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Oahu is such an amazing island to visit for families. We had the best time in Hawaii and I can’t recommend it enough. It was the trip of a lifetime for us and one I know my kids will have great memories of our adventures.
Go To A Beach
I know for many people beach days are a top priority. If you are staying at a hotel on the beach (especially in Waikiki or Ko Olina like Aulani) I really encourage you to venture out and try some of the other amazing beaches on the island. Hawaii is so much more than Waikiki and every beach we went to was incredible and different. If you take nothing else from this post make sure to bring water shoes! Yes, I know they are ugly and not fashionable but your feet will thank me. My husband ended up having to buy some. I recommend bringing several swimsuits- I share my favorite bathing suits in this post.
Makua Beach was my favorite of all the beaches we went to. It was absolutely stunning and the views were incredible. The kids had so much fun boogie boarding and playing in the tide pools by the rocks.
Don’t forget to catch a sunset on the Leeward side of the island. It’s simply spectacular.
There are so many amazing hikes on Oahu and they range from fairly easy to incredibly challenging. My kids loved hiking in Hawaii and I think you’re missing out if you don’t do at least one hike. I recommend venturing beyond just Diamond Head and seeing more of the island. We didn’t purchase hiking shoes- I just wore my Brooks Adrenaline that I run in. If you want hiking shoes I really like Keen.
The hike to Manoa falls wasn’t too terribly difficult and my kids absolutely loved it. It was pouring down rain but SO worth it.
The falls were lovely and the view was truly spectacular. At the end we treated ourselves to pineapple whip at the little shop near the parking lot.
Makapu Lighthouse Trail
This was so amazing to see! The actual hike is completely paved unless you do the side hike to Pele’s Chair (we did- it’s a bit challenging but my kids managed fine).
On the way up the trail you get an amazing view of Koko Crater which I was excited about since that isn’t a little kid friendly hike and we couldn’t go.
Even though the hike is paved and rated as easy it was challenging for my kids- the incline is pretty steep and it’s uphill the WHOLE way. My kids made it but there was a lot of whining- bring lots of water.
That being said the views from the top made it totally worth it!
Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center and Attend a Luau
The Polynesian Cultural Center is so much more than a luau! There are “villages” you visit and learn about different Polynesian Cultures. The center is run by the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons) and each village has students from the different Polynesian Islands who are provided scholarships to BYU Hawaii. It reminded me a lot of Epcot with a Polynesian twist. Each of the villages had a presentation along with hands on activities to do. This was the most expensive thing we did in Hawaii but my kids absolutely loved it.
We did the villages, Dinner, and the Ha Breath of Life show in the evening. Our favorite villages presentations were Samoa where we learned about fire twirling and how to climb coconut trees and Tahiti where we learned about drums and dancing.
It was neat for my kids to talk to the students about their home islands and learn about the history and culture. Everyone was so patient with them and you could tell how much they loved sharing their culture with the children. Honestly, there’s no way to do the entire center in just one day. Your tickets are good for 3 days but we only attended the one day due to time constraints. The Ha Breath of Life show was neat but my 5 year old fell asleep during it so I would say skip it if you have younger kids who can’t stay up late.
Swim in a Waterfall
Swimming in a waterfall is a bucket list item for sure! This was an absolute highlight of the trip for me. Because of the risk of leptospirosis you can’t just go swim in any waterfall. The best option in my opinion is Waimea Falls. It’s part of Waimea Valley and there is an entrance fee but it was totally worth it to me to have a safe place to take my kids for this once in a lifetime experience. The hike to the falls is on a paved road and is less than a mile so it’s very easy for kids. The falls have lifeguards on duty and they require everyone to use the free lifejackets. To be on the safe side I didn’t let my kids put their heads under the water but honestly the water was freezing when we went so I don’t think there was much risk.
Visit a Botanical Garden
My 2 top choices for Botanical Gardens are Ho’omaluhia and Waimea Valley. We just couldn’t do everything so we ended up visiting Waimea Valley since we were going to the waterfall to swim anyway.
The nice thing about Waimea Valley is there was SO much more than just plants and the waterfall! There was a Hale village where the kids learned about the ancient Hawaiians who once lived in the valley and they even took a ukulele lesson. Their teacher was awesome and they were so interested and intently practiced the chords they were taught. Both boys want ukuleles for their birthdays now lol. The botanical gardens had plants from all over the world and I liked how there were little paths and stairways off the main paved trail to explore.
The valley is simply breathtaking and one of the most beautiful places we visited. It’s across the street from Waimea Bay so you could easily do the waterfall swim and botanical gardens in the morning then hit up the beach at Waimea Bay in the afternoon.
Go Snorkeling (or scuba diving)
If you plan on snorkeling for more than one day I really do recommend just buying your own gear and bringing it with you– so much cheaper than renting. You’ll want a mask, snorkel and fins. The really cool thing about Hawaii is you can walk into the water and swim right up to a coral reef! I’ve never been anywhere like that; in Florida you need a boat to get out to the good reefs. The reefs are absolutely extraordinary. There are so many species of colorful fish and if you are lucky you might even see a sea turtle or a monk seal (we saw both!).
E Beach and Tracks Beach
The best place to snorkel is Electric Beach (aka E Beach) on the Leeward side of the island because there’s a large pipe from the electric plant where warm water comes out and so many fish and other animals have made it their home. The visibility was really good and this is also a popular spot for Scuba Diving which I also did here. The waves are a bit rough for small children and it’s a decent swim out to the pipe so if you have little kids you can go up the road to Tracks Beach where it’s easier to get to some reefs.
Sharks Cove on the North Shore is also a really cool place to snorkel and see fish. Double check conditions before you go but the day we went the cove was very calm and it was great for kids. There are also little tide pools to look at in the lava rocks that hold fish, crabs etc. Don’t forget your water shoes!
Visit Pearl Harbor
I have wanted to visit Pearl Harbor since I was a little girl so it was a must do for us! I was disappointed that the boats to the USS Arizona weren’t running due to an ongoing mechanical problem but it was definitely still worth going so don’t let that deter you. The visitor center is free but you do pay a small fee to take the boat to the Arizona and need to book it ahead of time. Note that you are not allowed any bags in the Visitor Center. There’s a bag check but we ended up just stuffing our pockets so we wouldn’t have to bother. Get here early because it was a zoo when we left!
It’s not incredibly clear the best way to experience the Visitor Center so here is my recommendation:
- Grab a map (I collect the free National Park Maps as sourvenirs) then watch the short film about Pearl Harbor (currently located to the right of the maps outside due to Covid)
- After the film go to the left and walk through the museum exhibits.
- Exit the last museum exhibit and look at the USS Arizona Bells. Optional: listen to a ranger talk here.
- Walk over to the memorials starting on the FAR left side- they will go in order left to right looking at the harbor.
- When you get to the end (Submarine Memorial) look at the plane and the USS Bowfin submarine (if you bought a ticket you can go on and visit the museum but we didn’t). If you bought a ticket to the USS Missouri and/or Aviation Museum board the bus and visit those. The bus loads near the Submarine Museum.
- Visit the gift shop last when you return to the visitor center since bags aren’t allowed.
In addition to the Visitor Center and USS Arizona which are part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific Memorial and run by the National Park Service there are some additional sites you can pay to see: The USS Missouri, Bowfin Submarine, and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. The only one we did was the USS Missouri. The ticket includes a shuttle bus ride onto Ford Island where you board the ship. The Mighty Mo was in Tokyo Harbor at the end of WWII and is where the Japanese Surrendered and the war officially ended. It was cool to see but very pricey in my opinion. My boys were very interested in seeing it so I suppose the cost was worth it but it depends on your personal interests. One bonus is the ship is docked very close to the USS Arizona Memorial so there’s a great spot for photographs at the end of the dock (especially nice if you can’t visit the memorial because the boats aren’t running).
Spend a Day on the North Shore
I absolutely loved the North Shore! I fell in love with the town of Haleiwa and if I were to ever move to Hawaii this is where I would want to live. There’s so much to do and so many tasty things to eat. A word of warning: the waves get incredibly large in the winter and the surf is rough with strong currents. Most beaches are not safe for children to swim. There’s still so much to do and there are a few places that we did swim- you’ll just have to be mindful to check conditions especially in the winter.
Here are some of my favorite things to do on the North Shore:
- Shave Ice at Haleiwa Shave Ice or Mastumoto
- Haupia Pie at Ted’s Bakery
- Shark’s Cove (see above under snorkeling)
- Waimea Bay- probably the best place to swim just check conditions. There’s also a huge rock that locals jump off of which is fun to watch and there’s good snorkeling.
- Watch Surfers at Bonzai Pipeline- definitely a spectator activity only but it’s amazing to see!
- Waimea Valley Botanical Gardens and Falls (see above)
Eat Dole Whip
If you aren’t familiar Dole Whip (or Pineapple Whip) is a soft serve non-dairy treat. You may have had it at Disney World. The most popular place to enjoy some is at the Dole Plantation. Unpopular opinion- I don’t think the Dole Plantation is a must do. The parking was an absolute nightmare, the wait for the train was 2 hours, and it was SO crowded. There just wasn’t enough for my kids to do to make the tourist trap atmosphere worth it. The good news is you can get Pineapple Whip other places. We had it at the bottom of Manoa Falls after our hike and it really hit the spot! It was also available at the Polynesian Cultural Center and the USS Missouri. So unless you are dying to see how pineapples are grown you can skip the plantation and enjoy your frozen treat at another attraction you are visiting.
Eat Shave Ice
Enjoying shave ice is a must-do for kids when visiting Hawaii! Note that it is ALWAYS referred to as Shave Ice NOT shaved ice. There are a myriad of places but the most popular is Motsumoto in Haleiwa. The line was down the block and around the corner so we ended up going down the street to Haleiwa Shave Ice and it was awesome. I recommend ordering one served the traditional way with ice cream on the bottom and condensed milk on top (along with your choice of flavors). This one was Pina Colada flavor and SO good.
Visit a Halona Blow Hole and See Eternity Beach
My kids really got a kick out of seeing the blow hole. It’s not an all day thing- more like a quick stop. It’s near Eternity Beach (where THAT scene from “From Here to Eternity” was filmed so that was cool to see. You are allowed to swim but it was WAY too rough for my kids so we just looked. We stopped on the way to hike Makapu Lighthouse Trail.
Malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery
Malasadas are a Portuguese pastry and are absolutely divine. It’s similar to a donut. You can get them plain or filled with custard and I think the filled are SO much better! You must eat them hot; seriously they are incredible. There’s the OG bakery in Honolulu and also a couple of food trucks across the island.
Going on Vacation? Here are my favorite swimsuits.
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