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It's high season on Oahu's wild North Shore

Sunny Garcia Sunny Garcia of Waianae, Hawaii, during a World Championship Tour event in 2001. (AP photo/Joli)
By Robert W. Bone
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2005

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HALEIWA, Hawaii -- As winter waves begin to build here on the northern side of Oahu, so, too, does enthusiasm among contestants and fans of the big surfing contests.

The North Shore runs from the Mormon community of Laie westward along Kamehameha Highway. It extends to the former sugar plantation villages of Haleiwa and Waialua, now the center for escapists who might be described as the tropical hip.

It is as far removed from Honolulu's famous Waikiki district -- in distance, atmosphere, and general attitude -- as you can get and still be on Oahu.

In summer, the North Shore is a more laid-back Hawaii, with residents moving languidly through life while avoiding the more hectic existence they perceive in the capital, Honolulu. But now that winter surf has returned, many give thanks for the storms that lash the Aleutian Islands 1,000 miles away. These winds generate the monster waves that cross the northern Pacific to challenge the world's best surfers.

Now through February, wave riders and surf watchers generally head for four main stretches of sand: Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay, Ali'i Beach Park, and Ehukai Beach Park. The latter is the home of the notorious Banzai Pipeline, where the large surf pounds in just a few shallow inches above a potentially bone-crunching coral reef. In winter, these waves are so treacherous they can scoop up casual strollers and carry them out to sea.

Pat Kelly, a senior lifeguard on the North Shore since 1979, said that every year lifeguards have to rescue fully clothed victims who have been captured by the ocean -- shoes, cameras, purses, and all -- as they were picking up shells or simply looking the other way at the wrong moment.

''People don't realize there are rogue waves that will come up, sometimes clear to the vegetation line, and will carry them out," Kelly said. ''When the waves are big, there is absolutely no place safe on the sand, so onlookers should stay on the grassy areas.

''Swimmers often make the mistake of entering the water at a point where the waves don't look so big," he said. ''But that's often where the rip current is, and if they aren't experienced, they may never get back to shore."

Professional surfers, however, live for the thrill of tackling the big waves.

''We're a lifestyle sport," said Randy Rarick, 55, one of Hawaii's legendary surfing champions from the 1970s. ''What separates surfing from the bat, ball, and stick-type sports is that here, you're interacting with Mother Nature. The unpredictability of things while riding a wave makes it like no other sport."

This month, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing continues, offering the world's best surfers $670,000 in prizes. The first was the Op Pro Hawaiian at Haleiwa Beach Park last month. It is being followed by the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach, now through Tuesday.

The third contest is the Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters, with a $270,000 purse, at the Banzai Pipeline Thursday through Dec. 20.

Then there's the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, which draws large crowds on short notice. Named for a champion surfer who disappeared on a rescue mission, the contest has no set date, but is called suddenly when the waves reach heights of 30 feet or more at Waimea Bay.

Last year, all other surf contests were put on hold when those big waves came in on Dec. 15. Radio and TV spread the word, and an estimated 5,000 fans skipped work or school to watch the 30 chosen as contestants in the ''Eddie."

Waves estimated at 50 feet were some of the largest in tournament history, traveling toward the beach at breakneck speeds. Bruce Irons, 25, from Kauai, went home with a prize of $122,000.

''The average person from Boston, say, is not going to have a chance to see that big a wave and that kind of surfing," Rarick said. ''And people in the middle of America never see that kind of thing. It's really awe-inspiring."

The North Shore offers many less-frenetic attractions to casual visitors who have either rented cars in Waikiki or booked a room at the only genuine hotel in the area, the Turtle Bay Resort.

The only Oahu hotel with its own golf course, Turtle Bay also offers a safe, sandy cove for swimming and snorkeling. Sometimes, an endangered green sea turtle pulls up on the sand there or at other nearby stretches of beach.

Even if all you do is drive, the winding ''Kam" Highway along the North Shore provides wonderful scenic views.

Coconut, papaya, and banana trees vie for attention with blue water and white waves, and farmers set up fruit and vegetable stands along the route.

The North Shore's most famous attraction is the Polynesian Cultural Center, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and devoted to demonstrating the arts, music, dance, and lifestyle of several indigenous cultures from the South Pacific, including those of Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, the Marquesas, and the New Zealand Maoris.

Although expensive, it is a colorful all-day experience and includes an evening song-and-dance show that may be the best in the state. Adult ticket prices generally run from about $50 to $200, with discounts for children. The center operates every day except Sunday.

A much less active and less pricey stop is the Waimea Valley Audubon Center, run by the National Audubon Society as a peaceful and welcome historic refuge. A one-mile walk leads to 55-foot waterfalls. Swimming is allowed in the large natural pool under the cascade whenever a lifeguard is on duty. The valley is also home to many rare plant species. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children, free if they are under age 4.

The drive from Waikiki to the North Shore usually takes about an hour, but one could easily take several hours getting back. Many visitors make it a circular trip, starting with a speedy dash along the highways through the center of the island to Haleiwa or Waialua. Perhaps after lunch or a picnic, they return slowly along the shoreline, stopping as the spirit moves them. Even if the surf is not up, there is plenty to enjoy.

Contact Robert W. Bone, a freelance writer in Hawaii, at travelwriter@hawaii.rr.com.

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