10/19/2012 07:10 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Surf's Up, But Not For Me

"Okay," said the voice on the phone. "Today is your lucky day. I'm going to get you out of Honolulu."

I knew the voice. It was my friend Harris. We had met by chance the day before at our hotel, the Kahala Mandarin Oriental. We were both there on business -- Harris is a real estate agent by day, but at night, or any other time for that matter, he turns into a mad surfer. Today was no exception.

"Meet me in the lobby in half an hour," he said.

I knew what this was all about. Getting out of Honolulu meant surfing, at least for Harris. Not for me, however. The closest I had come to surfing in Hawaii was years ago when I nearly got killed by a surfboard I was swimming peacefully somewhere off the coast of Waikiki, and I got hit in the head by an errant board. I saw stars, and then I swam back to shore. The owner of the board barely noticed.

I got down to the lobby and there was Harris, strapping his flame-colored surfboard on top of a tiny rental car. "You're gonna love this," he promised, but I had my doubts.

Seeing the rest of Oahu is like seeing the rest of, say, New York State: You don't know it exists until you get out of the big city, whether it's New York or Honolulu, and then you're surprised at how beautiful it is. The island is lush, very green and surrounded by water on all sides, which gives the light a special translucent quality. If you think of Oahu, which contains 75 per cent of the entire population of Hawaii, as a big clock, Honolulu would be at 6 o'clock, the very bottom.

We drove due north, right up the middle of the island, on the Kamehameha Highway. The minute we were out of Honolulu, it all changed -- we were in the middle of endless sugar cane fields and pineapple plantations. It was lush and green, and mountains surrounded us on either side, the Waianae range to the west, the Koolau to the east. It only took about 45 minutes to drive to the North Shore, premier surfing territory, and along the route we stopped at the Dole Pineapple Plantation for a quick drink. I later found out that Bette Midler once worked there as a packer; she was born and raised on Oahu.

The surf was up on the North Shore. Harris took a look, unstrapped the surfboard from the car and made for the water on a dead run. I, on the other hand, wary of getting banged in the head again, turned down his generous offer to learn how to surf. Instead, I took a walk into Haleiwa, a small, funky town that is really a collection of art galleries, restaurants and surf shops. I stopped for lunch at a place recommended by someone at the hotel, the Kua Aina Sandwich Shop. The line was long, but the food was great and every sandwich was laced with Maui onions. Everyone was there -- locals, surfers and day tourists like me.

After that, I found the Matsumoto Shave Ice Store, something of a legend on the island for its "shave ice." It's a Hawaiian treat, not to be confused with a 7-11 snow cone. I splashed on three different fruit syrups and walked out smiling with a huge ice cone in a flimsy paper wrap.

At the appointed time -- two hours later -- I met Harris at the assigned place outside the town. He had a look of utter glee on his face. He was relaxed, smiling and even giggling as he described his day. A couple hours riding the waves had calmed him down and taken the edge off.

It was early in the afternoon, so we still had plenty of time. What to do? We could simply drive back the same way we came, down through the middle of the island, and head back to the hotel and some cool margaritas and maybe a long massage. Or, we could be more adventurous and go around the long way -- that is, clockwise from north (Haleiwa) to south (Honolulu) along the windward side of the island.

We chose the long way.

Now, even though it is beautiful on the windward side (the leeward, or western, side is dry, has fewer hotels and restaurants and the locals can be downright inhospitable), there is a problem: Too many cars. Traffic jams are not uncommon. We got caught in some stop-and-go, but once we got around Kahuku (one o'clock on the map) it was smooth sailing all the way down the coast to Diamond Head.

Of course, you can stop at the usual tourist spots along the way -- Waimea Bay (avoid the park, too congested), Koko Head, Hanuama Bay -- or you can simply enjoy the drive, which is what we did.

The overwhelming sense is of quiet. It is very quiet. You've got the mountains on the right, the aquamarine ocean on the left and nothing but miles of sandy beaches stretched out as far as the eye can see. Stopping for a swim on a hot day is a good idea, but bather, beware: The currents are tricky, sometimes even dangerous.

We swung around back toward Honolulu late in the afternoon, passing through Kailua and other bedroom communities that have replaced the farms that occupied the landscape earlier. The high point, literally, was Pali Lookout, were you can gaze back up the coast you just drove down as the sun begins to set.

Back at the hotel, Harris began to look a little edgy again, like he had on the drive up to the North Shore that morning.

He dropped me off but stayed in the car.

"I want to check out a few surf spots down the road," he announced. "I'll meet you later for dinner."

He headed out. I headed for the bar. I'd seen enough of the other Oahu.