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How to Feel Like a Hawaii Family: The Best of What to See and Do

Maybe the two of you visited Hawaii B.C. (Before Children), or maybe a trip to Hawaii has been the dream for years. There's no place on earth quite like this handful of sun-drenched mid-Pacific islands. The Hawaii of South Seas literature and Hollywood films really does exist. Here you'll find palm-fringed blue lagoons, lush rainforests, hidden gardens, cascading waterfalls, wild rivers running through rugged canyons, and volcanoes soaring 2 miles into the sky. And oh, those beaches -- gold, red, black, and even green sands caressed by an endless surf. The possibilities for adventure -- and relaxation -- are endless. Each of the six main islands is distinct and infinitely complex. There's far too much to see and do on a 2-week vacation, which is why so many people return to the Aloha State year after year.

As a nearly life-long Hawaii resident, I'm letting you in on some of the secrets that Hawaii families enjoy. We live here because of the beauty, culture, and lifestyle of these precious islands. You don't have to be rich to live in Hawaii (although, as my mother says, "It sure helps"), to enjoy a quiet early morning walk on the beach just as the sun lights up the turquoise water, to smell the sweet fragrance of just-blooming ginger, or to hear the thundering music of a waterfall. Hawaii can be a place that teaches your kids to enjoy the richness of their senses, from the vibrant colors of a rainbow to the smell of a bamboo forest just after an afternoon rain squall.

Hawaii can also be a place of adventure, the opportunity for you and your children to try new things: snorkel in warm tropical waters filled with neon-colored fish, coast down a dormant (but not extinct) mountain, silently glide over calm waters in a double kayak, or soar through the air, stopping to hover over an exploding volcano in a helicopter.


Even the word "Hawaii" is magical all over the world, not only for the incredible beauty here but also for the culture and the lifestyle. This is a land founded by people who had immense respect for the island and the ocean. Their creed was a lifestyle of harmony and generous sharing. Millions of visitors flock to these islands every year because with all that's going on in the world today, they hunger for this harmony and generosity, which in Hawaii is referred to as the "aloha spirit."

All is not perfect in paradise. It is expensive in Hawaii: The islands sit in the middle of the Pacific, the most remote island chain in the world, and everything that is not grown or produced here has to be shipped or flown in -- so be prepared to pay more. And despite being part of the United States, things are definitely done differently in Hawaii -- that's why you've shelled out the money to give your family an opportunity to experience life here.

Part of raising a family is building memories that will last a lifetime. A trip to Hawaii will create memories not only of what you did, but of a lifestyle -- the way people related to each other, the way the ocean smelled in the early morning, the way the stars glittered at night, the way the multicolored flowers looked in the full sun, and the time your family spent in a very special place.


When in Hawaii . . .

Hawaii loves travelers -- they are the main industry, and a majority of Hawaii residents earn their living in the tourism industry or an industry closely connected to it. I love to pretend I'm a visitor when I travel around the state. Visitors are taken good care of and are treated like guests. Still, if you want to do as the Hawaiians do while you're in Hawaii, below are some helpful tips to help you blend in a little better:

Do not buy matching outfits. It has always puzzled me that seemingly normal people come to Hawaii and feel that the entire family has to be dressed in a carbon-copy set of aloha wear: matching aloha shirts for the boys that perfectly match the baggy muumuus for the girls. Look around: Do you see troops of families in replica outfits? That's not to say that you can't outfit your family in aloha wear -- just let each individual pick their own outfit.


Prepare for a variety of weather. In addition to the shorts and T-shirts you throw in the suitcase, pack some clothes to keep you warm, especially if you plan to visit the mountains in Hawaii. Yes, even in summer it is cold atop the mountains. At the ocean, after the sun sets, the temperature can drop and the wind can pick up. Whenever I'm at a sunset event on the ocean, I can always pick out the locals: They are the ones carrying sweaters because they know how the temperatures drop an hour after sunset.

Drive with aloha. Hawaiians probably drive slower than elsewhere, give way to other drivers, and never, never (never) use horns to signal dissatisfaction with another driver. (The only time locals use their horns is to greet someone they know.) And one more thing: If you are sightseeing and driving slowly, look in your rearview mirror to see if you are holding up traffic -- if so, please pull over and let the cars go by.

Be friendly. Reach your hand out and greet everyone. Local residents say, "How-zit?" meaning "Hello, how are you?" Tell people your name and ask for theirs.


Get out of resort areas and explore. Resorts are fabulous, but there is so much more to Hawaii. Rent a car and get out and drive. Stop along the way, talk to local residents, ask them what their favorite beach for snorkeling is, where they love to eat, and what they'd do if they had a day off.

Be appreciative. Hawaii locals just love compliments. If you like the store, restaurant, activity, even your hotel room -- tell the management. People in Hawaii are long on appreciation and admiration and short on criticism (even constructive criticism).

Smile. You're in Hawaii and it's warm and beautiful -- there's a lot to smile about.


Getting the Most Out of Our Advice

The purposes of this column are to help visitors get the most out of your trip to Hawaii, and to update local residents who want a refresher on all the activities for families. You won't find a lot of historical information or social commentary here. What you will find is opinions on the best places for families to stay, restaurants that welcome children, and a range of activities for all ages. I have purposely left out many chain restaurants and shops that your hometown may already have. You can go to them any time -- while you're in Hawaii, try to do things unique to Hawaii.

There are lots of islands in Hawaii, and each is unique. Read through each island chapter before you decide which island will best suit your family. Remember: Do not try to do more than one island a week; if you do, you'll have a vacation in interisland terminals instead of on beautiful beaches. The islands are far apart and it takes a full day to check out of your hotel, fly to another island, and check into a new hotel.


Once you decide which island you will explore, have a family planning session and choose the major things you want to see and do. Don't plan any more than one major activity a day, and leave at least a couple of days wide open. Pinpoint activities on a map -- does your plan make sense or are you crisscrossing the island unnecessarily? If you're on Oahu and driving to the Polynesian Cultural Center, for example, perhaps you can plan a stop at the North Shore for a picnic lunch.

When you arrive, allow yourself, especially the kids, time to recover from jet lag, Not only is Hawaii 2,500 miles and two time zones from the U.S. West Coast (three time zones during daylight saving time), but there's a huge change in climate and temperature. Plan nothing on the day you arrive, except checking into your hotel, maybe some beach time, an early dinner (remember the time change), and an early bedtime. Once you're ready to see the sights, be flexible.

So let's get started with planning the vacation of your dreams. For those too excited to page through from beginning to end, this chapter highlights the very best Hawaii has to offer.


Frommer's Favorite Hawaii Experiences

Hitting the Beach: A beach is a beach is a beach, right? Not in Hawaii. With 132 islets, shoals, and reefs, and a general coastline of 750 miles, Hawaii has beaches in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, including black. The variety on the six major islands is astonishing; you could go to a different beach every day for years and still not see them all.

Taking the Plunge: Don mask, fin, and snorkel and explore the magical world beneath the surface, where you'll find exotic corals and kaleidoscopic clouds of tropical fish; a sea turtle may even come over to check you out. Can't swim? That's no excuse -- take one of the many submarine tours offered by Atlantis Submarines (tel. 800/548-6262; on Oahu, the Big Island, and Maui.


Meeting Local Folks: If you go to Hawaii and see only people like the ones back home, you might as well not have come. Extend yourself -- leave your hotel, go out and meet the locals, and learn about Hawaii and its people. Just smile and say "How-zit?" -- which means "How is it?" ("It's good," is the usual response) -- and you'll usually make a new friend. Hawaii is remarkably cosmopolitan; every ethnic group in the world seems to be represented here. There's a huge diversity of food, culture, language, and customs.

Feeling History Come Alive at Pearl Harbor (Oahu): The United States could turn its back on World War II no longer after December 7, 1941, when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor. Standing on the deck of the USS Arizona Memorial (tel. 808/422-0561; -- the eternal tomb of the 1,177 sailors and Marines trapped below when the battleship sank in just 9 minutes -- is a moving experience you'll never forget. Also in Pearl Harbor, you can visit the USS Missouri Memorial; World War II came to an end on the deck of this 58,000-ton battleship with the signing of the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.

Watching for Whales: If you happen to be in Hawaii during humpback-whale season (roughly Dec-Apr), don't miss the opportunity to see these gentle giants. A host of boats -- from small inflatables to high-tech, high-speed sailing catamarans -- offer a range of whale-watching cruises on every island. One of my favorites is along the Big Island's Kona coast, where Captain Dan McSweeney's Year-Round Whale-Watching Adventures (tel. 888/WHALE-6 or 808/322-0028; takes you right to the whales year-round. (Pilot, sperm, false killer, melon-headed, pygmy killer, and beaked whales call Hawaii home even when humpbacks aren't in residence.) A whale researcher for more than 25 years, Captain Dan frequently drops an underwater microphone or video camera into the depths so you can listen to whale songs and maybe actually see what's going on.


Creeping Up to the Ooze (Big Island): Kilauea volcano has been adding land to the Big Island continuously since 1983. If conditions are right, you can walk up to the red-hot lava and see it ooze along, or you can stand at the shoreline and watch with awe as 2,000°F (1092°C) molten fire pours into the ocean. You can also take to the air in a helicopter and see the volcano goddess's work from above.

Greeting the Rising Sun from atop Haleakala (Maui): Bundle up in warm clothing, fill a thermos full of hot java, and drive to the summit to watch the sky turn from inky black to muted charcoal as a small sliver of orange light forms on the horizon. There's something about standing at 10,000 feet, breathing in the rarefied air, and watching the first rays of sun streak across the sky. This is a mystical experience of the first magnitude.

Taking a Day Trip to Lanai (Maui): If you'd like to visit Lanai but have only a day to spare, consider taking a day trip. Trilogy (tel. 888/MAUI-800; offers an all-day sailing, snorkeling, and whale-watching adventure. Trilogy is the only outfitter with rights to Hulupoe Beach, and the trip includes a minivan tour of the little isle (pop. 3,500). You can also take Expedition's Lahaina/Lanai Passenger Ferry (tel. 800/695-2624; from Maui to Lanai, then rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle from Dollar Rent-A-Car (tel. 800/588-7808; for a day of backcountry exploring and beach fun.


Soaring Over the Na Pali Coast (Kauai): This is the only way to see the spectacular, surreal beauty of Kauai. Your helicopter will dip low over razor-thin cliffs, flutter past sparkling waterfalls, and swoop down into the canyons and valleys of the fabled Na Pali Coast. The only problem is that there's too much beauty to absorb, and it all goes by in a rush.

Watching Rainbows at a Waterfall: Rushing waterfalls thundering downward into sparkling freshwater pools are some of Hawaii's most beautiful natural wonders. If you're on the Big Island, stop by Rainbow Falls in Hilo, or the spectacular 442-foot Akaka Falls , just outside the city. On Maui, the road to Hana offers numerous viewing opportunities. At the end of the drive, you'll find Oheo Gulch (also known as the Seven Sacred Pools), with some of the most dramatic and accessible waterfalls on the islands. Kauai is loaded with waterfalls, especially along the North Shore and in the Wailua area, where you'll find 40-foot Opaekaa Falls, probably the best-looking drive-up waterfall on Kauai. With scenic mountain peaks in the background and a restored Hawaiian village on the nearby river banks, the Opaekaa Falls are what the tourist-bureau folks call an eye-popping photo op.

Smelling the Flowers in a Tropical Garden: The islands are redolent with the sweet scent of flowers. For a glimpse of the full breadth and beauty of Hawaii's spectacular range of tropical flora, I suggest spending a few hours at a lush garden. Two tropical havens not to be missed on Oahu include the 40-acre Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden , featuring 1,800 species of tropical plants, and the World Botanical Garden , showcasing some 5,000 species. On the Big Island, Liliuokalani Gardens , the largest formal Japanese garden this side of Tokyo, resembles a postcard from Asia, with bonsai, carp ponds, pagodas, and a moon gate bridge. On lush Kauai, Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens , about 240 acres in size, is sprinkled with some 70 life-size (some larger than life-size) whimsical bronze statues, hidden off the beaten path of the North Shore.


Exploring The Grand Canyon of the Pacific -- Waimea Canyon (Kauai): This valley, known for its reddish lava beds, reminds everyone who sees it of Arizona's Grand Canyon. Kauai's version is bursting with ever-changing color, just like its namesake, but it's smaller -- only a mile wide, 3,567 feet deep, and 12 miles long. This grandeur was created by a massive earthquake that sent streams flowing into a single river, which then carved this picturesque canyon. You can stop by the road and look at it, hike down into it, or swoop through it by helicopter.

The Best Ways to Enjoy Hawaiian Culture

Experiencing the Hula: For a real, authentic hula experience on Oahu, check out the Bishop Museum , which has excellent performances on weekdays. The first week after Easter brings Hawaii's biggest and most prestigious hula extravaganza, the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival , at Hilo on the Big Island; tickets sell out by January 30, so reserve early. In May, there's the Molokai Ka Hula Piko , at Molokai's Papohaku Beach Park, a wonderful daylong festival that celebrates the hula on the island where it was born.


Buying a Lei in Chinatown (Oahu): There's actually a host of cultural sights and experiences to be had in Honolulu's Chinatown. Wander through this several-square-block area with its jumble of exotic shops offering herbs, Chinese groceries, and acupuncture services. Before you leave, be sure to check out the lei sellers on Maunakea Street (near N. Hotel St.), where Hawaii's finest leis go for as little as $4.

Listening to Old-Fashioned "Talk Story" with Hawaiian Song and Dance (Big Island): Once a month, under a full moon, "Twilight at Kalahuipua'a," a celebration of the Hawaiian culture that includes storytelling, singing, and dancing, takes place oceanside at Mauna Lani Bay Resort (tel. 808/885-6622; It hearkens back to another time in Hawaii, when family and neighbors would gather on back porches to sing, dance, and "talk story."

Visiting Ancient Hawaii's Most Sacred Temple (Big Island): On the Kohala coast, where King Kamehameha the Great was born, stands Hawaii's oldest, largest, and most sacred religious site: the 1,500-year-old Mookini Heiau, used by kings to pray and offer human sacrifices. This massive three-story stone temple, dedicated to Ku, the Hawaiian god of war, was erected in A.D. 480. It's said that each stone was passed from hand to hand from Pololu Valley, 14 miles away, by 18,000 men who worked from sunset to sunrise. The best way to see this sacred site is to help out with the monthly cleanups when the Kahuna Nui, Momi Mo'okini Lum, is on-site.


Exploring Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (Big Island): This sacred site on the south Kona coast was once a place of refuge and a revered place of rejuvenation. You can walk the same consecrated grounds where priests once conducted holy ceremonies, and glimpse the ancient way of life in pre-contact Hawaii in the re-created 180-acre village.

Visiting the Most Hawaiian Isle: A time capsule of Old Hawaii, Molokai allows you to experience real Hawaiian life in its most unsullied form. The island's people have woven the cultural values of ancient times into modern life. In addition to this rich community, you'll find the magnificent natural wonders it so cherishes: Hawaii's highest waterfall, its greatest collection of fishponds, and the world's tallest sea cliffs, as well as sand dunes, coral reefs, rainforests, and gloriously empty beaches. The island is pretty much the same Molokai of generations ago.

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