Oahu Escape with Teens: Beyond the Beach

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With its diverse coasts and activities, Oahu should be on everyone's bucket list especially with these fun things to do with teens.
With its diverse coasts and activities, Oahu should be on everyone’s bucket list especially with these fun things to do with teens.

Known as the Gathering Place, Oahu is the third largest Hawaiian Island and home to the state capital, Honolulu. The island of Oahu has historic sites like Pearl Harbor and kid-friendly beaches and attractions in Waikiki. Honolulu is also the hub for shopping and dining, while the laid-back North Shore is known for epic waves, food trucks and the surf town of Haleiwa.

With three older kids (one in high school and two in college), Oahu fit our vacation criteria for sunny beaches and lots of outdoor activities. For summer travel from Los Angeles to Honolulu, I bought our plane tickets in January, and that gave me ample time to plan a diverse itinerary for our nine-day Hawaiian vacation. We like to rent a car on the island of Oahu, so we can drive around the island to find places to picnic, hike and swim.

Read on for our family’s fun things to do in Oahu with teens.

horseback riding is among things to do on Oahu
Horseback riding on coastal and forest trails is among the activities offered at the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shores. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Top Things to Do on Oahu: North Shore

Our Hawaii vacation began on Oahu’s rustic North Shore. But we hardly roughed it. Named for the resident sea turtles, the oceanfront Turtle Bay Resort is situated on 850 acres with five miles of beaches and a tropical forest. Turtle Bay offers many amenities and activities, such as golf, horseback riding and surf lessons. It also has a spa.

During our stay, we easily fell into a comfortable rhythm of rest and activities. One day, we took a family surf lesson from the onsite Hans Hedemann Surf Center instructors. The next morning we rode horses along coastal and forest trails with Ironwood trees and a huge Banyan tree. Down time found my kids by the pool while my husband and I walked along the beach.

Our accommodations were ideal for a family of five. We had two adjoining, oceanfront rooms and a living room allowing us all space and privacy. From our lanais, we enjoyed morning coffee and sunset views. At night we were lulled to sleep by the surf. Resort accommodations include beach cottages and ocean villas. (You may recognize the property in such movies as “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”)

The resort has several restaurants from casual pool-side eateries to the upscale Roy’s Beach House, serving a farm-to-table cuisine.

Read More: Which is the Best Hawaiian Island for Your Family?

shave ice is a must on oahu
The historic surf town of Haleiwa is home to the most famous shave ice stores on the island of Oahu – Aoki’s Shave Ice and Matsumoto Shave Ice. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Exploring the North Shore

Top things to do on Oahu include visiting the North Shore’s world-renowned surfing spots Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach.  Haleiwa, a laid-back surf town, is a fun place to stop for shave ice and local artwork.

North Shore eateries include shrimp food trucks and Ted’s Bakery, known for its chocolate haupia (coconut pudding).

things to do on Oahu include the polynesian cultural center
The Polynesian Cultural Center’s Go Native! activities include cooking lessons Samoan style. Photo credit: Polynesian Cultural Center

Cultural Experiences: Polynesian Cultural Center

The Polynesian-themed park and museum feature six island villages representing Hawai‘i, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Natives from these Pacific cultures share their traditions through music, dance and activities.

The Go Native! activities immerse visitors in Polynesian culture with hands-on experiences. Throw a wooden spear, paddle a canoe or cook like a Polynesian, and in the Umu Making Experience, you’ll learn how to cook the Samoan way. Besides cooking the food, learn how to weave utensils, start a fire and heat rocks.

Note that the Polynesian Cultural Center is open daily except Sundays.

Windward Coast: Kualoa Ranch

Located about 24 miles from Honolulu, the Kualoa Ranch is a 4,000-acre private nature reserve and working cattle ranch. It’s also a popular tourist attraction and filming location on the windward coast of Oahu. The ranch offers various outdoor activities and tours ideal for a family with teens and young adults.

A trip highlight for my family was a guided ATV tour. Bouncing on rutted roads through meadows and valleys, we had spectacular ocean views. It’s no wonder that the ranch land is a popular film location.

Ages 16 and older can drive their own ATV with no passengers. For multi-passenger rides, the minimum driving age is 21.

take a snorkel tour in Oahu
Views of Waikiki can be seen from land and sea. Climb Diamond Head for city and ocean views. Take a snorkel excursion for views of Diamond Head and Waikiki. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Things to Do on Oahu: South Shore Waikiki

In contrast to the mellow North Shore is bustling Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital. Located in Honolulu’s south shore is Waikiki, a lively beachfront urban oasis with a range of hotels, shops, restaurants and entertainment. The open-air International Market Place has everything from convenience stores to a bevy of shopping and dining options.

Top things to do include swimming at Waikiki’s calm beaches. (Inflatable rafts are easy to find at most ABC stores.) In addition, plan for an early morning hike to the Diamond Head crater. It’s a short, but fairly steep, hike with panoramic views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean.

Afterward, consider grabbing a plate lunch at Rainbow Drive-in, an iconic Honolulu eatery, now with three locations. For about $9-$10 a plate, dig into a meat entrée, two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad or slaw. We dined at the original in Kapahulu, Honolulu. We like to buy our plate lunches and drive to a beach for a picnic with a view.

Waikiki has several indoor attractions worth visiting. Check out the Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo and Iolani Palace.

Built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, Iolani Palace was the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs and served as the official royal residence until 1893.

Nearby, the Bishop Museum is a cool place to explore Hawaii’s history. Housing thousands of historical and cultural artifacts, the museum has shows and interactive activities sure to impress families of all ages.

things to do on oahu include seclude beaches like lanikai
A few miles from bustling Waikiki is serene Lanikai Beach. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Top Things to Do on Oahu: Beaches and Snorkeling

Whether on a day trip or a drive around the island, it’s a pleasure to explore Oahu’s less touristy beaches, about 20 miles from Waikiki. My family’s favorites are Kailua and Lanikai beaches. Straight out of a postcard, these calm beaches are a perfect place for a picnic and swim.

Even closer to Waikiki is Hanauma Bay, a sure place to see tropical fish while snorkeling. But for this reason, it’s also usually crowded. We usually stop at Hanauma Bay on our way to Kailua and Lanikai beaches.

Pearl Harbor on oahu
Early arrivals to Pearl Harbor can snag free tickets to the 75-minute USS Memorial program, which includes a round-trip boat ride to the memorial. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

West of Honolulu is Pearl Harbor, site of the WWII’s 1941 bombing attack and home to the USS Arizona Memorial. The attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the defining moments in United States and world history. You can explore on your own or book a tour. Either way, be sure to reserve your tickets well in advance online. If taking the self-guided Pearl Harbor tour, plan to arrive by 7 a.m. with everyone in your group present. This is a very popular attraction and tickets go fast!

Tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial program are free, but there are a limited number available each day. The program lasts 75 minutes, including a 23-minute video (with actual attack footage ) and round-trip boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial. Dedicated to those who lost their lives there, the memorial is located above the remains of the sunken ship, the final resting place for more than 1,000 men.

Afterward, we went on the Mighty Mo Tour aboard the USS Missouri battleship that served in WWII, the Korean War and the Persian Gulf. This massive battleship is equipped with nine 16-inch guns. Each barrel is 67 feet long. (So impressed was our son with this battleship that it became his topic for a speech class).

Honolulu has an array of family resorts
The Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is one of many large resorts with an abundance of family amenities in Honolulu. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Honolulu Accommodations

We stayed in two resorts on the south shore, and one of my favorite hotels is the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, a classic and comfortable beach hotel in the hub of Waikiki.

From our oceanfront room, we could hear the waves and watch people taking hula lessons on the sandy beach below. Hula lessons are among the free complimentary cultural activities. Other complementary activities include arts and crafts and ukulele lessons. Several onsite restaurants also offer a pleasant place to linger over pupus (hors d’oeuvres) and sip on tropical drinks while taking in the views. Live music takes place daily at the Reef Bar & Market Grille.

Read More: Complete Packing List for Hawaii

The first time I visited Hawaii with my parents, we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, and since then, I’ve returned with my family. Encompassing 22 oceanfront acres, the resort has six pools, over 18 restaurants/lounges and about 100 shops. Beautifully landscaped pathways with waterfalls and a penguin exhibit invite leisurely strolls.

While staying at the Hilton, a trip highlight was the Spirit of Aloha Lunch Snorkel Sail, which departs from the Hilton Pier. We sailed to a spot popular for turtle viewing. Here, we snorkeled and swam among a group of turtles. Back on board, it was party time with the crew serving locally-brewed beer, soft drinks and sandwiches.

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