You’ve finally saved enough money to fly the ohana to Hawaii for vacation. What do you do now? Where should you stay? Can you afford it? Is it kid-friendly?
With gorgeous beaches, stunning sunsets, gentle trade winds, exotic nature trails and educational cultural attractions, Hawaii is unique and unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s also a wonderful place for families to enjoy a great vacation without breaking the bank, starving your kids for the week, sleeping in your rental car or depleting your retirement account.
We’ve raised our five kids on Oahu and when we’re able to pull away from work, school and sports (and eat somewhere other than Taco Bell or Costco pizza), one of our favorite places to visit is the North Shore of Oahu.
Note: this is NOT the Condé Nast travel guide, but simply my biased, kid-friendly, on-a-budget recommendations to experiencing an incredible time while in Hawaii nei.
North Shore, Oahu
The North Shore of Oahu is quintessential Hawaii, possessing a laid-back country feel, coupled with the strength and action of some of the world’s most powerful waves.
Often referred to as the 7-mile miracle, the North Shore of Oahu is home to premiere surfing conditions in the winter months, with waves at times reaching upwards of 50 feet, mellowing out to a friendlier, gentler summer season when you’ll find people of all ages swimming, snorkeling and splashing around in the calm ocean water. The seven miles of coastline boasts a highly concentrated stretch of epic, world-class surf conditions unlike anywhere else in the world, making it a popular gathering spot for the world’s elite surfers as well as the tourists who flock to watch them in action.
Where to stay
The North Shore is a one-hour drive from Waikiki and is perfect for a day trip. If you prefer vacationing at a slower pace and are looking for a more “country feel” for your vacation, you may want to consider staying on the North shore. The recently renovated Turtle Bay Resort is a popular spot. We usually rent a North shore condo from VRBO. Our large family can find a reasonably priced, two-bedroom condo on the North Shore, complete with a kitchen, which is always nice so you don’t have to eat out for every meal.
If you’re visiting the North Shore in the winter months (November – February), you’ll want to view the action from the shore and stay out of the water. Even if the waves don’t look too big, it’s best to keep your little ones out of the North Shore waters during these months. The waves are so powerful and the current so incredibly strong that even the most accomplished swimmers and surfers can run into trouble.
The other months of the year provide more family friendly beach options. Here are a few of our favorites (traveling from west to east)…
1. Ali’i Beach Park. This is a nice beach for beginning surfers. The waves tend to be a little smaller here than they are at other spots and it’s always filled with families and groms (surfer kids).
2. Laniakea Beach (Turtle Beach). For some reason, this beach attracts honu (sea turtles). You can watch these big turtles swimming in the shallow waters and basking in the sand on the beach. While you’re allowed to take pictures, they’re a protected species so you’re not able to touch them. This beach isn’t a swimming beach due to its rocky landscape, but it’s definitely worth a stop just to see the turtles in their natural habitat.
3. Waimea Bay. Personally, I think Waimea Bay is one of the most beautiful spots on earth! In the summer months, it’s also great beach for your family to spend the day. Once you see the long stretch of beautiful coastline nestled at the foot of Waimea Valley, you’ll understand why Waimea is such a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. In the winter, the waves can become massive (up to 50 feet), filling the bay with the world’s elite surfers and the beach packed with spectators.
4. Ehukai (Pipeline). Another legendary North Shore surf spot, the Banzai Pipeline is world renown for its perfectly barreling waves on an extremely shallow reef. Not really a family beach spot, but Pipeline, like Waimea, is classic Hawaii surfing at it’s best and something you must see if you’re on the North Shore.
5. Sunset Beach. I love Sunset Beach in the summer time and have made many fond memories with my kids there. (Like the time they were fully clothed upon arriving, but just couldn’t wait long enough to change their clothes before going in the water.) Named appropriately, Sunset Beach provides a beautiful vantage point for the perfect Hawaiian sunset.
Things to do…
- Waimea Valley. Waimea Valley is a sacred place and home to world-class botanical gardens, stunning landscape and large varieties of native and endangered birds. Calling this a hike is being generous. It’s really more like a walk, which makes it perfect for a family with young children. Another plus, the trail is paved, leading you through ¾ miles of botanical gardens, which contain over 5,000 tropical plants. The trail ends at a gorgeous waterfall that is also suitable for swimming.
- Sharks Cove. You may be wondering why on earth would a place named Sharks Cove be somewhere you would want to take your kids? My thoughts, exactly. But at Sharks Cove, you’ll find lots of tide pools your kids will love to explore. Sharks Cove is also a popular snorkeling spot known for its underwater rock and coral formations and impressive variety of marine life.
Places to Eat…
1. Kono’s. Get an early start to your day and have breakfast at Kono’s. Their breakfast burritos made with kalua pork won’t disappoint. They’re also known for their milkshakes. Milkshakes for breakfast, you say? Why not, you’re on vacation!
2. Food Trucks. There are dozens of food trucks to choose from scattered all around the North Shore. It’s the perfect plan for lunch – quick, cheap and casual. A few of our favorites are Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (Haleiwa & Kahuku), Dat Cajun Guy (Haleiwa) & Nelly’s Authentic Mexican Tacos (Kahuku) and Sharks Cove Grill (Pupukea).
3. Kahuku Grill. I love the coconut prawns at Kahuku grill. Everyone in your family should be able to find something they like here – good burgers, shrimp plates and amazing coconut prawns (but I’ve already mentioned that).
A little bit nicer, but still good for families
1. Uncle Bo’s. While we enjoy visiting the original Uncle Bo’s near Waikiki, this second location is more conducive for families. They have an extensive menu for pupus (appetizers), so you don’t have to be too hungry to enjoy a nice meal here.
2. Haleiwa Beach House. This is a new spot on the North Shore with a prime beachfront location offering the perfect place to relax, grab a bite and watch the sunset.
Don’t forget coffee and dessert!
1. Matsumoto Shave Ice. Recently renovated, along with a long stretch of shops and restaurants, Matsumoto’s is located in the vibrant heart of Haleiwa town. This little store has been serving shave ice to customers for decades and it’s the perfect way to beat the Hawaiian heat. Be prepared to stand in line, but it’s worth it!
2. Waialua Bakery. Always one of our North Shore stops, Waialua Bakery and Juice Bar serves salads, sandwiches, baked goods and smoothies, which incorporate many ingredients grown on their local farm. It’s a quaint farm-to-table place and our North Shore trip isn’t complete without their Sunny Day smoothie. Their sandwiches are incredible too!
3. Island Vintage Coffee. I’m typically a Starbucks girl, but Island Vintage is really good, serving 100% kona coffee. They have an Island latte that is amazing.
4. Ted’s Bakery. Butter rolls. Our kids are really disappointed when we don’t get to Ted’s before they sell out of their butter rolls. They’re huge; they’re buttery and really good. You can also try their Chicken Katsu plate lunch and their famous chocolate-haupia pie.
This is just a tiny glimpse of what a full day on the North Shore looks like for our family. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do. Do you have any other North Shore favorites that your family enjoys?
Here are some more of our family-favorite, budget-friendly things to do in Hawaii.