On my first trip to Hawaii as a young girl, we visited two of the islands. The bulk of our stay was on Oahu. It’s easy to understand why Oahu would be a first choice, as there are so many activities for all ages…especially for a family with five kids ranging in age from 7 to 19.
Oahu has a unique range of experiences from historical and cultural experiences, to outdoor activities like surfing and hiking, to relaxing on the sandy beaches while reading a book. There is truly something for every personality and interest.
1. Hiking Up Diamond Head
The panoramic views from this 760-foot extinct volcano peak cannot be be beat. You can look all the way to Waikiki and Honolulu on one side and Koko Head the other way. You can see the surfers scattered throughout the waves below.
On a really beautiful day with great visibility, you can see the island outlines of Molokai and Maui.
The hike up the crater is approximately 3/4 of a mile and starts from the parking lot below. It has a fairly steep incline and lots of stairs, so if you’re not used to a lot of exercise, you may want to think twice before making the the trek up.
It is highly recommended that get up early if you’re going to take the hike. If you can get there before 8 a.m., you’ll miss some of the crowds and the heat.
2. Exploring Hawaiian History and Culture at the Bishop Museum
The Bishop Museum is a must-see destination for anyone who is interested in learning about the culture and history of the Hawaiian islands.
The museum was begun by Charles Reed Bishop in 1889. It was built to honor his wife, Bernice Pauahi Bishop…who was the last known descendant of the royal family – the Kamehamehas.
Bishop Museum houses the largest collection of archaeological artifacts from Hawaii and the Pacific that can be found anywhere in the world. It also houses many royal family heirlooms that had been owned by the princess. Over the years, millions of documents, objects as well as art and photographs about Hawaii as well as other Pacific cultures have been added to the collection.
The Bishop Museum enjoys worldwide recognition for not only its cultural acquisitions, but also for its educational programs and research projects. If you want to delve into the history and culture of Hawaii, this is the place to go.
3. Beaches and Beach Activities of Oahu
The beaches of Hawaii all offer something a little different based on the flora, fauna, wildlife, and geology of the individual island.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Waikiki because of the crowds that I’ve experienced every time I’ve gone. But many people feel it’s a must-do at least once to say you’ve been there. You might enjoy it because of all the action that can be found there.
Waikiki Beach is approximately two miles long and starts from Hilton Hawaiian Village at the north end and heads southeast all the way to Diamond Head and Kapiolani Park at the other end. There are areas of shade for those who want to enjoy people watching. If you’re a sports enthusiast, you can find just about every kind of beach sports here without ever having to get in a car.
Kailua Beach Park
Many consider Kailua Beach park one of the best beaches for families. It is not uncommon to find the locals hanging out here on the weekend. The water is calm and a beautiful blue color. It offers a long and wide beach of powdery sand. Kailua Beach has a line of palm trees that provide some really nice shade on the sand. There are covered picnic areas and a park.
Because Kailua Beach is a little windier than some of the other beaches, it is the perfect place you to try out kiteboarding or windsurfing. Kayaks, stand up paddle boards, bicycles & bike locks, snorkel gear & fins, boogie boards, surfboards, beach chairs and so much more can be rented from the nearby Kailua Beach Adventures.
Makapuu Beach Park
Makapuu Beach Park is on the windward side of the island. It is protected by Makapuu point. One of the highlights is watching the hang gliders as they circle the beach from above. It’s also a great place to watch the body boarders in the water. The currents at Makapuu Beach can be quite strong, so it’s always best to check with a lifeguard to ensure your own safety.
Just off the coast of the beach is Bird Island. It’s a bird sanctuary for water fowl. It rises out of the beautiful blue waters here.
Makapuu Beach also boasts of the most beautiful outdoor shower on Oahu. (Is that really a thing?) The water from the shower is quite cold, but the tropical flora and fauna around the shower makes it a fun way to rinse that sand off of your feet. This beach is best for surfing and walking.
Waimea Bay Beach Park
If you remember the old Beach Boys song “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” you’ll remember nod to Waimea Bay as a surfer’s delight. Waimea Bay Beach Park is home to some of the largest waves around…often reaching 25 to 30 feet during the winter months.
During the summer months, it’s a great place to snorkel as the waters become very calm. The shore break also makes it a fantastic place for those who are still fairly new to body surfing.
White Plains Beach Park
White Plains Beach Park used to be part of the former Barbers Point Naval Station. It is a fantastic alternative to Waikiki Beach without all of the crowds and condos.
The beach was named after the white sandy beaches. It offers a long beach that slopes downward with lots of surf breaks. It also offers some mild shore line that is gentle enough for older kids to be able to play around a little more freely.
It has some great views of Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head. It offers a larger parking lot as well, restroom facilities, and areas to barbecue that are tree-covered offering some comfortable shade.
4. Refreshing and Quick Visit to the Dole Plantation
It’s been many years since the Dole Plantation actually functioned as a plantation in Hawaii. But that doesn’t mean that this tourist hotspot isn’t worth a quick drop in. Although some people see this place as a bit of a tourist trap, I think this place has some fun personality.
Here at the plantation you can celebrate Hawaii’s sweet pineapple. It offers a small little center with some exhibits, a gift shop, some snacks, as well as some displays. Beyond the visitors’ center is the world’s second-largest pineapple maze. Are pineapple maze’s actually a thing?
The Dole Plantation offers two ways to take a tour. You can opt for the self-guided tour (which is free) or take a fun little train ride aboard the Pineapple Express. The Pineapple Express is about 20 minutes long and teaches a little bit about how life on a pineapple plantation was. My brother actually worked one summer on a pineapple plantation as a teenager. I think he might tell you this tour isn’t quite accurate, but it’s all about fun and quirky here.
After taking the tour and maybe spending some time in the 3-acre maze, it’s the perfect time to enjoy a nice refreshing snack. You can pick up a Dole Whip…a pineapple-flavored soft serve ice cream served at the cafe in the back.
5. Delving into Hawaiian Royalty at Iolani Palace
Iolani Palace is the only official royal residence located in the United States of America. It was built in 1882 and is located on a site of a previous palace. Iolani Palace contains the thrones of Queen Liliuokalani and her predecessor King Kalakaua.
While we often think of Hawaiian life as simple, the Iolani Palace actually had things like electric lights before the White House did.
Downstairs the areas have been restored to the days when Hawaiian monarchy lived there. You can visit the kitchen and offices that once thrived…as well as visiting a showcase of royal jewelry.
The palace offers self-guided audio tours as well as guided tours. Tours are only available in the mornings and space is limited, so if you have your heart set on taking a guided tour (I highly recommend this), call a few days ahead of time to make a reservation.
6. Seeking Serenity at Byodo-In Temple
The Byodo-In Temple is a reproduction of the Temple located at Uji in Japan that was built in the 11th century. It is located towards the back of the Valley of the Temples cemetery.
Here you can find a 2-ton wooden statue of Buddha. This carved statue presides over the main temple building.
Near the temple building you can find gardens and a meditation pavilion. Here you can ring the 5-foot, 3-ton brass bell for good luck as you enjoy the sheer, green cliffsides of the Koolau Mountains.
There is a 2-acre pond here where you can feed the ducks, swans, and koi that inhabit the water. Or if you’re just looking for a peaceful moment, you can sit and relax and take in the serene surroundings.
7. Honoring History at Pearl Harbor
Every year on December 7th, we are reminded of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor attack was the impetus that made the United States enter into World War II. There were a dozen ships that sunk and more than 2,000 people that died at Pearl Harbor.
It is here at Pearl Harbor where the attack is remembered every day by thousands of visitors flocking to the memorial.
There are five distinct sights at Pearl Harbor, but only two of them are operated by the National Parks system. The other three are privately operated.
Pearl Harbor Visitor Center
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center acts as an entry point for visitors visiting the Pearl Harbor complex. Here you can find two different galleries…one featuring the leading up to the war and the second focusing on the attack at Pearl Harbor itself. They feature lots of personal relics and photographs from veterans of World War II.
You can also find a bookstore, a few other exhibits, and a Remembrance Circle that teaches a little about those who lost their lives during the attack on December 7th, 1941. If you are lucky enough, you might even catch a survivor there who is willing to share their story and answer questions.
The visitors’ center is also where you can start your tour of the USS Arizona Memorial. It is highly recommended you reserve a time for your tour during busier times.
USS Arizona Memorial
The USS Arizona took a direct hit from the Japanese on December 7, 1941. The ship still rests at the bottom of the shallow water. You can reserve a time ahead of time to go out to visit or utilize a standby line if you’re not ready to commit to a time.
The tour starts out with you watching a short documentary in a small theater. It prepares you for the somber visit out to the memorial. You then board a ferry out to the memorial. The memorial straddles the wreckage of the USS Arizona. This is a place where 1,777 people died. You can read the names of those who died as they have been inscribed into the white marble wall.
To this day, you can still see a light oil sheet on the water’s surface above the USS Arizona as oil continues to still escape at a snail’s pace from the sunken ship.
Which Experiences Are Right For You?
Everyone and every group or family has something different they want to get out of a vacation…especially a vacation to Hawaii. I always recommend to my clients to choose the activities that provide the experiences that they are wanting…but be sure to keep an open mind should you change your mind once you get there.
If you are headed to Oahu and are looking for an itinerary that is customized for you and your family, feel free to contact me using the “Contact” page above. I’m always happy to help you put together ideas to suit your vacation…whether it’s your first or hundredth visit to Oahu.