After so many cancelled vacations in 2020, we decided to apply unused airfare credit to go to Hawaii right when school let out in May 2021. We have always wanted to take our kids to Hawaii. Living in the eastern part of the United States, traveling to Hawaii with kids makes a very long travel day, so it’s not something that we plan to do very often. We also lucked out this year because we have family who recently moved to Oahu, and we were able to stay with them for part of our trip, making the accommodation part of our trip less expensive. Our kids (ages 12, 10, 10 and 5) have traveled a lot and had no problem masking and flying for our 12+ hour travel days.
Oahu Family Vacation with Kids
We chose Oahu for our vacation to see family there and because it’s a great island to introduce our kids to Hawaiian culture, food, nature and so much history. Oahu is more crowded than the other islands, but with a little planning it didn’t feel like too many people. Everything is easily navigable with a rental car, and we found beautiful beaches, wildlife, surfing lessons, history and culture all on one island. In non-Covid times we may have added another island to our 10 day trip, but due to Covid we decided to stay on Oahu, and there was plenty to do!
Use Jet-Lag to Your Advantage
One of my biggest pieces of advice when going to Hawaii, especially with kids, is to use jet-lag to your advantage. We had a six hour time difference, which meant that our kids were ready to explore at 4 or 5 in the morning and dragging the first few days by 6 or 7 PM. We tried to sleep on the kids schedule and get out early those first few days when our bodies were naturally waking up earlier. Beach parking is generally full by 9 AM every day, so going early to get a parking spot is a must. We spent a few mornings with beautiful beach coves to ourselves, exploring and enjoying all that the North Shore has to offer before the crowds. Plan on going to the Polynesian Cultural Center or a luau later in your trip so you and your kids aren’t as tired at night.
What to Pack on an Oahu Vacation with Kids
We are pretty light travelers, even with a family of six. Whenever we travel to tropical destinations, we seem to need less because we end up wearing our swimsuits most of the time. Pack a couple different swimsuits and try to stay in a place with a washer/dryer to help save on suitcase space. We loved bringing along our snorkel masks to see all the beautiful coral and fish in little coves and Hanauma Bay. The kids enjoy using them at any beach or underwater location and are worth bringing with you (little kid snorkel mask here–great for our 5 year old). I also highly recommend water shoes when you are exploring the reefs. We saw many, many sea urchins hiding in the coral and rocks, and stepping on one is not a way to enjoy your trip to Hawaii. Be prepared and bring some water shoes. Also pack lots of sunscreen.
Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort
We loved staying with family for the first week of our trip, and for the second part of our vacation we rented a condo at Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort. This resort was the perfect place to stay for a family. The condo was beautiful with a large kitchen to cook a few meals. The pools were perfect for our family, complete with a “beach area” and nice hot tubs. The foliage around the resort was tropical and just beautiful. Ko Olina Beach Villas is set on one of four lagoons which makes the water calm and perfect for kids swimming. A walking path goes all along the four lagoons and in front of other big nearby hotels (like Disney’s Aulani resort, the Four Seasons hotel, etc…). For our family, we felt the up-charge at a Disney hotel would not be worth it when we could have the same quality of beaches, beautiful pools and resort feel for half the price. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Disney’s Aulani resort, definitely check out the Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort.
Favorite “Don’t Miss” Oahu Destinations with Kids
We rented a car and spent most of our days exploring, eating delicious food and enjoying the fabulous beaches of Oahu. Here are some of our favorite “don’t miss” destinations that we would love to go back to. I’m splitting this up by area in Oahu because there is just so much to do and see on the island. We could have spent even more time!
- Sharks Cove: Beautiful cove to explore on the north shore. Get there early as parking will fill up. Bring a snorkel mask and wear water shoes. The features of this cove are worth a stop and a snorkel. Breathtakingly beautiful!
- Waimea Bay Beach: One of our favorite North Shore beaches. We loved the sand dunes to play in and the way the calm river water met the ocean. The North Shore is known for big waves, so plan accordingly with little children. Parking fills up by around 9 AM.
- Ka’Ena Point Trail: We wished we’d had more time here and could have devoted a full day or half a day. This area did not seem very crowded and is at the north western part of Oahu. The trail follows along the coast and is breathtaking.
- Polynesian Cultural Center: If you want to learn all about Island culture, this is the place for you. Our kids especially enjoyed all the hands-on activities, shows and are still talking about the fire-dancing from the evening show. Book your tickets early and enjoy the Ha! Breath of Life show in the evening.
- Waimea Falls: The perfect waterfall to go to if you have kids. The road is paved and uphill for part of the way, but the walk through the botanical garden is beautiful and worth visiting in its own right. Once you arrive at the falls, lifeguards have life jackets for anyone who is going swimming. This was the perfect introduction of swimming in a waterfall for kids. Waimea Falls can get crowded, so go first thing in the morning if possible.
- Surfing Lessons on North Shore: For a fun and unique experience, sign up for surfing lessons on the North Shore. The kids did a semi-private lesson for a couple hours and it was a highlight of their trip to Hawaii. Nothing beats learning to surf in Hawaii! Just remember to apply sunscreen, especially to the backs of your legs/feet, since you will be lying down on your board for a lot of the lesson!
- Dole Plantation: This isn’t quite on the North Shore, but it’s an easy stop if you are driving to the North Shore from Honolulu or coming south from the North Shore. The Dole Plantation is very touristy but the kids loved riding the Pineapple Train and going through the Pineapple Maze. We all enjoyed eating Dole Whips and seeing how pineapple is grown and harvested.
- Lunch in Haleiwa: Haleiwa is a small town that is the gateway to the North Shore. It has lots of food truck and restaurant options. We also loved grabbing some Matsumoto Shave Ice after the beach.
East Side of Oahu
- Pali Highway: To get to the east side of Oahu, take the Pali Highway if you can. The views are outstanding and you could find some beautiful hikes in the area if you are interested. Parking $ required at the viewpoints.
- Diamond Head: Hiking up Diamond Head is worth it for the beautiful views of the coast and Honolulu. The hike up is pretty steep, but all four of our kids made it hiking up themselves. It’s not every day you get to hike up a crater in Hawaii. This can be crowded, so be prepared and go early if possible. Parking $ required.
- Hanauma Bay: Hanauma Bay is a beautiful nature preserve with many different types of fish, coral and sea life. Currently they are only open to 1000 guests a day and you must purchase your ticket two days in advance. The online reservations sell out quickly and they are not open on Mondays and Tuesdays. We lucked out with a reservation after trying for a few days. Tip: When trying to book on their reservation system, pick a time that is not on the hour. You will have better luck choosing a 9:40 AM time slot than 10:00 AM.
- Byodo-in Temple: If you’re looking for some Japanese culture in Oahu, look no further than the peaceful Byodo-in Temple. Nestled among the beautiful mountains, this temple will transport you to Japan. You can walk around, ring the giant bell and enjoy the peacefulness and koi fish.
- Beaches on the East Side: The Eastern part of Oahu had so many beaches and lookout points we just didn’t have time to get to. If you choose to stay on this side, definitely check out the Makapuu Point lookout and other beautiful hikes in this area.
When our family goes on vacation, we don’t often spend a lot of time in big cities. We prefer the “off the beaten path” places and fewer crowds. With that said, downtown Honolulu is a fun place to walk around. Definitely try out Leonard’s Bakery for Portuguese-style malsadas or listen to some music and grab something from the food court at the Ala Moana Center. We enjoyed this outdoor shopping center to grab a magnet for our souvenir and the food court has so many different delicious food options so we all could choose something we wanted to eat. We did a mini driving tour past the Iolani Palace and the main hotel strip in Honolulu and would have loved to have more time to explore.
Pearl Harbor is a “don’t miss” attraction, especially with kids. No tickets are required to visit the museums and entry to the site. You do need a ticket for the USS Arizona Memorial Program that takes you on a boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial. These tickets are free ($1 service charge) but must be booked in advance. Book your tickets early (you can book them 8 weeks in advance at the time of writing).
Ko Olina Area (West side of Oahu)
- Paradise Cove Public Beach and Snorkeling with Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles: This was the highlight of my boys trip to Hawaii. Our condo at Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort was just a short walk away from one of the most perfect beaches frequented by Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. This beach is in a natural cove area and has a very, very small parking lot near the somewhat hidden entrance. It’s worth checking out even if you aren’t staying in Ko Olina in my opinion. The beach itself was in a protected natural cove that had beautiful calm water, perfect for children. While snorkeling and swimming, we saw many Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles swimming around, coming up for air and it was an incredible experience. We loved this beach so much that we came back multiple times on our Hawaii trip. Please remember if you see a sea turtle, DO NOT TOUCH them. It is illegal to touch them or interact with them, so please remind your children and those with you to observe from a distance if you happen to see some sea turtles while swimming.
As a family traveling from Kentucky, we knew we really wanted to eat a lot of the Japanese-inspired food they offer in Hawaii (we can’t get those options where we live very easily). We also wanted to try some local Hawaiian food and enjoy some fresh fruits grown in a tropical climate. When we travel we tend to eat out about once a day and cook or have small snacks on the other days. Here are some of our favorite places we found to eat on Oahu.
- Island Vintage Coffee: Açaí Bowl I love this Açaí bowl so much that I had it twice! They offer a bunch of different açaí bowls. The haupia one was and my favorite. There are a couple locations around the island so it’s the perfect spot for a quick breakfast or lunch break on your way to something or grabbing food to go.
- Pounders: Mango pizza We weren’t able to snag a Luau dinner on the day we visited the Polynesian Cultural Center, so we headed out to the beautiful market area in front of the PCC to look around for dinner. We found Pounders restaurant and it was a major hit! The kids all got to make their own pizzas, the food was delicious and I’m still dreaming of recreating their mango pizza, which was one of the best things I ate on the island. If you are near the PCC, it’s definitely worth a stop!
- Young’s Fish Market: Hawaiian This was a delicious way to experience the flavors of traditional Hawaiian food. The kalua pork was juicy, flavorful and absolutely delicious. We also loved the sweet potatoes and trying all the traditional Hawaiian flavors. Some of their main dishes will sell out, so call ahead and grab your plate for lunch or order pickup.
- Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck: We are still thinking about the delicious garlic sauce on these shrimp! This shrimp truck had a long line of over half hour before it opened in Haleiwa. It may be worth it to try it in a different location (they have three currently). The shrimp was delicious and the plate lunch style was perfect to share with the kids.
- Matsumoto Shave Ice: If you want a delicious shave ice and unique experience, stop at Matsumoto Shave Ice. You can add ice cream and choose from a whole lot of shave ice flavors. It’s the perfect treat for a day on the island.
- Highway Inn: We loved the pancakes with coconut syrup and lilikoi sauce. The french toast was also delicious and you could try a variety of Hawaiian foods including a yummy loco moco.
- Gyu Kaku Japanese BBQ: We loved this all you can eat BBQ style restaurant in Japan and were excited to eat there again. It was pricy but the food was delicious.
- Genki Sushi: This is a chain but really brought back the nostalgia of conveyor belt sushi from when we lived in Japan. You pay per plate, order your sushi on a screen and it comes out on a conveyor belt. They have options other than sushi if some members in your party aren’t fans of it. Not cheap, but definitely an eating experience to remember!
- Coco Curry: Another one of our Japanese favorites that they happen to have on Oahu is Coco Ichibanya. This is a great spot to get some Japanese curry. Yum!
- Costco: If you have a large group or are staying for awhile, Costco is the perfect spot to stock up on some fresh fruits and veggies, Hawaiian macadamia nut candy and they have some really delicious pre-prepared foods too. Their sushi selection was perfect for a crowd and they also offered other grab and go type foods that made for great snacks. Definitely head there at the beginning of your trip to stock up before checking in to a condo.
- 7-11: In Hawaii, 7-11 is closer to how we experienced it in Japan (a nice clean convenience store vs the often dirty gas station/road trip bathroom stop it is in most of the US), and so it is a great place to stop with the kids. They have some yummy pre-prepared foods (onigiri, musubi, quick hot lunches), and their slushies were delicious and cheap after being at the beach all day. Definitely keep in mind if you need something quick or fun with the kids.
Takeaway Tips for Planning an Oahu Family Vacation
- Book Early: with the large increase of people going to Hawaii and the capacity restrictions, it’s never too early to book! As soon as you know when you’re going, decide on a rough itinerary and book anything you can (Polynesian Cultural Center, Pearl Harbor, Surfing Lessons, Waimea Falls, Luau etc…)
- Capitalize on Jet-Lag: Get up and go the first few mornings when your body is still on mainland time! You will get to see so much more of the island, won’t have to worry about parking and your kids will love playing at the emptier beaches before the crowds start to come.
- Budget Appropriately: This is an expensive trip, especially if you’re coming from the eastern part of the US ($$ airfare). Plan on things costing more than they would at home. Plan to pay for parking and entrance fees at most attractions. We love Hawaii, but would not choose it just to sit at a resort with our kids, purely based on the cost. We love a quick trip to a Florida beach for a more cost effective vacation. Hawaii for most families is a splurge, so plan for it 🙂
- Take the Kids: My husband and I love going on occasional trips as a couple, but we also really love taking our kids on family vacations. This particular trip, our kids were just oozing gratitude toward the end of our trip. We didn’t expect that they would love it as much as they did. With so many fun outdoor things for them to do, they felt that every day was a trip highlight. We had such a great time together as a family (this is not to say everything was perfect all the time) and watching their enthusiasm made it all worth it.
I love writing about our family vacations and hope that it can help some of you who are planning your own family trips. You can read about some of our other trips here.
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