Our trip to Hawaii began with a Come-to-Jesus meeting. Probably not the most PC term, but it fit. For a number of years, we had put travel on the backburner while our son was young. Now, he was older, and we were itching for a trip. A real trip. To a dream destination. One that wouldn’t involve a lot of whining… from anyone. One that we could afford. And I just didn’t see how it was ever going to happen. That’s where Jesus came in. Well, actually, it was Rick… who doesn’t look a thing like Jesus. But he gave me sage, insightful advice like I’ve always imagined Jesus did. Invariably, Rick is the one who does not see the brick wall that forever appears in front of me. He simply said, “We just need to make it happen.” And he was right.
Fast forward a year, and that’s exactly what we did. We saved, we worked a little more, we pared down Christmas and birthdays. And we made it happen. But, as all parents know, the trip had to be tailored to the whims of an 8-year-old boy. Forget massages by the beach and long nights filled with fruity cocktails. We had to wipe away that mental picture and strike the right balance for family bliss.
Enter… the Hawaiian Cruise
So what did we do? We booked a Hawaiian cruise. I know, it’s so cliché. We’re not even “cruise people.” But we knew that if we wanted to see more than one or two islands, having a floating hotel room following us from port to port was preferable to spending interminable hours at the airport.
So we got ourselves a room on Norwegian’s Pride of America, the only ship that sails around the islands year-round with no requirement to call at a foreign port. The ship was lovely, but honestly, I barely remember more than our cabin, our balcony with the starboard-side island view, and the Aloha Café. Because what made these non-cruise-boat people choose this particular cruise was the fact that we spent very little time on the ship. Hawaii is all about the ISLANDS. We’d leave every morning after breakfast and show up again an hour before sailing. But our clothes were where we had left them, and the pasta buffet was made to order! So it was totally worth it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before the ship departed Oahu, we had a couple of days to fill in Honolulu with kid-friendly activities. First one — Pearl Harbor, naturally. Sure, we knew it would be a little dry for our son, but sometimes kids have to suck it up for the sake of the grown-ups. While he thought the sunken Arizona Memorial was interesting, he was more taken with the USS Bowfin, a hands-on submarine that we toured afterward.
Our tickets to the Memorial were arranged by E Noa (see bottom of article) that also took us through Honolulu and included the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. When we stopped at the State Courthouse, the kid was drawn less to the flower-draped statue of King Kamehameha, and more to the giant banyan tree and the wild roosters in the parking lot. As for the rest of the tour, I liked seeing where they filmed the opening shots of Gilligan’s Island and parts of the original Hawaii Five-0, but I seem to remember the boy taking a nap. Ah well, at least he was quiet, and we could enjoy the scenery in peace. Afterward, as iconic as it is, we chose not to hike to the top of Diamond Head. We just didn’t think our little-guy would make it. We did have a great view of the fabulous volcanic tuff cone from our hotel, though, which was enough for this trip. I’d say the boy’s favorite part of Honolulu was body surfing in the warm waters of Waikiki Beach that afternoon. Who can blame him?
Cruising and Driving
The next day, it was finally time to embark on the Pride of America. The jet lag had worn off, and we were giddy with the promise of more Hawaiian sun and sand. In every port, we tried to pick a mix of activities that would satisfy both the adult and kid appetites among us. And herein lies the key to taking a Hawaiian island cruise: rent a car in every port (and arrange it ahead of time). Back in 2010, Thrifty was the cheapest way to go, and a free sign-up for a Blue Chip Rewards membership got us in the expedited line every time. Each morning, the Thrifty shuttle was waiting at the dock where it would take us to our car du jour… an awesome way to have the freedom to see the islands on our own.
First stop… Maui. The ship docked here overnight, so we had two days for exploring. On day one, we spent the morning in the Iao Valley, a pretty state park that’s great for families who like to be out in nature. In the afternoon, we found the somewhat hard-to-find Nakalele Blowhole with its explosive geyser and tidal pools. For our evening entertainment, we chose the wonderful, authentic Old Lahaina Luau, (which Rick and I loved), but, surprisingly, bored our son to tears. And he didn’t eat anything on the scrumptious buffet except a roll, I think. So that was wasted on him.
Next day, we opted for a snorkeling excursion to the Molokini Crater. A fun time for the adults, but in retrospect, maybe 8-years-old was a little young for that one. The boy was already a good swimmer by then, but the water scared him. It was clear, but deep, and although the water in the crater was calm, we made another stop to see sea turtles in the open ocean. Not so calm there. After five minutes, we were all swallowing sea water and ready to get back on the boat.
And if you’re wondering about the mythical Road to Hana, I’ll just say this: If you have a child who gets car sick or would be less than excited about a long drive, no matter how beautiful the scenery, skip it. We did.
The Big Island
Back on the ship and onward to the east side of the Big Island, where the ship docked in Hilo. We knew we’d score a win here with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It cost us $10 to drive our car in, and as expected, the view from the Visitor’s Center was otherwordly, as we looked out onto the vast, puffing volcanic plain. Afterward, we drove over to the rain forest and walked through an old lava tube.
After the park, we knew we couldn’t leave Hawaii without at least once putting our toes in black sand. So we drove south, choosing Punalu’u Beach for the honor. While our son thought the dark sand was cool, much like children who are more interested in the box than the present, he spent most of his time throwing coconuts into the pond behind the beach. You just never can tell with kids.
Spencer Beach State Park
The ship’s itinerary allowed for only one day in Hilo, so that night the boat sailed around the bottom of the Big Island, past the glowing lava fields of Kilaueau on its way to the town of Kona, on the other side of the island. There was no rental car shuttle here, so we took a $30 cab ride to the airport. (Luckily, for about $20, they let us drop the car at a hotel by the dock at the end of the day.) While most of the ship’s passengers stayed in town or went south, we drove north, away from the crowds, ending up in Kawaihae at a local spot called Spencer Beach State Park. Just us, a fabulous protected snorkeling cove, and a couple other local families. The sand was pristine and white, the weather was perfect, the water warm and clear. This was truly one of our favorite days of the trip… a little bit of secluded paradise flavored with cones of shaved ice. Yum on all accounts!
Kauai’s Kilauea Lighthouse
Two more days left of our cruise, and we were headed north to Kauai. While the island’s traffic was pretty thick, we still had plenty of time to visit the 80-foot twin Wailua waterfalls featured in the opening credits of Fantasy Island. Next on the list was the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse, a neat place to walk around and look at birds you don’t normally see in your backyard, from Albatrosses in the air to Red-footed Boobies on the cliffs. On the lighthouse grounds, hundreds of Shearwaters nest on the hillsides.
Another overnight in Kauai, a morning on the beach near the ship, and a spectacular deck-side view as we sailed past the jagged Na Pali coastline, and we were headed back to Honolulu.
Oahu Once More
Arriving the next morning with 12 hours to burn before our red-eye home, we again rented a car for the day and headed out of the city to take in a bit more of Oahu. Driving counterclockwise out of Honolulu, we hugged the coastline, detouring into the enchanting Japanese Byodo-In Temple, rounding the North Shore (empty in summer when the waves are not right for surfing), and stopping to watch a few amazing – albeit crazy – cliff divers before pointing the car south toward the airport.
And just like that, our trip was over. Fellow tourists serenaded us on their new ukeleles as we all waited at the gate to head back home to reality. A successful trip. Happy adults; happy boy… already making mental lists of the places we missed and the things we’d do again the next time we visit the islands.
To see our entire 10-day itinerary, click here.
Do you have any kid-friendly favorites in Hawaii? Please share them by commenting on this post below.Where to get a tour: Our tickets to the Arizona Memorial were arranged by the E Noa bus tour that also took us around Honolulu. This is the way to go, because tickets are sold day-of, first thing in the morning, at which point you’re given a time to come back for your official tour. So you may be waiting a long time. Let the tour companies do it for you. They picked us up at our hotel, took us straight to Pearl Harbor, gave us plenty of time to look around, then drove us through town. The price of the tour included admission to Pearl Harbor. We chose the half-day E Noa Tour #8: Pearl Harbor and the City.