sometimes the universe hands you craziness and sometimes the universe hands you last-minute work trips to paradise that you must piggyback with a family vacation. so it was last fall. with about one month’s notice, we drained our reward points for flights, pulled the kids out of school for a week (don’t judge me brah) and experienced the wonders of hawaii.
seeing as how winter just gave us a pile of lame icy snow, i figure it is a nice time to revisit our magical trip to the land of aloha this past fall.
people on various local travel forums advised it was a waste of time to spend fewer than 10 days in hawaii especially because of the time change and long flights from the east coast, but we spent 5 nights (with a 6th on a redeye flight) and maximized the heck out of that time. even with the miserable redeye trip home with 2 kids who couldn’t get comfortable, i have #noragrats.
we split our time between waikiki and the north shore on the island of oahu. this allowed us to experience both the hustle & bustle of the tourist epicenter of waikiki beach and also the more laidback, rural, jurassic park atmosphere of the north shore. (really, they filmed jurassic park on the north shore, who knew.)
now obviously this is not an exhaustive list of possible places to go or things to do, but these were the hits, and mostly i am just recounting them so i can relive the fun… (also recently i’ve been planning for other future trips, and i’ve realized that blog travel reports from real people–especially real parents–are gold. so if you are planning a family trip to oahu anytime soon, this might spark some ideas.)
hyatt place waikiki beach: top bang-for-your-buck hotel
waikiki hotels can really run the gamut from seedy grody looking places to high rise luxury. what i was looking for was a mid-range family-friendly spot within walking distance of the beach that would NOT be $300+ per night. hyatt place was perfect. just a couple blocks from the beach, an abc store next door (we stopped by for bottles of water and chocolate covered macademia nuts), free plentiful breakfast included (with american fare and miso soup, japanese pickles and even kimchi, my korean soul thanks you), nice clean modern rooms and decent pricing (i wouldn’t call it a steal but it was in the low 200s/night when a lot of other mid-range hotels i found were in the high 200s or 300s/night without free breakfast). valet parking was the only parking and it was a bit pricey, but that’s standard at the hotels in waikiki. and there was no hidden resort fee as some hotels have started charging to cover for low-sounding rates (pro tip: check the fine print). in short, i definitely would stay here again.
kuhio beach: perfect for kids
“waikiki beach” actually has several sections, all of which are actually pretty small but known for different things, and as luck had it, we ended up in kuhio beach–arguably the most little-kid-friendly section of waikiki. because of a wall not too far from shore that blocks the waves, this section of water is very calm. in other words, there isn’t any surfing or bodyboarding in this little section of beach which makes for perfect floating and wading, especially for little ones.
ono seafood: fresh, tasty and cheap poke
with almost 2,000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating on yelp, i figured if we were going to have poke (pronounced poe-keh), this was the place to go. it was amazing! ono seafood is a hole-in-the-wall, cheap, quick takeout place that offers deliciousness with punchy flavors. for less than $10, you can get a pile of rice and delicious cubes of ahi tuna or tako octopus seasoned in your choice of asian flavors and a drink on the side. not bad, not bad at all…. the only warning i would give is that even the shoyu option which didn’t sound spicy ended up being a little spicy. which is great if you like some spice, but not so great if you’re sensitive to it (like our kids). the only other warning i would give is that there are only two or three parking spots out front and only one little picnic table outside, but we had no trouble parking on the street around the corner, picked up more food at a restaurant across the street and took everything back to our hotel to eat in the open-air lobby.
aloha stadium swap meet: affordable souvenirs
apparently a lot of international visitors like to shop at high-end designer shops in waikiki so there are a lot of expensive stores on the main drag near the beach. for the rest of us looking for hawaiian and asian tchotchkes and bargains, i recommend the aloha stadium swap meet. on certain days of the week at certain times (check the website), you can drive in for $1/person to find vendors in endless stalls of souvenirs, hawaiian shirts, beach dresses, swimsuits, ukeleles, coffee beans and more, and the prices are good and low. you should aim to arrive early to get in easily and secure a parking spot. and just fyi, there were a lot of coffee stalls but i found most of it underwhelming (thankfully, they offer samples before you buy so you can make your own judgment) except for hawaii’s local buzz coffee, which was great. while there is a lot of the same stuff (and honestly a lot of junky stuff) from stall to stall, there are some great cheap souvenir finds and some great gems to be found… like this cute totoro backpack for $16!
island vintage shave ice: literally the best
THE BEST SHAVE ICE EVER EVER EVER. i may not be a shave ice expert but i know when something tastes really damgood. skip the other hyped places and just go to island vintage shave ice everyday twice a day. it was a bit hard to find because the front is facing away from the street, but man oh man, it is amazing. their fruit syrups are clearly made with real fruit, the mochi pieces are handmade, the ice is a pillowy consistency, there’s froyo/soft serve in the middle, and the flavor combos are on point. other places may be cheaper and have bigger mounds of ice but they also use those really artificial-looking and tasting syrups and this just holds no comparison. if for some reason you can’t get here, wherever you go, i recommend saying yes to the ice cream in the middle, condensed milk, mochi and azuki beans.
north shore picks:
north shore surf girls: awesome surf lessons for kids and adults
one simply cannot visit the north shore of oahu and NOT go surfing. home to the banzai pipeline and the little beach town haleiwa, it’s a thing here. it was my one thing i had to do. so after reading reviews and finding a highly rated woman-led outfit i signed up my daughter and myself for group lessons with north shore surf girls. our lessons took place at chun’s reef, a place with calm waves and beautiful surroundings without being too crowded. it was amazing, exhausting, beautiful, fun, crazy. our instructors were super kind and especially good with my daughter. she rocked it. i couldn’t believe my eyes watching this kid ride wave after wave. meanwhile i crashed and burned and crashed and burned. literally my arms were burning. the hardest part was not balancing on the board but fighting the waves to paddle out. i did manage to get up 2.5 times, considered that a win, and then called it quits, paddled for what seemed like forever to the shore, collapsed on the sand out of breath and said i’d never do it again. (still, i firmly believe everyone should do this at least once.)
laniakea beach: say hi to the sea turtles
just a bit north of haleiwa (and right near next to chun’s reef), there’s a well-known sea turtle hangout at lanieakea beach. it’s not marked, but there tends to be a horde of cars parked across the street and lots of people standing around the beach. while we didn’t see any sea turtles up on the sand, we did see a few of them swimming and getting tossed around the waves, living the life. the crazy thing is… when i was dying of paddling back to shore from surfing, apparently i paddled right by one of these guys. a woman on the shore was pointing wildly to a spot right in front of me saying “look at the sea turtle!!” but i couldn’t see it because of the glare of the sun on the water and because of the dizzying exhaustion.
waimea valley: swim under a waterfall!
in the spirit of continued bucket-listing, i found out about this botanic garden tucked in a valley that has a little waterfall and offers the opportunity to swim. waimea valley is, oddly enough, a converted ex-amusement park. but the best part is the waterfall. even the little ones can do the waterfall swim because they make everyone wear a life jacket and life guards are onsite, so it feels like a very safe, controlled adventure–perfect for young ones and nervous parents. the .75-mile walk through the garden was interesting too. we learned the big beautiful trees we kept seeing were monkeypod trees and we saw lots of pretty flowers and cool plants we don’t have at home. if you decide to go, there’s an admission fee to get in and you will want to check to make sure the waterfall is open (the first day we tried, it was closed for a movie shoot) and don’t forget your swimsuit and towels.
camaron food truck: garlic shrimp with a twist
while checking out the north shore, the other must-do is to eat garlic shrimp out of a food truck. there are many of them. giovanni’s might be the most famous one and the standard-bearer, but after trying both, i think camaron is better. located in the thick of haleiwa’s cute little shops, it’s a great pick for post-surfing. what sets the camaron truck apart from the others is their thick luscious cream sauce. it’s not the “traditional” style of of shrimp being fried with a metric crap ton of minced garlic, but it is really very good. and still very garlicky. there are a few umbrellaed picnic tables in front of the truck AND–#winning–you can use your credit card to pay for your meal. i also appreciate that they put vegetables on the plate. most of the hawaiian-style places we visited would load you up with scoops of white rice and macaroni salad, so the glimpse of fresh veggies was a sight for sore eyes…
polynesian cultural center: like an immersive Moana experience
perhaps one of oahu’s biggest tourist traps, the polynesian cultural center is basically a living museum. now that moana is out, i think of it as a moana immersion experience and i mean that in a good way. while it is indeed very tourist trappy, i still think it’s a worthwhile place to spend a day. it’s educational and entertaining and provides a lot of information on cultures you don’t often have a chance to learn about. they have a lot for the kids too, from learning a hula dance to playing games to weaving palm leaves into hats and fishes. if the kids get their “passport” stamped enough, they can also get a little prize at one of the shops outside the gate.
tickets are expensive and vary based on whether you want to stay for the luau, have dinner, watch a show and other things. if you are DoD, i highly recommend stopping by one of the mwr offices in honolulu to get significantly discounted tickets. if you don’t know what that means, i highly recommend at a minimum buying your tickets online in advance (save 10% when you book 10 days in advance). you can also look into getting an entertainment book coupon. we did a package that included a luau and the evening show. i liked the luau, which included a fresh flower lei, buffet food and some fire-throwing and audience dancing. we also paid a little extra once we got there for a smoothie in a cut-out pineapple, because why not. the show looked like it would be great too but we didn’t last more than 20 minutes because, exhaustion. it was a long day and i think staying awake through the show was too high of an expectation. thankfully, we stayed at the hotel right across from the parking lot of the center which made getting to bed easy.
so that about sums up the top highlights. there were some things we didn’t get to do, because of limitations with time (i would have liked to snorkel at hanauma bay) and limitations with patience (there’s no way we were taking the kids to pearl harbor)… but in all, it was an amazing trip. we did so many fun things, and people were so friendly to us. maybe it’s because i’m asian american, maybe it’s because the kids are hapa, but people often asked if we were locals and everyone we encountered was so nice to our kids. (one person even gave us a locals discount at a shop even though we told her we were mainlanders…”well, your kids are cute so i’ll give you the discount anyway”)
we live pretty far, but one day we will go back and do more, see other islands, stay longer, eat more spam and eggs…