Oahu, Hawaii, elicits visions of a family vacation paradise: sun, sand, surf and much more. And in fact, there is an absolute ton of things to do in Oahu with kids. There are pineapple plantations and macadamia nut farms, cultural centers and museums, temples and palaces, hikes and luaus, botanical gardens and aquariums, not to mention Pearl Harbor and battleships … I could go on and on.
Most families will integrate some of these into their Oahu vacation. But when I take my kids — who are active and athletic — to Oahu, there’s one main thing we all want to do: Spend time in the water!
To me, the best thing about Oahu for kids is, hands down, the drop-dead gorgeous Pacific Ocean and the novel ways to spend time in it. The blue-green water is refreshing, clear and accessible, plus filled with ocean life. And the surf makes it exciting, especially when it’s high enough to push a child’s comfort level but not so high that it’s dangerous.
Favorite Things to Do in Oahu for Families
Boogie Boarding at Kailua Beach
One of the simplest and least expensive ways to enjoy Oahu is visiting a local beach and boogie boarding all day long, and we have spent many days doing just that. It’s exciting and relaxing at the same time; there’s no way you can be thinking about school or work when you are focused on the next wave and whether it will be the perfect one to ride to the shore or if you should duck under it and try to avoid being crushed by its power.
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Cliff Jumping at Waimea Bay
We spent an incredibly fun, adrenaline-filled day on Oahu cliff jumping at Waimea Bay on the North Shore. There were lots of locals there doing it too (mostly young teenagers), and my son, who was 13 at the time, couldn’t get enough. He climbed up again and again, standing behind those frozen on the cliff’s edge trying to get up the courage to jump, until it was his turn to launch his body into the ocean below. He convinced me to do it once — just once! — and it was honestly one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. This is definitely an activity for teens and pre-teens who love roller coasters and the like, while parents admire their little daredevils from below.
Swimming with Sea Turtles near Diamond Head
My daughter, my sister and I have done this trip twice. The first time, we had incredibly clear water and numerous turtle sightings. My daughter, who was 9 at the time, dove down to watch the turtles underwater without interference from other divers, and felt a real connection to the creatures as she observed them in their natural habitat. It is a quiet, almost surreal feeling — as if time is standing still — as you watch the turtles, some as old as 100 years, dive deep and then return to the surface.
The second trip, my daughter spotted some spinner dolphins on our catamaran ride out to Diamond Head before we returned to shore. The young man sailing the catamaran passed their vicinity, and seven or eight of the dolphins accepted the invitation and joined us, swimming just in front of the hulls. We could see them racing along at high speed in the clear water below us, and they took turns jumping out of the water as they swam. It was an experience we’ll never forget.
Surfing at Waikiki
There’s not a more iconic activity on Oahu than surfing at Waikiki, and it doesn’t disappoint. We booked a lesson for my 9-year-old and were impressed by the instructor’s ability to get her up and surfing so quickly. The ride back into the beach is a long one, so she ended up far away from the instructor at the end of each ride … this was a bit concerning for me from my own vantage point in the ocean, but he was generally quick to get to her. My daughter’s confidence grew fast when she learned she could master this difficult-looking feat with good balance and determination.
I would definitely recommend an instructor and a private or semi-private lesson for safety reasons and to maximize your time.
Snorkeling at Three Tables
Another really fun activity is snorkeling at Three Tables on the North Shore. We brought masks and fins from my sister’s house, got Thai carryout from a food truck, and passed a beautiful day checking out the gorgeous fish and underwater sea life. All ages can participate in this activity. We enjoyed sunning ourselves on the rocks afterward and napping under the trees. I can’t think of many better ways to spend a day with family!
Editor’s Note: Photos by Katherine Shirer.