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It’s no secret we love Hawaii! We went to Kauai to celebrate our engagement and we took our son to Maui for his first birthday. In our quest to visit all the Hawaiian Islands, we also took my whole family to Oahu in 2017. When I say the whole family, I mean my mom, dad, step-mom, brother, sister-in-law, step-sister, and nephew. Our modern family spent 8 days and 7 nights exploring the whole island. While Maui is still our favorite island, we had lots of fun in Oahu. (Our next trip to Hawaii includes the Big Island and Maui in the spring of 2018 so stay tuned!)
Day 1 – Travel Day
We spent the night before our flight at the Hilton Oakland Airport which was a disaster. I booked our room with a free night certificate that the hotel later refused to honor. As I discussed in Evaluating Value: Citi Hilton Honors Reserve Card, the Hilton Honors program resolved the situation after a number of frustrating phone calls with the property.
To make the trip more affordable for my whole family, I booked a total of 6 tickets with British Airways Avios and Chase Ultimate Rewards Points. I couldn’t find enough award seats on the same flight so we had to split up. Half our group flew out of Oakland and the other half flew out of San Jose. Luckily, Oakland and San Jose are very close to each other and both flights arrived in Honolulu at the same time.
Flying with a toddler was much easier with Grandma in tow. An extra set of hands is invaluable for wrangling a toddler. We used our favorite to get him to the gate, but then he just wanted to walk and walk and walk. Surprisingly, there were no delays at the airport. The flight was more of a struggle since Declan didn’t want to sleep, but he was happy enough to watch a movie for 20 minutes or so at time on my tablet. Trust me, I learned my lesson in Maui and did not overfeed him during the flight. For tips on how to get your toddler on a plane, check out my 5 Hacks to Get Your Toddler on a Plane and Keep Them Entertained.
When we arrived in Honolulu, we got our rental car and went straight to our hotel, Hale Koa. Hale Koa is a military resort that is exclusive to U.S. military personnel and their families. While it’s not as luxurious as a private resort, it’s right on the beach in Waikiki next door to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Our room had balcony with a “partial ocean” view that was pretty much an ocean view plus trees. For the price, it could not be beat. If you know someone in the military, see if they’ll take you with them some time.
After we settled into our rooms, we stopped for ice cream at Lucy’s Lab Creamery before we went to Target. I ordered diapers, wipes, and formula with Shop Online Pickup in Store, but we also shopped for provisions like bottled water and wine. Afterwards, Reese and I relaxed on our balcony and watched the sunset while Declan slept. A balcony is a must have when traveling with a toddler. Read more about it in my 10 Hotel Hacks to Help Your Toddler Sleep (and Keep Everyone Happy).
Day 2 – Hanauma Bay
Since Hawaii is three hours behind California, the best day for early morning activities is always your first morning. Before sunrise, we drove to Hanauma Bay which is considered one of the best spots to snorkel in Oahu. It technically opens at 6am, but if you get there before 6am, you can get in without paying the entrance fee. Plus, you can find a great spot to set up your beach blankets while the crowds are still small.
We all enjoyed snorkeling around the bay, but, honestly, we’ve seen better snorkel spots. Our favorites are still Tunnels in Kauai and Kahekili Beach Park in Maui. Declan loved playing in the sand and surf. Luckily, Grandma and Grandpa took turns watching Declan so that Reese and I could snorkel together. You should always have a snorkel buddy even in calm water!
After a couple hours, the crowds started pouring into Hanauma Bay so we packed up and drove to the Sea Life Park. We all purchased Go Oahu Cards for our trip. They included a basic dolphin swim. My dad, step-mom, step-sister, brother, and nephew all took advantage of it. As a birthday gift, I upgraded my brother and nephew so they actually got to swim with and be pulled through the water by a dolphin. My nephew got to ride a whalpin which is some kind of whale/dolphin hybrid. It was the highlight of the trip for him. We explored the Sea Life Park, but it was a little disappointing. You’re probably better off discovering wildlife in their natural Hawaiian habitats rather than at the park.
That night we ate dinner at the Hale Koa buffet. It was crab and shrimp night so the food was great. After dinner, we hit the Barefoot Bar for the best Mai Tai’s in Waikiki. Since it was a Friday night, the Hilton Hawaiian Village had fireworks over the ocean. The Hale Koa Barefoot Bar and Fort deRussy Park are great locations to watch the fireworks. If you’re in Oahu on a Friday, I highly recommend you check it out. You don’t have to be military to buy drinks at the bar or to enjoy the park. There are even public BBQ grills so you can cook out before the fireworks start. It’s a great show and it’s completely free!
Day 3 – Polynesian Cultural Center
After eating some world famous malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery for breakfast, we went to the pool at Hale Koa. They have a great kids’ pool that’s only two feet deep. Declan loved it! It was hard to drag him away so we got a late start to the Polynesian Cultural Center.
You really need a full day to see everything at the Polynesian Cultural Center. We arrived about an hour before our luau which was when the attractions close. This was my biggest regret of our trip. If we ever go back to Oahu, we’ll definitely spend the whole day. The center has different villages representing different Polynesian cultures with entertainment throughout the day. There’s also shopping and food trucks so you don’t have to do the luau in you decide to stay for the show, Ha: Breath of Life.
I’m not the biggest fan of luaus since I don’t like the food, but the dinner entertainment at the Polynesian Cultural Center was great! They had hula and fire dancers plus an entertaining MC and cute kids. Afterwards, we settled into our seats for Ha: Breath of Life. Now this is quite the show! I was only able to watch about 10 or 15 minutes because Declan could not sit still, but what I saw was fantastic. It’s something I definitely want to see again in its entirety. (But I’ll skip the luau.)
Day 4 – Kualoa Ranch
We found a wonderful spot for breakfast in Waikiki called Eggs ‘n Things. They have delicious banana macadamia nut pancakes. And of course, you can order SPAM with your eggs. We loved this place so much we ordered it again on our 6th day in Oahu and took it back to our hotel.
Our Go Oahu Cards included a tour of Kualoa Ranch. There are three tours to choose from: movie tour, jungle tour, or secret beach tour. We chose the movie tour. Several movies and television shows have filmed at Kualoa Ranch like Jurassic World, Kong: Skull Island, Jumanji, LOST, Hawaii 5-0., and many more. The movie tour takes you to the most memorable filming locations. This was a last minute excursion for us, but it was actually a lot of fun. If you have some extra time, it’s worth a visit.
Instead of going to Kualoa Ranch, Reese finally achieved his dream of taking a helicopter tour in Hawaii. He booked the Open-Door Helicopter Tour over Oahu from Viator. They picked him up from Hale Koa and dropped him back off afterwards. The tour went all over the island including Kualoa Ranch. It was easily his favorite Oahu activity. He still wears his souvenir tank top around the house every week.
For dinner, we went to Kona Brewing Company’s Koko Marina Pub. We already knew we loved Longboard Island Lager, but we also discovered Big Wave Golden Ale at the pub. It’s my new favorite. The food was good, but the service was slow. They did give us free dessert to make up for it though.
Day 5 – Pearl Harbor
No visit to Oahu would be complete without a trip to Pearl Harbor. There are actually several different museums and memorials to see so this is another full day experience. To see the USS Arizona Memorial, you have to book tickets 2 months in advance through the National Park Service. There is a $1.50 convenience fee for booking online, but it’s the best way to ensure you get to see it. Visit this website to book tickets. If you don’t book tickets in advance, there are a limited number of walk up tickets available, but you need to get there early.
The tour is heartbreaking. You watch a film before taking a ferry out to the memorial. The film contains footage from the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s probably not appropriate for young children, but Declan was too young to understand what was going on. Afterwards, we were so emotionally exhausted that we went back to the hotel to relax.
Grandpa offered to watch Declan for us so Reese and I went to dinner at Roy’s Waikiki. It was pricey but the food was fantastic. It’s upscale Hawaiian inspired food that’s perfect for a date night. You definitely need to make reservations in advance.
Day 6 – North Shore
Oahu’s North Shore is known for giant waves and killer surfing. There are also several great spots to snorkel and to see giant sea turtles. We went snorkeling in Shark’s Cove. There are two areas on Shark’s Cove: a deep area to the right and a shallow area with lots of tide pools to the left. The sea was a little rough in the deep area so if you’re not a great swimmer, you should stick to the tide pools. After snorkeling in Shark’s Cove, we went up the road a bit to watch the sea turtles swim at Laniakea Beach. The surf was too rough for humans to swim, but you could easily see the turtles from the beach.
Afterwards, we had lunch at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. There are actually several food trucks in the area in case a shrimp plate isn’t your thing. The food trucks are located just outside the town of Haleiwa which looked like an adorable little place to explore. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time.
We stopped by the Dole Plantation on our way back to Waikiki, but the parking lot was insane so we didn’t stay. If you’re a fan of Dole Whip from Disneyland, the Dole Plantation is one of the few places in the world where you can get one outside of Disney. Plus, they have a train and a maze for little ones. (It’s included with the Go Oahu Card.)
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by Liliha Bakery for their coco puffs. They were just as delicious as expected. My favorites were the green tea puffs. The bakery was jammed packed though so I’d recommend going early. They have lots of other treats if you’re not a fan of coco puffs.
Day 7 – Aulani
Even in Hawaii, you can find a little Disney magic. On our last full day in Oahu, we went to the character breakfast at the Aulani. The resort is located in a fairly remote section of the island, but the experience was everything you’d expect from Disney. Afterwards, I stayed and enjoyed a spa treatment at the amazing Laniwai spa. This was a big splurge, but my massage and the relaxation garden with outdoor showers were incredible.
While I was at the spa, the rest of the family went on the catamaran sail included on the Go Oahu Card. I was a little hesitant for them to take Declan on a boat without me, but he loved it just like everyone else. They didn’t see any wildlife, but they had great views of the island.
On my way back to Waikiki from Aulani, I stopped and bought cupcakes at Flour + Butter. You should check out their amazing cupcakes and cake on Instagram. It was my Dad’s birthday so we enjoyed cupcakes at the Hale Koa Barefoot Bar while watching our last sunset in Oahu.
Afterwards, my mom watched Declan for us so Reese and I could have one more date night. We chose Doraku Kaka’ako. Reese loved the sushi and I loved the tempura brownie!
Day 8 – Travel Day
Just like in Maui, our last stop before the airport was Costco. Costco is the secret to cheap fuel on all of the Hawaii islands. There is usually a Costco right near the airport and if you bring your card with you from home, you can take advantage of the cheapest fuel around before you return your rental car.
We had a small hiccup at the airport when we discovered that British Airways failed to issue an e-ticket for myself and my mom. I spent over an hour on the phone getting it corrected. Luckily, we had a lot of time before our flight. Like I’ve said before, I have a love hate relationship with British Airways. As a result of this mix-up, they refunded 25,000 Avios so essentially we got one free round-trip ticket to Oahu.
When we got back to Oakland, we discovered Reese’s truck had been stolen from the parking lot at the Hilton Oakland Airport. It was recovered several weeks later after being stripped by the thieves. We chose this hotel specifically because they allow you to park and fly, but we will never go back. In addition to the refusal to honor the free weekend night certificate and the stolen car, the rooms were small and the bathrooms were gross. There was water trapped between the bottom of the tub and whatever material they used to “refurbish” it.
Points and Miles Round-Up
We booked 5 roundtrip economy tickets from Oakland/San Jose to Honolulu on Alaska Airlines using a total of 125,000 British Airways Executive Club Avios from the British Airways Signature Visa and Chase Sapphire Preferred. (British Airways is a transfer partner with Chase.) I used Chase Ultimate Rewards to book the 6th ticket since there were no more award seats available on our flights. That cost about 47,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Thanks to the e-ticket fiasco we got 25,000 Avios back. Fees for these tickets were $67.20 total.
I also booked 2 nights at the Hilton Oakland Airport with a free weekend night certificate and 50,000 Hilton Honors points. This saved us about $200 per night. We still had to pay for parking the first night. They didn’t charge us for parking our car there during the week we were gone since it was stolen. Although I don’t recommend the Hilton Oakland Airport, I am a fan of the Hilton Credit Cards which you can read more about here.
We rented a car through Hertz for $238 cash. This was something we could have used Chase Ultimate Rewards for instead.
Our trip to Oahu was jammed packed full of fun. We probably could have used a few more days to just hang out at the beach. It was a wonderful family vacation and now my nephew frequently asks when we can all go back. Little does he know I’m going to start taking him along for babysitting duties when he’s older. He’s easily Declan’s favorite person and that’s what cousins are for, right?
To see more if our photos from Oahu, follow us on Instagram.