Swimming with bottlenose dolphins.
Photo: Flip Nicklin
Waikiki’s Kuhio Beach Park.
Photo: David L. Moore-Hio/Alamy
A surf lesson under way at Kuhio Beach Park.
Photo: Joseph Libby
The Polynesian-inspired rooftop of Aulani, Disney’s new 21-acre resort.
Photo: Courtesy of Aulani
Sugar-covered malasadas (doughnuts).
Photo: Alastair Tse
For parents, the get-away-from-it-all tropical fantasy—days spent sunning, snorkeling, romancing, sleeping, repeat—is really a fantasy about life without kids. Turns out, though, a discerning parent can accomplish the seemingly impossible on Oahu: fulfill the fantasy and bring the kids.
On Honolulu’s eastern stretch, the casually luxe Aston Waikiki Beach Tower is blessedly spacious. After walking under a long pergola dripping with a rare tropical vine, you’ll find 40 floors of roomy and immaculately appointed two-bedroom, two-bath suites, all with sweeping ocean views, in-room washer-dryers, and full kitchens. (Island Grocery Service can deliver supplies prior to your arrival.) From your ultra-quiet balcony, you’re more likely to spy a pod of migrating humpbacks than see the guests in the adjoining suite. You can, however, easily watch your family play below in Kuhio Beach Park or enjoy a lesson at Hans Hedemann Surf (instructor James is great with kids). For no-stress meals, eat in, stroll to a burger, noodle, or tiki joint, or drive to nearby Kapahulu Avenue to dine like the locals (don’t skip Leonard’s Bakery, where you’ll find made-to-order malasadas, aka the world’s best doughnuts). If your children are old enough, park them in front of the flat-screen and sneak down the block for a drink and live music at Tiki’s Grill and Bar.
At the other end of the island (a 40-minute drive), Disney’s new Aulani Resort & Spa is more playground than theme park. Yes, Mickey and Minnie are everywhere, but in subtle ways (hidden in the weave of the carpet, for example). And instead of the expected Lilo and Stitch, there are menehune (like Hawaiian leprechauns), as well as “aunties” who explain Hawaiian culture. Cartoon characters make the rounds, but your kids’ attention will likely be held by the water attractions: the lazy Waikolohe River, which snakes through the hotel courtyard; the Volcanic Vertical body slide; and the Rainbow Reef snorkeling lagoon.
The best thing about Aulani is the sense of independence it fosters. It’s paradise with childproofing—nothing is too cold, too hot, or too deep. Here’s your chance to let your kids figure out how to entertain themselves, splashing around the caverns and waterfalls near one of you—while the other takes a dip in the whirlpool—safe and having fun, which, when you think about it, is the definition of relaxing for all of you.
When you're ready to ditch the kids...
LEAVE THEM WITH AN "AUNTY" (aka Aulani’s babysitting service) and spend half a day in Waimea Valley (a 45-minute drive away) to swim at a waterfall and hike to ridgetops (guides provide a richer experience—call ahead). Hit Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (go with the scampi) in Haleiwa en route back. Another option: Haleiwa on a Sunday for world-famous Matsumoto Shave Ice, the farmers’ market (tropical fruits, yes, but smoothies and live music, too), and a chance to watch surfers
on the North Shore’s celebrated beaches (try Sunset, which tends to be less crowded than Waimea Bay).
SNEAK OFF to the new Honolulu Museum of Art, the result of the recent merger between the Honolulu Academy of Arts and Contemporary Museum of Honolulu. Its two major 2012 exhibitions both open in June: “Tattoo Honolulu,” featuring 10 Hawaiian tattoo artists whose work is placed in an art historical context, and “Hiroshige: An Artist’s Journey,” a survey of this Japanese artist’s rarely shown prints.