Oahu is the third largest Hawaiian island and its name means “the gathering place.” Family travel writer Margot Black recently visited, and shares her tips for planning a family-friendly trip to Waikiki in Oahu.
We stayed in Waikiki in the island’s capital city of Honolulu. Situated by the ocean, it was a great spot where we could relax and not have to dress for dinner, which also offered many ways to immerse in nature.
Waikiki Beach gets a lot of love and it gives back. There are two miles of sand to explore with beach volleyball nets and tennis courts on the beach itself, plus a variety of water sports to sign up for, including catamaran rides, paddle boarding, outrigger canoes, and surfing.
The area is full of high rise hotels, shopping malls, bars, and restaurants, so if your Hawaii fantasy is an isolated beach, then you might want to look for a spot that’s less populated.
Hilton Waikiki Beach
We based ourselves at the Hilton Waikiki Beach Hotel for three nights. Just two blocks from the ocean, it was a great place to land. The location was central, and we found it easy to walk to the beach, with everything else we might need in close proximity.
The staff at the Hilton were incredibly friendly, and we had a beautiful view of the legendary beach from our room. We enjoyed the free music in the lobby each evening, cocktails at the relaxed Hang 10 pool bar, and our son loved playing in the large pool. It also has a fully equipped gym.
What we truly loved about this hotel was the restaurant M.A.C 24/7 (the initials stand for Modern American Cuisine). It serves up supreme comfort food, and while this is most definitely not my regular travel strategy, the food was so good we ate almost every meal of our stay there.
It’s diner style and they have a fun ongoing Pancake Challenge, which we couldn’t do individually because the pancake mountain was almost the size of our table. The rules made us laugh; one person has 90 minutes to chow down three 140-inch pancakes (weighing around five pounds) topped with a choice of three toppings. You are not allowed to leave your seat the entire time. If you complete the challenge—and some have—your photo is placed on the website and the Wall of Fame. The three of us tucked in and we ate as much as we could, but we could have used six more people to help.
The M.A.C 24/7 menu also serves many other family favorites, including fried chicken and waffles, steak, pulled pork, beef stew, hot dogs, meatloaf, mac and cheese, and ribs. It’s simple, tasty food done really well. We really loved the steak and mashed potatoes.
Our waiter Todd also showed our son how to make a hat and a turkey out of napkin, so he was my son’s new hero. I know he’ll never forget how to do it—every guest who comes to our home now gets a demonstration, and that waiter will be forever remembered.
We tried to do as many free outdoor activities as we could, and Oahu was a really good place for that. However, for anyone thinking of visiting, having a rental car is a must. Nowhere on the island is too far away, but everywhere is tricky to get to if you don’t have your own wheels.
Kailua Beach Park
Located on the east side of the island, Kailua Beach Park has fine white sand and clear blue water. It’s an Instagram-worthy spot where you can also go swimming.
We also visited and loved nearby and stunning Lanikai Beach, which we almost thought was prettier, but we wound up hanging the better part of the time at Kailua because there are bathroom facilities and picnic tables, which just makes it a bit easier for families out for the day.
There is evidence to suggest that sunscreen can damage the coral reef, so instead of slathering ourselves in sun cream or a greasy oil spray, we wore super comfortable sunscreen clothing from Tuga Sunwear. Their outfits, which are fashionable, utilitarian, and fast-drying, have an SPF of 50 which made our water play safe for not just my family but also the coral reef.
Kualoa Private Nature Reserve
We visited the Kualoa Private Nature Reserve, which is touted as the world’s most famous private nature reserve. On tours, you can enjoy the view across the valley, which is the grassy open land where dinosaurs roam freely in the original Jurassic Park.
We were booked with Kualoa to go on a horseback tour into the Ka’a’awa Valley but I misread the rules and it didn’t happen because my son didn’t meet the height requirements.
The small print stated that kids had to be over ten years old, which my son is, but also over 4′ 6,” which he isn’t. Honestly, I thought he was, but he was measured by the staff just before heading toward the horses and discovered to be too short by barely half an inch. It’s always important to triple check and read the small print, especially if you are traveling with a variety of age groups.
We looked at taking another tour (they also offer bike tours, beach activities, and movie location tours) but everything was fully booked, so my other tip is always book well in advance.
However, in every family vacation a little disappointment must fall. You need to have a plan B and thankfully, we did.
The North Shore of Oahu
From there, we took off to the north shore of the island to find the beach where all the epic surfing competitions happen. We hung out watching the surfers and snorkelers and soaked up the sunshine.
We really enjoyed exploring the local food options. This part of Oahu is famous for the food trucks that line up along Kamehemeha Highway. You can find just about anything: pizza, donuts, Thai food, shrimp, and fruit bowls. You name it.
My son drank fresh juice out of a hollowed-out pineapple and we feasted on fish tacos at North Shore Tacos. It serves burritos, salads, nachos, and quesadillas, but we chose the fish tacos because the produce is locally caught and you can truly taste the ocean.
We also indulged in our first shaved ice, the famous Hawaiian dessert that is made from flavored ice and was a hit with our son. All in all, our plan B worked out pretty well.
Catamaran Sailing Trip
The next day, we drove 15 minutes from our hotel to join a two-and-a-half-hour Turtle Canyon Adventure Sail with Holokai Catamaran.
The crew, who are all PADI certified divers, were super capable and friendly, but it was memorable as the quickest payoff for nature of any tour I’ve ever been on. Within seven minutes of getting onto the catamaran, we were floating above so many turtles it took our breath away. I highly recommend getting on the water and snorkeling so you can experience nature firsthand. You might also be lucky enough to see octopus and sea urchins.
Back in Waikiki, we wandered around the beach area and shops. The town is bustling with color and you should see as much as you can. We also made sure to get a photo opportunity with one of the giant banyan trees downtown.
We dropped by The Royal Hawaiian Resort, which is colored pink and right on the oceanfront, so you can’t miss it (its nickname is the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”) and is one of the most famous hotels in the area. We ate a Fruit in da Coconut sorbet (try the coconut flavor!) in a very fancy lounge, which was a hoot and a treat.
We did a short hike on a place a local told us about called Judd Trail, which was no more than a quarter of a mile to a waterfall. This was super easy walking and super accessible with easy parking and not one complaint was uttered by anyone.
We hit the Nuuanu Pali Outlook on a very windy day, and the gusts of wind added to our enjoyment. We look like mad scientists in all our photos with hair blowing in the wind. There was a vast view of Oahu and easy access, easy parking, and it was free.
Tips for Visiting Oahu
It’s worth mentioning that Hawaii is known as the rainbow state for a reason. When we arrived at the start of our adventure, we bought a rainbow magnet and after that we saw a rainbow every day! It was magnificent, and it’s incredible to see them on an almost daily basis.
What we didn’t get to do was explore more of the island’s state parks. Click here to learn more about the different parks you can visit.
If you’re a history buff, you can also visit Pearl Harbor, which is just a 30-minute drive from Waikiki beach. Five historic sites comprise Pearl Harbor today: the USS Arizona Memorial, Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, USS Oklahoma Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
But whatever you do, renting a car if you are traveling as a family is essential as you simply can’t see enough of the island without one. Keep warm clothes and a change of beach clothes and towels in the trunk because one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll never be too far from the beach. Water exploration on this island is constant and irresistible! We didn’t find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but we certainly found plenty of gems in Oahu.
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Text and images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com