It’s one of the most famous, recognizable and popular beaches in the world, and since rising to fame in the 1800’s has consistently remained a ‘hot spot’ holiday destination – seriously, we wouldn’t be surprised if Waikiki’s tourism board patented the word vacation. But for our little family Waikiki never gets old.
Sure, it’s been over-developed to the point that this beachside beauty is almost theme-park-esque. Yet there’s still something so completely magical about gazing at it’s golden rolling waves; counting the countless surfers and outriggers and sailboats at play while oh-so-photogenically framed by the majestic green slopes of Diamond Head in the background.
Usually, I’d recommend expanding your stay. Like all of Hawaii’s treasures it deserves deep exploration; a day in Waikiki isn’t going to scratch beyond the tiki bar and shiny souvenir ladden surface. However if you’ve staring down the barrel of a super short layover in Honolulu and find yourself with only a day to spare in Waikiki, you’re in luck. With its proximity to the airport and its copious natural and man made attractions, the place is totally set up to accommodate speed-dates with tourists, even with kids in tow. Indeed, with some fore planning you could almost pack as much action into a day in Waikiki as you could wring out of a week in less easy to navigate island paradises.
Please note we’re no local experts though; while I’ve travelled to Hawaii fairly consistently over the past twenty years (12+ visits and counting!) I’ve never spent longer than a week at a time in Waikiki itself – usually just stopping a few days here and there to get over jetlag before jettisoning off to ride bigger, better waves at the countless less touristy spots peppered throughout this beautiful island chain. Armed with this short stay knowledge, on a recent family trip to the USA from Australia we had a day’s layover in Hawaii each direction, meaning we got to road tested and refined this list twice. So yes, doing Waikiki in a day – or even as little as a few hours – is not only possible, it’s a whole lotta fun!
Waikiki In A Day Itinerary
I’ve laid this all out in chronological order, but just treat this like a Choose Your Own Adventure book and skip things you don’t like or can’t fit in to create your own timeframe/itinerary/destiny.
Grab A Coffee + Break The Fast
Hawaii’s Kona coffee is famous all around the world, so it would be negligent not to sample some local black gold to get your day rolling, right? For a good selection of local blends in coffee shops consistently rated as among the best in Waikiki, try Kai Coffee in the Hyatt Regency which offers locally grown coffee from Kona and beyond (open from 5.30am), Island Vintage Coffee in the Royal Hawaiian Center which also packs a crowd for its healthy acai bowls (open from 6am), or try Honolulu Coffee under the Moana Surfrider (open from 6am) or Kona Mountain Coffee at Hilton Hawaiian Village (open from 8am) for top quality freshly roasted local coffee and array of treats – the later of which even grow their own authentic coffee blends.
If you prefer breakfast with a view, sand between your toes and miles of outdoor space where the kids can play like the rabid little creatures they are, Barefoot Beach Café (open from 7am) is right down by the shore overlooking Queen’s Beach in Kapiolani Park towards the Diamond Head end of Waikiki. It’s ultra casual dining, perfect for kids as they can run wild (within range of course) while you relax and take in the knock-you-over views.
Hike Diamond Head
Perhaps the world’s most recognized volcanic crater, Diamond Head is a fairly moderate hike (about an hour and a half up and back). From the top you’re treated to a 360 degree view of the island and a birds eye view of Waikiki.
Even though it’s pretty tame and touristy, it’s still a hike – you’ll still need hiking staples like good walking shoes and water, and if you’ve got a tot you’ll definitely need a baby carrier/ hiking pack as it’s not at all stroller friendly – lots of switch backs, stairs, and a spiral staircase to main vista point. Energetic kids and those used to hiking will find this a cake walk – however if your young ‘uns can’t make it around a mall without asking to be carried, this will be way out of their league. Aim to get here early before the crowds and tropical heat kick in, and you’ll be treated to a magic experience with loads of photo opportunities. Open from 6am, parking fee is $5 or $1 walk in.
Hire A Surfboard or SUP
The playground for ancient Hawaiian Royalty, Waikiki is considered one of the birthplaces of surfing and any self respecting ocean lover should experience riding its waves at least once in their lifetime. All along the beachfront, there’s no shortage of little hire shacks that will rent you a motley array of giant SUPs and longboards perfectly suited to tackle Waikiki’s (usually) gentle rolling waves – some also offer lessons or will even mind your gear while you surf, too. Our kids absolutely loved the different perspective of seeing the city from the vantage point of Waikiki’s clear blue waters, checking out the reefs from above and catching a few waves. Prices vary from stall to stall, but boogie boards are around $5 p/h, surfboards $15 p/h, SUPs $20 p/h.
Picnic On The Beach
You’re only here for a day, so why get changed out of your swimwear just to go to lunch? Up towards the Zoo and directly across from the beach is the cutest little hipster store called Tucker and Bevvy for healthy sandwiches, salads, and smoothies. Everything can be packed to-go for a picnic at the beach, park or a hike, and they offer pre-made food to grab in a rush (Open daily 6am to 7.30pm). Use your beach towels as a picnic blanket and enjoy your feast under a swaying palm tree or two.
Honolulu Zoo ~ or ~ Aquarium ~or~ Snorkel
If you feel like venturing out of the sun for a while and still keep the kids entertained, there’s both a zoo and an aquarium right on Waikiki’s golden stretch as you head toward the Diamond Head end of the beach. Both are comparatively small, but on the upside that means you can see all their attractions without blowing out your entire day.
If you’re not a fan of wildlife in captivity, take the kids for a snorkel to see if you can spot sea creatures in their natural habitat. Didn’t bring your own gear? Grab hire equipment from most surf or dive shops, or find a cheap snorkel set from the ABC stores that pepper the beachside shopping strip. Waikiki’s postcard clear blue water means visibility is usually great; you can snorkel around the various reefs spotting tropical fish and even the odd turtle or dolphin, but be sure to steer clear from areas where there’s lots of surf craft if you don’t want to get run over. If the swell is up, the surf too crowded or you’d like to find a quiet safe spot for littlies to take a splash, there’s a shallow swimming enclosure perfect for kids to swim and snorkel down at the Queens end of Waikiki, or try the lagoon down at the Hilton end of the beach.
Photos With The Duke
Hawaii’s original ambassador of Aloha, Duke Kahanamoku was an Olympic swimmer and champion surfer who travelled the world in the early 1900’s popularizing surfing – he even introduced the sport to farflung Australia. A big nine-meter bronze statue in his honour stands along the beachfront wreathed in floral leis, and it’s a photo option most tourists can’t resist. Get here at sundown and you’ll not only score a sunset backdrop but may also witness the lighting of the fire torches that line the beach promenade ( see details below in Hula section).
Mai Tais and Pu Pus at Sunset
Even though the Mai Tai may have been invented in California, the islands have well and truly claimed it. So if all that beach action has worked up a thirst, there’s lots of places to enjoy a cocktail and pu pus (appetizers). Dukes is a bit of an institution and known for its beachfront location, surf ‘n’ turf, tiki vibe & umbrella drinks. Or back from the water a little ways, Beachhouse set in the stunning Westin Moana Surfrider has tables outside which overlook an amazing banyan tree by the pool with views to the beach.
Or for something uber touristy yet 100% fun, book a catamaran sunset tour and enjoy the last rays of sun dipping over the bay and shimmering across the water, cocktail in hand. ( 2hrs, MaiTai Catamaran Cruise, around $45US /kids $23US)
Hula On the Beach
Depending on what day you happen to find yourself in Waikiki, be sure to try catch the torch lighting ceremony and free hula show held year-round every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (weather permitting) at Kuhio Beach Park, right by the Duke Statue. At sunset a conch shell horn sounds and the fire torches that line the beach promenade are lit, then traditional hula dancers and musicians host an hour-long performance right there by the beach. It’s a family-friendly cultural affair and yes, you read that correctly – it’s free.
Gorge On Garlic Shrimp
Waikiki’s upmarket restaurants like Morimoto are world class and if you’re seeking great dining there’s no shortage of options, but on the opposite end of the scale there’s something so laid back, Hawaiian style about grabbing a plate of freshly grilled garlic shimp from the humble street stands that bring this island favourite to the bustling heart of Waikiki. It’s cheap, tasty and no-fuss, and you’ll enjoy open air dining – albeit sitting on a plastic chair in a side street. But hey, at the least the kids can be noisy, messy little monsters and nobody will even notice. Try Pacific Garlic Shrimp out front of the Pacific Beach Hotel or Gilligan’s Beach Shack by the Hilton for shrimp served with a bucketload of local flavour.
Cruise The Strip
If your kids have any energy left, a wander around the beachfront shopping precincts to go people watching or along the beach pathway to watch the moon shine across the ocean is always a nice way to round out the day. If your kids are older and bedtime is still hours away, there’s shows and live entertainment at many of the resorts – some paid, some for free. International Marketplace may have been completely revamped and gone are the old Hawaiiana trinket and carving stalls to make way for upmarket stores like Saks, but there’s often live music here on the mall’s stage by a massive ancient Banyan tree or buskers out front, making it well worth a wander.
Got a suggestion for layovers in Honolulu/Waikiki? Be sure to add to comments below