Add aloha spirit to your “ohana’s” vacation by visiting Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai
By Ben Davidson
Paddling a sit-on-top kayak on Kauai’s wide, slow-flowing Wailua River, we worked our way upstream toward the slopes of Mount Waialeale, the tallest mountain on the island. My daughter— who was 13 years old at the time—and I were on one of our family’s Hawaii adventures, this time kayaking to a jungle hike and then a waterfall-pool swim with a young and energetic guide from outfitter Kayak Kauai in the inland reaches of the river’s verdant valley.
After less than an hour of steady paddling, we exited the main channel and slipped into a side stream lined with dense, overhanging vegetation. Arriving at the pullout point, we hauled ashore our boats and paddles and embarked on a laughter-filled adventure hike on a well-trodden rock and root-laced trail. Passing blooming awapuhi (wild ginger) plants, vine-covered hala (a type of pine tree) and the stone foundations of ancient Polynesian hale (homesites), we arrived at our destination: Uluwehi Falls, where we enjoyed a lunch break and a refreshing swim beneath and behind cascading water.
It was one of our best dad-and-daughter adventures. We still talk about it today. Adventuring and exploring Hawaii has been the annual tradition for our family vacations on Kauai, Maui, Oahu and Hawaii Island. We love exploring the myriad wonders of the Aloha State — from outdoor adventures to food discoveries to cultural attractions. Whether we spend our trips snorkeling in crystal waters on Oahu, traversing volcanic terrain on Hawaii Island, trekking to waterfalls on Maui, or inner-tubing on old plantation irrigation canals on Kauai, we have always flown home wishing we had more time to spend in this Pacific Ocean paradise.
Oahu, the most populated of the Hawaiian Islands, offers a wide array of family friendly activities and adventures. While staying near Waikiki Beach, the famed Honolulu surfing area, we explored several great attractions, including Diamond Head State Monument. Diamond Head, the iconic rocky backdrop to Waikiki, is a 300,000-year-old volcanic cone with a broad crater. A 1.6-mile (round-trip) walk up to the summit and back down gave us outstanding views of Waikiki and the rest of Honolulu. Later, we visited the Waikiki Aquarium, where we enjoyed dazzling exhibits about coral reefs, exotic sea jellies, monk seals, sharks, giant clams and many other ocean critters. The aquarium is just the right size for younger children’s attention spans, and it’s located in a parklike setting steps from the beach, near the Honolulu Zoo.
Another charming destination for everyone in the family is AAA Four Diamond-rated Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, located on the west side of Oahu, on beautiful Ko Olina Lagoon. When you enter the expansive Makaala Lobby, Disney magic begins as friendly greeters offer tropical fruit–infused water and drape you with Hawaiian lei. The resort has an extensive complex of pools and waterplay structures for families to enjoy together. Kids ages 3–12 can also enjoy Aunty’s Beach House at the resort (its child care and activities are included with your stay) while parents lounge by the pool or at the protected lagoon on the ocean. Aulani Resort’s activities include squirting jets of water, pools, a slowly looping river, quick slides and rope bridges.
At Rainbow Reef, you can swim wave-free with tropical fish in an enclosed 3,800-square-foot saltwater lagoon. You can also explore Aulani Resort via the Menehune Adventure Trail, an activity that involves an interactive tablet that activates sites around the grounds. (The Menehune are legendary Hawaii inhabitants who are represented as mischievous little people in Hawaiian lore.) Also, don’t miss the Aulani luau: Ka Waa is a journey through Hawaiian history, performed with the usual Disney flair on the resort’s Halawai Lawn.
On Oahu’s serene and scenic North Shore, Turtle Bay Resort offers a counterpoint to the bustle of Waikiki. Rooms at Turtle Bay offer ocean views and, especially in fall and winter, the waves reach legendary heights. The adjacent wave-free Kuilima Cove is perfect for generally calm-water swimming and snorkeling. Turtle Bay’s onsite Guidepost activities center can arrange unique programs of stand-up paddle boarding and surfing, including SUP with North Shore local/ former professional surfer Rocky Canon and his surfing dogs. Mountain-bike rentals are available from the Adventure Center for exploring the 12 miles of seaside trails at the resort, including a mountain- bike park with 2 miles of trail. Older teens and adults can golf on the resort’s two championship courses.
Exploring Landscapes and Culture
Ranch adventures are a great way to get a feel for Oahu’s rural areas. Gunstock Ranch is a North Shore locale specializing in horseback trail rides (ages 7 and up) and pony rides for kids. The ranch also offers a unique program that takes you by four-wheel-drive vehicle to plant a rare or endangered native tree in the ranch’s legacy forest. Kualoa Ranch, also north of Honolulu, is a 4,000-acre ranch and nature preserve set in a beautiful valley on the eastern shore of Kaneohe Bay. Used in movie productions since the 1950s, the ranch pays homage to movies filmed there, such as Jurassic Park, and TV shows, such as “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-0.” A wide variety of tours — by all-terrain vehicle, horseback, electric mountain bike and open-air jeep — explore the ranch’s cinematic scenery. We joined its two-hour off-road UTV tour (in sturdy “utility task vehicles” with side-by-side seats), crossing streams and making Jurassic Park set stops.
One of the best introductions to island cultures is the Polynesian Cultural Center, about an hour’s drive from Honolulu. The 42-acre center celebrates the traditions of six Polynesian lands: Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Hawaii. Prepare for cultural immersion: demonstrations, activities, music and extravagant performances. The center is best for children who are old enough to absorb a mix of educational displays, entertainment and interactive activities.
Wander the center’s “villages” to test your eye-hand coordination with a Maori stick game, see how milk is extracted from a coconut, learn how poi is made from the stem base of the taro plant — and taste samples. The center offers a luau (which is alcohol-free), as well as the spectacular evening show “Ha: the Breath of Life.” For more cultural immersion, the Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum in Honolulu offer insights into Hawaii’s Polynesian and precolonial past; the monarchy of King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani; and the post-monarchy era.
Oahu boasts some terrific beaches and inlets, including Hanauma Bay, a famous spot for snorkeling. You can take your own car to the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, but parking is very limited. We take a shuttle service that leaves Waikiki several times per day. The park is closed on Tuesdays to give the fish a break. With its powdery white sand, Lanikai Beach on the east shore of Oahu is regularly voted as one of the best beaches in the world. It’s perfect for swimming, kayaking and snapping photos. Among the dozens of beaches along Oahu’s North Shore, one of the best for families is the town of Haleiwa’s Alii Beach, where the waves are often perfect for little kids.
“The Valley Isle” offers an enticing mix of well-developed resort regions and outdoorsy retreats where you can experience the grandeur of the island’s beaches, forests, volcanic features, waterfalls and other natural wonders. On many visitors’ bucket lists is sunrise at Maui’s famous 10,023-foot volcanic peak, Haleakala, which requires a predawn drive up to the summit (park reservations are required). Our family finds it just as fun to visit later in the day when the temperatures warm up (the high-elevation summit can be very cold before sunrise).
Local Cuisine and Epic Hikes
Along the way up the broad volcano’s slopes into Upcountry Maui, you can stop for treats at Komoda Bakery in the former plantation town of Makawao. The bakery’s menu includes mouthwatering cream puffs and guava-filled malasadas (Portuguese inspired fried doughnuts). In the town of Haliimaile is the Maui Gold pineapple farm, where tours explore the fields where the fruits grow, allow you to taste pineapple and visit the packing facility.
Also in Upcountry Maui, near the town of Kula, Surfing Goat Dairy offers guided walks around a farm that produces more than two dozen goat cheeses. You can buy goat cheese sandwiches from a takeout window for a picnic on the farm. By the ocean in West Maui, the Kapalua resort area’s 1.75-mile Kapalua Coastal Trail stretches along a stunning swath of coastline from Napili Bay to Honokahua Bay. We hiked the trail, and along the way passed scenic Kapalua Bay, then Namalu Bay, Hawea Point (which hosts a wedgetailed shearwater colony and nesting site) and Dragon’s Teeth at Makaluapuna Point (featuring rock formations shaped by wind and water), before finishing up the walk at D.T. Fleming Beach Park, an ideal spot for body boarding.
Touted as “Hawaii’s Most Hawaiian Hotel,” the Kaanapali Beach Hotel offers a six-person waa (canoe) experience daily. The resort’s custom-built canoe, christened Kaleopookela, provides guests with an opportunity to venture out on the ocean with the assistance of experienced local guides. You paddle to the base of a lava-rock promontory, Puu Kekaa (Black Rock), and beyond, while learning about Maui and its shoreline. Between November and April, with a peak season from January through March, humpback whales are often found in the shallower channels between Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Our favorite aquatic adventure on Maui was Maui Kayak Adventures’ three-hour kayaking and snorkeling trips to Makena Bay’s “Turtle Town,” where honu — green sea turtles — thrive in vibrant reefs, along with tropical fish in a rainbow of colors.
We love Kauai as a lush, easy-to-explore paradise with an authentic local vibe that’s perfect for family vacations. It’s a relatively small island, and you can explore the whole place in a week. Yet most visitors would be happy to stay longer. Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers a five-hour zipline-and-hiking adventure that lets you zip above thickly wooded valleys and ravines, and then take a short nature walk to Halii Falls, northwest of Lihue. At the falls, you’ll picnic, swim and soak up the scenery. For another distinctive excursion, Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers a “mountain tubing experience,” which involves floating down an old sugar plantation irrigation system. You float along open-to-the-air canals and pass through dark tunnels constructed in the 19th century (headlamps provided).
Hit the Water
On the north shore of Kauai, you can discover your inner paniolo (Hawaii cowboy) during a relaxing two-hour horseback ride that’s perfect for novices. Princeville Ranch Adventures’ gentle steeds will take your family for an easygoing trip through a working ranch with views of mountains, valleys and ocean. As for surfing, Hanalei Bay, also on the north side of Kauai, has a forgiving sandy bottom and waves of all sizes. It’s an ideal place to learn how to surf. The local instructors at Hanalei-based Hawaiian Surfing Adventures will move to different breaks to find the right waves and will show you proper surf stance before you head out. (Call at least 24 hours in advance for reservations.)
A kayak tour of Hanalei Bay with Kayak Kauai starts with an exploration of the Hanalei River. Then you return to the bay and explore its shoreline, taking in views that include Makana mountain and the fluted ridges of Namolokama and Mamalahoa. In the bay, you may spot green sea turtles, spinner dolphins and seabirds such as the Laysan albatross. (Observe wildlife from a distance.) Following the shore of Hanalei Bay, you can head southeast to a sandy beach known as Hideaways for an afternoon of clear-water snorkeling and beachcombing.
For a stunning experience on Kauai’s North Shore, visit Tunnels Beach at Haena State Park. Reservations are required for parking at the park or for taking a shuttle from Princeville or Hanalei. On hot days, a family can cool off at Wailua Shave Ice, a food truck based in Kapaa. Huge portions of icy sweetness are flavored with fresh local ingredients. A couple of delicious favorites are Coconut x Coconut x Coconut (coconut milk, haupia foam and roasted coconut flakes) and Lava Flow (pineapple juice, coconut foam and strawberry puree, with a fresh fruit topping.)
Kauai’s farmers markets are great for family outings and are open year round. Depending on the season, you’ll find locally grown lychees, mangos, papayas and flowers, as well as island-made goat cheese and honey. On the isle’s east side, the Kapaa Farmers Market is filled with dozens of farm stands. On the south shore, the Koloa Market is a gathering of farmstands. In the Kilauea area on the North Shore, the Namahana Farmers Market at Anaina Hou Community Park is open on Saturdays and Mondays. To the southeast, my favorite Lihue-area farmers market is held every Saturday at the Kauai Community College, and features more than 100 vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, plants and Kauai-made products.
If your family loves getting out into nature and learning about Hawaiian culture, Hawaii Island has a wealth of great experiences. The abundance of natural landscapes ranges from green and black-sand beaches to rainforests and remote waterfalls.
Back to Nature
At night on the west side’s Kona Coast, huge and graceful manta rays feed on the abundant plankton of Keauhou Bay. You can see this aquatic spectacle up close on a guided canoe/snorkeling tour with Eka Canoe Adventures. At twilight, participants paddle the 40-foot Waa Kini Kini double-hulled outrigger canoe into the bay and jump into the water to snorkel. The tour group then hangs onto lighted surfboards, and peers down to see the rays feeding. Also on the island’s west side, Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area and Kahaluu Beach Park are popular snorkeling sites.
On the island’s southeastern side, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park extends from sea level to the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet and encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes — Mauna Loa and Kilauea. At various places around the park, interpretive displays and trails lead you to lava tubes, ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs and steam vents. Visit nps.gov/havo for updates about volcanic activity and access to sites.
Hawaii’s past is fascinating for adults and kids, and there’s perhaps no better place to learn about this than Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, on the west coast, south of Kona. In ancient Hawaii, laws, or kapu, ruled all aspects of Hawaiian society. The penalty for breaking a law was, as in many civilizations, severe. But there was an escape clause: Reach the nearest puuhonua (place of refuge), and you could be spared. The historical park, surrounded by high walls and carved wooden images, re-creates an ancient place of refuge. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a culture that ruled the Hawaiian Islands for centuries.