The island of Oahu is the perfect place for a vacation with plenty of activities that the entire family will treasure forever.
While Waikiki and downtown Honolulu have plenty of great activities for both adults and children, far too many visitors never take the time to explore the rest of what this wonderful island has to offer.
Allow yourself a full week to really get to know and appreciate the island. In order to see and enjoy Oahu, you'll probably want to rent a car, at least for a few days.
Oahu does have an excellent public transportation system, appropriately called TheBus, with routes that cover all of the places mentioned here. Low-cost four-day or one-month passes are available for adults and youths.
We've chosen 15 family activities that offer a wide assortment of things to do and see. There are plenty of other choices, but these should give you a good idea of the wonders that Oahu offers.
Hike to the Summit of Diamond Head
Diamond Head looms large over the Waikiki. Actually named Le'ahi by Hawaiians, it because known as Diamond Head in the late 1700s when British seamen saw calcite crystals sparkling in the sunshine and thought they had found diamonds.
A hike to the summit of Diamond Head, technically a volcanic tuff cone, is over a well-worn path. The summit offers spectacular 365-degree views of Honolulu and Oahu and is a must for photography enthusiasts.
You can get there by bus, car, or taxi. If you drive, you'll be able to park in the large parking lot.
The hiking trail to the summit is very steep and uneven in some areas. The last 1/10 of a mile is all stairs and especially steep. The site is accessible to those with disabilities near the visitor booth. Allow up to two hours for your hike. Wear good walking shoes and a hat, and bring water and sunscreen with you.
The only restroom is at the bottom, so it's best to use it before you start climbing. There is no visitor center, only a stand where you will pay a nominal fee and get a brochure.
The Diamond Head State Monument, where the views are so good that the military uses it, is located off Diamond Head Road between Makapuu and 18th Avenue on the south shore of Oahu. It is right on the coast southeast of famed Waikiki.
Wander the Dole Pineapple Garden Maze
An expanded version of the previous Pineapple Garden Maze debuted in July 2007, adding 36,800 square feet and 4,710 linear feet. The expanded maze now occupies an area of more than two acres. It features 14,000 gorgeous Hawaiian plants in blazing tropical colors, from hibiscus, heliconia, croton, and panax to pineapple. The center of the maze is in the shape of a huge pineapple, composed of croton with a crown of agapanthus.
Maze wanderers search for eight secret stations on their way to solving the mystery of the maze. The fastest wanderers to find all eight stations record each station's symbol on their maze cards and return to the entrance. They win a prize and have their names written on a sign at the maze entrance. The fastest times have been clocked at about seven minutes, while the average is about 45 minutes to one hour.
Dole Plantation, which welcomes more than one million visitors annually, also offers a 20-minute, two-mile journey around the plantation on the Pineapple Express train, showcasing the legacy of pineapple and agriculture in Hawaii. The Plantation Garden Tour provides visitors with the opportunity to look into the past and present of Hawaii's agriculture. The tour takes visitors through eight mini gardens: Life on the Plantation, Native Species Garden, Irrigation, North Shore Agriculture, Bromeliad Garden, Ti Leaf Garden, Lei Garden, and Hibiscus Garden.
Directions and Packages
Located outside Wahiawa town on the way to O'ahu's North Shore, Dole Plantation is open daily at 64-1550 Kamehameha Highway. The plantation offers visitors and kama'aina (native Hawaiians) the complete Pineapple Experience, including the Pineapple Garden Maze, the Pineapple Express Train, the Plantation Garden Tour, and a sampling of Dole Whip, a well-known soft serve frozen custard served alone or with Dole pineapple juice.
Snorkel in Hanauma Bay
Located about 10 miles east of Waikiki just off the main coastal road (Kalaniana'ole Highway, Route 72), Hanauma Bay State Park is the first Marine Life Conservation District in the state of Hawaii and it has one of the best beaches in the country
To gain access to the beach, you must watch a nine-minute informational film.
Throughout the year, Hanauma Bay is open daily from early morning to the evening, except on Tuesdays, when it is closed all day. On the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, Hanauma Bay remains open until quite late.
There are nominal fees to park and to enter the preserve. The entrance fee is waived for children under 13 and for residents of Hawaii with proof of residency.
Plan to arrive early. The parking lot often fills early, and you will be turned away if it is full. By getting an extra early start, you will avoid long lines at the ticket booth and snorkel concession.
If you aren't driving, you can catch the number 22 bus from Waikiki, which runs down Kuhio Avenue.
Tour the Waters off Waikiki in a Submarine
Have you ever wondered what lies beneath the surf of Waikiki? The best (and easiest) way to find out is to take an underwater tour with Atlantis Submarines, which operates three submarines off Waikiki with shuttle boarding at the Hilton Pier located in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Ali'i Tower.
At a depth of 80–110 feet, the drive takes you past numerous coral formations, six concrete pyramid structures, four Japanese-designed artificial reefs, the remains of two sunken airliners, and two shipwrecks—the U.S. Navy tanker ship YO-257 and the fishing boat San Pedro.
The standard Atlantis Submarine Tour Waikiki takes place on one of two 48-foot submarines. The premium Atlantis Submarine Tour Waikiki takes place aboard the world's largest hi-tech submarine, which accommodates 64 passengers.
Both tours take about 1 1/2 hours, leaving plenty of time to enjoy nearby Waikiki Beach. You must check in 30 minutes before the scheduled submarine tour time.
Tours run just over $100 for adults and about a third of that for children. For just a few dollars more, one child can tour free with an adult. Tours can be booked in advance online with a discount.
Attend a Paradise Cove Luau
No visit to Hawaii is complete without attending a luau. It's the perfect way for the entire family to spend an evening together with fun activities, good food, and great entertainment.
The Paradise Cove luau is the best luau on Oahu, and one of the best anywhere in Hawaii.
Ko Olina Resort and Marina
The Paradise Cove luau is held at the beautiful Ko Olina Resort and Marina in Kapolei. Most guests arrive at Paradise Cove by the luau's own buses, which pick up at most hotels and resorts in Waikiki. Some folks elect to drive the 45 minutes to an hour from Waikiki, while others are lucky enough to just walk if they are staying at one of Ko Olina's nearby hotels or vacation properties.
Luau Activities and Entertainment
Paradise Cove offers an extensive array of activities and entertainment for two hours prior to dinner. Many of these activities are perfect for the entire family, such as making flower leis, weaving palm fronds, and getting a temporary Hawaiian tattoo. You can also take part in the special games of Hawaii, including oo ihe (spear throwing) and ulu maika (rolling stone disks). Or you could wander down to the beach for a ride in an outrigger canoe.
Of course, no luau is complete without a hukilau, royal court procession, and imu ceremony followed by the luau buffet itself and a great after-dinner show.
Learn About Local Traditions at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Visitors to O'ahu have the unique opportunity to learn about the culture and people of Polynesia from the actual people who were born and live in the area's major island groups.
History of the Polynesian Cultural Center
Founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Polynesia and sharing its culture, arts, and crafts with the rest of the world. The center has been Hawaii's top paid visitor attraction since 1977.
A Journey to the Islands of Polynesia
The Polynesian Cultural Center features six Polynesian "islands" in a beautifully landscaped, 42-acre setting representing Fiji, Hawaii, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. Additional island exhibits include the great mo'ai statues and huts of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the islands of Marquesas. A beautiful man-made freshwater lagoon winds through the center. Each island offers entertainment as well as hands-on activities that the entire family can enjoy.
The award-winning Ali'i luau takes guests on a nostalgic trip back in time to learn about the royalty of Hawaii while enjoying traditional Hawaiian luau specialties and entertainment, cultural demonstrations, and service, all with the aloha spirit in a beautiful tropical setting. It's the islands' most authentic Hawaiian luau.
Ha: Breath of Life
Ha: Breath of Life is a spectacular Polynesian night show like nothing else in Hawaii. The $3 million show brings the performance of the audience and utilizes exciting new technology. It is set in a 2,770-seat amphitheater at the PCC's Pacific Theater.
The center also stages a daily Rainbows of Paradise canoe pageant with a floating cultural show and special events throughout the year. The PCC is home to Hawaii's first and only IMAX theater, featuring Coral Reef Adventure, which takes viewers on a tour of the reefs of the South Pacific.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is located in Laie on Oahu's North Shore. You can drive to the center (about an hour) or take one of the center's numerous buses that pick up at many hotels in Waikiki.
Pause at Pearl Harbor and the USS 'Arizona' Memorial
Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial are the top tourist destinations in Hawaii, with more than 1.5 million visitors each year.
A visit to the USS Arizona Memorial is a solemn and sobering experience, even for those of us who were not alive when the attack occurred. You are literally standing over a gravesite where 1,177 men lost their lives.
While it's not a great idea to visit the memorial with small children, it is a once-of-a-lifetime educational experience for school-age children and young adults. All children under 5 years old must be accompanied by an adult. Swimwear and bare feet are not allowed.
National Park Service
The USS Arizona Memorial is managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The memorial itself is accessible only if you are part of the NPS tour from the visitor center.
The tour begins with a park ranger a brief introduction. A 23-minute film on the history of the Pearl Harbor attack follows. After viewing the film, visitors board a Navy-operated launch to visit the memorial itself. The entire program takes about 75 minutes, depending on how long you stay at the memorial, but wait times for the tour can exceed two hours during busy periods. If you drive, you should plan to arrive as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds that arrive in tour buses.
While waiting for your tour to begin, listen to the excellent audio tour.
Directions and Admission
The USS Arizona Memorial is located about two miles west of the Honolulu Airport in Pearl Harbor. The visitor center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., seven days a week except for New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. There are free tours most of the day.
Pearl Harbor Historic Sites
Located nearby are three additional Pearl Harbor historic sites, which are well worth a visit. All three charge admission, but package prices are available. The USS Arizona Memorial and the three Pearl Harbor historic sites share a common parking lot.
The USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park at Pearl Harbor offers visitors the chance to tour the World War II submarine USS Bowfin and view submarine-related artifacts on the grounds and in the museum.
The USS Missouri, or "Mighty Mo," is anchored at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, within a ship's length of the USS Arizona Memorial, forming fitting bookends to the violent event that launched the United States' involvement in World War II.
The highly anticipated Pacific Aviation Museum, Pearl Harbor (PAM) opened to the public on Dec. 7, 2006, the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Hawaii.
Before You Visit Pearl Harbor, learn more about these historic sites and view photos of Pearl Harbor.
Splurge With a Tour Aboard a Catamaran
In order to truly appreciate the beauty of Oahu, you need to get away from Honolulu and Waikiki. There's no better way than to drive out to leeward or west Oahu and take a Wild Side Specialty Tour cruise, beginning at the Waianae Boat Harbor.
For several years, Wild Side Specialty Tours have offered tours on the company's 42-foot sailing catamaran, the Island Spirit, featuring up-close and personal experiences with Hawaiian spinner dolphins, including the opportunity to get into the water and swim with these amazing creatures.
Now, with their second boat, the 34-foot Baha King Cat Alaka'i, Wild Side Tours offers tours for up to six people. These tours venture farther out to sea where you will likely see spotted dolphins and if you're lucky, a pod of pilot whales.
Conditions permitting, you'll still have the chance to get in the water with the spinner dolphins or Hawaiian green sea turtles at a location known as the cleaning station off of Makaha Beach, where you'll see more green sea turtles in one location than anywhere else in Hawaii.
Their Best of the West cruise on the Alaka'i departs early in the morning for a three-plus-hour tour, but expect to pay a couple hundred dollars. Visitors 12 years and older are welcome.
Allow approximately 1–1½ hours driving time from Waikiki to reach the Waianae Boat Harbor, located on Oahu's leeward (western) coast.
Explore Kualoa Ranch and the Ka'a'awa Valley
The Kualoa Ranch and neighboring Ka'a'awa Valley are situated in one of Oahu's most historic areas. The Ka'a'awa Valley is also one of Oahu's most beautiful valleys, still largely untouched by modern development. Kualoa Ranch is only 45 minutes from Waikiki on Oahu's windward (eastern) coast.
Exploration of the ranch and Ka'a'awa Valley can only be done by special permit or on one of the tours offered by Kualoa Ranch. It's best to make reservations for any of the activities in advance since the capacity for each activity is limited and often sells out during heavy visitor seasons.
Kualoa Ranch offers horseback rides, ATV rides, bus tours, fishpond and garden tours, and jungle forays into the valley. All tours begin at the Kualoa visitor center.
If you prefer to snorkel, swim, paddle a Hawaiian canoe, or play volleyball on a private beach, that's all possible as well.
The two-hour horseback ride takes you deep into the valley along the 2.8-mile-long Ka'a'awa Valley Road, which extends into the valley. The return trip takes you on a path along the valley's southeast wall.
Location of Famous Movies and TV Shows
If you suddenly feel a sense of déjà vu here, that's because you've probably seen this place before. The Ka'a'awa Valley has been used for the location filming of numerous major motion pictures and television productions. This is where scenes were filmed for 50 First Dates, Godzilla, Lost, Mighty Joe Young, Pearl Harbor, Tears of the Sun, and Windtalkers, to name a few.
See the Honolulu Zoo
Located in Queen Kapi'olani Park on the east end of Waikiki, the Honolulu Zoo is the largest zoo within a radius of 2,300 miles and the only zoo in the United States originating from a King's grant of royal lands to the people.
The Honolulu Zoo, too often overlooked by visitors, contains more than 1,230 animals in specially designed habitats, including numerous species of animals that you will not find in any other zoo in the United States. Be sure to catch the zoo's family of Komodo dragons, its meerkats, Sumatran tigers, white rhinoceros, and much more.
Location and Parking
The Honolulu Zoo is located between the slopes of Diamond Head and Waikiki at the corner of Kapahulu Avenue and Kalakaua Boulevard. Parking is available, but the zoo is an easy and enjoyable walk from most of the hotels in Waikiki. The zoo is open daily and closed on Christmas Day.
Explore Marine Life at the Waikiki Aquarium
Located near the Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Aquarium, founded in 1904, is the second oldest public aquarium in the United States. An institution of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa since 1919, it is located next to a living reef on the Waikiki shoreline. Exhibits, programs, and research focus on the aquatic life of Hawaii and the tropical Pacific.
The Waikiki Aquarium is home to more than 3,500 organisms of 490 species of marine plants and animals. Each year, more than 330,000 people visit the award-winning aquarium, which has been designated a Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center of the federal Coastal America Partnership program.
The Waikiki Aquarium is open daily except for Honolulu Marathon Sunday and Christmas Day.
Visit Sea Life Park
Sea Life Park has been one of Oahu's most visited attractions for over 40 years. It is popular with local residents, school groups, and as a venue for corporate parties.
The park provides visitors with interactive experiences that permit guests to come in direct contact with dolphins, Hawaiian rays, sea lions, and other marine animals. There are also numerous activities and exhibits available to park visitors of any age. Popular daily shows and exhibits include the Dolphin Cove Show, the Hawaiian Ocean Theater, the Hawaiian Reef Aquarium, the Kolohe Kai Sea Lion Show, and the Sea Turtle Feeding.
Sea Life Park is also home to the famous wholphin Keikamalu, the only known hybrid of dolphin and the false killer whale, who is also the mother of Kawili Kai, born at the park in 2004.
The park also maintains a bird sanctuary that is home to a large colony of wild marine birds, including iwa (great frigates), boobies, shearwaters, and albatross. Birds that are injured or abandoned find refuge and care at the park. Most of the birds were injured and brought to the park by concerned residents.
Sea Life Park has taken an active role in the preservation and protection of endangered species from the Hawaiian Islands and around the world. Every year, hundreds of adolescent green sea turtles hatched and raised at the park are released into the ocean to help replenish the population.
Sea Life Park is located about 45 minutes from Waikiki in southeast Oahu on Highway 72 past Hanauma Bay, the Blow Hole, and Sandy Beach and just past Makapu'u Point on the left side of the road. You can't miss the entrance. The park is open daily.
Have Fun at Wet'n'Wild Hawaii
Why visit one of the world's most beautiful islands, which is surrounded by ocean, and then go to a water park? It's a bit of a mystery, yet the Wet’n’Wild Hawaii water park is drawing big crowds of locals and visitors alike.
The park is set on 29 acres in Kapolei at the southern end of the Wai'anae Mountains, about 25 miles west of Honolulu and 35–40 minutes from Waikiki.
Wet’n’Wild Hawaii is one of Oahu’s top 10 most visited family attractions. The park features more than 25 exhilarating sights nestled on 29 acres of lush tropical landscaping and natural cliffs.
While adrenaline addicts can enjoy slides such as Tornado, which catapults riders through a 130-foot tunnel into the swirling, raging waters and down into a splashdown pool, the park also features tamer attractions such as the relaxing Kapolei Kooler, a winding lazy river; Water World, an interactive children's area filled with fountains, water cannons, mini slides, and a dumping bucket; and Hawaiian Waters, a 400,000-gallon wave pool.
The park offers both male and female showers, restrooms, and changing facilities; lockers; cabana rentals; lost and found; tube rentals; and more.
The $1 million Island Adventure Golf is an 18-hole miniature golf course featuring creative and challenging miniature golf surrounded by lush Hawaiian vegetation.
Directions and Admission
Wet ‘n' Wild Hawaii is located just off the H-1 Highway. The site is on the mountain or Mauka side of the H-1 on Farrington Highway, about 20 minutes from Honolulu Airport. Free parking is available on-site. Admission packages including transportation to and from Waikiki are available.
Visit Bishop Museum
Bishop Museum is the largest museum in the state of Hawaii and the premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific. The museum houses the world's largest collection of Polynesian cultural and scientific artifacts.
A museum is also a great place for kids. The galleries of the museum's Hawaiian Hall, which underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, feature cultural and historical objects and is a companion exhibit space to the museum's modern wing, the Castle Memorial Building.
Science Adventure Center
Families of all ages will enjoy the Bishop Museum's Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center, which provides exhibits that are immersive and interactive—with a strong emphasis on better understanding Hawaii's environment. Whether you proceed down the Hawaiian Origins Tunnel to the Deep Ocean zone, stop and participate in the lab activities in the Living Islands zone, explore the interior of the walk-through volcano (the facility's signature exhibit), or climb up to the tree house to get a bird's-eye view of the volcano's erupting caldera, everywhere you turn you'll find intriguing things to see and do.
Be sure to also visit the Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium, located next to the Museum Café, where shows are offered several times a day.
The Bishop Museum is located on Bernice Street in Honolulu about 7 miles and 30 minutes from Waikiki, depending on traffic. Ample free parking is available for those who drive. The museum is accessible on public transit: TheBus routes A, B, 1, 2, 7, 10. Bishop Museum is open Wednesday through Monday and is closed on Tuesdays and Christmas Day.
Make a Pilgrimage to the North Shore
No visit to Oahu is complete without a pilgrimage to the North Shore. If it's winter, all the better because you may see the big waves.
Just an hour or so from Waikiki via central Oahu, the North Shore has a totally different culture than the rest of the island. It's more laid back and you're sure to feel a strong surfer-dude vibe.
Traveling via central Oahu, a North Shore visit begins at Haleiwa, which has fun shops and good restaurants. Be sure to stop at the M. Matsumoto grocery store for shave ice, aka water ice.
Haleiwa has two excellent beaches, both popular with surfers, Hale'iwa Beach Park on the north side and Hale'iwa Ali'i Beach Park on the south side.
Driving east from Haleiwa, you can stop and check out some of the most famous surf spots in the world, but your first stop should be Laniakea, better known as Turtle Beach, where the family can enjoy seeing green sea turtles lounging on the beach almost any day of the year.
Don't miss the Banzai Pipeline, a surf reef break off Ehukai Beach Park in Pupukea. The Pipeline is famous for huge waves that break in shallow water just above its sharp and cavernous reef, forming large, hollow, and thick curls of water that surfers can surf inside.
Other stops well worth considering are Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay. Lush Waimea Valley is home to world-class botanical gardens and nearly 5,000 species of plants.
Stop at one of the shrimp trucks that you'll find along the road near Kahuku. Fumi's, the Famous Kahuku Shrimp Truck, and Romy's are three of the best. The shrimp is caught right there on the North Shore, and it's some of the best and freshest you'll ever eat—the spicier, the better. Plus, the price is right, so you can't go wrong.