Want a spectacular winter getaway that has something for everyone? Look no further than Hawaii, where the abundance of activities for children (and their parents) ensures that everyone in the family gets the vacation they want—and deserve.
If it’s action you’re after, the Aloha State has you covered, with world-class snorkeling, whale-watching tours, surfing, horseback riding, jungle ziplines, and volcano hikes. Alternatively, if chilling out is your goal, the islands’ off-the-charts beauty and laid-back pace promote rest and rejuvenation. The younger set will enjoy the kid-centric attractions offered at most hotels, and the wealth of extraordinary activities will provide experiences they’ll never forget. Best of all, traveling there from the East Bay couldn’t be easier, with just under six-hour direct flights from Oakland International Airport.
Here, Diablo looks at the boundless ways to have some family fun on four major Hawaiian islands: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.
Oahu is the most visited island in Hawaii—and also the most populous (about two-thirds of the state’s residents live there). From the bustling shopping, cultural attractions, and lively beach scene in Waikiki to the quiet valleys and sandy coast of the North Shore, Oahu boasts the widest variety of lodgings and experiences for Hawaii-bound families.
Where to Stay
Set on beautiful beaches of Ko Olina, Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa will please the whole family. Drop off kids ages 3 to 12 at Aunty’s Beach House for the day, and join other parents lounging by the pool or at the Ko Olina lagoons. Aulani’s water park is the best on Oahu, with a lazy river, rushing rapids, twisty slides, and a rope bridge. At Rainbow Reef, you can swim with tropical fish in an enclosed saltwater lagoon. Explore the grounds with the Menehune Adventure Trail, a free scavenger hunt accessed via interactive tablet.
Embassy Suites by Hilton Waikiki Beach Walk is ideal for families, thanks to its portfolio of one- and two-bedroom suites, full breakfast included with stay, and proximity to the mellow waves and sands of Waikiki Beach. Adults will appreciate the free cocktail hour with live music, held throughout the week.
Also in Waikiki, Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort occupies the famous stretch of shoreline that helped define Hawaii as a top surfing destination. The property has a free trolley for guests that loops to several family-friendly destinations: the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium, Diamond Head State Monument, and the massive Ala Moana shopping center.
Turtle Bay Resort is the only major resort on Oahu’s serene North Shore. Each of its rooms has an ocean view, and in the fall and winter months, the surf here reaches legendary heights. Two golf courses, 12 miles of seaside trails, and the adjacent and highly swimmable Kuilima Cove are top attractions. But perhaps the resort’s standout experience is its Hawaii Surf Dogs program; don’t miss the chance to try stand-up paddleboarding or surfing in the company of friendly wave-riding canines.
What to Do
On Oahu's North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a 42-acre parklike complex celebrating the traditions of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Hawaii. Wander the center’s villages to play a Maori stick game, see how a coconut is cracked, and learn how poi is made. It’s best for children who are old enough to absorb educational displays, entertainment, and interactive activities.
In Honolulu, the Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum provide a fascinating look at Hawaii’s history. Visitors can learn about the state’s Polynesian and precolonial past; the reign of King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani; and the tumultuous years before and after the monarchy was overthrown and the United States annexed the island nation.
About a 15-minute drive from Waikiki, Diamond Head State Monument provides a scenic morning or afternoon hike on the edge of the crater of a 300,000-year-old volcanic "tuff" cone. The 1.6-mile round-trip walk to the summit is well worth the effort for the sublime views. For more of a challenge, check out the 7.9-mile round-trip hike to Laie Falls. This trek—through orchid-filled jungle, into cool pine forest, and past a lovely waterfall and swimming hole—is best suited for older kids and teens.
The Waikiki Aquarium features dazzling exhibits of coral reefs, exotic jellyfish, sharks, monk seals, giant clams, and many other ocean critters. It’s just the right size for younger kids and is located steps from the beach near the Honolulu Zoo.
The sprawling, 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve is a breathtaking location on the eastern shore of Oahu at Kaneohe Bay. Nestled in valleys sacred to ancient Hawaiians, the ranch has frequently served as a set for movies and TV series, such as Jumanji, Jurassic Park, Hawaii Five-0, and Lost. Activities include kayak adventure tours, Jeep expeditions, ziplining, and horseback riding.
Where to Eat
Waikiki's shrine to legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku, Duke’s has Diamond Head views and live music. Be sure to check out the giant slices of Hula pie (macadamia nut ice cream on a chocolate cookie crust).
International Market Place in Waikiki has recently been reimagined and now offers an array of excellent, family-friendly eateries, from chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Eating House 1849 to the globally inspired Street Food Hall from San Francisco chef Michael Mina.
Get crustacean crazy at the shrimp shacks and trucks that line the coast-hugging Kamehameha Highway on the North Shore. Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp and Giovanni’s are two of the best. (Try the habit-forming butter garlic shrimp from both.)
Haleiwa’s Matsumoto Shave Ice has been dishing out refreshing frozen treats on the North Shore since 1951. Try a classic combination like the Hawaiian (pineapple, coconut, and banana) or the Tropical (lilikoi, guava, and papaya).
M.A.C. 24/7 Restaurant and Bar is an upscale eatery located in the Hilton Waikiki Beach hotel. Serving comfort foods, such as lobster mac ’n’ cheese Benedict, this spot is Waikiki’s best-kept dining secret.
Known as the Valley Isle, Maui consists of divine beaches, a soaring volcano, and an incredible array of activities for visitors of all ages. Nature abounds, with whales frequenting the channels between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai in winter. The winding road to Hana serves up picture-perfect scenery at every turn. And the summit of Haleakala volcano is the place for unforgettable sunrises and sunsets
Where to Stay
Located in the upscale enclave of Wailea, Fairmont Kea Lani Maui is Hawaii’s only oceanfront all-suite and villa luxury resort. It’s great for families, thanks to the accommodations, two large pools connected by a water slide, and access to Polo Beach, which is just right for swimming and paddling. On Wednesdays during peak travel season, the resort’s Willow Stream Spa offers a keiki nail party, where little ones ages 5 to 12 can get a mini manicure or pedicure. On Tuesdays in the lower lagoon pool, a Mermaids on Maui session shows wannabe mermaids the secrets of swimming with a fin.
The sprawling Grand Wailea Resort Hotel and Spa has several pools and a water-play area (with a lava tube slide boasting a three-story drop) that will keep kids busy for days. Meanwhile, the luxurious Spa Grande makes an indulgent escape for Mom and Dad. Dining choices include the dreamy lagoon-side Humuhumu and the casual Bistro Molokini.
Occupying 16 acres at the far end of Ka’anapali Beach, The Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, Ka’anapali features spacious one- to three-bedroom villas with full kitchens. Its Pu’uhonua O Nanea Cultural Center offers an introduction to Hawaiian traditions, and the Westin Family Kids Club welcomes children ages 5 to 12 to participate in adventures, games, and arts and crafts.
Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa, on the widest stretch of Ka’anapali Beach at Pu‘u Keka‘a (Black Rock), is famous for its iconic cliff-dive ceremony at sunset—a tradition dating back to the resort’s opening in 1963. The snorkeling and swimming below Black Rock are superb, and in winter the hotel is a prime location to spot humpback whales.
What to Do
While many visitors to Haleakala's 10,023-foot peak arrive for sunrise, it’s just as fun to drive there later in the morning when the temperatures warm up. Several hiking trails lace the summit from the visitor center, so you can explore the crater’s lunar-like volcanic landscapes.
Hike Kapalua’s 1.75-mile path along a spectacular swath of coastline. Rest at Hawea Point and Makaluapuna Point (aka Dragon’s Teeth—rock formations shaped by wind and water) before ending up at Honokahua Bay and D.T. Fleming Beach Park, an excellent place for body boarding.
The Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel provides six-person wa‘a (canoe) experiences daily. The resort’s canoe gives guests a unique opportunity to venture out on the ocean with the assistance of expert local guides. Paddle to Black Rock and beyond while learning about the island from a native Hawaiian perspective.
Molokini, a crescent-shaped islet just off Maui, is a protected marine conservation area only accessible by boat. The Molokini and Turtle Arches snorkel trip from PacWhale Eco-Adventures provides one of the best explorations of the Molokini reef, which boasts crystal-clear waters, abundant coral, colorful fish, and resting seabirds. Turtle Arches, known for underwater lava formations and turtle sightings, is also a snorkel site.
Drive up the slopes of Haleakala to the charming farms of Maui’s upcountry. Start at Komoda Store and Bakery, in the former plantation town of Makawao, for cream puffs and guava-filled malasadas (Portuguese fried doughnuts). Also in Makawao is the base for the Maui Gold tours, where you can visit pineapple fields and a packing facility. Head to Surfing Goat Dairy to see goats while enjoying a farm picnic with goat cheese sandwiches.
Where to Eat
Famed Maui chef Tylun Pang creates plantation- and island-inspired cuisine at the Fairmont Kea Lani’s Kō. The seared ahi appetizer and lobster-tempura main are truly phenomenal tasting experiences.
Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop is a local favorite, serving crowd-pleasing pies such as coconut cream and chocolate haupia.
Star Noodle gained fame after being featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The house-made garlic noodles are a must, as are the taro dumplings and steamed pork buns.
With two locations in Kihei, Coconut’s Fish Cafe serves excellent fish tacos, fried calamari, and shrimp and chips. Big platters of perfectly grilled mahi mahi and ono come over brown rice accompanied by the café’s signature coleslaw.
Under the Sea
Maui’s Atlantis Submarine tour offers an up-close aquatic adventure that’s fun for all ages.
By Rachel Orvino
The world appears in shades of blue and gray when you are 130 feet under the Pacific Ocean—at least from the vantage point inside a submarine.
The Atlantis Submarine Maui is part of a fleet of battery-powered subs that allow passengers to witness the wealth of Hawaii’s marine life at dive sites in Kona (the Big island), Waikiki (Oahu), and here in Lahaina (Maui). A unique experience that is ideal for families who want to get the feel of scuba diving without getting wet, the tours cost $124 for adults and $48 for kids 12 and under (if you book in advance online, you can get one free children’s ticket with every adult purchase). Children must be at least 36 inches tall to ride.
You start your aquatic adventure in the charming town of Lahaina, where an open-air boat takes up to 48 passengers to the sub’s base in Lahaina Harbor. The shuttle to the sub is a treat in itself, offering views of west Maui’s lush mountains and curving coastline (winter months may also offer whale-watching opportunities). Upon reaching the site, marked by a blue and white tugboat bobbing on the open ocean, you wait a few moments before the jutting fin of a submarine suddenly breaks the surface. Anticipation mounts as you watch the members of the previous tour—outings run hourly from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.—appear out of the hatch and disembark on to your waiting boat for their cruise back to town.
The descent into the sub’s interior is made easier by the friendly crew, but you must be able to independently navigate a 10-step ladder in order to participate in the tour. Once everyone is settled in air-conditioned comfort—the sub feels surprisingly spacious—the crew seals the hatch and it’s time to dive, dive, dive. Monitors show the changing depth, and cheesy music—think the theme to Jaws—amps up the drama.
The tour hits four sites at depths ranging from 95 to 130 feet, including a sunken replica of a 19th-century supply vessel that forms an artificial reef. A white-tip shark glides lazily by, drawing squeals from kids and adults alike. The sub rotates to give you clear views of the attractions whether you are starboard or port side and a guide identifies the various indigenous fish (including tangs, parrotfish, and butterflyfish) swimming outside.
The undersea portion of the excursion lasts 45 minutes, so easily bored children might get a little antsy toward the end. The tour concludes on an exciting note, however, when you get to see the group after you submerge before you head back to shore. Overall, the Atlantis Submarine provides an up-close look at Hawaii’s amazing marine life that works for the whole family. atlantisadventures.com.
The Call of Kauai
The Garden Island is the northernmost and smallest of the major Hawaiian islands. Blissfully untouristy, diverse, and compact (no building is taller than a coconut palm), Kauai is an easy-to-explore paradise with an authentic local vibe.
Where to Stay
Compromised of luxurious villas with kitchens and expansive grounds, the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas makes a superb family escape. With close access to golf, pools, Anini Beach, and the charming town of Hanalei, the Westin is a standout on the north side of the island.
Settle into the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa for an indulgent stay in an opulent oasis. Lush gardens and pools have views of Shipwreck Beach and the petrified cliffs of Makawehi. The resort also boasts exquisite ocean-view dining, a championship golf course, and the famed Anara Spa.
The Lodge at Kukui’ula consists of upscale plantation cottages, bungalows, and villas on Kauai’s south shore. Guests can play golf, visit the top-of-the-line spa, and experience special culinary events and guided adventures, such as canoe sailing and outrigger paddling. Each Sunday, the Lodge hosts a family "funday" with activities on the lawn and by the pool.
What to Do
Kaua‘i Backcountry Adventures offers ecotourism outings, including a thrilling zipline that crosses wooded valleys, as well as a waterfall hike to hidden Hali’i Falls.
Channel your inner Hawaiian cowboy during a horseback ride that’s appropriate for novices. At Princeville Ranch, a gentle steed will take you on a journey with views of the mountains and ocean.
One of the most legendary surf spots in the world, Hanalei Bay, on the north shore, has a sandy bottom and waves of all sizes. Hawaiian Surfing Adventures gives lessons there, and you can learn the proper surf stance before venturing into the water.
Kayak Kauai’s tour of Hanalei Bay delivers views of mountainous peaks, an exploration of Hanalei River, and encounters with green sea turtles and spinner dolphins. The outing ends at a beach that invites snorkeling and swimming.
Where to Eat
Cool off at the Wailua Shave Ice food truck, oceanside in Kapaa, where the frosty treat is made with local ingredients. Flavors include Coconut x Coconut x Coconut (coconut milk, haupia foam, and coconut flakes) and Lava Flow (pineapple juice, coconut foam, strawberry puree, and fruit).
Hamura Saimin, a casual noodle place in Lihue, is popular among locals for its steaming bowls of egg noodles with an array of toppings. Save room for a slice of lilikoi chiffon pie.
Tahiti Nui’s homespun luau is a celebration of Hawaiian food and music. The restaurant’s shindig kicks off with an imu ceremony and captures the essence of Hanalei.
At the other end of the spectrum is the more extravagant luau at the Grand Hyatt, which welcomes both malihini (newcomers) and kamaaina (longtime residents). Jam out to Hawaiian music, then kick back and watch Polynesian hula.
Big Island Bounty
Home to Earth’s largest active volcano, the Big Island is also the most sizable island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Its landscapes range from green- and black-sand beaches to rainforest. Ancient petroglyphs can be viewed, and cultural parks preserve Hawaii’s Polynesian past.
Where to Stay
Set on a white-sand beach on Kauna‘oa Bay, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel provides pure relaxation. Complimentary activities include shell art-making, coconut weaving, hula, and lei-making for adults and children. Parents and kids can indulge in world-class golf, tennis on 11 seaside courts, and nighttime glow-canoe and manta ray snorkel adventures just offshore.
On the picturesque Kona-Kohala coast, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is the Big Island’s premier property, where intimate villas are arranged in small crescents along the beach and golf course. Additional features include ocean-activity guides, pools, eight tennis courts, an expansive spa, and a cultural center.
With an unmatched location on the Kona coast, the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay offers a blend of adventure and Hawaiian heritage. Nestled atop lava-rock cliffs, this retreat overlooks Keauhou Bay’s giant manta ray–feeding grounds and is just a short drive from the excellent snorkeling destination at Kealakekua Bay.
What to Do
At night on the Kona coast, giant manta rays emerge to feed on the abundant plankton in the beautiful Keauhou Bay. You can see this spectacle up-close on a guided snorkeling tour with Eka Canoe Adventures. It is a wildlife encounter beyond comparison.
A must-see attraction for Big Island visitors is Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which extends from sea level to the 13,677-foot summit of the active volcano Mauna Loa. Trails lead the way to lava tubes, ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, and steam vents. At the Kilauea crater rim, you undoubtedly will be dazzled by the sight of a caldera that recently held a lava lake boiling with red-hot magma.
In ancient Hawaii, a pu‘uhonua was a place of refuge, and the Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, surrounded by a high wall and ki’i (carved wooden images), re-creates that traditional experience.
Where to Eat
In Kailua-Kona, Kona Pub and Brewery, from Kona Brewing Co., has classic ales and lagers and dishes out pub fare, including Kawaihe Cajun ahi poke and seared ahi pupus, fish tacos, sandwiches, and hand-tossed pizzas.
For fresh poke bowls, kalua pork, sashimi, seaweed salad, fried fish, teriyaki chicken, and other Hawaiian specialties, check out Umekes Poke and Local Style Lunch Bowls in Kailua-Kona.
Vegetarians will be delighted by the items at Under the Bodhi Tree in Waikoloa Village. Favorite items include veggie burgers, a chocolate-banana oat bar, falafel salad, and nahkon noodles.