We just wrapped up our first week on Oahu a few weeks ago, and boy did we have an amazing time. I love visiting my hometown and showing my kids all my favorite eateries, old hangouts and activities. We spent a lot of time visiting family and friends, as well as embarking on new adventures. There really is so much to do on Oahu with kids.
I know so many of you have planned or want to plan a trip to Oahu with your family, so I’ve got ideas on what to do and what to skip. Want to go cheap (or better yet free)? No problem. I’ve got you covered. Looking for eco-friendly or natural options on food and activities for the kids? I’ve got options for you.
Must Do on Oahu
1. Drive to the North Shore. Check out famous surf spots such as Waimea Bay and Pipeline. In the summer, these spots are relatively flat and can be great swimming spots (with the exception of Pipeline). Be sure to bring an underwater camera with video capabilities so you can capture fun moments while in the water. There are a lot of food trucks like Giovanni’s shrimp (a little expensive in my opinion) and Opal’s (which is now a Thai restaurant in the Haleiwa shopping center and so worth the trip).
2. Book a room outside of Waikiki. Don’t be afraid to get a vacation rental in the North Shore, Kailua/Lanikai, Hawaii Kai and other areas. You’ll be able to experience Oahu in a different way that isn’t the tourist trap of Waikiki. I usually book vacation rentals on VRBO.com and HomeAway.com. I’ve always had a great experience with my rentals. I suggest reading rental reviews and asking for rental agreements in advance so you know what to expect.
3. Drive around the island. My favorite driving spots are from Waikiki through Diamond Head and Hawaii Kai to Kailua. This route showcases the gorgeous scenery on Oahu. Stop by the Blow Hole by Sandy’s beach. Another great drive is to start (or continue) from Kailua through Kualoa Ranch to Laie and then the North Shore. You’ll get a glimpse of the country on Oahu and have a chance to check out scenery used in movies such as Jurassic Park and TV shows like Lost. I feel like I’m on another island for that drive. Other than gas, it’s free to drive around the island and stop along scenic routes.
4. Eat shave ice. You cannot visit Oahu without eating at well-known spots such as Matsumoto’s (on the North Shore) or Waiola Shave Ice (in town, near Waikiki). Waiola is Obama’s favorite shave ice spot and they even have a trio of flavors named in his honor: cherry, lime and passion fruit. Try it with condensed milk – it sounds weird, but it’s so delicious.
Looking for an all-natural alternative? Try Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha in Aina Haina (about 15 minutes from Waikiki). They make all their own syrups from natural ingredients – there’s no artificial colors or flavors. It’s a great way to enjoy a Hawaiian pastime without spending a fortune.
You can make your own shave ice at home with this Electric Shave Ice Maker using all-natural fruit juices (just reduce the liquid on the stovetop to make a syrup) to avoid artificial colors and flavors.
5. Meander through Waikiki. It’s not for everyone, but Waikiki can be a fun spot to meander, shop and people watch. Shops are open late and street performers come out a night. It can be busy, but it’s fun to walk through with the kids. International Marketplace is full of knick knacks and collectibles. My sons loved opening an oyster to get their first pearl. If you’re not into crowds, you may want to skip this.
Or if you don’t like the shops, enjoy the scenery. Right at the edge of Waikiki is Kapiolani Park. Take in a concert at Waikiki Shell, visit the Honolulu Zoo or just swing on one of the vines of a banyan tree. You can even have a picnic and fly a kite for an affordable, fun afternoon with the kids.
6. Catch a wave. Throughout Waikiki, there are stands for surfboard, SUP (stand up paddleboard) and boogie board rentals. Get a surf lesson from one of the beach boys at the stands and learn to surf. Waikiki is a great spot to learn and full of beginners. I regularly take my kids out to tandem surf or boogie board in the gentle waves of Waikiki.
Here’s a tip: If you’re already familiar with surfing, buy a foam longboard from Costco to use on your trip. It’s cheaper than renting a surfboard for the week, and you can sell it on Craigslist when you’re done. Craigslist is a great place to buy used surfboards and boogie boards too.
Another option is to buy a beginner foam surfboard on Amazon and have it shipped to Hawaii. At less than $90, this 6-foot surfboard is cheaper than a weekly rental.
7. Feast on Asian-fusion cuisine. Oahu has no shortage of restaurants, especially Asian-fusion. The great thing about Hawaii is that even at fine dining restaurants you can show up in a t-shirt and slippers (flip flops) and no one will give it a second thought. Plus, they’re kid friendly and allergen friendly too. Try Alan Wong’s or Roy’s for a splurge or low-cost local favorite’s like Shokudo.
8. Take a trolley ride. This is a great way to sightsee Oahu. Choose from scenic to historical (great way to see Hawaiian historical and royalty sites such as Iolani Palace) to shopping tours. Last December, I took a nighttime trolley tour through Honolulu City of Lights that blasted fun 80s music while my kids rode and danced along in their seats. The kids had so much fun. Trolley rides start at $25 for adults and $13 for kids for all day rides for a day.
9. Check out the Honolulu Zoo. I live in San Diego and have visited the San Diego Zoo many times. While San Diego Zoo is vast with a lot of exhibits, I also find it commercialized. Double-decker bus tours, shops and merchandise – it’s all just too much for me.
Tucked away at the end of Waikiki, the Honolulu Zoo is a total gem. It’s small, charming yet really hands-on for kids. Honolulu Zoo is more laid-back. It’s lush and green – in fact, there’s a lot of green space to run around and an amazing children’s playground with peacock and peahen residents roaming around. The playground is worth the admission to hang out for the day – just $14 for adults and $6 for kids (ages 3-12) or you can get a family annual pass for just $55. Plus, you can bring your own food. Volunteers are around the park with cool, fun artifacts such as animal bones, skins and other exhibits for kids to touch and experience.
10. Support local farmers. Check out the local farmers markets (I love the one in Diamond Head on Saturdays). Get fresh local produce, meat, seafood, snacks and other goodies straight from Hawaii farms.
11. Learn about Hawaiian culture. Make a visit to Bishop Museum. It’s the largest museum in the state of Hawaii and THE place to learn about the history, arts and culture of the Hawaiian people. History and science buffs will love this place. It houses the largest collection of Polynesian cultural and scientific artifacts. There’s also a planetarium on campus. It’s just $19.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids – a bargain compared to the Polynesian Cultural Center – and featuring real exhibits and artifacts from Hawaiian culture.
12. Take a hike. From Manoa Valley to Diamond Head crater to Makapuu point, there are no shortage of nature hikes for all ages and fitness levels on Oahu. Don’t forget to bring a reusable water bottle, snacks, sunscreen, light jacket and comfortable shoes. Most hiking trails are free but a few might charge for parking.
13. Walk on the beach. Even if you’re more of a land-lover, there’s still so much to enjoy on the beach on Oahu. You can watch the ocean waves, collect sea shells or observe marine life. My boys loved checking out marine animals and making a mini aquarium for a day (they returned all sea animals back to the ocean). Beaches in Hawaii are free and accessible to the public.
14. Visit Valley of the Temples. This is one of my favorite spots on Oahu. Set in the lush scenery of the Koolau Mountains in the background that looks like something out of a painting, Valley of Temples is a memorial park where thousands of Hawaii residents are buried. It’s free to visit.
What makes this place unique is the gorgeous setting and the fact that the burial grounds of Buddhists, Shinto, Protestant and Catholic religions all co-exist in one area. It’s so Hawaii. Plus, there’s a replica of the Byodo-In temple that is just amazing.
Think Twice Before Going
Shelling out money for a luau. Personally, I think luaus are a waste of money. If you’re looking to try Hawaiian cuisine, try a plate lunch at a mom and pop restaurant instead. Before we had gluten allergies, we loved going to Zippy’s. I admit it’s not the healthiest choice, but it’ll certainly a bargain compared to a $40+ per person luau.
Visiting Pearl Harbor. If this has been on your bucket list, then by all means go. Just remember that there’s a strict no-bag policy so leave the backpack and snacks in the car. And you might want to buy your tickets early or go through a tour company. The reason why I pass on this is the crowds. I think every person benefits from visiting this historic and humbling site, but depending on your kids (or your patience) you might want to hold off until the kids are older.
Taking in a splash at Wet ‘n Wild Hawaii (often referred to as Hawaii Adventure Water Park). Admission prices are expensive at $46.99 per person – and that includes anyone over 42 inches. My boys are 6 and 8, and I had to pay full admission. For just the three of us, that’s nearly $150. The day that we went, the park was overrun with people and kids shoving to get on slides. The food is expensive as well and nothing but junk food – yet they won’t let you bring in outside food. I’ve been to the Wet ‘n Wild in San Diego, and it’s a much better deal (which I can usually get through Groupon) and they allow outside food. Plus, you’re in Hawaii. Enjoy the local beaches instead of the water park. I recommend skipping this one.
Doing Disney in Hawaii. The Disney Aulani Resort in Koolina is a popular hotel and vacation spot, but honestly it’s so far from anything else on the island that I don’t think it’s worth it. I’d pick North Shore, Kailua and even Waikiki over this area. There isn’t much to do and I find the hotel, restaurants and amenities to be too pricey for me.
Got picks for Oahu that I didn’t cover? Let me know.
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