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While the beach at Waikiki is justifiably popular, Oahu has much more to offer than Honolulu and the surrounding area. For example, a recent visit to Ko Olina, on the island’s less crowded western side, introduced our family to an unspoiled refuge of palm-shaded sandy coves and rugged shoreline known for its spectacular sunsets over the Pacific. Here it’s possible to swim and paddle-board with sea turtles in sheltered bays, hike craggy volcanic hills to spectacular viewpoints and watch whales spout just offshore.
Despite its get-away-from-it-all vibe, Ko Olina is just 45 minute from the airport, less than an hour from Honolulu and within shouting distance of a comfortable family- and points-friendly hotel. Thanks to Oahu’s compact size and good road system, an hour’s drive will also bring you to most of the island’s other most popular attractions.
Getting to Hawaii, meanwhile, has never been easier. The long-awaited arrival of Southwest’s new Hawaii service is not just a boon for Rapid Rewards members, it’s leading to bargains all around, including more affordable inter-island flights for island-hopping. Hawaiian Airlines also recently introduced direct flights from Boston, vastly improving access to the islands for New England travelers.
So once you’ve landed in Honolulu, it’s time to check out some of our favorite Oahu activities:
Head to the Beach
Perhaps Oahu’s biggest secret is its beaches, considered by many locals to be among the state’s best. From picturesque Makapu, overlooked by a historic lighthouse, to the east side’s popular Kailua and Lanikai, to the rugged north shore renowned for the surf breaks at Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline, there’s a beach for every age and type of activity.
We started our first day at Eisenhower Beach, where Let’s Surf Hawaii introduced us to the brand-new sport of SUPsquatch. Never heard of it? Neither had we, but we’re now telling everyone we know about this kid-friendly group surfing sport. A cross between stand-up paddling and surfing, SUPsquatch uses a giant raft-sized inflatable board that can accommodate up to six people. Led by experienced guides who had us laughing from the first five minutes, we piled onto the board and headed out beyond the surf, positioning ourselves to be ready for the next wave. At the first shout of “paddle now!” we took an exhilarating ride, thrilled to find that even beginners felt stable enough to stand up for the first time. (SUPsquatch is $89 per person with a minimum of two or $109 for a private lesson, and is suitable for ages 6 and up.)
Be a Hawaiian Cowboy
Another popular excursion took us to historic Gunstock Ranch, where we cooed over baby goats before setting out on a paniolo (cowboy) trail ride. Our guide, Kenzie, carefully chose our horses to match our level of experience (in our case, none), building up our confidence with simple instructions and amusing commentary on each horse’s personality. We chose the one-hour Scenic Experience ($82, age 7 and up), which brought us to the ranch’s mountain lookout, but kids ages 2 to 7 raved about the 30-minute pony rides ($45). The best part was getting to plant our own legacy Monarch Milo tree as part of the ranch’s Hawaiian Legacy Forest project to replant native forests cleared for ranching and plantation.
Take to the Air
The more adventurous among us took a helicopter tour over the island with Paradise Helicopters, marveling as we dipped down to see the sunken battleship USS Arizona, its hull outlined against the waters of Pearl Harbor, and swooped over KoKo Head Crater and lush Ka’a’awa Valley, otherwise known as Jurassic Park for its role in the film. (Helicopter tours range from $199–$299; there are no specified age restrictions though it is not recommended for babies and toddlers.)
Go for a Hike
Another highlight was a guided hike with Hawaii Forest and Trail, which took us through a private forest reserve high in the Waianae mountains. Our guide, Peter Thoene, proved a riveting storyteller, and no one in our group will ever forget the tragic story of Pele and her sister Namakaokahai — the best lesson about the consequences of sibling rivalry any parent could hope for! (Various hikes available, ranging from $169 to $199 per person for adults and $149 for kids; all ages welcome.)
Book a Snorkel or Scuba Excursion
Perhaps the biggest thrill we had on Oahu came on a scuba and snorkel excursion on the Waianae Coast with Trident Adventures, which included a lesson and guided dive ($299), allowing us to explore the undersea world for the first time even without being certified divers. Trident Adventures offers a host of boat trips and other underwater experiences including an all-ages Snorkel Adventure ($129 adults, $89 children 3–9, $30 infants) and a Discover Scuba Diving adventure in the Four Seasons and Disney Aulani Lagoon ($189, ages 10 and up).
I paid for all excursion expenses with my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, racking up hundreds of miles for future trips at two miles per dollar. (If I had more Chase Ultimate Rewards points, I could have booked excursions through its travel portal and used points or paid cash to earn more points.)
Our home base, the Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina, is a family favorite because of the resort’s complimentary Camp Kohala kids’ program (ages 5–12; under 5 must have a parent present), which takes advantage of the expansive property to include a whole host of outdoor games and activities in addition to art and game rooms. The biggest hit of all: Keiki Glamping, available as either an evening or overnight adventure complete with tents, outdoor movies, a picnic dinner and s’mores. Between now and Dec. 26, 2019, the resort is offering a fourth night free with its Stay Longer offer and suites are 30% off when booked at least two weeks in advance.
Ko Olina has other properties that will interest families, including Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, Disney’s over-the-top Hawaiian resort complete with tube slide and lazy river (pay with discounted Disney gift cards or via rented Disney vacation club points to save money) and Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club (Category 6, 50,000 points per night).
Oahu is perfect for a family trip and even a multigenerational experience. The ease and affordability of flights (especially if you use miles) makes it convenient for those coming together from different locations, while the island’s wide variety of activities will satisfy those eager to go-go-go and those who prefer to lounge by the pool. This was particularly evident on our last morning as we strolled the wide, paved seaside path that links the resorts and beaches of Ko Olina. Kids ran and played tag, parents pushed strollers, fitness buffs jogged or used a series of fitness stations, and benches beckoned those ready for a rest.
Next time, I thought, we’re bringing the extended family.
Featured photo of Kailua, Hawaii by Isaac Ordaz/Unsplash.
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