Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Oahu, Hawaii

We visited Oahu during the second half of our Hawaiian vacation (Maui was our first stop). Comparing the two, I'd describe Oahu as the Disney World version of Hawaii. If you've never been to the state before and you're choosing between the islands, Oahu is the perfect place to start because it offers a taste of everything in a commercial and easily accessible way. And when you're traveling with kids, sometimes that's exactly what you want.

Where to Stay

We stayed in two different parts of Oahu, starting at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort in bustling Waikiki. The hotel is excellent  well priced yet posh, and within walking distance of great food. We loved the free activities that Outrigger offered, like the lei-making class. As a bonus, there's a great view of the Hilton Hawaiian Village's fireworks every Friday night from Outrigger's beach.

After a couple of days in Waikiki, we drove up to the North Coast of Oahu, which is decidedly more tranquil and tropical. We stayed at the vast Turtle Bay Resort, which offers everything from horseback riding to biking to snorkeling on the grounds. Turtle Bay is where movies and shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are filmed when producers are looking for an iconic Hawaiian setting. Not to date myself, but the episode of Full House where the Tanner family goes to Hawaii was also filmed at Turtle Bay!

Where to Eat

We had so much good food in Waikiki. Our first meal was at Marukame Udon, an excellent Japanese restaurant with delicious udon options, a tempura self-serve bar, plus extras like spam musubi and rice balls. Get there before 5:30 for dinner, or be prepared to wait on a line that snakes down the street. Another great Asian option is Poke Bar, with its fresh, quality fish and myriad of optional toppings. My bowl was so good, I ended up coming back for a second meal the next day.

My husband and kids don't enjoy (or even tolerate) raw fish, so they got delicious-looking takeout spaghetti and pizza from Arancino, one block over, instead.

We ate lunch one day at a food truck court near our hotel called Pua Hana Market Waikiki. My husband picked up this adorable barbecue chicken bowl, while I had some excellent lemon butter shrimp and the kids ate ramen. Everyone was happy.

On the North Coast, we dined at more food trucks, since they're well known for their freshly caught shrimp up there. I waited on a massive line to try the shrimp at Giovanni's, while my husband got some brisket over rice at HI-BBQ. Everything was absolutely worth the wait. For another meal, we stopped at Ted's Bakery to try the Hawaiian dish loco moco, which is basically a hamburger and fried egg over rice, smothered in a thick brown gravy. If that's not heavy enough for you, the dish comes with a requisite side of macaroni salad.

What to Do: Waikiki

After experiencing the laid-back wonders of Maui along the Road to Hana and up to Haleakala, I was expecting the attractions in Waikiki to be similarly relaxing. Wrong! Here, you need to get everywhere super early, or be prepared to fight the crowds. Our first inkling of this was at Diamond Head State Monument, where we hiked up the side of the famous crater, single file, along with hundreds of other tourists.

The hike was much tougher than I anticipated, as you're basically switchbacking upwards for half the trip, but we did manage to get up and down with the kids in about an hour and a half. Another reason to go early is to avoid the afternoon sun, as at some points during the hike there's no shade at all. The views from the top, however, are stunning.

We learned our lesson and got to Hanauma Bay much earlier the next day. The bay is famous for its rich snorkeling, but if you don't arrive by 7:30am, there may be no parking spots left. We bought all our snorkeling gear at an ABC convenience store near our hotel, which was cheaper than renting at the bay.

What we didn't do, but should've, was bring all of our beach gear, since the bay is basically a beautiful sandy beach with the added bonus of tons of colorful fish and coral in the water. The kids and I were satisfied to wade out a few feet and spot the stray fish here and there, but my husband swam out and said he saw literally hundreds of beautiful fish swimming right under him.

The kids were really interested in riding in a submarine, so I booked an excursion with Atlantis Adventures, which operates on both Oahu and Maui. The activity has its pros and cons. Pros: The crew is highly trained and very entertaining. The kids were given booklets that explained the science of submarines and diving, and it included a checklist that depicted all the sea creatures they might spot. You also have to take a boat out to the dive location, so the excursion includes a relaxing 10-minute boat ride. Cons: It is a very expensive activity (although I'm sure operating a submarine costs a lot). We saw plenty of fish and even a couple of turtles, but the water is murky and color is mostly lost at that depth, so it was kind of like viewing the ocean through a blue-and-white screen.

Snorkeling is a much more thrilling fish-watching experience. Still, the kids said they had fun and wished the excursion was longer, so I guess some of us had a better time than others.

What to Do: North Coast

My favorite activity in Oahu was the Polynesian Cultural Center, located in the North Coast (about 50 minutes from Honolulu). It's basically a theme park based on the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. The park is divided into six areas (Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti and Aotearoa), each featuring its own show and hands-on activities. We were at the park from opening to close, and in that time learned how to play the ukulele, throw a spear, dance the hula, fish with a bamboo pole, and start a fire in under a minute (really!).

Other activities that we fit in included a breathtaking 4D movie about Hawaii, a traditional Hawaiian luau, and an almost two-hour Broadway-quality production called Ha: Breath of Life that included singing, dancing and an amazing fire show. All in all, the trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center made for a long, fun day, and we learned a lot about Pacific Island life to boot.

At Turtle Bay, we booked a trail ride with the on-site stable, which is open to the public. It was lovely to ride our horses along the beach and through the grounds, even in the rain. My kids' horses were gentle and well-trained, and the 45 minutes went by too quickly. I also liked that the horses seemed healthy and well cared for. Several of them have even appeared in the movies and TV shows that get filmed here; we were told that my husband's horse, Tom, had a big role in the movie Open Range!

On our last day in the North Coast, we decided to do the smoothie tour at nearby Kahuku Farms. The tour is a half-hour, tractor-pulled wagon ride through a working farm, and you get smoothies made from the fruits grown on premises afterwards. It's informative and interesting (I'll never take bananas for granted again), and our tour guide couldn't be more amiable, but the activity is mainly geared toward adults, as there are no hands-on activities like fruit-picking or animal-petting involved. But the kids did enjoy turning cartwheels on the wide open field by the cafe area, where we ate the most delicious vegetable panini I've ever come across.

One place I had on our itinerary but we didn't get to visit on account of the rain is the Dole Plantation, located about halfway between Honolulu and the North Coast. Here you can take a pineapple train and plantation tour, wander through a pineapple garden maze, and taste the famous Dole whip that everyone's so obsessed with. Next time!

What's Nearby

We started off our Hawaii vacation in Maui, and it is truly beautiful there  probably what you're imagining when you think of Hawaii. The attractions are more natural and not so much built for the sake of luring tourists (although plenty of tourists visit them). We did a lot of driving, from the Road to Hana to the top of Haleakala, and it was all totally doable with kids. Here is my itinerary for that leg of the trip.

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