Turtle Bay Resort: Oahu’s North Shore gem

3 weeks ago 11

The Hawaiian island Oahu is not all Honolulu, and Waikiki is far from the only — or even best — beach on the island.

Now, that's no shade intended toward Waikiki, as the destination is rich in history and has much to offer. But you are missing out on a lot of what makes Oahu special if that's the only slice of it you experience.

On this trip to Hawaii, my family decided that we wanted something different from the Oahu we'd experienced before, so for part of our vacation, we headed north, bound for Oahu's North Shore and the area's nicest accommodations — Turtle Bay Resort.

Here's what we found hiding in plain sight on the island's North Shore.

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Related: These are the best resorts on Oahu

What is Turtle Bay Resort?

Turtle Bay Resort is the only true large resort on Oahu's North Shore, and it's an institution unto itself as it has been there for over 50 years — since 1972, to be exact.

It sits on a massive 1,400 beachfront acres and has 408 rooms spread out over three wings. And, as the name suggests, you may very well encounter green sea turtles there, among other wildlife.

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You may also recognize the resort, or at least some of its surrounding terrain, as it's been used over 150 times as a filming location for movies and shows — "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Hunger Games," "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Lost," "Jumanji" and "The Amazing Race," to name a few.

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This resort leans into its surf culture history, both through its decor and its modern-day offerings, including the on-site Jamie O'Brien Surf Experience.

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Standout features of Turtle Bay Resort

  • The peaceful North Shore location is off the beaten path and provides plenty of space to spread out, relax and enjoy watching the sunset and the waves.
  • There are many on-site activities, including horseback riding, surf lessons, kayaking tours, night snorkeling, ukulele lessons, a spa, golf and pickleball.
  • The rooms were renovated in 2021 with an all-new look that still feels quite fresh.
  • You're close to some fun, small shore towns such as Haleiwa, and you can also go to see surfers catching big waves at the nearby Ehukai Beach Park.
  • You've got a good shot at seeing some magnificent sea turtles on the beach of the resort.

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How to book Turtle Bay Resort

Turtle Bay Resort is pricey, but the good news is that it is part of the American Express Fine Hotels + Resorts program, which makes that a great pathway to book if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Booking via the FHR program unlocks late checkout, potential upgrades, a daily breakfast credit of $110 and a $150 property credit to use once during your stay. And trust me — you need those credits, so that's a really smart way to book.

Expect to spend about $700 per night (before taxes and the $58.99-per-day resort fee) for standard rooms that are a bit over 400 square feet. Peak dates can go higher.

For budgeting purposes, know that parking is an additional $40 per day, and valet parking and self-parking are the same price. Because of the resort's location, you almost certainly want to rent a car to get here if you plan to do any exploring at all, which you absolutely should.

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Where is Turtle Bay Resort?

As mentioned, Turtle Bay Resort is on the beach of Oahu's North Shore, about a one-hour drive (longer if there's traffic) from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL).

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The vibe at Turtle Bay Resort

Turtle Bay had an interesting vibe as there was a large contingent of adults that appeared to be there for a multiday conference, but also plenty of families like us that were there on spring break. There are multiple shops and a spa on-site — but also offerings for families.

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For example, kids were welcomed right from the start with a visit to the treasure chest of toys next to the check-in desk.

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Because of the large and relatively outdoor nature of the resort, it can comfortably cater to both adults and families at the same time.

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The one group that I don't think would be best suited here is rowdy nightlife seekers, as this is a sleepier, more mellow part of the island. And while I could see some groups potentially creating their own party at the adults-only pool or lobby bar, this isn't really the kind of place that you go for exciting nightlife.

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Gorgeous rooms with a view

Let's now head up to a room with a view — which I think all the rooms at Turtle Bay have due to its unique footprint out on this point.

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Our room with two queen beds was absolutely ideal for my two kids and me, with very comfortable bedding, solid soundproofing and a balcony overlooking the water.

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The air conditioning was top-notch at keeping the room cool, which I never take for granted on an island.

Housekeeping was included daily, the room had a minifridge and there was a set of table and chairs, which is obviously super handy for easy meals in the room or even doing a little work.

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The bathroom had a nice entryway with a closet, vanity, bench and plenty of space for luggage or to get ready. Then, there was a separate bathroom area with the toilet and shower.

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Included and add-on activities

While Turtle Bay does have a resort fee of close to $60 per day, it includes a number of experiences. In the lobby, you'll find a list of daily activities such as lei-making, hula lessons, bike tours, farm tours, etc.

The trick to this is that many of the activities have limited capacity and do fill up, so you will need to plan in advance if you want to take advantage of all that is offered. Also, know that some of the experiences listed do have an additional fee, so don't just assume everything on the board is free.

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The one activity we booked and paid for on our short trip was a horse trail ride, open to those age 7 and up. There are a number of horse rides available, ranging from pony rides for the littlest riders to pricier private sunset rides.

Horse rides

We took a midmorning group trail ride, booked just the day before, that lasted about 45 minutes and cost $115 per person (before tip), and we found that to be money well spent.

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We walked along the coastline and through the forest a bit on well-trained horses that only occasionally would try and go for some green, leafy snacks. Thankfully, the guides were helpful, kind and instructive when something like that would happen.

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Bike rides

Bikes were complimentary and a great way to get around, though technically only available for 45-minute rentals. Golf carts are also available as a way to traverse the massive property, but unfortunately, they are only available to use when going to or from a booked activity, which was a bit of a bummer.

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Nalu Spa

The Nalu Spa at Turtle Bay was a big highlight for me. It was not overly fancy and had a relaxing open-air waiting area where you could listen to the ocean.

I was able to book a same-day 30-minute massage. What made me feel good pulling the trigger is that while it was expensive, the price wasn't inflated for being shorter than the standard massage. On top of that, it was a full treatment that came with access to all the same amenities as the longer, pricier treatments.

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I adored my 30 minutes in the open-air treatment room with a masseuse who was great at checking in on pressure and really made the most of the short time we had by focusing on exactly what I asked for. It was $120, but it felt like money well spent.

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Fitness classes and gym

Turtle Bay has a large gym and a separate fitness studio. The fitness classes range from high-intensity interval training to yoga. Some classes come with an extra fee, but some are included for resort guests.

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Nature center

At the resort, you'll find a really informative nature center with educational displays about the area. It's a small but unusual (in a good way) offering and absolutely worth a visit.

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Shops

There are about a half-dozen (mostly higher-end) shops at Turtle Bay — my favorite was the Surf House, which had surf-style clothing and decor.

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Golf and disc golf

Whether you want to play traditional golf or disc golf, Turtle Bay has you covered. The resort has not one but two 18-hole golf courses — the Arnold Palmer Course claims to be the No. 1 course on Oahu.

But if disc golf is more your style, we saw an expansive course near the stables.

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Laundry

Last but not least, when it comes to amenities, families will likely really appreciate the on-site laundry that guests can access (there are easy-to-operate coin machines in the room) to get everything clean. We were grateful to be able to use them before heading to the next stop on our trip.

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Pools and on-site beach

If you haven't noticed by now from some of the photos, we did not hit the weather lottery while on Oahu's North Shore. Our two-night stay in March was chilly, gray and sometimes rainy. While this type of weather can happen anywhere, my experience is that it does happen more on the northern shore than in some other parts of the island, especially in the winter months, so I'd consider it a higher risk here.

This meant that our time at the pools and at the beach wasn't as extensive as it would have been if we'd had better weather.

Turtle Bay pools

Even though we didn't use them very much, Turtle Bay has three on-site pools that are layered in a way that makes each feel distinct from the others: the main pool, the kids pool with a waterslide and the adults-only pool.

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The only pool that was ever busy during our stay was the adults-only pool, which was filled in the afternoon and early evening with conferencegoers.

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My 8-year-old slide tester gave the waterslide a thumbs-up, even if it was a little chilly.

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On a less positive note, while the hot tub in the adults-only pool area looked lovely, the one on the main pool level looked like there was a bit more film and/or scum in it and wasn't very inviting to me.

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But back on a positive note, there was included reef-safe sunscreen available for use, which helps tremendously with packing.

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Turtle Bay beaches

The Turtle Bay Resort is located on the beach, where you'll find complimentary beach chairs, umbrellas and toys.

However, the Kuilima Cove beach that is directly next to the hotel is not the only beach. In fact, the Turtle Bay website lists seven beaches that you can walk to from the resort.

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Kawela Bay is a little over a mile from the hotel, but easy to access by bike, and was my favorite of the bunch as a calm bay that wasn't very busy during my visits. This is also where they hold a lot of the surf lessons.

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Lots of dining choices

Hoolana

Hoolana, the bistro just off the lobby where you can get your coffee, muffins, flatbreads and more, opens daily at 5:30 a.m., which is great for those jet-lagged mornings the first few days in Hawaii.

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We really enjoyed the pineapple coconut muffin — just budget accordingly, as breakfast for myself and two kids was at least $40 here, even when we were ordering very conservatively.

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Sunset

An easy spot to eat outdoors — and enjoy the sunset — is the aptly named Sunset restaurant.

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Sunset had friendly service, but the food was just OK. It did the trick for that first night, but despite costing about $135 for two kids and me, nothing was memorable.

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Beach House by Roy Yamaguchi

After that first meal at Sunset, I was worried that the food at Turtle Bay wouldn't be a highlight of the trip. Thankfully, that first impression wasn't representative of the whole.

Our lunch the next day at Beach House by Roy Yamaguchi was excellent.

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Here, even the children's meal ($19) was thoughtfully presented in three courses, including a cute salad and quesadilla starter.

I had the bento box with tempura shrimp, a poke bomb and an alae roll ($28), and it was absolutely fantastic. This open-air restaurant is just off the beach and is an absolute star that we all loved. Make reservations in advance on OpenTable to ensure you get a spot here.

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Alaia

The fanciest restaurant at Turtle Bay is likely Alaia, which is in the main building. We tried both breakfast and dinner here — and this is where you'd use your Amex FHR breakfast credit if you booked via that program.

Some standout items we had were the focaccia bread with whipped butter that came with dinner, and, surprisingly, the kids meal that was served in another three-course style with a crudite starter, a main of our choosing (we went with chicken) and ice cream for dessert. The kids meal was $29, so again, budget accordingly, but everything was quite flavorful. I was craving veggies, so I had the beet salad ($21), which was also fresh and flavorful, but it wouldn't go far if you were really hungry.

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While our visit wasn't long enough to try it all, at Turtle Bay, you'll also find the Off The Lip bar, Lei Lei's Bar & Grill and The Beach Club. On Wednesdays, there is a Paniolo Luau near the stables that starts at $195 for adults and $120 for kids 4-12 (3 and under are free).

Efficient service

Service was always kind and helpful at Turtle Bay, but not consistently proactive. For example, if you asked about an activity and the staff member said it was full, they wouldn't proactively suggest other ones or check for the next day. It was more of a transactional question-and-answer-style interaction, but still, everyone was always kind and helpful.

It's worth mentioning that there is a great valet system where you can scan a QR code on your ticket when you're ready for your car, which immediately texts for your car to be brought around.

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Reasons the hotel may not be the one for you

We really enjoyed our time at Turtle Bay, even though it didn't turn out to be a pool-and-beach type of trip, but no resort is for everyone, so here are some reasons it might not be for you.

  • It was very windy and a bit chilly during our March visit, which can happen during the winter months on the North Shore, so if you just want a warm and sunny time in Hawaii and are traveling in the winter months, this may not be the right spot for you ... though, of course, no one can truly predict the weather.
  • Turtle Bay is in a relatively isolated spot compared to some other parts of the island, so while there are some food trucks and smaller beach towns on that side of the island, if you want to be "close to everything," this may not be the right spot to stay.
  • This will be true for most places in Hawaii, but it's expensive. Not only are the room rates going to be pretty high, but food and activity costs will add up — along with the parking and resort fees.
  • This might vary from season to season, but there was a conference vibe, so while there are families at Turtle Bay, it's not as family-centric as, say, Disney's Aulani on the same island.
  • It's very large and spread out, which may be a great thing for some travelers, but if you want or need all of the aspects of the resort at your fingertips, this may not be the best choice.

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Accessibility

Turtle Bay has a very detailed website of offerings when it comes to accessibility.

Highlights include 16 different accessible rooms, including one ocean bungalow, with door ramps to the balcony, grab bars in the bathroom, and lower towel bars and robe hooks.

The resort also has transfer systems for the pools and hot tubs, accessible entrances to all of the restaurants and bars, and more.

Checking out

I'm a big fan of Hawaii's different north shores, and this one was no exception. It can be easy for first-timers to assume that Waikiki is the place to be on Oahu, but I'd say once you have experienced it, it's time to explore more of the island, and heading north is a great way to do that.

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While Oahu's North Shore is certainly becoming more commercialized and tourist-driven, it still feels much more authentic to Hawaii than some other parts that are lined with resort after resort.

Turtle Bay is a way to have a taste of the best of both worlds — the amenities and comforts of a large resort just a short drive away from small towns and true surf culture.

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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