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Planning Tips for Navigating Waikiki With Adaptions for Kids, Time, or Health
We took our first planned (kid-friendly) family vacation to Oahu in 2010. Since then, my kids and I have had some unusual unplanned opportunities to visit through my husband’s summer job with an airline.
Our handful of adventures, often short on time, money, or both, have given us some unique insights on how to make the most of Waikiki. With kids in multiple age groups and a chronically ill mom, we've learned to adapt each trip or each day as needed for energy levels, attention spans, and physical abilities.
We often prefer the calmer and greener parts of the island, but we also love exploring (and being continually surprised by) Waikiki. This post speaks directly to Waikiki pointers so that a traveler can hop off the plane or step out of their hotel with at least an educated starting point for exploration.
Reasons to visit or avoid Waikiki
Waikiki is not for everyone, although everyone that visits Oahu should experience at least a taste of this part of the island. There are very nice beaches, restaurants, and shops worth visiting here.
But there are also a lot of people in a small space, with concentrations increasing drastically by lunch time and steadily increasing all day. If you don’t want to find yourself in a crowd or in the center of global tourist shopping destination, this is not where you should spend the majority of your vacation.
If you are without a rental car or want this to be the central part of your experience, Waikiki is definitely a good place to center your trip.
Waikiki on Foot
From any of the hotels within or directly adjacent to Waikiki, you will be within fairly convenient walking distance to the beaches. Pay close attention to maps and distances, however, as this range is still fairly broad and often not well described on hotel websites. Use a map site or device to ensure you won’t exceed your walking stamina getting your gear to the beach.
The main shops, beaches, and restaurants are within a few blocks of each other, so once you’re there you can get around easily. There are also free shuttles and affordable busses. A hotel lobby will be the best place to get a bus/shuttle/trolley map, and be sure to watch the signs and shuttles going by as you walk so you can see how they truly compare to the map or schedule tables.
With the free or day rate shuttles, or with walking stamina, three of the top activity options from Waikiki include (but are not limited to)
The beaches along and adjacent to Waikiki are walkable, with a few pool side or patio type detours when the tide is high, near a beautiful cement walkway connecting the beaches toward the southern extent of the accessible stretch.
Major landmarks visible on cartoon-style tourist maps make good reference points for navigating and asking for directions.
Three that will be referenced often by hotel staffs and maps, it seems, are the Outrigger, the Pink Hotel, and the International Market. These may or may not work for you, so find them on a map before you base questions based on their locations (there is more than one Outrigger...both are good reference points, so look for them on your maps as an orientation tool).
A handful of landmarks to find on a map as you plan, and as you arrive and get your bearings are:
- Outrigger--north end of the main beaches of Waikiki, south of the mall
- Pink Hotel--south of the Outrigger, north of the International Market area (relevant landmark from the beaches, decent mid-point for discerning distances or planning where to meet or eat, etc.)
- International Market--this is a great spot to use as your central coordinate. There are shops and vendors and and a food court, which you will need to pay attention to for navigating within the market. There are a few easy paths through, but you can easily send yourself in circles if you deviate before you get your bearings.
- Kalikau Ave--runs parallel to the beaches.
- Diamond Head--find it on a map, as people may use terms like "Diamond head direction"
Waikiki Shopping & Eating
Once you are in Waikiki you won’t need to seek shopping or food, as both will pretty much find you. The various areas of shops vary widely in price and emphasis. In general, the shops and restaurants get more expensive as you head closer to the beach or further south (using the outdoor market as a starting reference).
Keep in mind that many (though of course not all) of the unique shops and restaurants with big reputations have earned them and are worth seeking out. One example is Duke’s, where the lunch buffet really blew me away. I spent a little more there than most of our meals, and thought it was a different atmosphere than I'd usually be looking for, but the kids ate a very healthy meal and I was in heaven trying all the fruits.
Waikiki Accessible Activities
Throughout Waikiki and adjacent
Royal Hawaiian Center, International Market, Streets of Waikiki, Beach Walk, Ala Moana Center (Mall)
Waikiki and adjacent
Rental shops in Waikiki, Snorkel Bobs within short bus ride, kid friendly snorkeling north of Waikiki and at Park, additonal more advanced opportunities (local information should be obtained for either)
Entire length of Waikiki
Conditions vary, kid friendly areas south toward the aquarium
Zoo, Aquarium, Pearl Harbor Memorial
Public transit required if you don't have a car
We were able to take the bus with all of our gear, but be careful of schedules. This takes careful planning and plenty of energy!
Time and Energy Savers
- Pick at least one day to pay for a shuttle day pass for the farther reaching shuttle (if your hotel doesn't provide it) to reach the out skirt attractions. You can walk to most of them, but it can be a harder start to the day than expected for small children. Having done this with a chronic illness multiple times thinking I was fine, I found the humidity plus exertion kept me from enjoying the day as much as I could have.
- Take advantage of your room's kitchenette or try for a room that has one. Even some of the cheaper rooms do. Even if you don't need to save the money, taking sandwhiches on a beach days keeps you from having to leave the beach. And most of the options really close to the beach are sit down and/or really crowded. It can be a pretty bid deal to take the kids out of and completely away from the water in the middle of your beach time.
- Watch for portable food options on your way and grab something that will travel and keep well if the opportunity arises. The cheap and easy options you see closer to hotels get sparser as you near the water.
- If you are coffee dependent and picky about your drink, don't pass up good options thinking there will be plenty more. They are scattered, but some only take cash or are not as good, or may be a hefty hike once your group is settled or busy shopping in a certain area.
- Use short cuts to the beach. These are relatively easy to find through the market and through and between some of the beach front hotels. However, it easy to pass them all by if you are distracted, and you can end up walking much farther than you needed to. Again, pay attention to where you are if you cut through the market. There are easy short cuts but there are also ones that take careful navigation (and keep in mind you'll be fighting crowds while trying to think).
- Break Waikiki into sections when planning your days, or high grade the best areas if you are only there a day or two. The market should at least be a walk through or short cut and the beaches should rank highly as a priority, or at least be how you navigate part of your day.
- If you have a disabled traveler, there are obstacles along multiple routes that you may not find described or anticipate from maps or descriptions. I think reviews by disabled travelers, such as this one, would be more helpful than the government site on the topic, which serves its intended purpose but didn't lead me to immediately useful tips.
Waikiki Polynesian Dance Demonstration
Eclectic Closing List of Magical Waikiki Tid-bits
My closing list is, by design, a bit more scattered. These are the happenstance pieces you may take note of as you get closer to your trip, if you are interest in some of the more detailed pointers.
Sidewalk and Market Parrots ~ Pro's and Con's
I'm not a huge fan of the parrot keepers on the sidewalks. They mostly appear unsanctioned and bit sketchy. I think the parrots in the market look better cared for, and hopefully the higher price of those photos reflects a higher standard of care for the parrots.
I'm a biologist by trade, so I over-think these things. With that said, I was too caught off guard by a sidewalk parrot guy that set birds on my kids before I could think of all that. He didn't get a very big tip for my picture, because I didn't have much cash and because he never asked if we wanted it to happen in the first place. And my kids didn't need to lose the moment, which was already occurring.
I noticed on a later trip that there is an outfit in the market that I am more confident is permitted and/or sanctioned, because he has signs and a booth an a fair amount of space in the market (or did at the time). He was regularly present, giving a better opportunity to observe the care and condition of the birds, which might make some folks more comfortable.
The Koi ponds have been a favorite of my kids' each trip. Which has meant free entertainment that was engaging from 4 to 12 years old (so far). We rushed them on a couple of times, but later I realized I needed the rest, and they still remember those fish, which they think they can tell apart. There is a pond with waterfall in the middle of the International Market that is often a cool spot to rest. There are smaller ponds and streams closer to the non-beach side of the market, and some of the hotels at the north end of the Waikiki have ponds in unexpected shaded spots.
Little Lizards (Anoles and Geckos)
There are geckos and anoles in the alley ways that are the best short cuts to the beach. If these gross you out, don't take the alley ways at night, when they come out to feed on the bugs that are attracted to the electric lights.
We love them, so we spend time looking near lights at night wherever we travel. If you are more laid back and let your kids catch them, make sure they wash their hands afterward and don't squeeze too hard or handle them too long.
Beaches at Night
The beaches are beautiful at night, and the kids beach can be an unexpected spot to commune with other traveling families.
We didn't know you weren't allowed to swim at night (which makes a ton of sense but we were tired and hot) and the police that walked by several times didn't tell us, so we had a wonderful swim with families from Alabama and Texas.
We are pretty rule-minded in general, so I'm a bit grateful we didn't know for that one night. So as far as the swimming part, I either just ruined it for you or saved you from a ticket. But the beach part is worth knowing.
Kids Beaches and Snorkeling Practice
That same kids beach (south end of Waikiki toward the aquarium), surrounded by a rock wall that makes the water less rough, is a great place for little kids to practice snorkeling before trying beaches of the north shore or farther north in Waikiki.
You can rent from shops in Waikiki or take a bus or short drive to Snorkel Bob's. I like Snorkel Bob's because you can drop off in multiple locations (even different islands), because their prices are reasonable, and because they give tourists verbal and written info on ecologically responsible ways and places to see the fish.
Public Transit to Hanauma Bay
We took the city bus to Hanauma Bay and it was amazing but very taxing. Sleep well and start early to attempt this, or go when you have a car. Also, carefully note the timing of the last bus, as it differs by days, can be confusing, and cost us a marathon trek along a highway (sick mom with tired kids and a full day's worth of beach and snorkeling gear) to get the connecting bus.
I'm glad we did it, but that really pushed it for me health wise and I can't believe my youngest made it (he was five at the time).
If you've read this far, I will reward you with my favorite Waikiki gem. The full story of the magical way we found it is too long to share here (you can see more of it in my Travel Mishap hubs).
But the wall in some of my pictures, north of the pink hotel and perpendicular to the cement walk way that connects the beaches, is my favorite spot in Waikiki. Turtles feed there, at least in summer and fall months. I've seen them each day I've gone at the right time.
Early and late morning, you won't likely see a single turtle. but late afternoon into early evening, they will come to feed on algae on the wall and rocks. The best view is standing on or near the wall. As you can see in my video you can view them with kids ("Thursday's turtles"). This spot is not common knowledge, and many locals have given me their secret and not secret spots all over the island and legitimately didn't know about this one.