An Oahu Family Vacation With ‘Tweens and Teens

By Ellen Parlapiano

Oahu is the ultimate Hawaiian hangout for family vacations - particularly if you have older kids.

Oahu is known as “the gathering place,” a nickname that sums up why it’s so perfect for vacationing with ‘tweens and teens. The most populated and urban of all the Hawaiian Islands, Oahu has a cosmopolitan vibe that older kids will adore. Sure, it can be boisterous and busy in Honolulu and Waikiki. But the energy is electric, and there’s always something for kids to do. And beyond city limits, there are plenty of quieter, undeveloped sections to explore that will still capture kids’ attention. On my recent trip to Oahu with my 18-year-old daughter, we found the perfect balance of action-packed adventure and laid-back opportunities to chill out. 
The secret to experiencing all Oahu offers is to stay on both sides of the island.  We spent several days in Waikiki, and then drove up to the North Shore for our last two nights. In between, we ventured to the east and west, taking in the sights on the leeward and windward coasts.

To attract travelers in this tough economy, many of Oahu’s hotels and restaurants are offering money-saving deals and discounts. So if you’re contemplating a family trip to Hawaii, make sure Oahu is on the itinerary - especially if you have ‘tweens and teens. Here’s why they’ll love it.

It’s All About The Beach, Dude.

The scene is hopping on famous Waikiki Beach. Teens can surf, boogie board, parasail, kayak, or paddle an authentic Hawaiian outrigger canoe - all of which are available from rental stands on this 2-mile stretch of shoreline. They can also play volleyball, and view free outdoor movies on a 30-foot screen during Waikiki’s Sunset on the Beach weekends. Plus, the people-watching here is top-notch.

Stay along the beach and near the restaurants and shops of Kalakaua Avenue, so you can feel confident letting teens venture out independently. While in Waikiki, we split our stay between 2 hotels, a strategy that lets you sample a higher-end property without breaking the budget.  

Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa (www.waikiki.hyatt.com) is across the street from Waikiki beach, and has a stunning open-air atrium and waterfall, 5 restaurants, free Hawaiian entertainment and crafts, a spa with teen treatments, and a surfing school run by former champion Dane Kealoha. 

At the newly renovated Outrigger Reef on the Beach (www.outriggerreef.com), we loved the convenience of walking right from the lobby onto the sand of Waikiki Beach, and dining poolside or at the two on-site restaurants. The hotel is around the corner from the brand-new and very teen-friendly Waikiki Beach Walk, an open-air mall with restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and free Hawaiian music and hula shows.
Rooms at the Outrigger Reef include complimentary cultural activities like lei-making, ukulele and hula lessons, and the monthly Hawaiian Steel Guitar Sundays, when local musicians jam on the beach.
Shop Therapy.  Waikiki’s shopping centers feature teens’ favorite stores, such as Hollister, as well as fun trinkets you can’t get on the mainland, like Hula Hello Kitty. Yet these tropical promenades are nothing like the malls at home. The newly expanded Royal Hawaiian Center has a lush garden in the middle called the Royal Grove, where free cultural programs are offered—a great place to learn lomi lomi massage and kapa cloth making.  The Ala Moana Center is open-air, with great views of the beach from upper floors. And the International Marketplace is designed around an old banyan tree, and offers inexpensive souvenirs like kukui nut bracelets. For more bargains, duck into one of the ubiquitous ABC shops, where you can find everything from dashboard hula dolls, to Haviana flip-flops, to pineapple-flavored licorice.   

The Festivals Rock. We were lucky to be in Oahu on Earth Day weekend, when pop star Jack Johnson hosts his environmentally-conscious Kokua Festival at the Waikiki Shell in Kapiolani Park. Though tickets were sold out, locals suggested we picnic on the grassy field outside the shell, from where we could hear everything perfectly (for free!) and enjoy spectacular views of famous Diamond Head, a dormant volcano. If you’re not visiting on Earth Day, there are many other chances to experience Oahu’s lively arts scene. Kapiolani Park hosts crafts fairs on weekends and free concerts by the Royal Hawaiian Band on Sunday afternoons throughout the year.   During the month of September, the statewide Aloha Festival showcases Hawaii’s music, dance and history with events throughout Oahu. And you can always catch free hula and musical performances in public plazas, hotel lobbies and shopping malls across the island. 

Star Power.  Many TV shows and movies are shot in Oahu’s lush Ka’a’awa Valley, including the teen favorite, Lost, and flicks like Godzilla, Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, and 50 First Dates.  For an up close look, and the possibility of seeing a Lost episode being filmed, head an hour northeast of Waikiki to Kualoa Ranch (www.kualoa.com), on the windward coast. There, you can tour the valley and its movie sites by horseback, ATV, or ranch bus.     

Water World.  Oahu is well known for its great surfing, but there’s a whole world to be explored beneath the waves too. Rent some snorkel gear and head to Hanauma Bay nature preserve on the southeastern shore, where a sunken volcanic crater teems with colorful fish. Or, take a snorkeling boat to get up close and personal with Hawaii’s other sea creatures.  We sailed with Wild Side Specialty Tours (www.sailhawaii.com) out of Wai’anae Harbor on the leeward coast. Cruises are led by marine biologists, who take you where you can swim with sea turtles and pods of dolphins. We had the unforgettable experience of swimming with an entire family of dolphins, babies included. Wild Side’s intimate Best of the West tour is limited to just 6 people, and emphasizes respect for Hawaii’s fragile eco-system. When an endangered monk seal unexpectedly popped his head out of the water, our guide’s excitement was contagious, and she launched into an impromptu lesson about how to protect these adorable animals. From December through April, Wild Side offers whale watching cruises as well.

Road Trip!  End your vacation with a drive up to the North Shore, about an hour from Honolulu. But be sure to sample the some of the authentic Hawaiian road food along the way. First stop: The Dole Plantation on Kamehameha Highway in Wahiawa, to stock up on munchies like macadamia nut popcorn and fresh pineapple. Then head up to the funky hippie town of Haleiwa, for award-winning burgers and shoestring fries at Kua ‘Aina Sandwich, the coconut pudding pie at Ted’s Bakery, and shave ice at Aoki’s. Save some room for sweet & spicy prawns from the shrimp trucks in Kahuku, a local secret.  

North Shore Adventures.  It’s worth spending a night or two on the North Shore so you can soak up its rugged beauty and laid-back charm. Kids will be awed by the big waves at the Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach - all famous for their surfing competitions. History becomes cool at the Polynesian Cultural Center (www.Polynesia.com), where kids can get a Maori tattoo and learn Tahitian dancing and other traditions in the seven interactive villages representing various Polynesian islands. Get there by 2:30 p.m. for the awesome Rainbow of Paradise canoe pageant.
We stayed two nights at the luxurious Turtle Bay Resort (www.turtlebayresort.com), a nature-lover’s paradise set on five miles of pristine beach. Sea turtles sun themselves on the rocks, whales frolic offshore in winter, and you can ride horses along the water on trail rides organized by the on-site stable. My daughter was very impressed when our cowboy guide Tim led us to a beach and banyan tree used in several Lost episodes (her favorite show); and I loved exploring a World War II bunker up close and seeing exactly where the Japanese planes flew over on their way to Pearl Harbor. At Turtle Bay, you can swim in the Pacific Ocean or the multi-tiered pool, hike the trails along the ocean, get pampered in the spa, and dine at one of several restaurants. Our favorite was the beachfront Ola, where tables are located right on the sand.  And I guarantee that before you leave, you and your teen will be plotting your return to this wonderful island.

Ellen Parlapiano is an award-winning writer who has covered family travel for magazines such as Family Circle, Parents, Child and Working Mother. She lives in Eastchester, New York with her husband and two children, and has traveled extensively with her family.

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