Hawaii and COVID-19
As I write this post about things to do in Oahu, Maui’s mayor has asked for reduced tourist numbers and Hawaii’s governor has asked people not to visit until the COVID situation is far better. So please bookmark this for future travel. We booked our latest trip in early July 2021 when COVID numbers were looking really good, but by the time we visited in mid-August hospitals were full. We would not travel to Hawaii right now.
As far as what Hawaii was like, there was a mask mandate for indoor areas, restaurants were at 50% capacity (I talk about how difficult it was to get reservations below), and maybe 1/3 of people were wearing masks walking around outside. The Outrigger Waikiki enforced mask wearing in the public areas of the hotel, there was hand sanitizer everywhere, and they had signage about their cleanliness protocols – in partnership with Ecolab.
Hawaii with Kids
I’ve taken my kids to Oahu now three times the past five years. My wife and I got married on the Big Island and returned for many years with our kids, and the Big Island remains my favorite Hawaiian island, but whenever I give my kids the choice of where to go, they choose Oahu. My best guess why?
- They like Waikiki, with its ABC Stores on every corner, multiple shave ice options, a perfect beach, and honestly, its touristy feel.
- They like not being in the car all the time. On the Big Island, if we want to escape from our resort, it’s a decent drive to go anywhere. On Oahu we don’t even need to rent a car (see below).
- They like the independence. While our kids have always been independent exploring resorts, they really enjoy being free to wander Waikiki on their own, and walking back to the hotel by themselves if it’s taking me a while to pay a dinner bill – or if I want to walk back on the beach and enjoy the sunset – and they’d rather be back in the room.
Rental Cars on Oahu
Our first two trips we rented cars at the airport, but then we didn’t use them a lot, maybe driving around the island once per trip but otherwise leaving the cars in the hotel parking garages – and paying to do so. On our most recent trip, because of the extremely high rental car prices, we skipped renting a car and had no regrets. We booked airport transfers in advance ($35 each way through Honolulu Airport Transfer), we hired a guide for a day to drive us around the island and we used Uber to get around, and we spent half what a basic car and hotel parking would have cost us. Even when the rental car situation returns to normal, ask yourself whether you really need a car. If your kids are going to want to be at the beach every day and they enjoy Waikiki, maybe you can get by without one.
Things to Do in Oahu
This list is by no means exhaustive – you only get to write a “Definitive Guide to Oahu” if you’ve lived there for several years. But hopefully this gives you a starting point for planning a trip to Oahu. Our favorite things to do in Oahu (or is it on Oahu?):
The Bishop Museum
The Bishop Museum is a 15-minute drive from Waikiki, and a visit should be mandatory for all visitors to Hawaii. With the largest collection of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultural artifacts in the world, it puts your island visit in perspective. Learn about Hawaii’s history and how the islands were essentially stolen by the United States, and dive into the culture. Also check out its temporary exhibits. In 2021 there’s a spectacular exhibit on urban art with a Hawaiian twist – Pow Wow Hawaii. It really is an extraordinary museum.
We’ve gone parasailing three times now with Hawaiian Parasail and the kids love it. The boat ride out is only five minutes or so, and then every group on your boat gets an 8 or 10-minute flight and you return to the marina – fast and fun. The kids especially love when they drop down to the water and then go back up. I’d recommend the 10-minute flight – you fly higher, and as long as you’re out there you may as well make it last as long as possible.
There are multiple companies. Hawaiian Parasail gives us a returning guest discount so we keep going back to them. Their photos that they sell at the end of the ride for $30 are hit-and-miss depending on the photographer. Our last trip the photos were terrible – literally no vertical photos showing both us up close and the parachute behind us – and when I wrote to them to tell them how bad the pictures were, they never wrote back. They’re reliable and safe but the customer service is lacking.
A Hike up Diamond Head
The Diamond Head hike is iconic – one of the best things to do in Oahu, at least once. We woke up early, ate breakfast at 6:30am and drove the 12 minutes over to Diamond Head State Monument to hike the volcano. We were barely able to get a parking space, so you may want to head over even earlier. The hike is fairly easy, even with young kids and even with two sets of steep stairs. We reached the top in half an hour and spent 15 minutes at the top before hiking down. Definitely go early – we didn’t need sunscreen and much of the path was shaded, which isn’t the case later in the day.
Waikiki Beach is crowded but the sand is perfect and the water is warm. We played frisbee almost every morning after breakfast, before the lounge chairs were set up, and purchased cheap $3.97 tubes from the ABC Store and took them out several days. So much fun riding the waves!
The North Shore
Oahu’s famous North Shore is a 17-mile stretch of coastline, including 51 beaches. It’s a surf spot in the winter – otherwise go and enjoy the beach, the fruit stands, food stands and the small town of Haleiwa.
Waimea Gardens and Waterfall
On the North Shore, Waimea Valley is a large garden, much of it shaded, with a path leading to a waterfall. At the waterfall you can wade in (life vests required – they provide them) and swim to the fall. The kids loved it. Adults are $20, kids are $12 (as of 2021).
Three years ago we drove to Kualoa Ranch and spent a day doing their Secret Island Beach Activities (in the morning) and the Jurassic Jungle Expedition Tour (in the afternoon). Both were fun, but the ranch is more known for its ATV and horseback tours, so we wanted to do that this trip. I tried to book a week in advance and…discovered they were sold out six weeks in advance! Add Kualoa Ranch to your list of things to do in Oahu, but be aware that it can’t be a last-minute decision. Next time we’ll book a Kualoa Ranch ATV tour literally as soon as we have our flights.
Waikiki Aquarium and Diamond Head Luau
Yes, luaus are touristy, but my kids love them! The Diamond Head Luau is currently closed due to the pandemic but hopefully it will reopen soon. It has the best food we’ve found at a luau (it’s all farm to table), it’s only a 15-minute walk from the center of Waikiki, and it includes admittance to the Waikiki Aquarium.
The Kaiwi Shoreline Trail
We enjoyed the Kaiwi Shoreline Trail. The path itself is wide and paved, so not very interesting, but the higher up you go the better the view. Wear sunscreen and bring water since it’s hot and there’s very little shade. FYI, it took us roughly an hour to walk from the parking lot to the top and back, including a few slight detours for photos.
Drive Around the Island (or Book a Tour)
Oahu’s fairly small and it’s easy to see a lot – including many of the things I list above – in a one-day circle of the island. Just rent a car for a day, or even better do what we did this most recent trip and book a full-day private island tour that can be customized for you and your family. I booked through Custom Island Tours based solely on their TripAdvisor reviews and we loved it. Lei, our guide, told us all about Hawaiian history and legends, and about her family history as well. She took us to the major tourist sites, but also to hikes and beaches and all around the North Shore, and we stopped frequently at roadside stands for local specialties. She also found sea turtles for us, and we finished the day at Shimazu Store with the best shave ice we’ve ever had. Honestly this was so much better than when we’ve driven around Oahu by ourselves, and it was worth the $500 cost. Note: we booked the 8-hour tour, but it was actually closer to 9.5 hours since Lei wanted to show us more, we hit a little traffic, and we were in no hurry to get back to the hotel.
Hit the Water
OluKai (makers of my favorite shoes) arranged a trip out on their traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe for us. We LOVED the experience! I almost didn’t include it here, since it’s not otherwise bookable, but there are a lot of canoe and catamaran excursions available on Oahu, from private trips to large groups. We saw them heading out constantly from Waikiki Beach. Just Google what you’re interested in, or talk to your hotel’s concierge.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the negative side of tourism in Hawaii, from increased traffic to water usage to damage caused by disrespectful tourists to cultural appropriation. So do your part to leave Hawaii better than when you arrived. There are a lot of ways to volunteer, but the easiest place to start is with the state’s Malama Hawaii program. And you can even get a free night at Malama Hawaii’s hotel partners when you volunteer, so it’s truly a win-win.
Where to Stay on Oahu (Our Favorite Hotels)
We’ve stayed at three hotels our last three trips and I’d recommend them all.
Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort
I love the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort since it’s in the middle of everything, the view from the beach front rooms can’t be beat, the beach in front of the hotel is perfect, and it’s the first hotel I stayed at on Oahu back in 1980 with my family. Plus it has two of the island’s best restaurants, Duke’s Waikiki and Hula Grill. The service was excellent – our room was ready when we arrived (several hours before the official check-in time) and there were never lines at the front desk. COVID protocols were enforced.
The Moana Surfrider is next to the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort so you have the same amazing beach literally right there, and it’s the classic historic Waikiki hotel, opening in 1901 (I’m a sucker for iconic hotels). Everything was perfect, except that it took hours for our room to be ready when we arrived – there was chaos in the lobby as it was past 4pm and a lot of people were still waiting for their rooms. Maybe unfair to knock it to second place for that, but the check-in experience was the opposite at Outrigger, so we’ll book the Outrigger again next time.
Holiday Inn Express Waikiki
The Holiday Inn Express Waikiki is several blocks from the beach, but the service is excellent, the parking is the best that we’ve had at any Hawaii hotel (self-parking with an elevator straight to the rooms), and it’s a lot cheaper than the beachfront hotels. Plus it includes breakfast. A great option if you’re mainly going to be exploring Oahu, or heading to North Shore beaches, and can go without a room on Waikiki Beach.
Restaurants in Waikiki
With reduced capacity this year, restaurant reservations are hard to come by. I booked all of our dinners (except one) six weeks in advance, and even then I was limited to 5:30 and 5:45 reservations. We ate dinner at Morimoto Asia, Roy’s Waikiki, Eating House 1849, Tommy Bahama and Hula Grill (twice). Our only lunch reservation was at Duke’s Waikiki, since we were unable to get a dinner booking there. All meals were excellent. Tommy Bahama is always far better than a restaurant above a clothing store should be! The one night we didn’t have a dinner booking I picked up a pizza from Giovanni Pastrami (I got a discount because I mentioned that we were at the Outrigger Waikiki) and brought it back to the room.
For breakfast every morning I walked next door to Honolulu Coffee at the Moana Surfrider. Everyone has a favorite coffee place in Honolulu, and I love Honolulu Coffee – based on the coffee, the pastry selection and the location. I typically got bagels, croissants, muffins and breakfast sandwiches and took them back to the room, where we dined on the balcony.
Things to Do in Oahu (With or Without Kids) – Your Turn
As I said at the beginning, this isn’t an ultimate or definitive guide of things to do in Oahu – it’s simply what we’ve fit into three trips with kids who love the beach and Waikiki and don’t want to be in the car a lot. What have you done on Oahu, with or without kids, that you would recommend to everyone visiting? What’s your all-time favorite thing to do in Hawaii? And what island is your favorite?