Strapped into the backseat of a MD500 helicopter painted orange, yellow and brown, with nothing but a seat belt between me and the increasingly distant Pacific Ocean, I tried to focus on a few words of preflight advice while we banked sharply over Turtle Bay Resort for a spine-tingling view of Oahu's stunning North Shore.
"Your mind thinks it's scarier than it really is," Sarah Restle, the Oahu base manager for Paradise Helicopters, told me earlier with a laugh. "It's just a little windier flying with the doors off."
Departing only a five-minute walk from the Turtle Bay lobby, the company's doors-off Oahu Extreme Helicopter Tour draws "a fair number of adventure-seekers," according to Restle.
"We also get a lot of photographers, both professional and amateur, because you can take such great shots with any kind of camera without the doors," she added.
A visual feast, even for a longtime Oahu resident like myself, the flight offered surprisingly close-up looks at otherwise off-limits showstoppers like towering Kuliuwa'a, or Sacred Falls, along with a chance to hover right beside the lush ridges of the Ko'olau Mountains.
"There's just so much of this island you can't see from the road," Restle said, adding that the tour offers unique exposure to Pearl Harbor.
"It's a solemn experience, of course, to go out to the USS Arizona by boat," she said. "But from the air you get a very different perspective on the oil rising to the surface and the silhouette of the ship below the water."
Joining the roundtrip adventure during a recent stay at Turtle Bay, I feel confident reporting that the best views of the massive resort, home to North Shore jewels like Kawela Bay and Kahuku Point, are enjoyed from the air.
And the commissionable activity, flown onboard a replica of the "Magnum P.I." copter, offers agents a good opportunity to increase their Turtle Bay booking's bottom line with prices starting at $249 per person.
Replay Resorts, a Vancouver-based hotel management firm, took over operations at Turtle Bay Resort in 2010 and has been working to reposition the Oahu property ever since, hoping to attract a more adventurous and active clientele interested in making an authentic connection with the North Shore's natural beauty, culture and people.
"When we arrived here about four years ago, what I observed was Turtle Bay was basically a gated golf community," said Michael Coyle, the CEO of Replay Resorts. "There were big gates to keep the tourists in and the locals out."
According to Coyle, a fundamental early step of that rebranding has been re-establishing a healthier relationship with North Shore residents by trying to be "a part of the community, not apart from it."
But Replay's effort to mend Turtle Bay's ties with those living on the North Shore has faced a considerable obstacle: the long-running and passionate community resistance to a planned expansion at the 840-acre property, now home to 440 hotel rooms and about 360 residential condos.
The original expansion plan, first approved nearly 30 years ago and then revived by a previous ownership group in 2005, called for an additional 3,500 hotel and residential units, and while that number was scaled back significantly in recent years, many in the North Shore community remained overwhelmingly opposed.
A major compromise was reached in May, however, when Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed legislation outlining a $48.5 million conservation easement arrangement between the state, the city and county of Honolulu and the ownership of Turtle Bay Resort, protecting about 660 acres on the property from development in perpetuity.
The deal hasn't made everyone happy, largely because the ownership group still plans to construct two additional hotel buildings, housing more than 600 hotel units, on either side of the existing Turtle Bay hotel along with another 100 or so residences — all on the remaining 190 resort acres not protected by the conservation easement.
Even so, many of the North Shore residents most ardently opposed to any type of development, often members of community groups driven by the popular anti-urbanization rallying cry "Keep the Country Country," have described the recent deal between the state and Turtle Bay as a solid first step.
"We believe in some development," Coyle said. "But we believed that if there was a way to find a compromise between conservation and what the owners had invested in, then we'd be open to that, [and although that] doesn't mean we have as pure a view about it as some people, we do believe in keeping the North Shore country."
Attracting different travelers
Turtle Bay officials plan to put the finishing touches on a $45 million renovation, including substantial overhauls to all the guestrooms, restaurants, the Nalu Kinetic Spa and the lobby, later this fall just in time for the start of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, held annually at three world famous breaks on the North Shore. (See related story, "Turtle Bay Resort offers surf season deals.")
"I'm impressed by what they've done there recently," Dean Nakamura, the Hawaii product director for Pleasant Holidays, said of the resort's upgrades. "The property was looking a little worse for the wear, but with all the renovations, they're elevating their game."
Along with the well-received property improvements, Turtle Bay has added a dynamic local-expert element to the resort, fronted now in a new Guide Post facility in the hotel lobby offering guests insight on everything from adrenaline-fueled adventures like the doors-off helicopter tour to the miles of terrific hiking on property or even time with a golf pro on the resort's world-class golf courses.
These are also the folks to talk with about mountain bike and horseback-riding tours, Hawaiian cultural excursions, tennis instruction, standup-paddling outings and, of course, the North Shore's incredible surfing experiences.
"We want to change the emphasis from a traditional hotel concierge to a guide who can help you see the ways of the place through the eyes of a local," Coyle said.
A substantial component of Turtle Bay's rebranding efforts, the North Shore Guides Club provides lots of advice aimed at facilitating self-guided adventures for guests, but they also help travelers book paid time with local experts who will take adventurers out to try everything from kite boarding to fishing to ocean kayaking and even surfing big waves at Oahu's legendarily challenging breaks. (See related story, "Surf vet's Pipeline primer.")
"We're not interested in appealing to the tourist side of things; that's more of a Waikiki thing," Coyle continued. "Here we're looking for travelers, and we think travelers are curious, [and] they're active, they want to get outside to understand the people, the culture, the wildlife. Every aspect of a place, they're breathing it in."
Visit www.turtlebayresort.com and www.paradisecopters.com.