I've been to Hawaii twice, once in 2003, and again this past summer. This time was our first trip to Oahu (the island that includes Honolulu and Pearl Harbor). Obviously, this trip isn't for every family, given the distance and expense involved, but in case it's on your wish list, here's some encouragement.
While Oahu is not necessarily as pretty as Maui, acre for acre, it features some of our 50th state's most stunning green coastal mountains and awesome snorkling. It also has Pearl Harbor, one of the best-presented and most thought-provoking historical sites I've seen anywhere. In terms of a history lesson for your kids, this is about as good as it gets. I'll cover Peal in another blog.
First of all, let's cover the travel. We flew to Seattle from Philadelphia non-stop and spent a night in an airport hotel (which I wrangled for free, using some hotel rewards points I've been saving). We tried that new dinner hour non-stop that Alaska Airlines just started, because the price dropped one day suddenly. I advise keeping your eyes on travel websites in the months before you leave, as airfare fluctuations do occur which can save you hundreds of dollars.
The Alaskan people really seem to be aware that they're new in our area and were working hard to make a good impression. They were pleasant. They also offered us a rentable digital movie player for ten bucks with a choice of about 75 recent-releases and two headphones, which we thought was a pretty good deal. My wife and 14-year-old made good use of this.
For about the same price, though, US Airways also flies several non-stops and some of these flights depart at more friendly times. You can always get up early and take some connecting flights to bring the cost down even further. I'd suggest checking-out flights to Phoenix for that.
American had some good deals when I was poking around, and there's a Hawaiian Airlines non-stop to Honolulu from there. My college kid, who was joining us late, took this route. The rest of us flew Hawaiian Airlines from Seattle to Honolulu, also a very friendly airline with digital movie players ($15 this time). TIP: If you see a Hawaiian Airlines flight you like on a travel website, look for it again on Hawaiian Airlines website; it's usually cheaper there.
Getting there, half the battle
It's a roughly 5 ½ hour flight from the west coast to Honolulu. Once at the airport, expect to do some walking, especially if you have to get bags or rent a car.
TIP: There are no clear signs pointing you rental car counters, but just keep walking all the way through the baggage claim area to the shuttle bus area; all the companies use shuttle buses. You may have to wait a bit to catch yours in the congestion.
Once on the road, though, Oahu is fairly negotiable. If you're driving anywhere near Honolulu before 9am or after about 3pm, expect the highway to be jammed. Think Schuylkill Expressway at 5pm with palm trees. Just grin and bear it, like most of the locals; the jam-up only lasts about 5-15 miles in any direction before breaking-up.
We stayed at Disney's new Aulani Hotel and Resort in Ko'lina, about 20 miles west of the airport on the island's dry, southern coast. We went here because Disney owns 6abc and employees get discounts. I'm reviewing the hotel in another blog. Most of the island's main hotels, however, are in Waikiki, the beachfront section of Honolulu which, while congested, is nicely built-up and pleasing to the eye. The beach is a bit crowded near the hotels, but there is a public section east of that area and closer to the famous Diamond Head rocky outcrop that's a little less populated.
You want a car on Oahu, though. The island is not all that large and you can travel to almost any point and back easily in a day, especially if you plan your travel around the atrocious rush hours.
Pearl Harbor is not far from town. I'll cover this awesome experience in detail in another blog, but suffice to say, it's a must see and you and your family should plan on spending the better portion of a day to see it all.
Through the mountains to the north side of the island are a couple of great drives. Take the Pali Highway, Route 61 on the way and be sure to stop at the Nuuanu Pali State Park for the view of your life. Go up the coast for gorgeous mountain views and seaside drives.
On the way back, stop at the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park and check out the recreated Buddhist Temple in the back. Never a more serene setting will you ever encounter. Be sure to take your shoes off at the door before stepping inside!
Next, go a short distance down the road and drive into the free Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden. I'm not sure if they shot ABC's Lost here (it was filmed largely on Oahu), but they sure could have. It's lush and gorgeous. Take the H3 back through a great tunnel and through a green valley.
One little fishy, 100 big fishies
Another day, take Route 72, the Kalanianaole Highway east from Honolulu along the coast and bring your snorkel gear. We packed our own, by the way, but you can buy some at Target out there, if you prefer. I would advise having your own masks and fins, though, because renting can get expensive and rentals aren't always available everywhere. It's possible to miss-out on some great opportunities if you're unprepared (one instance, in particular to be noted later on).
Stop at Hanauma Bay for what may be the best snorkeling you will ever experience. The bay is formed by a submerged volcano open to the sea, and is filled with enormous coral formations and equally enormous fish! Other fish are regular-sized but they're all exotic and many feature bright, electric colors.
The water can be a little rough and wavy at the surface, and it can get deep. Very young kids will want to stay closer to shore, buy my 21 and 14-year-olds were fine going-out into the 20-to-40 foot deep areas. There are lifeguards on the beach and in the water. They highly recommend that you snorkel in pairs and so do I. Also, they're serious about conservation here and you must view a film covering the no-touch rule before they let you in the water.
Another day tip idea: head north on the H2 toward the famous North Shore, home to the international surfing competitions in the winter months. During the summer, the waves are calm, but there's still plenty to do.
Near the Turtle Bay Resort, stop at one of the famous shrimp trucks and have lunch. Find some very easy snorkeling in the protected cove at Shark Beach (no sharks here, by the way; it gets its name from the shape of the rocks). Nearby, you'll notice a beach with all the cars parked across the road and a big crowd near the water. Stop! This is where giant sea turtles hang-out. Volunteers will lay ropes around the turtles that have hauled-out onto the sand, but you can still get a great look. Tell your kids to look for the wild chickens roaming the trees near the sand as well! Most people forget to bring snorkeling gear here, but lucky you; you packed your own!
Get off the crowded beach and hit the water. You'll see fish, but the chances are very good that within 20 minutes, you'll also be swimming with some of these majestic, crazy-cool sea turtles, who actually like humans and are often curious enough to make close passes.
There are other drives and other coasts that offer different perspectives. We were there seven days and found something different to do seven times. It helps if you're at a nice hotel where you can unwind at poolside in the afternoon and evening. The Disney resort is a beauty if you can manage it, with the right combination of quiet lounging opportunities and activities. In the same area (Ko'lina), there are also two Marriott properties worth checking-out. But once you get a look at the Disney place, you may be jealous!
Will you have one or two?
It's a hard, long trip to get to Hawaii with your family, but the pay-off on Oahu is pretty remarkable. Island-hopping, by the way, is easy. Commuter jets run frequently everywhere across the chain, but it does up the cost of the trip and adds travel time. Personally, I think it's difficult to see more than a couple islands per visits, unless you have gobs of time and resources---and most families do not. Think about staying somewhere on the west coast for a couple days on the way home, by the way, to make the transition back to east coast (and the eastern time zone) life a little easier.