtle Bay Resort Is a Family-Friendly Paradise on Oahu’s North Shore
With more than 1,300 acres of Hawaiian wilderness to explore, Turtle Bay stands out from the pack
Carefully balanced on the coast of Oahu’s ruggedly lush North Shore, Turtle Bay Resort is a heady mix of five-star luxury and laid-back surf culture. The venerable landmark, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023, recently emerged triumphant from a massive renovation as a stunning and stylish, full-service Hawaiian destination guaranteed to put you at ease moments after you arrive.
Taking full advantage of its COVID shutdown, the sprawling oceanfront property’s re-imagining was spearheaded by Los Angeles-based designer and architect, Dianna Wong. Wong, like many who come to this fantastical land of big-wave surfers, secluded beaches and rolling green hills, was mesmerized by her surroundings, and it shows in her choice of soothing colors, shapes and design elements throughout the resort. Inspired by the location, Wong was able to transform the resort from kitschy “aloha” classic to immersive naturalist extravaganza. In addition, local architect Rob Iopa of WCIT Architects was responsible for much of the major transformation done to the lobby. A success on all counts.
The overhauled redesign ranges from the porte-cochere and lobby to the pools and restaurants to a new row of swanky waterfront Ocean Bungalows. There are also, it should be noted, a slew of new experiences that include a surf school, horseback riding stables and not one but two 18-hole golf courses (one designed by Arnold Palmer).
The resort, which sprawls over some 1,300 acres, opened its doors again on July 1, and I was lucky enough to be there soon after to sample its pleasures for a full 10 days, family in tow. Here is everything you need to know before you head to paradise (no, really).
Remodeled and It Feels So Good
Pulling up was a psych-out. Though much of the resort has been remodeled, the entrance is the one area still under full renovation. Once inside, however, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The light-filled lobby is buffeted on both sides with endless windows and open space overlooking water, water and more water. The resort resides on an archipelago, and being nearly surrounded by the Pacific is a steady and assuring reminder of place.
The lobby also turned out to be a perfect area to gather, day and night. With its rounded seating areas and firepits overseen by gaping skylights, along with the Off the Lip lobby bar offering craft cocktails, small bites and views of surf and sky, we didn’t have to roam far to find a place to unwind.
Heading out to the pool area, a new, adults-only infinity pool and hot tub lead down to the more family-friendly section, with one larger pool and a second smaller one with two water slides. Yes, the slides are for the children, but after a few Mai Tais, you can bet there were some adults getting in on the action. All of this, by the by, looks out onto the peaceful waves of the local surf break.
Toward the end of the pool area and hugging the oceanfront sits the Sunset bar, which offered us endless hours spent watching surfers hang ten while ordering drinks and grub, and listening to the live happy hour music performed daily by North Shore artists.
As our first full afternoon morphed into a classic Hollywood sunset, we were feted by the unbothered gorgeousness of the gathered surf crew, who joined the staid resort crowd at the bar after riding the waves. It was this combination of mingling cultures that made an uplifting emotional impact on me early in the trip — and stayed with me throughout.
The other remodeled dining options include the more formal Alaia, open for breakfast and dinner, which resides just off the lobby and offers a menu featuring sustainable Hawaiian produce from the resort’s on-site farm. Our favorite meals were taken here, and we were even regaled with far-out surfing adventures from our waiter, who happened to be the son of the tow-surfing pioneer Darrick Doerner (only in Hawaii, my friends).
The Ocean Club was another add-on key to our stay, and it can be booked with your room. A private lounge perched above the Sunset Bar with plenty of outdoor seating, it was here that we grabbed a buffet breakfast and lunch, snacks, coffee and juices all day long, and cocktails, beer, wine and apps come 5 p.m.
With two kids, having the ability to pop in for a croissant and scrambled eggs, a few granola bars and some kickass desserts made things simpler than sitting down in a restaurant for every meal. And happy hour became our special family time to enjoy the music down below with a Coke for them and a glass of wine for us. No kids to tote? It’s also a perfect place to wind down and enjoy a light meal and the sunset.
Rooms with a View
The guest rooms and suites in the main building are slowly being renovated over the coming year, though to be honest, other than sleeping and showering, nobody was in our sixth-floor double for long. But every single room and suite offers an ocean view, and I made sure to steal any extra time I could reading on the balcony.
The newest, and most exciting, additions to Turtle Bay’s accommodations are the spectacular Ocean Bungalows, grouped in clusters of six, equaling 42 in total. I was given a quick tour of one and was awed by the strangely laid-back opulence of the 15-foot rooms with vaulted ceilings, private waterfront lanais and even small grassy yards (many littered with multiple surfboards) leading to the waves. If you have the cash and are looking for some privacy, I dare you to find a more serene hotel lodging.
Turtle Bay Has Everything You Want and More
I’ll admit, spending 10 full days at one resort is not something I do often. But at a time when traveling to just one place is hard enough, I didn’t want to tempt fate and go island hopping. The good news is, I was more than pleasantly surprised with how completely immersive this property can be.
Of course, there are the pools. But unlike many full-service resorts, there is so much more to it. The beach area is on the other side of the hotel and, like every beach in Hawaii, it is also open to the public. However, the helpful staff is always there to bring resort guests loungers and umbrellas. The snorkeling is also some of the best on the island, so be sure to pick up some equipment before you head over (COVID restrictions don’t allow rentals this year).
But what really makes Turtle Bay so special is its miles and miles of rambling, wild coastline real estate which you can explore at your leisure. We’re talking hiking and mountain bike trails (bikes are free with the $40 daily resort fee), hidden coves and tide pools, and plenty of rocks to scramble over in every direction. Though I tried, I still don’t think I saw it all. One great way to get a primer of the property is to sign up for the twice-weekly hikes with the resort dog, Pono — note that there’s usually a waitlist if you don’t do it far enough ahead.
Also new to Turtle Bay is the surf program in partnership with professional surfer Jamie O’Brien. Though a bum knee kept me from attending, my son went twice and by the end of his second lesson was surfing eight-foot waves on a 10-foot board. Thankfully, the summer waves weren’t as ferocious as the big wave surfing the North Shore sees in the winter months. Hotel guests can choose from group lessons, semi-private or private lessons.
Other leisure activities include tennis and pickleball courts, horseback riding, golf with a putting course and driving range, a full-service gym and daily fitness classes. A spa is also on-site (though it is next on the list to be renovated), and there is a yoga and fitness studio for daily classes. If you’re up for a little adventure, a helipad is also on property to take you on aerial sightseeing tours.
Should You Stay at Turtle Bay?
To be clear, this is not my first rodeo in Hawaii. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited every island and enjoyed countless hotels and resorts, including the vaulted elegance of the Four Seasons on both Maui and the Big Island.
But what Turtle Bay offered that other five-star resorts simply did not was a sense of local community and comfort amid all the redesigned luxury. Yes, there were the L.A. ladies decked out in Chanel flip-flops and men in their Vilebrequins, but they existed side-by-side with long-haired surfers and local families roaming the grounds.
And though the more commercial Oahu may not be the belle of the ball, what with Honolulu’s bustling high-end malls and kid-heavy, name-brand hotels, I was uniquely charmed by the North Shore’s less populous, low-key island magnetism and endearing wild side.
Not only could we break up our day between the pools and the beach, but we could spend hours exploring the miles of on-property trails by foot, bike or even on horseback — not to mention hitting a few buckets of balls at the driving range or winding down with sunset yoga. It is a place uniquely conceived to be self-contained, a warm-weather snow globe of relaxation, fun and adventure.
Of course, the North Shore is certainly worth exploring, and you can rent a car or grab a cab to appreciate the area’s renowned beaches, forests, waterfalls and snorkeling. But then again, you can also just hang out, relax and have your every need and desire catered to by some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet. And to me, that’s what a luxury vacation is all about.
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