Beautiful beaches like Waikiki and the historical Pearl Harbor site are just two of the top Hawaii attractions on Oahu, Hawaii’s best known tourist destination.
Many first time visitors to Hawai’i equate it with Honolulu, and the island of Oahu with Waikiki. That’s a pity. While Waikiki Beach in Honolulu is a key attraction — certainly it’s the best central location to stay — O’ahu has so much more to offer. It wasn’t until we rented a car and explored the North Shore’s famous surfing beaches and parks that we came to appreciate the contrasting facets of this relatively compact, 504-square-mile island.
Living on Canada’s west coast, we’ve been fortunate to visit Oahu on many occasions and have compiled a list of our favorite activities, both for newcomers and returning families. I’ll also share our favorite family hotels.
Waikiki Beach for Sights & History
Of course, this is the place to encounter first. Immediately after checking into our hotel recently, my husband George, our son Sasha (11 at the time) and I were out the door and walking barefoot along Waikiki Beach. Stretching two miles from one end to the other, this happening, people-watching landmark actually consists of nine beaches.
Sasha was intrigued by the grove of surfboards — one of many up and down the beach, we later discovered — sticking up in the golden sand outside the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Ask one of the instructors for a surfing lesson, and they say you’ll be up on your board within 30 minutes. Naturally, kids are the quickest to learn. And don’t worry (too much!) about the waves, they’re fairly gentle here. You can also ride the crest of a wave in an outrigger canoe with one of the beachboys for about $10/hour.
Head west on Waikiki Beach and you pass the U.S. Army Museum of Hawai’i, an old gunnery fortress (free admission – cool exhibits.) Stop to watch the players at the adjacent public squash and volleyball courts, and then continue on to the beach fronting one of the country’s largest resorts, Hilton Hawaiian Village, where you can rent catamarans for a sail. It became a Hilton in 1961 and has thousands of rooms located on Waikiki’s widest stretch of beach in two towers on a 22-acre resort. The hotel prides itself on having classic Hawaiian hospitality, and families loves the five-acre lagoon which is open to both guests of the hotel and the general public.
You can spend another day with younger children at the east end of the beach, beyond the hotels, at the Queen Kapiolani Park, site of the morning Kodak Hula Show, then head to the Waikiki Aquarium which has a mahi mahi hatchery, outdoor touch tank and rare tropical fishes.
A quick detour across the road will bring you to the unusual Honolulu Zoo which showcases wildlife native to Hawai’i, a Galapagos tortoise breeding program, rare Asian birds and a children’s petting area in the only American zoo that originated from a king’s land grant.
Waikiki Dolphin Swim Programs
For a special treat, take the kids to enjoy a close-up dolphin encounter at Sea Life Park, a scenic 15-mile drive from Waikiki. Set atop 600-foot cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the park is home to a seabird sanctuary, penguin habitat, turtle lagoon, sea lion feeding pool, Hawai’ian Monk seal care center, the world’s only “wholphin” (a cross between a false killer whale and a dolphin), an excellent Hawai’ian reef exhibit showcasing sharks, moray eels and manta rays, a pirate ship maze and water play area.
But it’s the dolphins that steal your heart. If this is your O’ahu “must-do” then make a reservation prior to arrival by calling ahead. Allow half a day to enjoy the park, where kids under 4 may enter free. Check their website for current age restrictions and rates on the various Dolphin Encounter Programs, and bring a towel and bathing suit.
Don’t panic if this program is fully booked; The Kahala Hotel & Resort — actually a lovely, family-friendly property — also offers a dolphin encounter program in cooperation with Dolphin Quest, by reservation, at the resort.
Pearl Harbor & Diamond Head
Perhaps the most popular visitor attraction in Oahu (also spelled O’ahu in teh more Hawai’ian style), and certainly the most moving, is the Arizona Memorial (808/422-0561) at Pearl Harbor. The monument memorializes the 1,177 men wo died when their battleship USS Arizona sunk and burned in the nine-minute attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. A shuttle boat takes you to the memorial, which lies above the sunken battleship.
Afterwards, stop at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum next to the Arizona Memorial’s visitor center. A restored WW II submarine, the USS Bowfin contains interesting submarine-related artifacts guaranteed to delight the boys, both big and small, in your family. Also nearby is the USS Missouri battleship, which you can wander through.
Not too far from the Waikiki tourist strip soars Diamond Head, Honolulu’s iconic volcanic mountain. Hiking up the inside slope of its 760-foot crater wall is the perfect activity to do first thing in the morning, when the kids are up bright and early and the air is still relatively cool. A paved path makes the 3/4-mile hike fairly easy, but Stairmaster-like steps up the old WW II bunkers can be challenging for younger ones. Wear walking shoes, pack some water and bring a camera to snap the spectacular views overlooking Honolulu and Waikiki. (There are other scenic hikes through the tropical rain forest at Mount Tantalus.)
Authentic Hawaiian Cultural Attractions
The North Shore’s 1,800-acre Waimea Valley National Audubon Center park was converted in 2003 from a touristy Adventure Park to a quiet refuge for endangered flora and fauna, particularly birds, as this was a Audubon Center too for many years. The flashy shows and rides of Waimea Valley’s past gave way to self-guided walking tours, a Nature Center, and an ancient Hawaiian living site running guided cultural and historical tours. The world class botanical gerdens remain and this destination is gentle on both your nerves and your wallet, with children under 4 years welcomed free.
Don’t even think of missing the Polynesian Cultural Center. Visit here to learn more about the lives of the Polynesian peoples. Featuring eight mini-villages representing Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, Tahiti, Samoa, the Marquesas, Easter Island, and Hawai’i, the center is located in a beautifully-landscaped, 42-acre setting on the island’s north shore. You can see islanders re-enact ancient war dances, carve tiki figures, create cloth from bark and rub sticks to make fire, and hear their intriguing tales of ancient transoceanic navigation. Special activities in which kids participate include learning a Tongan dance, getting a painted tattoo at the Marquesas, and learning to crack open coconuts in Samoa.
Plan on spending the afternoon and evening at the center, which opens daily except Sunday. Afternoons, catch the canoe pageant in the lagoon, and for an air-conditioned break, watch a film at the IMAX theater. For dinner, try a luau complete with traditional roast pig and hula dances – it’s considered the island’s most authentic. The luau wraps up at dusk, leaving you time to watch the new “Ha: Breath of Life” evening show featuring Polynesia cultural tales about family and tradition, embellished with animation, music, dancing, fire-knife champions and fire walkers. Admission rates vary by age and what activities you want to try, so you might want to visit over two days. Transportation available from Waikiki hotels.
More on the North Shore
For a truly memorable day, rent a car and spend the day exploring O’ahu’s famous North Shore. You find quieter beaches here than Waikiki. In fact, as you drive north along the scenic highway on O’ahu’s east coast, you could mistakenly think you were on Maui, the Big Island or one of the other quieter Hawai’ian islands.
Eer heard of the Banzai Pipeline? It’s surfing’s biggest challenge and it’s located on the North Shore. In winter, the world’s best surfers (and lots of spectators) gather at Sunset and Waimea Beaches to ride waves reaching 30 feet. Stop to watch since three out of four kids will be fascinated. And don’t miss the funky old town of Hale’iwa, where you can get delicious, rainbow-flavored shaved ice at Matsumoto’s.
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