Hawai’i For Families: Your Play, Stay And Eat Guide

Pack the keiki (children) and your sarong for the ultimate family holiday — Hawai'i is as much a playground for adults as it is for the kids, as writer Franki Hobson discovered.
hawaii for families

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I want A LOT from my family holiday. Fun for both myself and the kids, new experiences, culture, tradition, history, shopping, opportunities to connect with my kids and some r&r for me — with a poolside cocktail or two and at least one great shopping purchase!

I’d already visited the warm aloha islands twice previously — in my 20s and 30s — and knew that Hawai’i offered all this and more. So after the years that we’ve all just experienced, it was a no-brainer that of all the places on the world to holiday, Hawai’i was at the top of my list. But, unlike my previous two trips, this time I was travelling as a solo parent with my sons, Maxwell, 13 and Louis, 5.

Here, my play, stay and eats list for an awesome memorable Hawai’ian family holiday that ticks all the boxes.


Maxwell and Franki hanging ten at Waikiki.

Hang 10 surfing

We are not a beachy family — and I am not a confident swimmer, nor is Louis. It needs to be 40+ degrees for me to even consider getting into a pool or the ocean. But Waikiki is different. The water is warm, inviting and the waves are perfect for learning to surf.

I know because I learnt to surf on these waves on my first Hawai’ian holiday, in my 20s, and it was one of the most amazing experiences ever. So naturally I wanted my keiki to enjoy the same experience.

We booked in for a private lesson with two instructors at Waikiki Beach Boys Surf Lessons, which is operated from Hawai’i’s most famous (pink) hotel, The Royal Hawaiian. Maxwell and I had one instructor, and Louis was one-on-one with the awesome ‘Bono’. After a quick land-based tutorial and practice run, we were off and running (literally, because the sand’s so hot!).

Maxwell and I both stood up first go! Louis paddle boarded with Bono and absolutely loved it — even got dunked by a wave, but got straight back on the board for more fun. Of all the experiences we had, this was my favourite. It was a mix of family connection, thrill-seeking, confidence boosting, breaking the daily monotony, and heart-warming, that all three of us summoned the courage to step out of our comfort zones and try something new together.

Louis taking a paddleboard.

Snorkel with turtles and mantas

Our family desperately needed a circuit breaker — to pack away the screens and start ‘living’. And as one of our first activities in Hawai’i, this was the breaker. We did a two hour catamaran snorkelling and sailing tour with Bike Hawai’i out to Turtle Cove, which, as its namesake suggests, a playground for endangered turtles. We were lucky enough to see four turtles, a manta and a rainbow of tropical fish.

TIP: Do some practice snorkelling lessons in a pool prior to hitting the reef to build the kids confidence. Also, ensure your sunscreen complies with Hawai’i’s reef-safe sunscreen, such as Kokua Sun Care.

And before you book any tours, check the Sustainable Tourism site for certified tour operators, who provide great experiences with minimal environmental footprint and controlled tourist numbers.

Explore the valley of Jurassic dinosaurs

Run for your life! The Kualoa Ranch Jurassic Park Tour was a roar.

Louis is a huge Jurassic and dinosaur fan, so this was probably his most favourite experience. The Jurassic Adventure Tour starts at the Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve station (45-60 minute drive from Waikiki), which is where most of the dinosaur displays are (and great photo opportunities). Then, 20-ish tourists board an open-air AWD vehicle that takes you on a 2.5 hour bumpy adventure through the most incredible valleys to explore a range of iconic film sites, some still featuring the original movie props.

The tour includes six stops across two scenic valleys. First stop, a WW2 bunker converted to a movie set museum, with photos of famous movies filmed at Kualoa Ranch since Hollywood began, along with some pretty cool movie set memorabilia and a fierce roaring dinosaur that even Louis was too scared to go near!

Then on through scenic valleys featured as backdrops to some of the Jurassic movie franchise’s famous scenes, a fly-by the Skull Island set (with Kong and skulls) and a stop at the Indominus Rex paddock, complete with dinosaur cages, viewing platform and 60-foot walls to make your own Jurassic-inspired home videos.

TIP: Watch the Jurassic Park movies and Skull Island before the tour.

Take an unrushed dip

Don’t make the mistake of packing activities into every second of your Hawai’ian holiday — schedule time to enjoy the pool and Waikiki beach. Some of my most beautiful memories are playing pool monsters in the Halekulani pool, watching Louis swim underwater for the first time at the Outrigger Reef pool, and absorbing the cool vibes (a hotel fave for cool American tribes) and light show (incredible show projected onto a building) from Alohilani’s rooftop infinity pool and bar, complete with live music.

And my favourite family moment of all? Waikiki beach. The boys were nestled into a giant inflatable pool lilo together, and I chauffeured them through the waves.

The Alohilani Resort rooftop pool, bar, live music and art projection was a highlight of this hotel.

Immerse yourself in the history, culture and traditions

Spend a day and night at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is set out across vast grounds (take good walking shoes!) and comprises six Polynesian island villages.

Our package included the Island Villages, Luau and Dinner, and Evening Performance. It’s a big day (12-9pm) with a lot of ground to cover and LOADS of action to both watch and ‘do’, but I highly recommend this experience. Alternatively, you can book each experience separately – but do them all if you can!

The Polynesian Cultural Center is a must-see.

The Island Villages

Each village includes arts, crafts, traditions, performances, displays and interactive activities. Maxwell and Louis did spear throwing, fishing, keiki island games, learned to play the ukulele, covered themselves in islander tattoos, did newspaper printing and learned to weave palm leaves, but there’s loads more, including hula dancing.

There’s islander performances, which combine music, song, dance, costumes and culture with great traditional storytelling.

We took a guided canoe ride through the grounds first, so we could plan out our day and get a good overview of the villages, but you can also do guided group tours.

Polynesian Cultural Center buffet and entertainment included traditional song, dance and storytelling.

The lūʻau and dinner

Our package included the authentic lūʻau – a traditional Hawai’ian feast and show featuring traditional dancers, singers and storytelling. What makes this lūʻau even more special is the Polynesian Cultural Centre is the only lūʻau where you eat the pig that is prepared in the imu (a traditional Hawai’ian underground oven).

The buffet is a great opportunity to try a vast array of traditional dishes including poi (a paste made from taro), kālua puaʻa, poke (marinated sashimi with salad), lomi salmon, ahi ahi and a rich selection of tropical fruits and desserts, all created under the direction of Chef Graham Elliot.

The evening show

We were blown away by the incredible show, HA: Breath of Life! Staged at an amphitheatre, the show brings to life a moving story through song, dance, costume, theatrics, and fire performances, taking audiences on a journey across the pacific. We learnt about the different island cultures, traditions, great ancient voyagers and the universal truth, life and death. The kid’s were absolutely enthralled, despite it going to 9pm (two hours past Louis’ bedtime).

Care for the land

As tourists, we’re usually thinking about what our holiday can do for us, but responsible tourism and a more meaningful holiday can actually be achieved from giving back to the location — listening to locals, understanding the past and present, learning about the land and… getting your feet muddy!

Admittedly, I was a little worried my kids wouldn’t engage with the two-hour Mālama Experience (mālama refers to ‘taking care of’ the land) — which embraces the importance of sustainability and how mother earth, and the lands are interconnected. But we all loved it!

Maxwell cracked open a coconut and drank the milk, both trawled through muddy taro ponds plucking dead leaves, searching for apple snail eggs to crush (disturbingly therapeutic crunching their shells to ensure the taro plants survive), catching tadpoles, and learning about the valleys, the water sources, the land, habit, ocean and people, and how they are all interconnected to provide and sustain life.

The Care For The Land Tour

Plant a tree

Still on this note, there’s a real ground swell in Hawai’i moving towards ‘mālama’ and responsible, sustainable tourism. It’s well worth factoring in at least one Mālama experience — you’ll feel just as good giving as Hawai’i feels receiving.

At Alohilani Resort, Hawai’i’s first carbon-neutral hotel, guests can book a special tree planting experience at Gunstock Ranch on O’ahu’s famed North Shore. Each tree planted is tagged with an individual radio-frequency identification chip that records everything from its health to the story of its planting. Guests who plant a tree – to commemorate a wedding, as a gift to a child, or in memory of a loved one – can track the tree throughout its lifetime.

Kualoa Ranch, where one of many Hollywood blockbusters have been filmed including Jurassic Park.


Definitely one of the boys’ favourite activities, the arcade. The arcade is at the Ala Moana Centre.

The main strip, Kalakaua Avenue, is bursting with luxury designer stores. It’s got great energy, but not really suitable for shopping with kid’s in-tow. However, there are a few arcades that segway off worth a visit. One, The Royal Hawai’ian Centre, has a mix of cool sneaker shops and limited edition pop culture pieces (interesting for teenagers), local Hawai’ian designer clothing, artworks, crafts, and foods (Maui chocolate, Kona coffee), a great food court and the global luxury designers, if you are so inclined!

The Ala Moana Centre is the mega centre (think Chadstone Shopping Centre), which has a mix of affordable, novelty, unique, department stores and designer. As well as several food courts.

The Waikiki Premium factory outlets: We bought up big at the factory outlets last trip, but they’re out of town and you need a full day. It wasn’t on my priority list this time round.

What else can you do?

Here’s a list of activities worth considering, which I’d done on previous trips to Hawai’i.

Pearl Harbour: The kid’s will love the submarine’s and rocket display, and the parent’s will be totally moved by the tragic WW2 events that took place here.

Volcano exploration: There’s no active volcanoes on the island of O’ahu but Bishop Museum has an ‘active volcano’ in their science adventure centre, and Diamond Head has a crater you can hike.


We stayed at three hotels, each unique and offering a different type of family experience. I always stay at multiple hotels when holidaying because the hotel is as much a part of the experience as the destination.

Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort

Spacious rooms, great vibes, great views and great place to stay. Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort.

Why you’ll love it: It’s bang-on Waikiki Beach, has a great outdoor family pool and three ‘hot tubs’, is a ten-minute walk from the main strip, Kalakaua Avenue. The hotel had a recent major renovation, so it’s fresh and sparkly new.

The Vibe: Relaxed, family-friendly, inclusive. The rooms and hallways are filled with artworks depicting Hawai’ian history, tradition, sea-life and contemporary culture – it’s like a museum of past and present!

I spoke to many guests who were all repeat patrons, saying they love the friendly staff, location and hotel facilities. I would definitely stay at Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort and other Outrigger hotels again after this experience.

TIP: Club-level rooms come with ‘Voyager 47 Club Lounge’ access, which includes free locally-inspired breakfasts, Kona coffee, sunset cocktails, craft beers and nibbles from 4-6pm daily.


Why you’ll love it: More formal and luxurious, Halekulani has an elevated, sanctuary-like feeling, with spacious, beautiful rooms, vast lush green grass grounds, ample shaded outdoor seating areas with water features, and poolside ‘check in’ required.

The Halekulani report pool…

… and the view from our Halekulani room, which included the pool, Waikiki beach and Diamond Head.

Location: The hotel and pool are right on Waikiki beach, and just one bock (10 minute walk) away from Kalakaua.

The rooms at Halekulani are modern, fresh and luxe.

The hotel’s famous signature restaurant, House Without A Key, refers to an the welcoming ‘doors are open’ vibe. Sunset cocktails at the restaurant while listening to traditional musicians and watching a hula performer, with the beach as the backdrop, is a must.

The vibe: Luxe, picture-perfect setting, beautiful, formal.

The House Without A Key restaurant at Halekulani resort is one of the most iconic restaurants in Waikiki. Make a reservation for sunset cocktails and be entertained by traditional musicians and hula performers and enjoy beachside local fare.

The House Without A Key restaurant at Halekulani resort caters for adults and children with a host of signature dishes.

Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach

Alohilani cabanas… the perfect place to listen to live entertainment poolside.

Located bang in the shopping strip and restaurant action and across the road from Waikiki beach, Alohilani Resort is the first carbon-neutral hotel in Hawai’i. The recent refurbishment has resulted in a grand, decadent and impressive entrance, complete with soaring ceilings, contemporary local artist artworks, as well as historical tributes to Queen Liliuokalani, who was overthrown on January 16, 1893, when United States troops invaded the Hawai’ian Kingdom, and past prominent figures dotted throughout public spaces.

The piece de resistance is the Oceanarium, which the kids will love, and the video art (light show projection) by artist Joseph Pa’ahana and the pool, complete with cabanas, pool immersed sun lounges and live music at Swell Bar.

The standard two-bedroom rooms are not very spacious, so if you have a family, it might be worth upgrading to a suite.

The vibe: The hotel seemed to cater a young, cool US tourist market crowd – there were plenty of small groups of friends and families holidaying together. This made for really interesting people watching (even their swimsuits are fabulous!)

Alohilani’s Oceanarium is a hit with the kids.


The whipped Acai bowl at the Alohilani Resort; ‘Voyager 47 Club Lounge access afternoon snacks at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort and Save Ice.

Great restaurants, icons, diners, drinks and foods to try…


It doesn’t get any more American than the 24-hour diner Denny’s. Serving pancakes, burgers, fries with the option to ‘upsize’ every meal with irresistible additions from pancakes to bacon strips and the occasional fruit salad option, the kids will love it.

Louis loving Denny’s pancakes.

Shave ice

A must Hawai’ian dessert! But not all shave ice is created equally. The Island Vintage Shave Ice shack, located out the front of the Royal Hawaiian Centre on Kalakaua Boulevarde, was the best Shave Ice we had (and we had a few!). It’s basically shaved ice with syrups over ice cream. Heaven!

A lūʻau and a kālua

The Polynesian Cultural Center luau.

Pig prepared in an imu (traditional earth oven) might not go down well with the kids, but the buffet and show is a must see. As well as the Polynesian Cultural Centre (see above), Disney Aulani and Hilton Hawaiian Village offer similar experiences with a traditional show.

Poke bowls

I ate Poke bowls almost daily. They are sensational!

Fresh salmon or ahi ahi with salad and rice, I lived on these!

Farm to plate and local produce

There’s a real movement in Hawai’i to promote sustainable, local produce, and there’s plenty to choose from, including Ahi (tuna) and Lomi Lomi (salmon), Kona coffee, Maui chocolate, macadamias, farm to glass Kō Hana Rum.

Alohilani resort recently unveiled a new Earth to Cup menu a sustainable food and cocktail series at Swell cantered around locally sourced products. New dishes include Spicy Kauai Shrimp Satay and Molokai Beef Filet Carpaccio, but enquire at every eatery and you’ll usually find a dish that’s local.

Spam musabi

Musabi eateries aplenty.

I couldn’t bring myself to eat the American favourite, ‘Spam’ aka. Ham in a tin, but these Musabi café’s are everything and well worth a look in.

Kona coffee

I tried one Starbucks coffee and, well, it wasn’t my thing. Instead, drink the local brew, Kona coffee! There’s the Honolulu Coffee Experience Center in Waikīkī, a Coffee Gallery at North Shore Marketplace and Kai Coffee Hawaii, which have an extensive menu of specialty artisan roasted Hawai’ian coffee options.

Mac with cheese

Not Hawai’ian, but very American! My kids both loved this, although it was prepared on the spot at Alohilani’s Voyager Club Lounge chef, so it was of quality standard!

Fun pack breakfast cereals

I normally won’t buy the sugar-packed cereals, but we did bring back a mini cereal fun pack and I wish I bought more. I have never seen the kids get out of bed so quickly to eat breakfast!

Hawaii was a real sugar-hit for myself and my two boys, and one that I’d highly recommend for any family wanting ‘it all’. We stayed for 10 nights, which allowed enough time to do a wide range of activities and rest and relax.

*For more information, visit Hawaii’s official tourism site, Go Hawaii.

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