Waikiki Fun for All Kinds of Families
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It’s crazy to think that our family — which had visited Hawaii several times — had been to the jungles of Kauai, the volcanic fields of Hawaii and the warm sands of Maui but never made it to Oahu and Honolulu. On a recent trip, we finally had our first experience visiting Honolulu with kids, and are so happy we did.
The capital of Hawaii is the most developed city in the islands and can sometimes be overlooked by families looking for a quieter experience. While it spans 68 square miles and is home to more than 350,000 residents, Honolulu feels small in many ways. Yes, there are tall buildings plus world-renowned fashion and business headquarters — but there also is a Hawaiian charm no other city in the world possesses that makes Honolulu as magical as any big city could possibly be. Our time there convinced our family that Honolulu is a destination worth exploring again and again.
For us — a family of two dads and two teens — it’s also worth noting that Hawaii was one of the first states in the Union to honor LGBT unions. Marriage was legalized in 2013, although many same-sex couples have traveled to Hawaii for civil unions since long before that. Welcoming LGBTQ families has been a natural progression for this state, and our family has been traveling here for 17 years. Not once have we felt anything but 100% comfortable.
Fun Things to Do in Honolulu for Families
There are so many things to do in Honolulu with kids, we couldn’t get to them all. However, we did have the opportunity to put a dent in the list of cool experiences and are happy to share our favorites.
Snorkel With Sea Turtles
Docking at a pier just off the beach from the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the catamaran Spirit of Aloha was our vessel for this amazing voyage. It’s hard to believe there is such an enormous sea turtle colony living just off the Waikiki coast, but there is. Our able crew motored us out to sea and then dropped us with snorkels and fins over a treasure trove of turtles. The turtles gather at this special spot to allow fish to clean their shells and flippers, which can get gunky from parasites and barnacles. The fish enjoy eating this stuff, and the turtles benefit from a good buff and shine. For visitors, it’s a chance to swim with turtles in open water as they float, flip and rise to the surface for air.
After about an hour in the water, we scrambled back on deck for a delicious buffet lunch. As we enjoyed our food, the crew unfurled the sails and we set out under wind power to tour the Honolulu coastline. (Along the way we passed a sailboat with a sail the color of a giant rainbow, and knew we were in the right place.) As we passed the famous Waikiki beaches and neared Diamond Head, we spied several kohola — humpback whales — playing and breaching in the deeper waters.
Tickets start at $69 for kids 4–12 (free for kids 3 and under) and $129 for adults. Visit Hilton Hawaiian Villages Tours and Activities for more information.
Pedego Bike Tour
The thought of pedaling with kids on bicycles along Waikiki and up to Diamond Head seemed daunting, so we felt lucky to find Pedego Bike Tours in Downtown Honolulu. Pedego Waikiki features electric-powered bikes that give riders an extra push when needed. The bikes contain both pedal-assist and full throttle functions for maximum power and control. Solo bikes, bicycles built for two and bikes outfitted with child seats are all available for families of various sizes and abilities. Owned by a charming husband and wife team, Pedego Waikiki gave us a great way to explore the city.
On our roughly three-hour tour (well, it was more like four hours since we asked for so many photo opps), we rode all the way south toward Ala Moana Mall. Skirting the coastline along the way, we watched fisherman reel in their dinners and boats launch tourists for various day trips. The parks are aplenty, with many monuments to the brave and fallen from throughout Hawaii’s rich history.
From there we traversed Waikiki Beach to see the famous statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of international surfing. After a refreshing pineapple concoction and some photos, our guide Michael took us north to the lookout at Diamond Head. The highest spot you can reach by road, this lookout shows you views back toward Waikiki as well as a great chance to watch surfers tackle the waves below. Along the tour, Michael warmly asked me about my husband and our family. The whole experience was 100% gay-friendly, as we found to be the case in all of Honolulu that we experienced.
Visit Pedego Waikiki for details. Single-throttle bike rentals start at $16 per hour; a three-hour tour is $160 per person.
Selfies for Days
With two teen daughters, we live in a house full of selfies. Epic Aloha supplies the ideal backdrops for a barrage of photo opportunities. Created for maximum angles and opportunities, Epic Aloha is a virtual museum for selfies — we went wild. There are more than 6,000 square feet and 12 themed rooms, complete with backdrops and vignettes created by visual artists specifically for this Honolulu experience. As we toured, we took a dizzying number of photos of each other in a variety of poses.
One of our favorite spots was a giant pit filled with hundreds of clear plastic bottles meant to raise awareness for recycling and environmental sensitivity. The photos from this part of the exhibit show Ava literally drowning in plastic.
Another favorite of mine was the ukulele wall, an artistic arrangement of the instruments on a turquoise backdrop. Ava also posed in a cool blue room that was bedecked with mirrors and lights that lent a warped visual effect. The photos turned out great. It was fun to walk through all the options while hearing the laughter and squeals of other visitors, posing and snapping away themselves.
Luau Under the Stars
The only outdoor luau in Honolulu, Waikiki Starlight Luau is the right name for this great show. More intimate than other luaus we have attended, Waikiki Starlight Luau had a nice-sized crowd full of people of all ages. We noticed at least one other gay couple with kids, and several LGBTQ groups having a blast. Even the seniors got into the act, as guests were brought up onstage to learn the hula. At the beginning, I was asked to participate in a conch-blowing contest to see who could make the loudest noise. (I came in second and won another drink ticket.)
Although it had traditional Hawaiian foods like kalua pork, poi and a haupia (coconut) dessert, there were also many other dishes for the less adventurous. For some reason, Ava decided it was going to be a dinner of Tater Tots (I figured whatever, we’re on vacation). Some of us adults also enjoyed more than one of their wicked mai tai drinks, but it did not seem that anyone was over-served, giving the evening a fun but still family-friendly vibe.
The show itself was a range of dances and traditions from throughout Polynesia: Highlights were Hula from Hawaii, fire dancers from Tonga and a scary-looking spear dance of the Maori. Those dancers must have changed costumes at least a dozen times, and the whole thing was quite entertaining. The kids especially loved it, posing for photos with the dancers after the show.
Check Waikiki Starlight Luau for more information. Tickets start at $111 for adults and $71 for kids ages 4–11 (3 and under are free).
History at Pearl Harbor
One of the sights I was most interested in visiting was Pearl Harbor (and, no, not because of that Ben Affleck movie). My dad shipped through Pearl Harbor on his way to serve in World War II from Okinawa and the Philippines. Luckily he made it home, when so many other members of the armed forces at Pearl Harbor did not. It was sobering and emotional to view the sunken USS Arizona and the historical exhibits about the devastating attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Yet, it’s good for kids — and adults — to see what happened here. We’ve heard so much about it as the “day of infamy” in our history books, but seeing it in real life is an important lesson.
If you go, plan on staying several hours at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center because there is so much to see. A short film told the story in words and pictures, and explained some of the reasons behind the fateful attack. There is a museum that traces the story, including the attack and the years afterward of blackouts, gas masks and Japanese-American interments.
For an extra fee, we went aboard the USS Bowfin submarine. Climbing down below deck into the submerged sub gave us a glimpse into what life was like for these servicemen. It was incredibly cramped, mechanically dominated and very warm. The hatches are tiny and the torpedoes huge. What an experience it must have been to serve on these early submarines during this difficult war.
Other tours with additional cost include a shuttle to go aboard the USS Missouri. We did not have time to do this, but would have liked to see it too. Unfortunately, the USS Arizona Memorial is closed through late 2019 for repairs.
Tickets to visit Pearl Harbor are free, and they are very strict about timing. If you do not pick up your tickets at least 30 minutes in advance of your assigned time slot, they will give them to walk-up visitors waiting for a spot.
Oysters and Pearls
One fun thing we have never experienced — until now — was an oyster-shucking for pearls experience. Oysters are grown in farms just off the Pearl Harbor area, seeded for pearls and then harvested to make jewelry.
At the stand we visited — Maui Divers at Pearl Harbor — oysters were waiting in giant clam shells filled with seawater for customers to “Pick a Pearl.” For $14.95, patrons were encouraged to choose an oyster to open (the hairier and uglier the better, we were told). Our very nice salesperson Vanessa then shucked the oyster to reveal the pearl inside. Ava’s oyster gave up a creamy pink pearl, while Sophia’s was an iridescent black. For an additional cost, we purchased mountings for the pearls to create jewelry — one ring and one necklace. A third oyster elicited a double surprise, with twin lavender/black pearls inside. These were promptly mounted into stud earrings. All in all, the bill came to more than $200 with some “discounts” thrown in, but it was worth it. How often can you say your keepsake of a trip to Honolulu was pearl jewelry from an oyster you picked yourself?
Our experience was located within the confines of Pearl Harbor, but there are several other locations with this experience at locations across Honolulu. A quick Google search will likely reveal a spot near you.
Where to Stay
Hilton Hawaiian Village: Located at the beginning of Waikiki Beach, the Hilton Hawaiian Village is a complex of various buildings and hotel accommodations to fit various tastes and pocketbooks. We stayed in the Ali’i Tower with an ocean view, while friends were scattered among the other accommodations. Everyone was happy with their location, and the village’s size allowed for many cool shared experiences. A retail center and great restaurant choices are located within the village, as well as numerous pools, activities, crafts, games and even a swimming lagoon. Rooms begin at $235/night, or from 60,000 Hilton Honors points. (Here are ways to quickly rack up Hilton Honors points.)
Royal Hawaiian Hotel: One of the first two significant hotels built on Waikiki Beach, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is painted a recognizable pink. Opened in 1927, it’s a luxurious hotel with oceanfront rooms and an expansive pool. High-touch service can be expected here, along with rates that you might expect for an historic, five-star experience. Rooms at the Royal Hawaiian (a Marriott Category 7 property) start at $365/night or from 60,000 Marriott points.
Kahala Hotel & Resort : Located in Kahala on the other side of Diamond Head from Waikiki, the Kahala Hotel & Resort is quieter than the bustle of downtown Honolulu. About a 15-minute drive from the action of the city, this hotel is located beachfront and offers a few very cool experiences. Near the oceanfront swimming pool there is a giant outdoor pool that is home to at least six dolphins. When we visited, it was feeding time and the dolphins were very active — we got to see them jump out of the water, swim upside down and playfully wrestle with each other.
If you stay here, I would highly suggest you rent a car since a taxi ride from the airport could cost upward of $75. Room rates at the Kahala Hotel & Resort begin at $383/night.
How to Get There
Many airlines offer direct flights to Honolulu from the US mainland, including American, Delta, United, Alaska, Hawaiian and now even Southwest. From the West Coast, it’s about a 5.5-hour nonstop flight from all the major cities.
We chose to fly on Alaska Airlines, and used points from two different fixed-value credit card programs to purchase our tickets. For example, we booked one of the seats using about 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months from the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Another great approach when flying Alaska is to use the companion fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) available with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card.
Here’s Mommy Points’ take on the best way to fly to Hawaii with kids and the best transfer partners for booking flights to Hawaii. If you’re not sure when to visit the islands, these are the best times to visit Hawaii. If you want to island hop, here are some tips for that, too.
You can’t go wrong with a Hawaiian vacation and Oahu welcomed our family with open arms. We enjoyed idyllic weather during our trip, but here are a few activities to enjoy in Honolulu on a rainy day, just in case.