Oahu, Hawaii is teeming with opportunities for nature fun. So many possibilities, in fact, that when I started planning our family’s spring break vacation last year, I got overwhelmed. Fast. Consider this a family-friendly wish list for nature lovers like us.
3860 Manoa Road
reviewed on: April 15 2011
There aren’t many spots in the U.S. where you can visit a rainforest just minutes outside a bustling city – but Lyon Arboretum is one of those places.
"A rainforest adventure in the city"
Being in a rainforest just feels different, which is an immediate draw for kids. Trees so tall you can’t see the tops. Lushness the likes of which I’ve never seen. Gigantic leaves bigger than my 5-½ year old. Wild, squawking birds flying overhead. And plenty of gorgeous plants and flowers you won’t find anywhere else in Hawaii.
This is kind of a best-kept secret – during our visit we were one of only a few people on the trails. We wandered for more than an hour on the Main Trail, a 1.5-mile roundtrip path that leads to Aihualama Falls.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the true highlight of any visit: the view at Inspiration Point (it’s off the Main Trail, but well worth the short trek). The trail opens up just a bit to take in a breathtaking vista. It’s a great spot to stop and turn around if your little ones are tiring.
A few tips for traveling to Lyon Arboretum with kids:
Even if you have an infant or new walker, leave the stroller behind. The trails here are not stroller friendly. Use a baby carrier with smaller kiddos and set realistic hiking goals if you’ve got a toddler.
Most trails are made of cobblestones, gravel, flagstone or grass; others are less well-maintained. Some trails have signage; most are unmarked.
Focus on the journey, not the destination. You can reach the far end of the Arboretum (and a waterfall) in about 30 minutes. Take time to wander off the Main Trail and discover all the rainforest has to offer.
Parking and entrance is free; there is a suggested donation of $5 per visitor. The small Visitor Center has a fantastic collection of books on native Hawaiian birds, plants & flowers plus postcards, T-shirts and the like. No restaurants or picnic areas on the premises.
59–864 Kamehameha Highway
reviewed on: May 20 2011
Waimea Valley’s 1,800 acres include ferns, flowering plants like the hibiscus, birds, stream life (including native fish, shrimp and mollusks) and more. Add to that the big draw for many – Waimea Falls – and it’s easy to see why nature lovers are eager to visit.
"Experience a Slice of Hawaiian Life"
What makes Waimea Valley so unique from other botanical gardens and arboretums I’ve visited is that its focus is on giving guests the chance to experience Hawaiian culture in a natural environment. You will encounter cultural, botanical, ecological and historical wonders, including a fully restored heiau (temple) that dates back to 1470 AD! If you are even remotely interested in Hawaiian culture and the natural world, I highly recommend you visit.
While the highlight of the visit for my hubby was swimming up to the waterfall (an activity reserved for those 18 and over), I was excited to attend a free lei making workshop with my 5-year-old. The instructors talked about the role of leis in Hawaiian culture as they showed us how to make what’s called a lei wili – a garland that is made by winding a string or another type of wrap around short lengths of materials.
While we made leis, dad and my 2-year-old danced to traditional Hawaiian music and watched hula dancing. The little guy was completely enthralled by the music and was easily entertained for the 45 minutes or so it took us to make our leis.
Several guided activities – including lei making, wildlife walks, Hawaiian games, music, storytelling & crafts – are available daily for no additional fee; inquire at the ticket booth for event times & locations.
The stroller-friendly trail from front entrance to the Waimea Falls at the far end of the Valley is an easy, ¾-mile long walk. If you’ve got a toddler, bring a stroller to help ease tired little legs.
64–1550 Kamehameha Highway
reviewed on: May 18 2011
Who would have thought that the world’s largest maze – and one of only a few permanent botanical mazes in the U.S. – would be found on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii?
"Treasure Hunting Family Fun "
The maze stretches over three acres and includes nearly 2 ½ miles of paths crafted from some 14,000 local Hawaiian plants. Within the maze are eight secret stations. Your goal is to find each one, obtain the requisite stencils and complete the hunt.
As you seek out your treasure, you walk through and are surrounded by the flora of the islands. There are colorful Hawaiian flowers, local birds aplenty and butterflies galore waiting to be discovered throughout the maze’s twists and turns.
Beware: This is no simple treasure hunt. If you venture into the maze with young kids, use the map to find the stations. It’s tough to know why they call doing so “cheating” because the map is tiny and difficult to read even for adults.
Bring water and a change of clothes. Water because you and the little ones will most certainly work up a thirst, and a change of clothes because treasure hunting can be dirty business.
And treat yourself to a snack after your treasure hunt. Fresh pineapple or the world-famous Dole Whip are available on site and are the perfect reward for a job well done. (Of course, snacks during the hunt are suggested, too!)
Admission to the maze is $6 for adults, $4 for kids ages 4 through 12.
7455 Kalanianaole Highway
reviewed on: May 20 2011
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of the most spectacular natural resources in Hawaii. And plenty of people come from far and wide to see it.
"Worth Braving the Crowds to See"
Hanauma’s draw is a fabulously beautiful beach with a calm inner reef and tame tropical fish – which makes it an ideal place for kids to swim with the fishes. (And for parents, the outer reef has coral gardens, green sea turtles and more amazing reef fish.)
What’s great is that because this is a bay, the water is calm and even the most fearful kids don’t have to worry about waves. You don’t have to go too far out to see the fish, either.
Since our kids weren’t confident swimmers during our visit, we brought along a boogie board with a window. This allowed the kids to see into the water without dunking their heads.
We had so much fun taking turns looking at all the cool fish, playing in the sand and sitting at the water’s edge, that before we knew it, several hours had gone by. Which is what makes Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve such a special place to play.
Plan to arrive way earlier than you’d ever want to. This place is extremely popular with tourists and fills up fast. We got there at 7:30 a.m. and scooped up one of about 10 remaining spots in the parking lot.
Bring water shoes to keep little feet protected from the hot sand, rocky reef and sunburn.
Consider taking the trolley – at least on the way back up from the beach. The hill from the upper Bay to the lower Bay and beach area is quite steep, especially for tired little legs. Pay the small fee and enjoy the ride.
A few planning essentials: Restrooms, outdoor showers, an information center and snorkeling concession are located in the lower Bay area (beachside). Lifeguards are on duty. There are no shaded areas available on the beach.
reviewed on: May 20 2011
During our visit to Oahu, we’d planned a hike to Diamond Head. Problem was we were turned away at the parking lot because it was full. On an overcast Tuesday morning. In March.
"A Less-Crowded Alternative to Diamond Head"
Temporarily flustered by this minor setback, I pulled out the list I’d made of “backup” hikes and decided we should check out the Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail instead.
Turned out to be well worth the visit.
Why? Two words: The views. Not only will you take in amazing views of Oahu’s southeastern coastline (including both Koko Head and Koko Crater), but from the lookout point at the end of the trail, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most stunning images ever: a historic red-roofed lighthouse set against the backdrop of the deep blue sea below. (Note: The lighthouse is not open for access.)
From here, you’ll also enjoy magnificent views of the windward coast and offshore islets, which are wildlife sanctuaries for Hawaiian seabirds. And if you time it right, you might spot a humpback whale during their migration (November through May).
Pack a lunch and if you can brave the wind at the top of the trail, you’ll enjoy a meal with a wonderful view.
The hike is 2 miles round-trip and involves a steady uphill climb to a 500-foot elevation; takes about 2 hours to complete. Trail is paved and stroller friendly. No restrooms or picnic areas are available.
This is a hot, dry and windy trail so apply sunscreen liberally, wear a hat and dress in layers. Bring along plenty of water and take breaks whenever the little ones need to rest.
Also, bring binoculars. Better to spot the humpbacks with, for sure. But binoculars also come in handy trying to spot all the amazing Hawaiian birds that call this trail home.
Diamond Head Road
End of Manoa Road
2131 Makiki Heights Drive
50 North Vineyard Boulevard
151 Kapahulu Avenue
2777 Kalakaua Avenue
526 Kawailoa Rd
59-727 Kamehameha Highway