We went on an awesome family vacation to Oahu, Hawaii, during Thanksgiving week…two months ago…in 2019. I am just now getting around to writing about it. I don’t think that anyone outside of our immediate family really cares to read about our goings-on, but I like to write about the things we do, especially the vacations, so that 1) my memories stay strong and 2) so that if we ever go back, I have detailed notes on where we might want to go again (or not!) and what we might want to do again (or not!). Every once in awhile, someone else has an interest in going somewhere we went or doing something we did and so it is nice to be able to just send them a link to one of my blog posts if they ask for recommendations and information. Anyway…that’s a long paragraph to say we went to Hawaii awhile ago and here is my belated recap of it:
Months before our trip, on a recommendation from a friend, I booked a 1-bedroom villa at the Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, through David’s Vacation Club Rentals. At the time I booked, this was cheaper than booking directly on the Aulani website, however, the rates did go down on the Aulani website in the Fall. Booking through DVC did give us free parking, though, so in the end, I think we still saved some money by going this route. We booked our trip using someone else’s Disney timeshare points, and so we were treated as if we were Disney Vacation Club members. When I booked our trip, I knew that some of the resort pools would be undergoing renovations while we were there and we would get a $50/day resort credit during our stay (too bad $50 doesn’t go very far with Disney!).
Prior to our trip, I also booked everything else…rental car, multiple dinner reservations, a family photography session, and a train ride at the Dole Plantation. I pre-registered the girls at Aunty’s Beach House. I set up our hotel address to use with Instacart for grocery delivery (note that groceries in Hawaii are expensive!). I picked out our Thanksgiving meal recipes. I bought clothes, shoes, and kid items that we’d need for the trip, including coordinating outfits for our family photography session. I checked us into the resort online and tried my best to pack as lightly as possible (swimsuits, sundresses, and flip flops!).
Getting There & Exploring the Resort
Our family of five flew from San Diego to Honolulu and my Mom, who joined us on the trip, flew across the country and Pacific Ocean from Detroit. Our outbound flight on Hawaiian Airlines was great – we had enough space, the kids were relatively well behaved and calm, and I even watched a movie on the flight (say what?!). We scheduled our flights so that we had enough time to get our luggage, pick up our rental minivan, install our three car seats, and then pick my Mom up at the airport curb shortly after she landed.
On the way to the resort, we stopped at Poke On Da Run for takeout. When we did finally arrive (the resort is about 30 minutes away from the airport), we were greeted in true Hawaiian and Disney fashion with leis and the aloha spirit. The entire resort was already decorated for Christmas and everywhere we looked, great attention had been paid to all details.
After we settled into our awesome villa, we walked around the resort. One thing that I really appreciated was that the resort put a big emphasis on Hawaiian culture and a very small emphasis on Disney. We dipped our toes in the ocean lagoon (well, William, in his excitement, ran straight into the ocean in his clothes) and then the kids fell asleep hard and early. My Mom, who had flown for over 11 hours and been up for over 24 hours, I think, was already such a huge help with the kids on day one and we were so very grateful to have her with us. This was her (and Lillian and William’s) first trip to Hawaii and we were all excited for the fun week ahead!
A few notes about our villa: first of all, it was, as I said, awesome. Yes, it was crazy expensive. But for that money, we had a gorgeous and expansive ocean view, Dan and I got our own bedroom, and my Mom and the girls all had ample sleeping space in the living room (there was a queen-size pullout sofa and a twin-size Murphy bed). The bathroom was big and had two parts to it – one with a closet, deep jetted tub, and sink – and one with a shower, toilet, and sink. This worked out very well for us, as we put William’s Pack n’ Play (provided by the hotel – with linens) in the tub part of the bathroom. We had two balconies that looked out over the pools and ocean (we were on a high floor, so our view was really awesome), a kitchen (which helped keep our food costs somewhat under control), high chair, and a washer/dryer (which helped keep our suitcases somewhat under control). The only negative part about our villa was that since we were staying in it using Disney Vacation Club points, we didn’t have daily maid service; instead, we had biweekly trash and towel service.
One way that we got to really know and see the resort was through two scavenger hunts that we did with the girls in search of Menehune. Vivian, especially, loved this, just as she loved completing the scavenger hunt at our resort in Colorado last summer. After checking out a tablet in the Pau Hana Room – Community Hall, we followed its (many, many) clues around the lobby and pools to interactively search for Menehune. We were very impressed with the digital aspects of these hunts. We were only allowed to check out the tablets for an hour at a time, so it took us a few nights to finish the scavenger hunts (our progress was saved for us, though) and provided us with a great after-dinner activity for a few nights.
We spent a lot of money to stay at the Aulani, so we wanted to actually stay there (instead of using it as a base solely to explore other areas of the island). In addition to spending time at the pools and ocean lagoon, we also let the girls rent two Disney movies each night from the Community Hall to watch in our villa, listened to evening firepit storytelling, relaxed with live entertainment (which we could hear from our balconies each night), and attended other daily events at the resort like a live outdoor production of Moana.
Aunty’s Beach House is an awesome, FREE, all day onsite childcare facility for kids ages 3-12. If we didn’t have my Mom with us, if William was old enough to use it, and if we didn’t feel guilty about leaving our kids behind on a family vacation, we would have used it even more than we did. They have open play in the mornings for kids of all ages, so on many mornings we’d all go there so that the girls could show us their favorite things to do there and William could also play there. Dan and I were simply wowed by this amenity.
The pools at the resort were top notch. But it wasn’t just pools…there were water slides, a lazy river, a splash pad, hot tubs, and an awesome (I know I’ve used that adjective many times already, but it’s absolutely appropriate!) kids waterplay structure. And, of course, the ocean lagoon. We spent much of our time hopping from water activity to water activity. Vivian, at 5.5 years old, is very capable of swimming independently on her own, so it was easy to hang out with her in the pools. Lillian is still learning how to swim and, well, William doesn’t know anything, so it was definitely more work to be at the pools and ocean with them. But still, it was so fun.
At the end of our first full day in Hawaii, we went to a character buffet dinner at one of the resort’s restaurants – Makahiki — The Bounty of the Islands. The girls loved this and the characters that they met (Stitch, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, and Pluto), but William was super freaked out by the characters. Every time he saw one, he immediately started screaming. Luckily, his character dining experience was free!
Dan and I went on two dinner dates and one cocktail date, thanks to my Mom. I booked our first dinner date on a recommendation from a friend who used to live on Oahu. We walked next door to the Four Seasons and enjoyed a romantic and quiet dinner at Noe. We couldn’t help but laugh at the huge difference in atmosphere between the Aulani and the Four Seasons. The Aulani is vibrant, energetic, and full of happy noise and families. The Four Seasons was quiet. So very, very, very quiet. It was calm, painted white, and serene. We loved our dinner there, but were glad that we were not staying there with our three crazy kids! In addition to Noe, we also ate dinner one night at the Aulani’s nice restaurant, and had drinks at The ‘Ōlelo Room.
After spending one morning in Waikiki during the week, we all lunched and drank at the Kona Brewing Company at the Koko Marina Pub. We went to their main restaurant on Kona when we were there in 2015. We had great views of the marina and Koko Head (another hike I want to do on Oahu someday!) while we dined.
On Thanksgiving day, while my Mom prepped our meal (a sheet pan dinner, rolls, pecan pie bars, and chocolate pie), the littles napped, and Vivian played at Aunty’s Beach House, Dan and I spent a few hours at the very tranquil onsite Laniwai spa. I got a facial and Dan got a massage and we spent a lot of time relaxing in the outdoor hydrotherapy garden. It was glorious. We left with our own custom body polish from the Pulu Bar and calm and thankful attitudes. It was the perfect way to spend Thanksgiving afternoon (you know, besides actually spending it with all of our family).
Riding the Dole Pineapple Express Train
On one our our two planned outside-the-resort excursions, we visited the Dole Pineapple Plantation. While there, we walked through the (free) gardens, rode the Pineapple Express Train, and ate foods made with pineapple (like ice cream). Admittedly, this is a tourist trap. It was overrun with vacationers, housed a huge (like, really huge) gift shop, and mostly existed to sell you things. We did enjoy the train ride, but it’s not a place that I would recommend adding to your “must see” list on Oahu.
Seeing the North Shore & Eating Shrimp
After our Pineapple Express Train ride, we kept driving north to see the famed North Shore and grab lunch at a shrimp truck in Haleiwa. After being out in the unrelenting heat at the pineapple plantation, it sounded nice to cool off at the North Shore. And it was. But getting lunch was not so nice. There was no parking, it was crowded, and most trucks only took cash. It probably all would have been fine, but once you add (tired, hungry, cranky) kids into that equation, it just equals frustration for everyone. The garlic shrimp, though, was sooooo good!
Hiking Diamond Head
I had never hiked Diamond Head before and my Mom was eager to hike it with me, so on our second planned outside-the-resort excursion day, she and I hiked 0.8 miles to the top of the crater while Dan took the kids to the Waikīkī Aquarium. We each brought a bottle of water on the hike and were prepared for a strenuous uphill hike, but we were pleasantly surprised that the hike was not all that difficult, dangerous, or long. It was quite crowded, of course, but the views along the way and at the top were worth it.
Visiting the Waikiki Aquarium
While my Mom and I hiked Diamond Head, Dan took the kids to the very small Waikīkī Aquarium. In the amount of time that it took us to complete the less-than-2-mile hike, he drove to and parked at the aquarium, saw the aquarium in its entirety, lost William’s shoes, loaded the kids back into the minivan, and drove back to the Diamond Head State Monument entrance to pick Mom and me up. This is another place that should not be on your “must see” Oahu list, but it did provide a little bit of kid entertainment when it was needed.
Departing & Recommendations
After six nights at the Aulani, we have nothing but great things to say about it. If you’re willing and able to fork over the money to stay there, do it. You won’t regret it. We had a ton of fun, despite still having to care for and chase after three small children.
Before departing on our return flight on Alaska Airlines (which was not nearly as nice as Hawaiian Airlines), we ate lunch at Monkeypod Kitchen across the street from the Aulani. This was a delicious last vacation meal and while we were eating we got to listen to live music (in between kids crying and whining).
On our vacation, we were able to experience nearly everything that the resort offered, enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in our villa kitchen, explore some of the island, get to know Ko Olina through oceanfront walks, and make many happy memories together (and some not so happy ones, like Dan’s late night visit to an ER one night, but in the end, he was fine, and that’s certainly not what we want to remember about this trip!). We loved it so much that we want to go back again someday when all of the kids are old enough to go to Aunty’s Beach House and swim independently. Until then, Aloha!