Holidaying in Honolulu - Things to Do on O'ahu
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Hawaii is one of our favourite places to visit simply because arriving there means it is time to unwind, recharge and enjoy the beautiful island lifestyle, even in the capital city of Honolulu.
O’ahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian islands and it is where you’ll fly into if landing into the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu. From here, many may choose to transfer flights and continue to the other islands, or, just a short approx 20 mins drive from the airport you’ll find one of the main tourist areas of Hawaii, Waikiki.
Honolulu has so much to offer and is a great family holiday destination with lots to do for kids. If you’re wanting an island or beach vacation but are worried about things like wet weather options or variety in activity, Honolulu has your back with an abundance of attractions, shops, restaurants and more to really give you a happy medium between city and beach.
For a full guide to restaurants and where to eat in O’ahu, read here.
Popping out of my favourite pool at the Halekulani
Things to Do
Whilst lying in the sun on one of the many beautiful beaches or by a fantastic pool is always a great option, and often my preferred option to be honest, there is a lot to do in Honolulu.
The most famous on the ‘things to do list’ is Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor marks the location of the Japanese attack on the US and America’s subsequent entry into WWII as a result of this attack. Importantly. It is the final resting place of the 2,390 American service members and civilians killed on December 7, 1941.
The main ‘attraction’ at Pearl Harbor is the USS Arizona Memorial - experiencing this includes first watching a documentary film in the theater that is so brilliantly made you’ll want to stay and watch it again. The film was so powerful, inspiring and yet incredibly somber. From there, you take Navy-operated shuttle boat rides to the Memorial itself which stands in place of the ship that once was and have an opportunity to experience the memorial itself before finally taking a boat ride back to the visitor center where you began. It is a very dignified experience that has been very well crafted to ensure maximum respect is paid to those who lost their lives and to both past and active servicemen.
You can also choose to visit the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites which you can get tickets to at the Visitor Center. These sites include the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park which is located on site, and the Battleship Missouri Memorial and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum which are located on Ford Island nearby. A bus is available to go between the visitor centre and Ford Island (included in your ticket price) and the ride is approximately 10 minutes.
If you don’t know much about the history of Pearl Harbor or how that day necessitated America’s entry into WWII, there are plenty of opportunities to learn a lot about the history when you arrive. That said, if you do have the time to read a bit about the attack prior to arriving, some prior knowledge will only enhance your experience there, but as I said, it is not necessary to know much, only to be open to learning new info and quite a humbling experience.
Driving up the North Shore
We have done this a few times now and every time have absolutely loved the experience and wanted to do it again! Whether you choose to drive yourself or hire a driver for the day, or take a tour, you’re guaranteed to have a fun day exploring the North side of the island.
I’d like to a much more in depth itinerary with photos for you next time we are in Hawaii so I’ll keep this great drive brief and say that renting a car can be really easy from any of the major car rental companies or potentially, depending on the hotel you are staying at, directly from them. Ask at the reception or concierge desk if that option is available to you about car rental if you are interested in doing this. Otherwise, Hertz and Avis just to name two companies, are both available at multiple locations near the main tourist areas of Waikiki.
I will say that when you are planning your route it is imperative to your Hawaiian experience that you stop at one of the famous Shaved Ice stalls or shops on the way. Friendly tip: don’t call it a snow cone - not cool and locals will not like it! For extra indulgence, get ice cream on top.
One option to google maps is Matsumoto Shaved Ice which is one of the ones that I have been to and that everyone talks about. It’s typically Hawaiian and you have to indulge to get in the spirit of course! My favourite is the pina colada flavour shaved ice - enjoy!
The Byodo-In Temple
Whilst on the drive, see if you can include the Byodo-In Temple into your route to enjoy the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park in Kahaluu, O’ahu. The Temple sits at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains and was established in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in 1968. It is a smaller scale replica of the nearly 1000 year old Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Japan.
The temple is non-practicing but is a Buddhist temple. It welcomes people of all faiths to worship, mediate or just enjoy its beauty, and it truly is beautiful. You feel as though you have escaped to a piece of Japan but also to this beautiful serenity - it is so quiet there with only the sounds of nature really prevalent despite the other tourists. The striking red colour, typical of temples in Japan, against the lush greenery is simply magnificent and well worth the drive.
Probably one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen anywhere in the world so far - this beach is pristine! If you’re looking for Hawaii’s best to plan to just lay out for the afternoon, put Lanikai on your list!
These photos have NO filters!! That beautiful blue was the colour of the water the day I was there
The Dole Plantation
It’s fun to note that this plantation, now the site of over 1 million visitors annually, began as a fruit stand from 1950 and only in 1989 did it open to the public as Hawaii’s ‘Pineapple Experience.’
Now there is something there for the whole family to enjoy - from the train tour of the plantation to the pineapple garden maze, or the informational displays and presentations to the garden tour. It’s quite fun there, particularly for kids, and of course, you can buy every pineapple item you could imagine in their gift store, including the world famous DoleWhip which I am personally yet to try but hear it is great.
Photos from my 2014 visit to the Dole Plantation...still making me laugh!
The Polynesian Cultural Center
A living museum meets theme park, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a fantastic activity for families and a great thing to do with kids! Perhaps best known for the big luau they host at night, during the day the Cultural Center actually has representations of some of the Polynesian countries where they have cultural demonstrations at times throughout the day. This is a great way to get to know more about the unique histories, practices and heritages of each of these nations. The demonstrations are generally hands on and run for approximately 20 minutes each giving you ample opportunity to explore throughout the day.
Represented are Hawaii, Aotearoa, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga. To read about what each of the villages offer throughout the day and during their demonstration times, read here. In each of the villages as well, there is an opportunity to speak with ‘villagers’ to learn more about their home countries and the history and heritage of the country that you are visiting.
I haven’t been to the Center for many years - since I was a kid - and yet I still remember loving the experience there as it was a wonderful opportunity to learn but through fun, engaging and active activities like dancing or weaving or fire spinning. As far as an opportunity to expose kids in particular to ways to respect and learn of other’s cultures, this is a great center.
Throughout the day you can also take canoe tours of the 16 acre facility - definitely something to plan into your day there!
At night, stay for the famous luau - find out more about it here - or the pretty spectacular Hā Breath of Life Show. For Hā, be aware that you will need to book your tickets early for best seats - it is one of the biggest night shows on the island told with Polynesian dance, music, fireknives, special effects, animation and over 100 Polynesian native performers.
Surfers, this is where you are definitely going to need to go - whether you are there for the peak wave season or there when the water is ‘calmer’, this is THE surf beach as it is home to the major surf competitions in the winter months.
Other Activities for Your Kids
Wet n Wild Hawaii Waterpark
Dolphin Quest at the Kahala Hotel (or many other dolphin swimming experiences but this one has a program for kids)
I have yet to go here myself but for those looking for activities like horseriding, zip lining, ATVing or movie film site tours (eg. Jurassic Park) this is the spot for you. Check it out here.
Surf Lessons / Water Sports
As you head down the beach you’ll find a whole slew of places from which you can rent surf boards or paddle boards, etc. Some hotels can organise this for you as well. If you are looking for a calmer part of the ocean to learn on, try head down to the Hilton Hawaiian Village where they hire out all water sport equipment and arrange surf lessons from the main pool’s beach cabana shops. Otherwise, shops both on and off the beach will be able to set you up with surf lessons or a board to rent if you are already confident.
Boats and Catamarans
One of the greatest things that I have done in Hawaii is arranging a private boat for the night for a group of our friends. We had an absolute ball! If this sounds like something that you are interested in doing, I cannot recommend the team from Sunsets Waikiki enough! We hired the Abby’s Dream boat and had the most wonderful cocktail party on board which they also organised all the food for.
There are also many catamaran group sails that, of course, run at a much cheaper price, and leave directly from the main beaches - you can usually get tickets to them directly on the beach or some hotels will be able to book for you.
Atlantis Adventures also runs a Submarine Tour that leaves from the Hilton Pier that I have seen people line up all the way down the pier for many years.
There is so much to do in Hawaii but I hope this offers a good start to get your itinerary planning juices flowing. Remember to leave yourself plenty of time for some good beach or pool time - whatever your preference.
You’ll find me with a mojito and a good book by the best looking pool on the island =)