Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Oahu, Hawaii

Updated April 2022

We've now visited Oahu twice, both times as the second half of a longer Hawaiian vacation. Comparing it with the other islands, Oahu is like 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

Between our two trips, we've stayed at three hotels in two different parts of Oahu. In bustling Waikiki, we went with the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort the first time and the Embassy Suites by Hilton Waikiki Beach Walk the second. The hotels are next to each other and both are excellent  relatively well-priced, yet well-appointed, and the best part is that they're within walking distance of so much good food and shopping. We loved the free activities that Outrigger offered, like the lei-making class, and the bountiful complementary breakfast at Embassy. As a bonus, there's a great view of the Hilton Hawaiian Village's fireworks every Friday night from Outrigger's beach.

We've also stayed on the decidedly more tranquil and tropical North Coast of Oahu, 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, inari, and onigiri. Be prepared to wait on a line that snakes down the street and around the corner, but the wait didn't deter us, as evidenced by the fact that we ate there multiple times during our most recent trip. 

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. We also enjoyed the huge variety of musubi and onigiri at the low-key takeout spot, Musubi Cafe Iyasume.

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.

For a pricier and more serious meal, we got takeout from Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin one evening. Everything from the expensive specialty pork loin katsu to the omurice to the "melty" beef cheek stew to the Japanese spaghetti was incredibly tasty. There's always a huge line in front of the restaurant, and after inhaling our dinner, we could see why. 

Another evening we dined at the inventive Vietnamese restaurant, Piggy Smalls. They have two different kinds of pho on offer every evening and fun twists on Asian dishes like dumplings (filled with cheese curds) and summer rolls (wrapped with grilled sweet sausage). So much yumminess!

Of course, we also had a ton of shave ice while in Waikiki. Our favorite spot was right next door to our hotel, Lahaina Shave Ice. We probably would have eaten there more often if there weren't always a long wait to procure your huge mound of shave ice. We also tried the fresh-fruit version of shave ice at Ice Monster. It wasn't the traditional, totally artificial version, but it was tasty and interesting. My daughter got the shave ice version of bubble tea, complete with boba pearls.

Another dessert option is the decadent malasadas from Leonard's (there are five locations across Oahu). Malasadas are freshly fried, hot Portuguese donuts, filled with oozy options like chocolate, custard, or guava. In my book, they are up there with beignets as the best donuts in existence. 

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 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.

A much more relaxing hike about 20 minutes from Waikiki is the Manoa Falls trail. It's a relatively easy 1.7 mile total out-and-back that leads up to a tall waterfall ... which was unfortunately only flowing at a trickle during our visit. 

Still, the trail itself is a real gem: completely shaded and filled with singing birds and beautiful plants and trees. At some points, you feel like you're deep in the jungle, which is really cool.

Oahu's famous snorkeling spot, Hanauma Bay gets just as crowded as Diamond Head, which is probably why they recently instituted a timed-entry system where you have to reserve a spot online (and literally within the first two minutes after 7am two days prior to when you want to go  that's how fast the spots go!). The bay is popular for its rich snorkeling, but you can also go to just hang out on the beach. Pro tip: Buy your snorkeling gear at an ABC convenience store, which is 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. (There's no chair or umbrella rental, so bring your own.) 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 fish tend to hang out toward the left of the entrance and some will swim quite close to shore. 

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.

On our second trip to Oahu, we finally got to visit the Dole Plantation, located about halfway between Honolulu and the North Coast. Here you can take a train tour, wander through a pineapple garden maze, and taste the famous Dole whip that everyone's so obsessed with. Get there early (i.e., right when it opens) or be prepared to wait longer than worthwhile for the train tour! 

We enjoyed seeing the tiny pineapples sprouting from the plants, collecting stencils from each of the eight stations within the maze, watching a pineapple cutting demonstration (turns out I've been doing it wrong my whole life!), and, of course, eating dole whip (in two different formats). Other that that, however, I'd say only come here if you're really into commercial venues where the gift shop is the biggest attraction. It was an awesome gift shop, though, filled with everything from plush pineapples to pineapple themed clothing to pineapple flavored cotton candy and gummy bears.  

After getting our fill of all things pineapple, we drove about 15 minutes to the Waimea Falls trail. This is an easy, paved three-quarter mile walk one way, through what's basically a botanical garden, to get to the famous falls. At the bottom of the cascading water is a huge pool that you are allowed to swim in; in fact, there are attendants handing out life vests there, which you're required to wear. 

I'm not big on swimming and wasn't sure if I would get into the pool of water, but after the sunny walk to the falls, I was dying to jump in. And it was so much fun! We all had a blast swimming around in the natural pool and getting up close to the waterfall. I highly recommend this experience.

We also spent one morning at the massive Kuoloa Ranch on the North Coast. We'd booked a two-hour ATV tour that took us to the locations where they filmed various Jurassic Park movies, including the original. 

It was fun to drive our own vehicle, following the tour guide, but also super dusty! I couldn't believe the amount of dirt that wound up on our faces and clothes. Still, our guide was a great storyteller and we all had fun. The ranch also offers bus tours, horseback riding, ziplining, and all sorts of other activities. And the cafeteria on the premises sells legitimately good food. Try their loco moco, hamburger, or shrimp plate (plus, the Tahitian vanilla and Kona coffee ice cream sandwiches for dessert!). 

What's Nearby

We started off our first 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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