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Thursday, December 28, 2017


In the distance, amid the jetsom and flotsam blown in by howling winds is the Turtle Bay Resort atop the northernmost point of Oahu. photo by Teresa Peterson

Mocking the Turtle Bay Christmas.  Shunned by family for booking Oahu’s North Shore at Yuletide.  How bad can it B-- Read on.

GUEST BLOG / By Eric Peterson, novelist, travel/wine writer and dining critic with When Charles Dickens penned the words “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he must have been writing about a Christmas vacation spent with his family in Hawaii, because I felt pretty much the same way after taking my family to Oahu over the holidays. 

The piped sounds of slack-key guitars, the rum-soaked cocktails in oversized glasses, the sugar-sand beaches adorned with lava rocks and tiki torches—the fantasy of a tropical paradise is catnip to the average American who’s looking for a relaxing vacation. Is it any wonder they flock to Hawaii at Christmastime?

What these naïve vacationers fail to understand is that their pineapple drinks and overpriced hotel rooms are likely to come with nightmarish amenities: fistfights for beach chairs, first-degree sunburns, body welts from sand fleas, and daily muggings both figurative and literal.

Since we didn’t want to waste of our short vacation time traveling to an outer island, and since the best Waikiki hotels were full, I booked rooms at Turtle Bay Resort, on Oahu’s North Shore. The boxy white hotel sits prominently on a point high above the ocean, enduring hurricane-force winds that seem to blow constantly, at least at Christmastime.

The hotel was built in the early 1970s by casino developer Del Webb (no relation to Del Coronado), who hoped to introduce the island’s first casino, but the state’s gaming initiative never passed. Today, the old hotel’s wheel-and-spoke design and cavernous ground-floor lobby make it easier for roving bands of children to evade supervision by their parents.

We checked in to the hotel late in the afternoon on Christmas day. Hungry, thirsty, and irritable from our full day of travel, we made a beeline for one of Turtle Bay’s on-site restaurants, Roy’s Beach House. The small, overcrowded bar tested our patience. We finally got drink service and a sufficient amount of food to stave off a family mutiny, but we had to step on a lot of feet to make it happen. The servings were small and the prices were large. The Kahana-style tiger shrimp, Szechuan baby back pork ribs, and calamari went quickly, as did our first round of mai tais.

At 8:15 p.m. we were back at Roy’s for Christmas dinner. Despite a longstanding apprehensiveness about this particular chain—I once nearly fainted after getting a glimpse into the back of a Roy’s kitchen on an outer island—I found solace in the open-air, teakwood dining room of this attractive restaurant, which is mere steps from the breaking waves. The heavy-handed Polynesian decor might have been a Disneyland ride, but who cares? The rube reviewers of Yelp have given this Roy’s four out of five stars, which is probably about what it deserves. I drank a lot of gin martinis and wine, and the pork ribs, shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, and rack of lamb made for a happy, festive holiday dinner with the family.

The next morning, we didn’t need an alarm clock to wake us up. The hammering wind and driving rain that pelted our balcony slider were alarm enough. Teresa and I met our daughters, Caroline and Katie, and Katie’s husband, Lucas, downstairs for coffee. The rain had transformed the peaceful, would-be casino ground-floor into a school gymnasium on rainy day schedule: kids ran in every direction, malicious teenagers loitered in packs, young parents in tight-fitting athletic apparel cut through the crowd pushing double strollers, their contrary infants howling bloody murder. The line for Starbucks went forever.

Ah, Christmas in Hawaii.

Thinking weather conditions had to be better on the lee side of the island, I ordered everyone into our rented, government-black GMC Denali and asked Lucas to guide us to Waikiki Beach. Ramshackle describes much of the ride between our destinations.

The gridlock we encountered on the south shore of the island was as bad as Southern California on any given day, but at least the view from our Denali improved dramatically the closer we got to Waikiki.  My passengers stared wide-eyed at the glittering scene that unfolded around them: the sunny skies and white sandy beaches, the high-rise beachfront hotels and their opulent, open-air lobbies, the chichi stores and ritzy restaurants.

My wife, daughters, and son-in-law instantly hated me for marooning them on Oahu’s storm-swept North Shore.

The five-star Halekulani hotel in Waikiki is where our culinary fortunes improved.  Above is the legendary House without a Key restaurant.
I led our little band of travelers to the Halekulani, a five-star hotel, where we settled in for a long, leisurely lunch at the hotel’s legendary restaurant, The House Without a Key. This indoor/outdoor fine-dining venue is named after Earl Derr Biggers’s first Charlie Chan murder-mystery novel, which Biggers wrote in 1925 while staying at the Halekulani. The mai tais, coconut shrimp, tuna poke, fresh green salads, and multiple bottles of a dry white Italian wine nearly brought about my own murder—the exquisite setting and flavorful food underscored my incompetence as a travel planner. Who in his right mind books Turtle Bay at Christmas?

After lunch, we plodded single file through the sands of Waikiki Beach in our street clothes, carrying our shoes like German tourists.

In the wake of this ultimate humiliation, my family shunned me, again.

That night’s dinner reservation did little to endear me to my doleful family. Weeks before, from my comfortable desk chair on the mainland, I had booked a table for five at Turtle Bay Resort’s Kula Grill. In my haste to lock down dinner reservations, I failed to pick up on the coded phrase that is the death knell of any dinner establishment:  kids eat free. Apparently, so do boorish foreigners.

As if the squalling children and obnoxious adults weren’t bad enough, the lighting in this grill-cum-cafeteria was bright—bright enough to dig a splinter from the palm of your hand with a sewing needle, if you had to.

It was while seated at the Kula Grill, struggling to get through a half rack of mushy baby back pork ribs, that I had an out-of-body experience: The ghost of Christmas future, a Grim-Reaper-type figure dressed in a black hood and a long coat of rusty chains, led me to the dining room of another brightly lit restaurant. It was a Red Lobster or an Oliver Twist Garden. The ghost pointed with a bony hand at two seniors: Teresa and I were much older, and we were eating dinner at five o’clock. We had a coupon for a free dessert. I woke up screaming.

The next morning the sun came out, but I spoiled our kids’ first decent beach day by agreeing to meet some dear family friends for lunch in the nearby town of Haleiwa. In the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the 12-mile drive took us more than an hour.

Wait it gets better.

The small storefront restaurant Opal Thai was a highlight of our time on Oahu. We sat inside on a wooden picnic table. Opal, the owner, was more ringmaster and game-show host than restaurateur. Charismatic and funny, he entertained his patrons as he polled them for their gustatory preferences, and then without taking orders, he brought trays of food from the kitchen. The dishes Opal brought to our table were mostly shrimp and seafood. The flavors—sweet, sour, spicy, salty—left us dazzled. The green beans were remarkable.

Ever personable Opal schmoozes with all
--even the shunned.
We all groaned when Opal delivered a second wave of food, including a “chef’s special” that turned out to be skate. We left happy and stuffed. Opal saw us out with handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs for each of the ladies.

By 4 p.m. Katie, Lucas, and Caroline were back on the beach. Teresa and I soon joined them, wallowing on two chaises in the white sand under an umbrella. When the long shadow of the hotel fell across the beach, we retreated to our rooms for showers. We stuck with our one sure thing: another dinner at Roy’s. My New Zealand King Salmon was good, but what made the night memorable were the chuckleheads we met in the bar: two middle-aged brothers dead-drunk and doing Jagerbombs. One from Colorado, one from Wisconsin, they could barely stand. Their father, they said, was a Stanford football coach.

The next day, the good weather held, and we passed the time under a beach umbrella, drinking pina coladas and mai tais. We took turns ordering lunches at the takeout window at Roy’s. The kitchen was perpetually backed up. It took me more than 30 minutes to collect on an order of chicken wings, a cheeseburger, and fries. Teresa and I split the chicken wings and cheeseburger. I gave the fries to a three-year-old who was hungry to the point of tears—his mother was still waiting for the food she’d ordered some 45 minutes earlier.

Great food at Lei Lei's continued my comeback

By this time we’d discovered Lei Lei’s, Turtle Bay’s golf course grill. When we looked in on this casual restaurant, Ian, the outgoing, amiable owner—a former Chart House guy—shamed us into canceling our reservation at Turtle Bay’s celebrated Pa’akai seafood restaurant and eating at Lei Lei’s instead.

Lucky us. Ian’s menu, reminiscent of Chart House fare, was wonderful. We indulged our voracious appetites with seared ahi sashimi, escargot, calamari; Caesar salads and double-cut New York strip steaks. Lucas went for a 28 oz. bone-in cut of Lei Lei’s signature prime rib, which came out with a juicy red center and a sturdy salt and pepper crust. Katie, Lucas, and Caroline surprised Teresa and me with a bottle of Chappellet Cabernet. It was a late celebration of our wedding anniversary.

I felt unshunned, at last.

That night, while dining alfresco, we watched a band of Lord-of-the-Flies nomad kids lay siege to the golf course’s putting green. They threw sprays of golf balls into the night, they hammered sand rakes teeth-first into the fine grass, they dug deep divots around the cups with the heels of their bare feet. A recovering golfer and former golf camp counselor, I sipped my martini and bit my tongue. I didn’t want to start an international incident. Their three sets of parents spoke a language that sounded Middle Eastern. In that part of the world, apparently, parents have no truck with golf course etiquette.
Predictably, we returned to Lei Lei’s the following night. Thinking it might be fun to smoke a cigar on our last night in Hawaii, Lucas and I had detoured into the golf shop earlier in the day.

Only a reckless squanderer would pay what I paid for two Macanudos, but then how often do you get to smoke a cigar in Hawaii? On this quiet night, there were no unsupervised child mercenaries assaulting the property, and Lucas and I—son-in-law and father of the bride, respectively—enjoyed a quiet stroll around the darkened putting green as we puffed our expensive cigars. We talked golf, mostly.

The next day, at the Honolulu International Airport, our trip ended with a sharp slap in the face. The tab for our rented Denali, which we had all of five days, was $2,000. Inside the terminal, we ate cold sandwiches from a food cart. The boarding gate was mobbed with people. There were no seats to be had. Half of us fought flu symptoms.

There are only thirteen letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, and this apparently limits the number of words in their vocabulary. For example, “aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye,”—kind of like on a small-town high school football team, where some of the players go both ways. We finally boarded the crowded airliner.

“Aloha,” I said, finding my seat, facing the ignominy of flying five hours in coach. I meant it as “goodbye.” As in: “It’ll be some time before I return to Hawaii, and never again at Christmas.”

Cue Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  I take that back.  Cue Poe: Nevermore North Shore.

Eric Peterson's debut novel, Life as a Sandwich, was a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards. His most recent book, The Dining Car, won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Popular Fiction, the San Diego Book Award Gold Medal for Best Published Contemporary Fiction, and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Silver Medal for Literary Fiction. The story follows a former college football star who signs on as bartender and personal valet to a legendary food writer and social critic who travels the country by private railroad car.  The Dining Car is available in bookstores and the more popular online book retailing sites.

The Cranky Diner appears exclusively on Daily free online Magazine.

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Mr. Cranky on a good day

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