How Learning to Surf Helped Me Feel Closer to Hawai‘i—and the Ocean

AFAR hotels expert Jennifer Flowers reflects on her first surfing lesson, how Hawai‘i is taking big steps to protect its oceans, and what the state means to her.

Two people headed into the Pacific Ocean with a surfboard.

Turtle Bay Resort is the only luxury resort on O’ahu’s North Shore. It’s also the home of Jamie O’Brien’s Surf Experience.

Courtesy of Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience

Minutes before I caught the first wave of my life, I bobbed on my board next to award-winning pro surfer Jamie O’Brien, my instructor at Turtle Bay Resort on O‘ahu’s North Shore. When he identified the swell he wanted me to catch, he gave me a push. I stood up, legs and arms wobbling, and in disbelief, rode the shoulder of a small wave for what felt like five minutes (but what must have been less than 10 seconds). Time stood still as I sensed the dense salt water beneath me, relishing the otherworldly feeling of gliding—flying, almost—toward shore.

Turtle Bay is the only luxury resort in O‘ahu’s less developed northern reaches, an area that’s home to the world-famous Banzai Pipeline surf break. The property sits on five miles of coastline, and a major 2021 renovation brought the ocean and surf culture into the spotlight. Views of the water are everywhere: from all 450 rooms and bungalows, from the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and from the redesigned pool area. Inside, a marine-inspired color palette and local artworks further the connection.

It makes sense that O’Brien chose Turtle Bay Resort to launch his first surf school in 2021. He was born and raised on the North Shore, and his father worked at the resort, which has been open since 1972. O’Brien even took his first surf lesson in the hotel’s pool. When he became one of the youngest winners of the North Shore’s annual Pipeline Masters competition, at age 21 in 2004, it jump-started a career that would take him all over the world. These days, though, he tries not to be away from home for too long.

“I feel like every time I land back in Hawai‘i, we’re energized,” he said, referring to his partner and fellow surfer, Tina Cohen, who’d joined us on the waves. “We’re so excited to be home.”

Hawai‘i is special to me too. My Japanese American family goes back four generations here, and I grew up visiting the tidal pools of O‘ahu’s North Shore. When the wildfire broke out in western Maui in August, I was heartbroken. My trip to the nearby island of O‘ahu took place just a few months before, and seeing the devastation and the recovery effort only solidified my resolve to share why I’ve always found Hawai‘i so inspiring.

There’s a unique confluence of nature and culture here—and surfers, in particular, have a special bond with it. Polynesians brought surfing to the Hawaiian Islands as early as 400 C.E., when they arrived here in double-hulled canoes.

I’m not the only one feeling in awe of the ocean these days. In recent years, Hawai‘i has taken major steps to protect its waters. The state has banned coral-harming sunscreens and capped tourist numbers at popular sites like Hanauma Bay. At Turtle Bay Resort, more than half of its 1,300 acres are set aside for conservation, which also protects crucial habitats for marine life, such as Laysan albatrosses, sea turtles, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals. In addition, the resort is helping travelers forge a personal relationship with the ocean through activities like outrigger canoe tours, nighttime snorkeling trips, and O’Brien’s surf lessons.

As I spent time on the water with O’Brien and Cohen, I could see how much pleasure they seemed to get by simply floating on their boards while waiting for swells. We were fully present, free of our smartphones, feeling the rise and fall of the ocean, and just going with the flow until a rideable wave presented itself. Cohen pointed to humpback whales breaching in the open ocean. Minutes later, a turtle popped its head out of the water near us.

I still wouldn’t dare utter the words “I’m a surfer,” but I did learn some of the basic rules behind harnessing the power of the world’s largest ecosystem. For one, getting up on that board on my first attempt was less about skill mastery and more about a chance collaboration with nature—as my subsequent spill after spill taught me. I also used that time to try interpreting the waves, each a unique manifestation of gravitational forces, wind, and marine conditions. During those magical moments of calm, the ocean tells its story, and when we’re fully surrounded by this vast blue world, it’s that much easier to listen.

Find more information about Turtle Bay Resort and Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience at and

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of Afar.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR