Family-Friendly Vacation, the North Shore, Oahu

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.

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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.

Kid-friendly beaches…

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.

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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.

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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…

  1. 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.Untitled design
  2. 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…

Cheap Eats

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.

Family-friendly Vacation in Waikiki, Hawaii

Aloha! 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), here are some of the places you’ll find us.

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.

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Where to stay 

Oahu means the gathering place and is the hub of activity in Hawaii. It’s home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, and the majority of the state’s population. If you enjoy an active vacation, don’t mind a lot of people and desire a central location with easy access to the rest of the island’s attractions, the world-renown Waikiki beach is a great choice. If you’re wanting to stay on another island or in a different part of Oahu, read this.

My personal preference for family friendly hotels in Waikiki are the Sheraton Waikiki and the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Both are beach front properties with super kid-friendly pool areas. They also have many amenities on-site for families and their prime locations are short walks to other popular Waikiki attractions.

Kid-friendly beaches 

  1. Waikiki is one of the safer beach areas on Oahu. Its surf is consistently gentle and conducive for swimming, learning to surf and for young children to splash around. The lifeguards are well-trained in water safety and are on duty all day, every day.
  2. Ala Moana beach park. If you prefer no waves at all, head to Ala Moana Beach Park on the Ewa side (west end) of Waikiki. This is where you’ll find many of Honolulu’s young families spending the day at the beach, barbecuing, making sand castles and floating in the water on air mattresses.

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Family Hikes

  1. Diamond Head. Diamond Head crater sits prominently on the eastern end of Waikiki. Hawaii’s most familiar landmark, Diamond Head is known for its historic hiking trail that was built as part of Hawaii’s coastal defense system in the early 1900’s. It’s a short (.8 mile each way), steep hike, but not too overwhelming for a young family. (I think my youngest was about 5 when she first climbed Diamond Head.) Your hard work and sweat will pay off, though, as the views at the top provide you with stunning pictures of Waikiki and the southern shoreline.
  2. Manoa Falls. My kids love this short hike through the shaded, bamboo forest of Manoa Falls. It’s short (1.6 miles roundtrip) and not too steep, ending at the beautiful 100ft Manoa Falls. Some scenes from Lost and Jurassic Park were filmed here and although you’re just a short drive from Waikiki, you really feel like you’re in the middle of dense jungle. Wear junk shoes and clothes as the trail can get really muddy and bring mosquito repellant or you will be eaten by bugs.

Things to do

The great thing about vacationing in Hawaii is that all the beaches are public and free! If you’re looking for other activities for your family, here are some options near Waikiki.

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  1. Honolulu Zoo. The zoo is located on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki. It’s well-shaded, flat with open areas for kids to run and play. Perfect way to spend a couple of hours and enjoy a relaxing morning. They have all the major “zoo animals” and a cute petting zoo.
  2. Waikiki Aquarium. Located across the street from the zoo, this is a nicely maintained aquarium with a variety of marine life. It’s not very big, but young kids will think it’s huge and filled with wonder.
  3. Surfing lessons. Waikiki is the perfect spot to try surfing. The waves are gentle and most of the people in the water are children and beginner surfers, so there’s a lot of room for trial and error. This is where we brought our kids to learn to surf. You can easily rent boards and take lessons right on the beach, which removes the hassle of having to transport surfboards in your rental car.
  4. Pearl Harbor. Okay, this spot isn’t in Waikiki, but I can’t leave it out. The Pearl Harbor Memorial is a sobering tribute to honor and memorialize our World War II servicemen. The USS Arizona Memorial commemorates the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and adjacent to it, the Battleship Missouri signifies the end of World War II. Recently renovated, it’s family friendly, educational and interactive for kids.

Places to eat

Cheap Eats

  1. Marukame Udon. If you make Yelp’s top 100 restaurants nationwide, you have to be worth checking out. My kids love this place. It’s buffet style, with the line consistently out the door. But it moves fast and you can watch them make the udon noodles while you wait. A bowl of udon for under $5.
  2. Ono Seafood. Another restaurant that has made Yelp’s top 100 restaurants. If you’re adventurous and like seafood, you’ll appreciate this little hole-in-the-wall where you can try a poke (po-kay) bowl – a local favorite. If your kids are picky, Taco Bell is one block away.
  3. Hi Steaks. Not to be confused with the uber-pricey, fancy Hy’s Steak House, this walk-up is in Food Pantry (Waikiki’s local grocery store). They serve yummy steak plate lunches. My recommendation is to get it to-go and eat it on the beach or by your hotel pool.
  4. Musubi Cafe Iyasume. Musubi is a popular snack in Hawaii. It consists of a block of rice and a piece of meat (usually fried spam) wrapped in seafood. Musubis are cheap and a perfect grab and go mid-afternoon bite to eat. Usually, we pick up a musubi at 7-11 (yes, they have surprisingly good musubis), but this little place in Waikiki is my kids’ favorite.
  5. Teddy’s Bigger Burgers. Teddy’s is one of our favorites. In fact, our family thinks they’re some of the best burgers we’ve had anywhere. They have many locations all around the island to choose from. Their shakes, too, are really yummy.
  6. Pai’s Deli. We stumbled onto this little deli during a staycation in Waikiki. We were hungry, but didn’t want to change out of our beach clothes to sit in a restaurant. Just steps away from the beach, you can pick up a healthy meal without having to even dust the sand off your feet.

A little nicer, but still good for families…

  1. Duke’s. Named in honor of Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer from Hawaii who is credited with popularizing modern surfing, Duke’s is right on the beach in the heart of Waikiki. Their prices are mid-range for steak and seafood. If you don’t have a reservation and want a more casual lunch or dinner, you can sit on the lanai and order from a limited, less expensive menu. A trip to Duke’s wouldn’t be complete without ordering their Hula Pie (ice-cream, chocolate and everything amazing).
  2. Doraku. Founded by the son of the Benihana’s restauranteur, Doraku is our go-to place for sushi and Japanese food in Waikiki.
  3. Side Street Inn. One of our favorite restaurants, Side Street Inn on the Strip is where we often bring out of town guests. They serve large portions, family style and it’s always a hit.

Don’t forget coffee and dessert!

  1. 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.
  2. Leonard’s. Leonard’s bakery has been around for decades and is known for their malasadas, which are Portuguese doughnuts without the hole. How can you not go wrong with a ball of dough, deep-fried and rolled in lots of sugar?
  3. Waiola Shave Ice. Waiola’s opened decades ago and operated out of a little mom & pop grocery mart. They now have a few locations. Always a popular spot for shave ice, they serve super-fine ice with lots of flavor choices.

This is just a tiny sliver of things to do and see in Waikiki. With so many great things to do and experience, I couldn’t possibly fit them all in one post. Here are a some more of our favorites.

How about you? What are your family-favorite, budget-friendly things to do in Hawaii?

My Souvenirs from The Eddie

When I was a little girl and our family would take a vacation, I loved shopping for souvenirs – small trinkets that I could take home to remind me of the experience. Some years, I bought pressed pennies that had a city skyline imprinted on them, other years I gravitated to the snow globes. Something about shaking a plastic visual of where we had been and seeing it erupt with white flakes of fake snow excited me.  And if we were near the beach, I would always buy an assortment of shells. These souvenirs were treasured pieces from an exciting adventure that I could take home as a reminder of the time we shared together as a family.

Two days ago was my birthday. As I approach an uncomfortably old age, I’m realizing while gifts and souvenirs are thoughtful and enjoyed, they pale in comparison to the opportunity of sharing an actual experience with those you love.

The real souvenirs – the priceless treasures from the journey – are the memories, the mental pictures that we snap along the way, tuck into our heart and carry with us forever.

With that said, my birthday was a couple of days ago and the local news reported a high probability of running The Eddie. The Eddie is a prestigious big wave invitational surf event to honor Eddie Aikau, one of Hawaii’s greatest and most respected watermen. It’s a competition requiring waves of a minimum 40’  and perfect surf conditions that are so rare the event has only been held eight times in the last 31 years. You can read more about The Eddie here and here and here.

My daughter’s teacher (aware of the potential of The Eddie the following day and also aware of our tendency to not show up to school when the waves are big) suggested that she give Jessie her homework ahead of time. Smart thinking.

Apparently, we have a reputation.

So when my husband asked me how I would like to celebrate my birthday, it was a no-brainer. At 5pm, we packed up the car, ate dinner as a family and headed to the North Shore to sleep in our car…again to find parking and secure a vantage point on the beach.

Allow me to share some of my souvenirs from the day with you. No trinkets or t-shirts, just lots of good memories that can’t be captured very well with my iPhone, but I’ll try.

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Having our whole family together for the evening.
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Watching my kids eat peel & eat shrimp at Bubba Gump and talk about how gross it is that the dark vein in the shrimp is actually their poop and they were eating shrimp poop!
  • Our 10pm trip to Longs for massive amounts of junk food.
  • The sweet people at the Catholic church who let us sleep in their parking lot.
  • Attempting to sleep in the car while listening to my kids argue over the sliver of space allotted to them.

Experiencing the beautiful Waimea sunrise and the cold, salty beach air accompanied by my lukewarm coffee.

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Seeing the joy on my kid’s faces when they secured a front row spot on the action. 

Joining with thousands of people to watch elite surfers take on massive waves in honor of a life well-lived, given in sacrifice to others. 

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Observing this patient photographer wait hours to find a lifeguard who would agree to take him out to the swell. 

Witnessing 66-year old, Clyde Aikau, compete one last time in honor of his brother.  

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Seeing twelve-time world champion, Kelly Slater
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Getting a picture with the winner, local boy John John 
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Creating incredible family memories

These are my souvenirs. Thanks for letting me share them with you. Oh yeah, and the surfing was amazing.