The entire grounds of the resort are modeled on an ahupua’a, a traditional agricultural parcel in which the land flows gently from the mountains to the sea. From the lobby, the Aulani spills down through a lush aquatic playground, dotted with waterslides and ringed by a lazy river, with nods to Hawaiian culture all around. In one of several swimming pools, the recorded songs of humpbacks echo underwater. At night, fiber-optic lights illuminate a grotto in the starry pattern of the constellations by which ancient Hawaiian travelers navigated.
Given that it is Disney, familiar characters make cameos here and there. But on my visit, the character I notice isn’t Mickey but Maui, the Hawaiian demigod, who gazes down at me from a 13-story-high mural, depicted just as he is in myth: creating Oahu and its neighboring islands by pulling them up from the depths of the sea.
The Aulani is bordered by a string of protected man-made coves, perfect for swimming, snorkeling and paddleboarding. But Oahu abounds in beaches untouched by engineers. In my search for some, I speak with Spencer Deavila, a guide with Active Oahu Tours, who points me toward Kahana Bay Beach Park, an idyllic oasis on the island’s windward side. Another knowing local suggests Ke Iki Beach, a sweet stretch of shoreline that hides almost in plain sight next to Sunset Beach, concealed by a residential road.
To get to both of these places, I rely on GPS. But I don’t need directions to find Kawela Bay, the sheltered surf spot next to Turtle Bay Resort, where I spend my final afternoon on Oahu, longboard beneath me, Hans Hedemann wading at my side.
As I paddle out, heeding his instructions, I can understand why Hedemann brought me here, where the sand is soft, the wind is slight and the swells, by North Shore standards, are ripples in a bathtub.
After all, growing up is about gaining new perspective. A few hundred feet out, I turn toward shore and feel the coming of an ocean surge.
“Stand up,” Hedemann shouts, and I do, to my exhilaration, riding a wave that, like the furious breaks it shows me, is now part of my image of Oahu too.
Josh Sens, an Oakland, Calif.-based writer, is a regular contributor to Golf Magazine and the restaurant critic for San Francisco magazine.