Oahu is a Paradise Restored

Going back to the land on Hawaii’s most delicious island.  
Oahu is a Paradise Restored 2
Not far from Waikiki’s high-rises and high-end shops, the Koolau Range inspires a natural high—what native Hawaiians call mālama ‘āina, respect for the land. Photo by Ryan Moss.

The lychees look like alien gumballs. Spiky and mottled red, they dangle in thick clusters from the tree in front of me. All around on this hillside farm, mangoes ripen by the thousands on long, arching branches, and squadrons of avocados hang fat and heavy overhead. Citrus, papayas, figs, breadfruit: I’ve spotted them all, along with a jackfruit the size of a soccer ball. And in the distance, at the far fringe of the broad Waialua district, I see a turquoise ocean fronting the fabled big-wave surf beaches of Oahu’s North Shore.

“Being out here a couple of hours makes you feel you’re gonna live another 20 years,” says Wendy Gady, who has been showing me around Poamoho Organic Farm on a May afternoon. I pick a lychee, flick off the top of its red husk, and gently squeeze until the white fruit inside pops into my mouth. Full of juice, with a startling hit of sweet, tangy, and floral flavours, it is nothing like the canned lychees I’ve encountered in Chinese restaurants. It may be, I think, a taste of paradise.

If so, it is a paradise regained through hard work, determination, and a vision to heal the ‘āina—the land—of Hawaii. Though Poamoho farm feels like a primordial Eden, a place where bounty has always been there for the picking, in fact these fruit trees were planted only 15 years earlier, after more than a century of intensive sugarcane cultivation in Waialua left the land exhausted. This certified-organic orchard represents one response to a question posed in recent years across the islands. Now that cheaper overseas competition has killed off Hawaii’s once prodigious sugar industry—the last commercial mill closed in December 2016—what becomes of the hundreds of thousands of acres formerly planted in sugarcane? Real estate developers have their own answers, but local communities, and those alarmed that Hawaii imports a staggering 92 per cent of its food, passionately advocate for diversified agriculture and open space.

Homestead Poi owner Hanale Bishop mashes taro root by hand the traditional way at his farm in Waiahole to make the staple Hawaiian side dish. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino.

Homestead Poi owner Hanale Bishop mashes taro root by hand the traditional way at his farm in Waiahole to make the staple Hawaiian side dish. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino.

I’ve known about this issue for more than three decades, ever since the first of many visits to these islands I’ve come to love deeply. It seems especially critical on Oahu, home to nearly one million of the state’s 1.4 million residents. As houses, malls, and resorts sprout on former sugar land closer to sprawling Honolulu, the sentiment of the farmers, New Age hippies, surfers, and other rural-loving folk who live on the North Shore a mere 50 kilometres away is succinctly stated on the bumper stickers and T-shirts you often spot up here: Keep the Country Country.

Selling its produce to grocery stores and white-tablecloth restaurants alike, seven-acre Poamoho farm is a small but exciting success story in the North Shore’s post-plantation evolution, an embracing of what generations of native Hawaiians have called mālama ‘āina, respect for the land. Although Gady is a relatively recent arrival on Oahu—she married a local guy—as the daughter of a fifth-generation Iowa farmer, she has the concept ingrained. “To me it boils down to taking care of the land for future generations,” she says.

But with some 17,000 acres of sugarcane having once grown on the North Shore, around 12,000 of themin Waialua alone, I wonder at the effort it will take to bring new life to this sublime corner of Earth and to preserve its rural ways.

I think about my own experience earlier in the day, after arriving in Honolulu on a long flight from San Francisco. Driving north, I literally breathed easier as layers of urban congestion peeled away, leaving views of mountains, coffee orchards, and fields of pineapple and alfalfa. A scant 40 minutes after leaving Honolulu, I was standing in Gady’s little slice of heaven. Will future Oahuans and visitors to this island be able to do the same?

***

The sun has barely risen as I poke along the sandy shore, a mug of strong coffee in hand and the Pacific lapping at my toes. It’s my first morning on Oahu, the day after my visit to Poamoho farm, and dawn is proving a hushed, seductive time on the North Shore. The crowds of day-trippers won’t materialise for hours to gape at the waves of Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay—not so huge now that winter is over—or to line up for a food-truck shrimp lunch or a shave ice at Matsumoto’s. The night-time perfume of flowering plumeria trees still hangs in the air, and dew dampens beaches pockmarked with the excavations of nocturnal horn-eyed ghost crabs.

Green sea turtles can be spotted on Oahu year-round. The Hawaiian subpopulation of this species was taken off the endangered list in 2015 and is rebounding, but it remains threatened. Photo by Beau Johnston/Getty Images.

Green sea turtles can be spotted on Oahu year-round. The Hawaiian subpopulation of this species was taken off the endangered list in 2015 and is rebounding, but it remains threatened. Photo by Beau Johnston/Getty Images.

Though I’m ostensibly on a walk to spot honu, the Hawaiian green sea turtles that frequent these waters, my gaze keeps wandering mauka, toward the land, and the Waianae Range running along one side of Waialua. The peaks are a powerful presence, rising abruptly and radiant in the morning light, the deep clefts in their flanks robed in lush vegetation. Dominating the range is Kaala—at 4,025 feet the highest mountain on Oahu.

I see the peak again during lunch in Haleiwa, an old sugar town that moves to a Bob Marley shuffle these days and has no lack of places to buy a surfboard or an acai smoothie. I’m sitting with Milton Agader and Al Medrano at a picnic table at the Red Barn Farmstand, a roadside stand and outdoor café. As we tackle hefty smoked-brisket sandwiches, the two sun-burnished farmers talk about the days of King Sugar in Waialua before the mill closed in 1996. “The whole economy ran on sugar,” says Agader.

He and Medrano worked a combined 45 years on Dole Food Company’s Waialua plantation. Though sugar had been planted here as far back as 1865, production really took off around the time a railway linked the North Shore with Honolulu in the late 1890s. By that time, waves of immigrant sugar workers—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino, and others—along with long-time Polynesian inhabitants, were already forging modern Hawaii’s unique cultural identity.

Big-wave season on Oahu’s North Shore stretches from November through February, when surfers from all over the world gather at swell spots such as Waimea Bay. Photo by Kent Nishimura.

Big-wave season on Oahu’s North Shore stretches from November through February, when surfers from all over the world gather at swell spots such as Waimea Bay. Photo by Kent Nishimura.

“Growing sugar meant ploughing, planting, fixing irrigation pipes, burning the fields, cutting the cane, and hauling it to the mill,” continues Agader, a Kauai native. “It was hard work, but, you know, I miss those years.”

“We were younger and stronger then,” laughs Medrano, who as a kid immigrated from the Philippines to Oahu with his widowed mother, a labourer in the pineapple fields. “Even before Dole finally laid us off, we’d already started growing vegetables in our spare time on six acres we leased from them.” Seventeen years later their Twin Bridge Farms now covers 300-plus acres and specialises in seed corn, potato-seed testing for mainland states, and tender asparagus snapped up by top island restaurants.

Agader, 74, admits to taking it easier in recent years, travelling for pleasure and business, while Medrano, who is 62 and runs the farm’s day-to-day operations, says he’s slowed down too. But they don’t strike me as the types to ever simply hang it up. In fact the Red Barn is their latest project, only recently opened. In an unusual twist it is run by other farmers and showcases the produce of many local farms, not just Twin Bridge’s. “We’d like this to represent all of us growing food on the North Shore,” says Agader. “And we hope it becomes a gathering spot.”

***

In Hawaiian ‘ono means “delicious,” whether a refreshing coconut drink straight from the shell in Kahuku (top left); or GMO-, pesticide-, and preservative-free hot dogs and fish tacos at VJ’s North Shore Dogs & Burgers in Haleiwa (top right); or standout breakfasts at Kaimuki Superette, in Honolulu (bottom). Photos by Ryan Moss (coconuts), Erin Kunkel (VJ’s food truck, superette).

In Hawaiian ‘ono means “delicious,” whether a refreshing coconut drink straight from the shell in Kahuku (top left); or GMO-, pesticide-, and preservative-free hot dogs and fish tacos at VJ’s North Shore Dogs & Burgers in Haleiwa (top right); or standout breakfasts at Kaimuki Superette, in Honolulu (bottom). Photos by Ryan Moss (coconuts), Erin Kunkel (VJ’s food truck, superette).

During my week on the North Shore, I meet others trying to keep the country country on former sugar land. At Kahuku Farms, a 125-acre commercial operation with a shady farm-stand café and tractor-pulled wagon rides, I chat with a family member of the owners—descendants of Japanese sugar workers—while enjoying a sweet-tart liliko‘i (passion fruit) cooler and a grilled panini plump with mozzarella and fresh veggies. Afterward I stop at a roadside stand to buy small bags of fuchsia-fleshed dragon fruit from farmers who grew it on 468 acres—managed by Turtle Bay Resort—which only months earlier were permanently dedicated to agricultural use. At Mohala Farms, a popular stopover for young people from around Hawaii and beyond eager to exchange their labour for organic-farming experience and a place to stay on the North Shore, I see the traditional Hawaiian thatch-roofed pavilion (hale) where sold-out farm dinners take place.

In Haleiwa I rendezvous with cacao grower Seneca Klassen, hop in his dusty pickup, and bump along a red-dirt road to his 14-acre orchard about 500 feet above the town. There we walk past trees with dirigible-shaped pods of yellow, red, and purple hanging from branches. Klassen breaks open one pod to reveal big, slime-covered seeds—cacao beans—that he will dry and ferment before roasting and transforming into his Lonohana brand chocolate in a Honolulu warehouse.

“This farm has been an amazing journey,” says Klassen, a lean, articulate man who was part owner of an Oakland, California, chocolate café before moving to Oahu. With years of sugar cultivation having turned the soil into an inert clay mixture, he explains, his team has used tons of organic matter to reinvigorate it. “When I started planting in 2009, I didn’t really understand the concept of mālama ‘āina,” he says. “I was focused on something specific—cacao—that I wanted out of the land. But over time I’ve realised that my important work here is to care for this little spot, which will be around long after I’m gone. Yes, we’re growing cacao, but we’re also remaking this into the forest it would have been in the old times.”

***

One Saturday morning I make the five-minute drive from Haleiwa to the town of Waialua for the small but lively outdoor produce market of a co-op whose members farm small plots set aside by Dole for displaced sugar workers. The market takes place at the defunct sugar mill, and on my way there I pass the town’s modest houses and a city park with a bandstand next to venerable banyan trees. A large sign proclaims Waialua “Home of the World’s Best Sugar.”

The market is in full swing when I arrive around noon, with perhaps a hundred shoppers and a dozen vendors who sell everything from kale and papaya to soursop, poi, and prepared foods such as sticky rice and huli-huli chicken hot off the grill. I walk around the mill grounds, where in the few remaining rusted metal buildings I come upon a soap maker, surfboard shapers, and facilities for processing the coffee and cacao beans that Dole grows on the North Shore under its Waialua Estate brand.

Lanikai Beach (left), on Oahu’s eastern coast, with one of the Mokulua islets in the distance, is the place to revel in sunrises. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino; This stretch of road (right) between Hanauma Bay and Waimanalo on the southeast side of Oahu provides a thrilling drive bounded on one side by a volcanic crater and on the other by the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Vincent Lim @vincelimphoto.

Lanikai Beach (left), on Oahu’s eastern coast, with one of the Mokulua islets in the distance, is the place to revel in sunrises. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino; This stretch of road (right) between Hanauma Bay and Waimanalo on the southeast side of Oahu provides a thrilling drive bounded on one side by a volcanic crater and on the other by the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Vincent Lim @vincelimphoto.

Late that afternoon I hike near Dillingham Ranch, a historic 2,700 acres of equestrian grounds, polo fields, one of Hawaii’s largest coconut-tree groves, and a restored lodge now used as a private event centre. The hike starts flat but soon climbs steeply into the foothills of the Waianae Range.

An hour later I stand at a vista point looking out over the Waialua district. I see the old sugar mill’s smokestack in the foreground, monster-size white wind turbines along a distant ridge—technology both past and present—and a checkerboard of fields that once were an uninterrupted sea of cane. Many fields have clearly gone to guinea grass, a tall, invasive weed. But a fair number look cultivated, and they make me think of something I heard earlier that day, at the market, from a land-conservation manager I met.

“We’re still figuring out what the agricultural landscape will be,” he said. “Progress may be slow, but we’re making it.”

***

Not everyone I meet is a farmer. I hike for half a day with Kahokulei‘a “Hoku” Haiku, a native Hawaiian kahu (cultural practitioner) and trail guide who was born on the North Shore and has an intimate knowledge of its paths, valleys, and hidden waterfalls. We start at the site of Oahu’s largest old Hawaiian heiau (temple), Puu o Mahuka, which overlooks Waimea Bay. A rectangular platform outlined in stacked black volcanic rock, it is thought to date from the 1600s.

“Waialua was the Mar-a-Lago of old Hawaii,” says Haiku. “Most of the island’s chiefs and chieftesses had a place here, and Waimea Valley was home to powerful priests.”

Surfers of all ages gather at sunset on the North Shore, which hosts some of the world’s most prestigious annual big-wave competitions, including the Quiksilver invitational (known as the “Eddie”). Photo by Erin Kunkel.

Surfers of all ages gather at sunset on the North Shore, which hosts some of the world’s most prestigious annual big-wave competitions, including the Quiksilver invitational (known as the “Eddie”). Photo by Erin Kunkel.

Before we start back, Haiku asks me to join him in an oli, a blessing. As I repeat after him, he prays to gods and ancestors and thanks them from our hearts. We close with the Hawaiian phrase meaning “with love,” chanted three times—once each to the past, the present, and the future. Aloha e, aloha e, aloha e.

The day before leaving the North Shore, I drive along a dirt road that runs through open fields outside Haleiwa. There I stumble on the grass-choked ruins of a 19th-century Catholic church built of volcanic rock and later used by the sugar workers now buried beneath simple crosses and stones in the graveyard. It is a haunting reminder of the past, and yet I am also aware of sounds in the distance that signal hope for this beautiful land. I hear a tractor rumble to life at nearby Mohala Farms. And from a roadside stand, beneath mist-covered Kaala, the joyful laughter of a young worker rings clear.

Travel Wise: Oahu

When to Go

The North Shore’s famous waves are at their most towering and powerful during the winter, when important surfing competitions are held. From May through September, the water is calmer for swimming and snorkelling.

Where to Stay

Turtle Bay Resort

The main—and only—resort on the North Shore fosters a low-key vibe throughout its 850 acres, which include pools, restaurants, a spa, and about eight kilometres of coastline. Activities include kayaking in protected Kawela Bay, home to green sea turtles (turtlebayresort.com).

West Oahu

Most of the other hotels on Oahu are in Waikiki or the new and quickly developing Ko Olina area of West Oahu. Properties here include Disney’s Aulani (www.disneyaulani.com) and the new Four Seasons Resort Oahu (www.fourseasons.com).

Where to Eat

Waialua Bakery and Juice Bar

On the main drag in Haleiwa, this laid-back beach shack of a bakery serves deli sandwiches, baked goods, and juices and smoothies made from fruits grown on the bakery’s own organic farm. Try the tangy-sweet soursop smoothie (waialuabakery.com).

Haleiwa Beach House

This airy, modern dining room features “garage door” walls that slide up to let in the trade winds and a view of the ocean. Stop here for craft beers, cocktails, pupus (appetisers), or fresh, local fish dishes (haleiwabeachhouse.com).

Farm Stands

Kahuku Farms

You can find more than fresh fruit and vegetables at this farm stand. Take a wagon-ride tour, eat at the outdoor café, and buy prepared foods, such as the farm’s liliko‘i (passion fruit) balsamic dressing (www.kahukufarms.com).

Red Barn Café

This farm stand features the produce of local growers. The café offers breakfast burritos, wraps, and other lunch fare; it also sells prepared foods and periodically offers cooking classes, farm tours, workshops, meet-the-farmer meals, and live music (redbarnfarmstand.com).

  • Christopher Hall is a San Francisco--based travel, food and architecture writer. He regularly contributes to publications like Architectural Digest and the New York Times.

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