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November 7, 2018

Mountains, sunsets and beaches for miles - everyone loves Hawaii, but is it an affordable destination for a family of four? Debbie Harrison went to find out...

I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii. It’s been on my bucket list since Magnum PI, but the cost of getting there and then having to spend eye-watering American dollars has put it out of  my reach. Hawaii as a holiday destination became more of a pipe dream once we had children and became a family of four. Or so I thought… 

One rainy day in June, I needed an injection of vitamin D. I couldn’t last another Auckland winter without a stint of sunshine to warm my bones, so I visited our local travel agent and asked for pamphlets for Fiji and (meekly) a quote for Hawaii. Surprisingly, the quotes were on parr. 

Hawaii is officially one of the fastest growing holiday destinations for New Zealanders. Direct flights and the NZ dollar at an all-time high is enough to convince an additional 27,000 Kiwis per year to visit to Hawaii. The high demand, full flights and the addition of another airline into the equation has resulted in more flights and competitive pricing. To emphasise how much more affordable it has become to fly here, it was reported that three years ago a return trip would have cost around $2,000 per person – now the same fare can be as low as $699. Hawaii is no longer the pipe dream. One slight compromise was accommodation – “a solid 3.5 star,” said the travel agent, wryly. Translation: grand in its day but overdue a makeover. That stuff doesn’t bother us – it was clean with fresh linen daily, fluffy towels, friendly staff, one block from the beach and opposite the zoo. Instead of night life, we fell asleep to the sound of chimpanzees chatting. Amazing how your tastes change once you have kids! 

Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian islands, the busiest, and home to two-thirds of the population. It’s the island you fly into (Honolulu Airport) and home to the famous Waikiki beach. Our hotel, Queen Kapiolani, was down the Diamond Head end of Waikiki, the quieter end of the busy strip and a 15-minute amble from the centre of the action. Diamond Head is a famous volcanic tuff cone and it made a good backdrop to many of our family holiday photos. It’s also a travel attraction – many people hike it for the rewarding views from the top, but it’s at least a one-hour return trip and includes 99 steps so we’ve saved that adventure for a future visit when the kids are a little older (and mum is a little fitter). 

One small oddity about Hawaii, unless you splurge on accommodation: many of the hotels don’t offer separate bedrooms. We had one big room with everything in it: TV, small kitchenette, two double beds. We didn’t spend much time in our hotel room. Hawaii is incredible for family activities – our days were spent adventuring, shopping and beaching, returning only for showers and to drop off bags of shopping and discarded swimming gear. Hawaii was definitely the busiest family holiday we’ve done – there was so much to do and we didn’t want to miss anything out. We spent 70 per cent of our time at the beach – long, lazy days, people watching and magazine reading while the kids splashed around in the shallows. Waikiki Beach is postcard perfect: white sand, crystal clear water, flowering frangipani trees intermingled with palm trees, towering hotels and a pink palace lining the edges. It gets hot, so arrive early to grab a spot in the shade of a tree or buy a cheap umbrella. You can pay to sit under the supplied umbrellas but at $25USD for two hours, you’re better saving that for cocktails! There are worse things in life than sitting under the tree at the Moana Surfrider Beach Bar at sunset, sipping on a pina colada while the kids play on the beach.

Bless the genius who thought of building a break wall to create a lagoon in certain areas of the beach. It means kids (and adults) have a calm place to splash in without getting tossed about by the surf, which can be dumpy in the afternoons. Each night the kids would exclaim over how much sand was in their togs, in their hair, up their nose – the stuff childhood memories are made of. We spent our lunchtimes exploring the streets, sheltering from the midday sun and soaking up the air conditioning in stores. Everyone had warned me the shopping was good, and it didn’t disappoint.  Our biggest splurge turned out to be a trip highlight. We booked a luxury all-day island circle tour which included morning tea (purple taro doughnuts – yum) and lunch. We thought about driving ourselves around the island but decided we’d rather leave it to an expert. When I ask the kids what they loved about Hawaii, both say this trip. Though it’s an early start at 7.30am and late return to the hotel at 5.30pm, a lot of cool stuff happens in this one day. We stopped at a coffee farm to learn about coffee beans, had a pineapple whip ice cream at the Dole Plantation Farm and saw how pineapples grow – hands up who else thought they grew in trees? We discovered it takes 18 months for a plant to grow its first pineapple and that its first harvest is the only sweet one – subsequent pineapples are sour and are sent to the Philippines to be canned and mixed with sugar to sweeten them up. By the way, coffee and pineapple are the only things produced in Hawaii – everything else is imported.   

Around the island we stopped for lunch and a lazy paddle on a privately owned stream, where we spotted two turtles swimming 10 metres away from us. Day. Made. We also tried shaved ice here, which doesn’t hold a candle to Tip Top, in our opinion, even with its fancy flavours of Pina Cola, Lychee, and Blue Hawaii. We later walked through the Hawaii Botanical Gardens, home to over 2,500 plant species. It was like being in a giant glass house filled with exotic and lush plants. I must have taken 15 photos of a clump of monstera the size of two logging trucks. The scale of the trees along this walk were like nothing else. We simply don’t have trees that old (or big) in NZ. The Botanical Gardens walk was a 3km round trip – make sure you’ve got a front pack or stroller. The reward is a refreshing swim at the bottom of a waterfall at the end – and we needed it in the extreme heat. 

My husband, a surfing fan, had been hankering to see the famous North Shore beaches, even though in summer they are flat and do not show a hint of the 50-foot waves. We drove past Waimea (where they hold The Eddie competition), Ehukai Beach (where they hold the Pipe Masters) and had a quick dip at Sunset Beach, one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever been to. With the North Shore ticked off the bucket list, we left the sunshine behind and drove up into the mountains to see the Byodo-In Temple, shrouded in an eerie mist. This picturesque temple is a half-size replica of the famous temple in Japan that was built to honour the 100-year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. We rang the bell, lit incense and left it as an offering at the foot of a huge Buddha and checked out the huge koi in the ponds that surrounded the temple. It was a surprisingly beautiful but short experience for us all. 

Would I recommend Hawaii as a whole? Absolutely, without a doubt. As much as I love the laidback, relaxed vibe of the islands, I envision many great family memories being made at Waikiki for years to come.

Hawaii top tips 

The flight: Our Air New Zealand flight to Hawaii was 8.5 hours. Though we flew at 9pm, with the intention that the kids would sleep through and wake fresh and rested, a family nap was needed that first day. 

Where to eat: Many places offer a happy hour between 3-5pm, which is a boon for those with young kids who eat early - not only are the drinks cheaper, the meals are too. Here are some we love:

  • Lulu's for breakfast is just what you would expect from an American diner. With views over the beach. US$4 breakfast for the kids (eggs, French toast or pancakes), US$12 for adults, plus colouring and crayons for the kids.
  • Two of the food courts we loved was the one in Ala Moana Mall and one at the Royal Hawaiin Center in Waikiki. Clean, modern and with lots of options to choose from, including tacos, Japanese options, and the most amazing New York-style pizza where you can get a giant slice for US$5. 
  • Cheesecake factory. Get there early or be prepared to wait - grab a timer and head to the beach until it buzzes! 
  • If you drive to the North Shore, stop at a food truck that sells coconut shrimp, chilli shrimp, dumplings and shaved ice. 

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