TravelTraveler Magazine

Hawaii with Kids: On Oahu, the Adults Need a Playground Too

National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott recently visited Hawaii with his family. Read his first blog post here

Like almost every other destination on the planet, Hawaii claims to have something for everyone. But on Oahu, the most visited of the Hawaiian Islands, you have to look hard to find something for kids. 

Check into your hotel in Waikiki, as we did a few weeks ago, and you’ll find plenty of fun for adults. Our property, the highrise Hilton Hawaiian Village, had a range of excellent restaurants, upscale shops, and amenities. 

But our three kids were overwhelmed by the enormous property – overwhelmed, actually, by the entire Waikiki experience — and although they managed to find a kids’ pool and a beach where they could build sandcastles, they didn’t connect with it the same way they had with the less touristy Big Island

Same problem at our next hotel, the Outrigger Waikiki On The Beach. Great property, with all the creature comforts you could want from a first-rate resort hotel. But apart from the stand selling shaved ice next to the pool, the kids were completely unengaged. They preferred to stay in their room and watch SpongeBob reruns.

We tried to rustle the kids out of bed at 4 a.m. to take them to the Honolulu Fish Auction. That’s where we met up with Books Takenaka, assistant general manager at the United Fishing Agency, who offered a tour of the facility while the day’s catch was being sold (you can hear the auctioneer’s voice in the video). 

But while the adults found the energetic fish market and Takenaka’s story of how Hawaii’s fishing industry is dedicated to sustainability absolutely fascinating, the children were not as enthusiastic as we hoped they would be. 

How about a visit to the state legislature? The Bauhaus-style building is rich with symbolism, from the reflecting pool surrounding the structure, which represents the Pacific Ocean, to the long columns that look like coconut trees — one for each of the Hawaiian Islands. Mike McCartney, who served as a state senator before recently becoming president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, offered our family a tour and introduced us to several representatives. 

Mom and dad couldn’t get enough of it, and hoped the kids were learning something about civics, too. But to our dismay, they just wanted to run around the courtyard. Actually, they were chased by security guards at one point, who were trying to keep them away from the artwork. Maybe we should wait a few years before taking them to another capitol. 

This wasn’t going well. Halfway through our visit, we found ourselves having to cancel dinner at one of Hawaii’s best restaurants and calling off a boat trip with Wild Side Specialty Tours. (Sorry, guys.) 

How about a farm, then? Kids like farms. We checked out MA’O Organic Farms in Wai’anae, and were shown around by Gary Maunakea-Forth and several members of his staff. MA’O is a non-profit organization that teaches future leaders organic farming, and also produces some of the best darned lettuce, tangerines, and turnips you’ve ever tasted. 

Our eight-year-old son, Aren, raved about the tangerines. That gave us hope. 

We spent the next day Waimea Valley where things started to click with the kids. We hiked up to Waimea Falls while our guide, Jenny (pictured above with Aren), told the kids traditional Hawaiian stories and explained the history of the area. 

Waimea is known as the valley of the priests and has been a sacred place for more than 700 years in native Hawaiian history.

It is also enchanting. When we got up to the waterfalls, they were just finishing a free Hula lesson for visitors. Then the instructors got a chance to cut loose and dance their Hula, and they looked like they were having a blast. 

Curiously, we found something for the kids in the last place we expected: back in Waikiki. We happened to be in town for the Aloha Festivals Floral Parade, one of the centerpieces of this state’s efforts to preserve and celebrate Hawaii’s music, dance and history. 

Our three-year-old daughter was delighted by the pau riders on horses decorated with elaborate floral arrangements and what seemed like a never-ending procession of high school bands. 

Manu Boyd, a member of the Aloha Festival’s executive committee and the parade’s emcee, later explained that even in a place like Waikiki, Hawaiian culture could – and does – thrive. But, just like Oahu’s children’s activities, you have to know where to look for it.

Maybe someday the kids will come to appreciate the rest of Hawaii the way their parents did. In the meantime, they will cherish their memories of free-form Hula being performed at the waterfalls, organic tangerines and lei-wearing horses.

Read more of Christopher Elliott in his monthly column, The Insider, and at his blog,