Shades of surfer history
Paddling back into Hawaii’s Turtle Bay after 35 years
I AM cruising up the Kam Highway on Oahu’s North Shore, on my way to an appointment with hotel history, when I see a roadside sign that makes me laugh out loud. At the end of my friend Mark Cunningham’s driveway at Kawela Bay there is an unavoidable red paint warning: NUFF HOTELS ALREADY!
I feel like a traitor when, about 2km down the road, I wheel into Turtle Bay Resort to check in. For decades, the thoughtful, philosophical Cunningham — recently retired as the North Shore’s chief lifeguard and for a quarter of a century revered as the world’s best body surfer — and his friends have been fighting against planned condominium extensions to the landmark hotel that began life in 1972 as Del Webb’s Kuilima Resort Hotel and Country Club.
It’s an important fight and they’ve won significant victories in the Hawaii state legislature, effectively containing Turtle Bay Resort to its already sprawling estate, with two golf courses near Kahuku, and protecting the nearvirgin Kawela Bay in one direction and the farmlands and bungalows of the lush windward coast in the other.
Turtle Bay remains the only hotel worth the description on the North Shore, but the opposition to its expansion has seen off several corporate owners in recent years.
For all that, it’s played a significant part in surfing history and enjoys a magnificent position on the pinnacle of two wild coasts. Following a recent facelift, it is a very pleasant place to spend a quiet few days.
Although there was bitter opposition from the big- wave pioneers who had settled at nearby Sunset Beach, when the Kuilima first opened, it provided employment opportunities for the itinerant hippie surfers who flocked to the North Shore from across the world for the big wave season from November to February.
By the mid-1970s, however, it had failed as a golf resort and the condominiums around the perimeter of the course became cheap long-term rentals for visiting surfers. It was to the Kui condos that the Aussie contingent repaired in the winter of 1976 when a cell of local surfers started getting violent in and out of the water. The emerging champions with the loudest mouths (Wayne ‘‘Rabbit’’ Bartholomew and Ian ‘‘Kanga’’ Cairns) had the most to fear, but we all felt a lot safer inside the Kui’s security compound.
The reason for my return visit concerns another piece of surfing history from the same season. In 1970, Clark Gable’s stepson, the curiously nicknamed Anthony ‘ ‘ Bunker’’ Spreckels, inherited more than $US50 million as the result of his mother’s brief marriage to sugar baron Adolf Spreckels. It was an accident of lineage, but Bunker, a very good surfer and early design innovator, made the most of it.
When I met him at the Kuilima in late 1976, he was pasty, overweight and near dead from drug and alcohol abuse. We got on like a house on fire. As it turned out, over several exceptionally strange days at his beachside cabana, I recorded the last published interview with Bunker before his death in January 1977 at 27, a number that, for hellraisers, is the equivalent of the cricketer’s 87.
Now the Japanese magnate, philanthropist and longboarder Takuji ‘‘Tak’’ Masuda, who divides his time between homes in Zurich, Tokyo and Malibu, wants to use my work as the narrative backbone for his documentary feature on Bunker, filming me wandering around the modern Turtle Bay Resort, looking reflective and, presumably, older and wiser. As gigs go, I’ve had tougher ones. We record the audio at singer Jack Johnson’s nearby studio and then, with Tak delayed on some other mission for 24 hours, I reacquaint myself with the resort.
It was quite glamorous to us back in the day, then it became tacky, and now, I have to say, I love it again. The resort fat cats who have come and gone might not understand this, but Cunningham and the North Shore Coalition have probably done Turtle Bay a favour. It is what it is. Periodic facelifts can’t disguise the fact this is a 70s resort, and for me that is a plus.
Turtle Bay’s five restaurants range from burgers and beers at the poolside Hang Ten and country club cool at Lei Leis on the golf course (where locals go) to exquisite seafood (piled way too high, so share) at the signature restaurant 21 Degrees.
My favourite: a sunset swim in the lagoon, followed by a beer and a fish taco at Ola’s outside tables on the sand. The resort now has a dude ranch and great beach walking in either direction. To windward, the tourist mecca of the Polynesian Cultural Centre is at hand, but if you can’t stand the happy throngs, just drive the Kam Highway and check the simple fishing bungalow architecture and its backdrop of green.
Along the North Shore, Waimea Bay and Falls are spectacular and, beyond, Old Haleiwa is still charming, with streetside shell markets and great bars.
Tip: eat at Joe’s.
A Beach Cottage at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore