Wildly popular with tourists, Honolulu and Waikiki have a family-friendly side - if you know where to look.
If you want to experience a vacation with an international flare but stay in the United States, then head to Honolulu. Of course, you won’t be alone. This city is a mecca for travelers from Asia, Australia, and Europe. The city has world-class (read: expensive) shopping, highly-rated hotels, and an incredible culinary scene that rivals any major city. Oh, and it just happens to sit on one of the most popular beaches in the world: Waikiki. There’s so much to see and do in Honolulu that you’ll need a spreadsheet to keep it all straight… or just follow our kid-tested suggestions.
Photo courtesy: Tor Johnson
Where to stay?
From the historic Royal Hawaiian Hotel to the Halekulani, you certainly can find high-end luxury along Waikiki. But with so much to do in the area, you may not want to drop a ton of money on resort accommodations.
Instead go a block or two away from the beach (and all the traffic) to find more budget-friendly options. Recently renovated, Courtyard Waikiki Beach (400 Royal Hawaiian Ave.) fit my family’s needs well. In addition to standard rooms, the hotel also offers 99 suites, starting at $269/night. We stayed in a one-bedroom suite with a queen-sized sofa bed for the kids. It had a nice wet bar area, complete with a mini fridge, microwave, and sink. Your kids are sure to love the pool. You can jump in with them or grab a drink at the bar that overlooks the pool and watch the kids splash away. Located two blocks from Waikiki Beach, major shopping, and dining, this location can’t be beat.
KidTripster Tip: You’ll likely pay some hefty, daily resort fees at the high-end properties on Waikiki Beach. However, the Courtyard Waikiki Beach doesn’t charge a fee.
If you’re on a tighter budget, head to the Aqua Aloha Surf Hotel (444 Kanekapolei St.). Rooms at this hotel can start as low as $99/night or $169/night for a one-bedroom suite. I’ll be honest: you get what you pay for at this hotel. The rooms are older and basic. However, our one-bedroom suite did have a mini fridge, microwave, and sink area, as well as bowls, plates, and utensils which we utilized for breakfast. The hotel has a small pool, but with Waikiki Beach just a 5-minute walk away, you won’t spend much time there. This hotel is scheduled to undergo a major renovation in the next year, so prices could go up once that work is finished.
Photo courtesy: Courtyard Waikiki Beach
What to do?
From hiking Diamond Head, surfing and swimming at Waikiki Beach, shopping at luxury retail stores, and visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, the list of things to do in Honolulu seems endless!
Since my kids are 5- and 9-years old, we started our stay with a visit to the Waikiki Aquarium (2777 Kalakauu Ave.) and Honolulu Zoo (151 Kapahulu Ave.). The attractions are about a 5-minute drive or 15-minute walk from each other, so they’re very easy to visit on the same day. My 5-year old loved the aquarium. It’s small, hands-on, and easy to navigate. But my 9-year old was less impressed, so keep that in mind if you have older children. Cost: Youth (4-12) $5; Adult: $12.
Both my kids loved the zoo! I must admit that I generally don’t like zoos, but this park-like setting is impressive. The monkeys are a must-see. They swing on ropes on island play areas that aren’t enclosed by a cage but instead surrounded by a moat. It’s really something to see and experience. The zoo also has an elephant exhibit that my kids enjoyed. The sidewalks are wide, so you never feel crowded while you’re walking around. There’s a massive green space in the middle of the zoo where we saw many families enjoying picnics under the big Banyan trees. If your kids like animals, a visit to the zoo should be on your list. Cost: Youth (3-12) $6; Adult $14.
Of course, it’s not a trip to Honolulu until you experience world-famous Waikiki Beach. This beach is made up of eight different sections. Our favorite part is known as Prince Kuhio Beach. This beach is protected by “The Wall.” This U-shaped rock wall was built in 1951 as part of a beach improvement project. It creates an extremely safe place for kids to swim, bodyboard, and snorkel in the crystal clear water. This area is busy, but my kids didn’t care.
Ever since our last trip to Hawaii, my 9-year old has been begging for a surf lesson. On this trip, the Ty Gurney Surf School (205 Lewers St.) made his dream come true. The folks here were great and answered all my worried-mom questions before I even booked the lesson. My 9-year old’s instructor was Joey, a bit of a local surfing legend. Joey was encouraging, kind, and motivating. The lesson was supposed to last one hour, but my son was getting a little overwhelmed with being that far out in the ocean (especially after he saw a big fish), so Joey brought him in about ten minutes early to make sure that he enjoyed the lesson and didn’t get turned off to the sport. I completely agreed with the decision and appreciated that Joey had the insight to know this about my child. 1-hour private lesson cost: $110; 1-hour semi-private lesson cost: $85.
One place that I was hesitant to take my kids was Iolani Palace (364 S. King St.), the only palace in the United States and home to the last reigning king and queen of Hawaii. To be honest, I wanted to tour the palace, so I decided that the kids were just going to have to come along for the ride. To my surprise, my kids loved this tour! My 9-year old talked about it for the remainder of our vacation, and my 5-year old liked seeing a real “castle.” If you go, take a guided tour; it’s worth getting a history lesson about the palace, as well as the state of Hawaii. Group-led tour cost: Youth (5-12) $6; Adult $21.75; self-guided audio tour cost: Youth $6; Adult $14.75.
KidTripster Tip: When you visit Iolani Palace, go on a Friday and take a morning tour that ends before noon. Each Friday, the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra plays a free concert on the palace grounds under a huge Banyan tree. Locals and tourists alike bring picnic lunches and enjoy the show.
Iconic Diamond Head looms majestically over Waikiki. Diamond Head is probably the most recognized landmark in the state of Hawaii. It was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1968. You can hike the trail to the top for pretty fantastic views. A few things to know: parking fills up quickly, so go early! (We arrived at 8 a.m. and found one of the last spots.) You can start hiking at 6 a.m. There are restrooms, water fountains, and food and beverage vendors at the bottom of the trail. Bring water; it’s a steep hike with the Hawaiian sun beating down on you for a good chunk of the time. If you are in reasonably good shape, this hike won’t be difficult. Both of my kids were able to do it. The hike is almost one mile to the summit, but the views are worth the effort!
When people think of Honolulu, they usually think of Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona. The memorial is on the outskirts of West Honolulu, so we didn’t visit until we were staying on the west side of the island. For more on visiting Pearl Harbor, click here.
Photo courtesy: Ty Gurney Surf School
More to do
Get up early one morning and drive to Hanauma Bay. In 1967, Hanauma Bay was declared a protected marine life conservation area and underwater park, making it one of the best places to snorkel and view marine life on the island. The curvature of the bay usually gives protection from large ocean waves, so it’s a great beach for younger kids. Both my boys had a blast snorkeling here. The water isn’t very deep inside the reef, so I was able to stand right next to my 5-year old while he snorkeled, just in case he got tired.
KidTripster Tip: The staff closes down the entrance to the park when the parking lot is full, so arrive early; I’d suggest getting there before 9 a.m. Park entrance fee: Youth (12 & under) Free; Other $7.50; Parking cost: $1. If you arrive and the parking lot is closed, don’t worry. The beach is still open. You’ll just have to park about a half mile away in a residential area and then hike back to the park entrance.
KidTripster Tip: If you don’t have your own snorkeling gear, you can rent here.
After a morning at Hanauma Bay, drive a little farther north to Sea Life Park. It’s a marine mammal park, bird sanctuary, and aquarium in Waimanalo near Makapu’u Point. This small park is located in one of the most beautiful spots on the island. When you look at the view from the park, you’ll think that you’re on a movie set… and you are. Remember the movie 50 First Dates starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore? About 75% of the movie was filmed at Sea Life Park. My kids enjoyed the hands-on reef area where they could feed lettuce to the fish. But the best part was the dolphin encounters. We got right into the water with a dolphin to meet him up close. The kids fed him, petted him, and even gave him a kiss! It was a memory that will last a lifetime. Martha, our dolphin trainer, was great with my kids. She also made sure that we learned something about dolphins, too. I noticed that there were more locals here than tourists, which I liked. It was nice to be somewhere that wasn’t overcrowded and touristy. Park admission: Youth (12 & under) $25; Adult $40. Dolphin Encounter cost: $130/person, but I think it’s some of the best money that you’ll spend on your Oahu vacation.
Photo courtesy: Sea Life Park
Where to eat?
If your taste buds are craving it, you’ll likely find it in Honolulu. With that said, there’s some family favorites not to be missed.
Barefoot Beach Cafe (2699 Kalakaua Ave.) is a casual, outdoor restaurant right on the beach! Located on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki Beach, this cafe is a great breakfast spot with a wonderful keiki (kids’) menu. The smoothies are delicious. Try the pineapple smoothie served in a pineapple; it’s spendy but worth it. If you want an unobstructed view of the Friday night fireworks on Waikiki Beach, come here for dinner. The owner and his staff barbecue on the beach. It’s dinner and a show!
Hank's Haute Dogs (324 Coral St.) is a must-try! This hot dog joint is known for its authentic Chicago-style hot dog with neon green relish included. Hank’s puts a delicious twist on other dogs: think lobster and shrimp sausage or rabbit or wild boar. The hamburgers are great as well; my son devoured one in record time. You’ll find a line here at lunch time during the week, but I promise that you’ll forget about the wait once you taste these dogs.
If you’re looking for a local Hawaiian favorite, head to Rainbow Drive-In (3308 Kanaina Ave.). You won’t find crowds of tourists here. This is where locals come for good, hearty, affordable food. The loco moco is the best that I’ve ever tried! Loco moco is a traditional Hawaiian dish that consists of white rice topped with a hamburger patty and fried egg and then covered with brown gravy. Make sure to leave room for the slush float (think cherry slurpee + soft serve vanilla ice cream). This restaurant is budget-friendly with no menu item more than $10.
Located in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, one of our favorite places on Waikiki is Duke's Waikiki (2355 Kalakaua Ave.). This semi, open-air restaurant is a nod to the Hawaii of yesteryear. Duke's is a bit kitschy but in a good, Hawaiian way. The all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet is $18 for adults, $8 for kids (4-11), and free for kids 3 and under. It’s delicious and again, the view is breathtaking.
KidTripster Tip: If you want a nice dinner out with the kids, go back to Duke’s. The fish is fresh, the Mai Tais are heavenly, and the kids’ menu will satisfy the pickiest of eaters. It’s grown-up and family-friendly all at the same time. And if you ask for seats close to the beach, you can enjoy the sunset while listening to live ukulele music. Take a listen here.
A trip to Oahu isn’t complete without a stop at Leonard’s (933 Kapahulu Ave.). This family-owned bakery has been making malasadas since 1952. A malasada is a Portugese doughnut without the hole. They’re heavenly! There always seems to be a line at Leonard’s (at least there was every time we went, and yes, we went more than once), but don’t worry. The folks here know how to move a crowd.
Waiola Shave Ice's motto is “serving the best shave ice in Honolulu.” But if you ask my family, the motto really needs to be “serving the best shave ice in the world.” I have never experienced shave ice quite like this. The only way to describe the texture is creamy; you can literally lick it like an ice cream cone. We found Waiola Shave Ice (2135 Waiola St.) by chance, and I lost track of how many times we went back after that. The staff at Waiola is quirky, and they’ve got “how to order” rules posted. Just go with it! The shave ice is worth it!
KidTripster Tip: Bring cash, as they don’t except credit cards or checks.
Photo courtesy: Barefoot Beach Cafe
The cost of sunshine isn’t cheap. From the west coast, roundtrip airfare usually begins around $700/person. We rented a car while in Honolulu. You’ll need it to get around to all the places that you’ll want to visit. However, if you are staying in Waikiki, you’ll be able to walk to most beaches, which you’ll want to do since parking is difficult and expensive.
KidTripster Tip: Honolulu and Waikiki Beach are busy, crowded, and the lights never go off (think Las Vegas meets beach). I think it’s worth a visit. However, make time in your vacation to visit other parts of Oahu, like the North Shore or west side, to get a taste of all that this diverse island has to offer.
Gemma Gaudette is a former television journalist and mom to two boys living in Boise, Idaho.