THE PERFECT WAVE: Oahu’s North Shore is considered a surfing mecca and draws pros from around the world, as well as local legends like Pancho Sullivan (pictured here).
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Oahu proves that there’s more to the Hawaiian Islands than just leis and luaus (not that there’s anything wrong with leis and luaus).

I am standing on the North Shore of Oahu, and the surf is up — as in really up. Waves as high as houses shroud the horizon and crash like thunderclaps on Sunset Beach.

With nature’s percussion pounding in my ears, I can barely make out what Hans Hedemann is saying. But his triumphant smile conveys the message clearly: “Welcome to Oahu, city boy!”

A former world-champion surfer who is Oahu born and bred, Hedemann knows the swells as well as anyone. He’s also familiar with travelers like me: naive, nonsurfing mainlanders who show up on Oahu with hard-set preconceptions of the island, even if we’ve never visited before.

In the weeks leading up to this, my maiden trip, I’d been pretty certain of what awaited me on the most populous — and, in my narrow thinking, least exotic — of the Hawaiian islands. The Oahu of my mind, nourished by a steady diet of pop culture, loomed largely as a land of guidebook-filler, a place of leis and luaus, set against the hum of Honolulu, the home of Danno, Don Ho and Diamond Head.

When he got wind of this vision, Hedemann could only laugh.

At 54, now a businessman and surf-school owner, he holds a different image of Oahu, and he offered to share it.

He would set me straight by showing me around.

“That’s Pipeline over there,” he says, pointing toward the furious, barrel-shaped reef break, which hisses and foams just next to Sunset Beach.

I can hear him better now. We’re riding in his van along Kamehameha Highway, the two-lane route that skirts the northern shoreline. Traffic bottlenecks (blocked by big-wave watchers) and other noted surf spots — Off the Wall, Rocky Point, Velzyland — creep by in slow motion before we arrive at a turnoff in the road, marked by a sign for Turtle Bay Resort.