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Oahu for Families

October 10, 2012 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent


Disney’s Aulani
At Disney’s Aulani resort, young snorkelers can observe fish in the Rainbow Reef Lagoon.

Whether they prefer nature or urban sprawl, activities or relaxation, there is plenty for families to do in Honolulu and throughout the rest of Oahu. Beachtime at Waikiki is almost a given and a hike up Diamond Head is great for the more athletically inclined (bring good walking shoes!), but there are many other attractions worth exploring that are good for kids, their parents and the family as a group.

Many are surprisingly cost-effective: For example, plant fans will want to tour the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, which are actually five distinct gardens of tropical plants in different ecological settings around the island of Oahu. Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden has guided hikes and camping facilities for weekends (permits are needed for staying overnight), and portions of Lili’uokalani Botanical Garden once belonged to the last reigning Hawaiian queen. Best of all: Access to the gardens—except for Foster Botanical Garden—is free.

There’s also the Bishop Museum, the largest in the state and home to the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural and scientific artifacts. Kids interested in creepy-crawlies (and what kid isn’t interested in creepy-crawlies?) will also want to check out the museum’s entomological collection—more than 13.5 million specimens, the third largest collection in the U.S.

A different kind of Hawaiian history is on display at Pearl Harbor, the site of the 1941 attack that brought the U.S. into World War II. Families can tour the memorial of the USS Arizona, see where Japan surrendered onboard the USS Missouri and explore Ford Island, with its monuments to the USS Utah and USS Oklahoma. The Pacific Aviation Museum is also on Ford Island—visitors should start at Hangar 37, which survived the attack and still has visible battle scars. They can then see actual planes from the assault and take part in one of the museum’s interactive Combat Flight Simulators. (Read more tips about Pearl Harbor in the Agent Advice sidebar on page 18.)

Pearl Harbor
The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor


The Polynesian Cultural Center is another fun way for families to learn more about the region as a whole, with different sections of the massive campus representing Tonga, Tahiti, Marquesas, Fiji, Samoa, Aotearoa and, of course, Hawaii itself. Visitors can spend a day parti-cipating in activities at each area, such as playing log drums in “Fiji” or climbing trees in “Samoa.”

The Center will observe its 50th anniversary throughout 2013 with some new features, including renovations to the Gateway Restaurant, cooking demonstrations, coconut tree-climbing and outrigger canoe rentals. Next year, the Center will open a new Polynesian Market Place near the Pacific Theater that will be open to the public and local residents, and tickets will not be needed. The marketplace will have island stores, a ukulele factory, a new restaurant and even Tahitian roulottes—island-style snack wagons. There will also be a stage with live entertainment. 

Agent Advice

Robert Romano, a partner at Fugazi Travel, recommends starting with an early trip to Pearl Harbor and Ford Island, the air base that was also pivotal in the 1941 attack. “You’ll see the museum-type displays, and you can get a ticket to the Arizona Memorial. Do that early, though, because you may have to wait hours.” Shuttles are available to take visitors to Ford Island, he adds, where they can learn more about the major battles of WWII and explore some memorable exhibits.

Of course, beach time is almost a necessity in Hawaii, and Romano recommends going to the North Shore beaches, or south to Hanauma Bay for snorkeling. “The sea life you see there is fabulous. Some of the shallow coral reefs have sea turtles. They’re really fun to see.” On weekends, families can watch fireworks at Waikiki, and in the mornings local restaurants set up beachside stands for a small food festival. “You can walk around and get small plates and just hang out or swim.” For families that want to learn surfing, Romano likes Hawaiian Fire, a school run by off-duty Honolulu firemen.”

And for hotels, Romano suggests The Kahala—if only to give kids a chance to play with the resident dolphins. “Visitors can see them in the lagoon. There’s feedings and playtime with the trainers—it’s great to watch!”

Tamara Aalto of tour operator All About Hawaii recommends breaking up cultural and sightseeing tours with activities for the kids. “For families with younger children, I recommend Wet’n’Wild Hawaii Water Park, an Atlantis Submarine Ride or Bay View Mini Putt.” For older kids, Aalto suggests something more active, like horseback riding, ATV or bike tours or—like Romano—dolphin swims.


(Good to know: There is a travel agent link on the Polynesian Cultural Center’s web page; and the Center offers agents a 35 percent discount when they visit the PCC on personal fam tours.)

The Waikiki Ocean Club, the 300-foot-long floating playground moored off Waikiki, offers a good range of aquatic activities, including snorkeling, trampoline, stand-up paddling, slides, helmet diving and even PADI-certified scuba lessons. Shuttles to the Club depart throughout the day to ferry guests from either the Hilton Hawaiian Village Pier (accessible by Waikiki Trolley) or the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Guests can go for either a full day or half-day, and lunch is included. 


Waikiki Trolley
The iconic and practical Waikiki Trolley

For a decidedly different perspective of the islands, Atlantis Adventures offers Hawaii’s only submarine tour, operating daily excursions from Waikiki and descending to depths of more than 100 feet. (Tours are also available from the neighbor islands.) The submarine cabins have large viewports, making it easy to get a good look at the sunken shipwrecks and marine life passing by.

Good to know, especially for environmentally conscious travelers: The submarines are battery-powered and emit no pollutants or noise.

The Resorts

Some resorts are also designing special excursions for families to explore more of Hawaii. Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, has a good range of activities throughout Oahu in conjunction with Pleasant Activities. The Kualoa Ranch Experience, for example, includes a private beach barbecue and a sea turtle spotting expedition on a private catamaran. Guests can then go on a horseback ride through the ranch’s northern valley where they will see some notable movie and television locations and listen to stories about Oahu’s ahupua‘a, (traditional Hawaiian land division that extends from the mountain to the shore). Another catamaran excursion includes snorkeling along the coastline and spotting dolphins and turtles. In the winter and early spring, guests may even see humpback whales on their annual migration.

On the island’s North Shore, Turtle Bay Resort is offering three new outdoor guided adventures for families.

The Hawaiian Cultural Excursion is a 60-minute beach walk that explores Turtle Bay’s shoreline and its hidden coastal gems. Guests can learn about the history of the Hawaiian Islands and Oahu’s North Shore from a local historian; observe unique plants and animals (some of which are endangered and can be found only on Hawaii); and listen to ancient stories and chants.

Kids can also go on a freshwater fishing excursion, where they are guaranteed to catch a fish. (The parents are welcome to join, of course, but they can also use the time to do something else on their own.) For families that don’t want a guide, the resort can drop them off at the fishing site and pick them up later. Lunch can also be provided for an additional fee. 

Kahuku Farms offers guided wagon rides for families. On the tour, groups will learn about apple-banana, papaya, taro leaf, long eggplant and cacao (chocolate) when in season plus much more. Tours are available every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10:30 am for groups of four to 18 people.

The Bishop Museum
The Bishop Museum


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About the Author

Jena Tesse Fox
Jena Tesse Fox covers Europe, Africa, Australia/South Pacific and business travel for the Questex Travel Group's publications. The daughter of history teachers, she can spend...

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