We had every reason not to take a family vacation to Oahu last Thanksgiving. The kids would miss school. We hadn't cared much for Waikiki after our honeymoon a decade ago. It was the busiest time of year to travel. And my parents — ever lovable but occasionally trying — would be with us.
So of course we took the trip.
On Thanksgiving Day, eight of us — my husband, Jack, my children Bailey, 7, and Samantha, 4, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law and me — flew to Honolulu for six days.
I feared we'd be sorry — and I feared it even more when both kids developed mild coughs that meant no beach and no pool, leading a disappointed Samantha to say, "When I grow up and become a mommy, I'm going to Hawaii and going swimming."
So we put away the swimsuits and pulled out the maps, traveling to nearly all parts of the island. To our surprise, we had a great time.
"I don't want to be ridiculous," Bailey said that first morning at breakfast at Duke's Canoe Club as he licked the coconut syrup off his lips, "but I wish I could live here."
Brain teaser Off to a good start, we drove 40 minutes north of Waikiki to the Dole plantation, whose pineapple garden maze is said to be the world's largest permanent puzzle. The kids enjoy doing mazes on paper, and I thought the botanical brain teaser would give them a chance to run around after being cooped up in planes and cars the day before. Good choice. They ran and skipped after Jack, our designated navigator, through the 11,400 native plants, which included bromeliads, hibiscus, panax and crotons.
Although the path is just a little more than a mile and a half, it felt much longer, especially for those of us (read: me) who lacked good walking shoes and had forgotten to bring water. The gravel surface made walking tricky, and a hat and a good sense of direction would have helped too. After an eternity (OK, only 30 minutes), we exited the maze. "Hurray, we made it!" Bailey shouted.
We continued north to Waimea Bay on the North Shore, stopping at Sunset Beach to watch the waves pound the sand; a sign warned beachgoers of strong currents that could sweep away the unwary. For the entire trip, this was as close as we got to the beach.
Jack is a foodie, so naturally we stopped at the Macadamia Nut Farm Outlet of Tropical Farms. We relaxed in the easy atmosphere of a family-owned business (founded by Chrissy and Stephen Paterson nearly 19 years ago) and sampled its free Kona coffee and macadamia nuts. But what really took our breaths away was the sheer beauty and lushness of the landscape, all part of the Kualoa Ranch, Oahu's largest. We wanted to take the garden tour, to see more, but the sun was setting, so we vowed to return another day.
We continued on our circular tour of the island, driving through the town of Kailua. Somehow we got lost looking for the Pali Highway, which would lead us back to Waikiki. Apparently we weren't the first.
"A lot of people end up here," said the friendly woman we asked for directions. "This is Lanikai. It's a special place," she said. The spacious homes, the ocean views and the scads of runners and walkers attested to that.
My parents were glad we got lost because we got to see a part of Oahu most tourists don't. When I was a child, my dad would say "We're sightseeing" whenever we got off track. While we were in Lanikai, I heard myself saying the same thing. As they would throughout the trip, my parents thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They were along for the ride and didn't bother with maps, directions or itineraries. Wherever we went was fine with them, as long as someone else was driving. It worked out well for everyone, including my brother and sister-in-law, who spent the days by themselves and joined us for dinner.
Chocolate scores The next day, we took the kids to the Bishop Museum, Hawaii's largest, commemorating 2,000 years of Polynesian history and culture. Aside from the 6,000-pound sperm whale skeleton — which frightened Bailey but left Sam in "I'm-not-afraid" mode — the museum held little interest for them. They perked up, however, as we strolled through the chocolate exhibit, a traveling display from Chicago's Field Museum.
Appetites stimulated, we stopped at nearby KC Drive Inn. Dayton Asato, whose grandfather bought the restaurant in 1934, greeted and seated us, telling us milkshakes and "waffle dogs" were the restaurant's specialties.
Booths fill the restaurant, and the kitchen serves the dining room and a takeout window. (Despite the word "drive," you need to get out of the car to place and get your order.) The interior didn't appear to have changed much since the '70s, but it was technologically up to date: It had free Internet access, so Jack took the opportunity to read his e-mail.
As for the food, Samantha tried a waffle dog (a hot dog wrapped in a pancake-like waffle) but was more interested in her strawberry milkshake. Bailey had no trouble wolfing down his cheeseburger. I enjoyed my wonton noodles but relished more Jack's hamburger steak, which he declared the best he'd ever eaten.
Refueled, we stopped next at Diamond Head, from which lava erupted about 150,000 years ago. "We're in a volcano?" Bailey asked as he looked up at the lip of the crater and tried to take it all in. He feared it would erupt again while we were in it. Although we felt like ants in the bottom of a big bowl, no harm came to us of course.
Time for time out After days of sightseeing and being in the car together, we were all ready for some time apart.
About 25 hotels in the Waikiki area offer kids' programs for their guests ages 5 through 12. We stayed at the Sheraton Waikiki because of its central location on Kalakaua Avenue — Waikiki's boulevard of shops, hotels and restaurants — and because it had a children's program in the hotel. Rates are $20 per child for half a day and $30 each for a full day.
My kids enrolled in the half-day keiki (Hawaiian for "children") cooking program. There were more girls than boys among the nine pupils, and some spoke only Japanese. No problem. The two staff members, Ms. Carol and Mr. Terry, spoke Japanese too.
Bailey initially balked at going. (He later told us he thought it would be like a program he and his sister had attended in Palm Springs, where they did little more than watch videos.) But he and Samantha, who was close enough to being 5 to qualify, had a blast.
They made their own aprons, drew up their own recipe cards and learned to make such Hawaiian specialties as hurricane popcorn, shave ice and Spam musubi (basically Spam sushi, with a slice of Spam atop rice). Naturally, they ate all their creations.
While the kids were occupied, my husband caught up on some reading and even napped, both of which he came to Hawaii for. I ran errands, and my parents went shopping. It was a good break.
Hard to believe that a place like Hawaii can have its challenges, but for us it did: finding a restaurant close to the hotel that served good food at decent prices. The buffets at the Sheraton and a sister hotel were delicious but pricey. There was the International Marketplace, not far from our hotel, but we didn't want fast food in an ultra-casual environment. There were ramen shops along Kalakaua, but they weren't big enough to seat all of us at one table.
We found variety and sit-down service at Aqua Café, in a food court about a 15-minute walk from the hotel, and Restaurant Daruma, in the shopping center next to our hotel.
After three days of rain, we were glad the morning of our last day dawned bright and clear. As we had promised ourselves, we returned to the windward side to take the garden tour, the Alii Tour. But first things first: We stopped at Teddy's Bigger Burgers in Kailua, where we all pronounced our meals delicious. The buns were fresh, the beef excellent and the crispy fries oh so good.
A sampling of flowers A light drizzle started during lunch, but by the time we got to Tropical Farms, it had dissipated. The driver and guide on our "Adventure Bus" was Chief Sielu Avea, who identified himself as a member of the Chiefs' Council in Samoa, a group of hundreds of chiefs. With his headdress, island garb and intricate tattoos, we didn't doubt it. As he put the bus in gear and we lurched on the dirt road into the nursery, he told us about the plants and fruits that grow here and their uses. Red ti leaves, for instance, are used to eliminate pain and fever.
The chief periodically got off the bus and cut samples of flowers and plants for us. At the first stop, he delighted the women aboard, as well as my 4-year-old, with stems of pink ginger still wet from the rain. At another point, he picked star fruit and guavas, then returned to the bus and cut them into pieces.
We saw taro patches, freshwater lilies, views of what the locals call Turtle Island (its tail is the site of the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base), and macadamia, Kona coffee and banana trees. He also showed us how to make a fire, telling us that the two pieces of wood used to start the fire must be from the same tree. With just a few quick rubs, he had a fire started. Soon, he was giving us a fire display, dancing to the rhythm of the music pounded out by two men on wooden drums, dazzling Bailey and Samantha as he passed a flaming baton between his legs.
From bus we went by motorboat to see the largest fishpond in the Pacific region. The chief, who operated the motor, told us the 800-year-old pond has a mixture of fresh water and saltwater and a resident 6-foot barracuda. We didn't spot it, but we did have a beautiful view of the Koolau Mountains.
We were sorry to leave a place so magical. As we headed back, I decided that traveling during Thanksgiving wasn't so bad. Earlier in the trip, I had stood on the balcony of our hotel room — relaxed by the soft music coming from the trio below and the foamy waves curling into shore — and had counted my blessings.
Bailey must have felt the same sense of peace. As he munched on pizza, he suddenly said to my brother and me, "I'm enjoying the music and am surrounded by the love of the family." Indeed we were.
All around Oahu
From LAX, nonstop service to Honolulu is available on American, Hawaiian, United, Delta, Continental and ATA. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $392.
WHERE TO STAY:
Many hotels in the Waikiki area offer children's programs. Among those I checked out:
Sheraton Waikiki, 2255 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu 96815; (808) 921-4610 or (800) 325-3535, http://www.starwood.com/sheraton/index.html . Doubles start at $170. Kids' program is Keiki Aloha, for children ages 5 to 12; $20 per child for half a day or $30 for a full day. Meals are available for an additional fee. Activities at the Sheraton change every three months. The winter schedule included catamaran sailing, boogie boarding and candy making. Outings include trips to the Waikiki Zoo and Diamond Head. On Family Days, adults can participate with the children for an additional $10 per grown-up. Visitors without a car might find this a good way to see some of the sights, especially because the fee includes the admission price of the outing.
Outrigger Reef, 2169 Kalia Road, Honolulu 96815; (808) 923-3111, http://www.outrigger.com . Doubles start at $180. Kids' program is Cowabunga Kids Club, for children 5 through 13; $35 for half day and $55 for full day. This includes a T-shirt and lunch or a snack of juice and chips. This kids' club offers no bused activities, but it does hold some events, such as sandcastle building, crab catching, kite making and kite flying on the beach. The program remains much the same year-round. Pickup for the Outrigger Reef is available from the 20 or so Outrigger hotels and resorts in the Waikiki area.
Kahala Mandarin Oriental, 5000 Kahala Ave., 96816-5498; (800) 367-2525 or (808) 739-8888, http://www.mandarinoriental.com . Rooms (two doubles or a king) start at $295. Suites start at $950. The kids' program is Keiki Club, for kids 5 through 12; half day with lunch is $40, full day $50. The Kahala Mandarin is in a secluded part of Waikiki where an offshore reef makes for calm water. The club is held in one of the hotel's standard rooms, with 550 square feet of space. The walls were tastefully painted with a sea-life scene in shades of blue and white. Activities include snorkeling, fish printing, a scavenger hunt and puppet crafts. Outings are extra and also require a separate admission fee. During the busy season, nighttime activities include stargazing and ceramics.
Kamaaina Kids originates many of the programs at various hotels in the area. (See its website http://www.kamaainakids.com .) The staff-to-child ratio is 1 to 8, with a maximum of 16 children. Staff members are certified in CPR, first aid and lifeguarding. Reservations 24 hours in advance are required.
WHERE TO EAT:
Duke's Canoe Club, Outrigger Waikiki Hotel, 2335 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 922-2268, http://www.dukeswaikiki.com . Breakfast buffet offers good variety, including an omelet station. $10.95 per adult; $6.95 per child.
KC Drive Inn, 1029 Kapahulu Ave.; (808) 737-5581, http://www.anytimegrinds.com . Local-style plate lunches. Great hamburger steaks, shakes. Entrees range from $5 to $9. Near Diamond Head.
Mei Sum Dim Sum, 65 N. Pauahi St.; (808) 531-3268. A small restaurant that serves up delicious dim sum all day. Dishes range from $1.95 to $3.15, with a la carte items available. Entree prices range from $3.50 to $19.95.
Restaurant Daruma, Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, 2201 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 926-8878. On the second floor of the shopping center next door to the Sheraton Waikiki, this restaurant has good ramen, bento boxes and udon. Entrees range from $6.25 to $45.
Aqua Café, 2250 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 922-6888 Nice sit-down place in a food court is a 15-minute walk from the Sheraton Waikiki. The food was OK, although at the time of our visit, the cafe had been open only two days. Entrees $7.50 to $21.50. Kids' meals $4 to $5.
Teddy's Bigger Burgers, 539 Kailua Road, Kailua; (808) 262-0820. Excellent burgers and crispy fries. Kids' meals too. $5 to $8.
WHAT TO DO:
Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu 96817; (808) 847-3511, http://www.bishopmuseum.org . Adults, $14.95; $11.95 for children and seniors 65 and older. Free for ages 3 and younger.
Pineapple Garden Maze, Dole Plantation, 64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy., Wahiawa 96786; (808) 621-8408, http://www.dole-plantation.com . $5, $3 for children 4-12.
Tropical Farms, 49-227A Kamehameha Hwy., Kaawa 96744; (877) 505-6887. Alii tour, (808) 781-2474, http://www.chiefsielu.com . The 45-minute Alii tour is offered daily. $10. Free for kids 8 and younger.
TO LEARN MORE:
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2250 Kalakaua Ave., Room 502, Honolulu, HI 96815; (800) GO-HAWAII (464-2924), fax (808) 924-0290, http://www.gohawaii.com .
— Brenda Wong