Just before the pandemic began, we were fortunate enough to introduce our kids to Hawaii on a surprise vacation to the island of Kauai. They’ve asked to go back ever since. They might have even asked on the flight home.
Full of optimism, we planned another visit as airfares dipped and regulations increased. And, I’m happy to say, we pulled it off, without any special tricks or work-arounds — which means anyone can do it. Really.
The Hawaiian Islands are still waking up. Largely sequestered during most of the pandemic, shielded from visitors by strict protocols, the islands suffered tremendously without tourism. And even now, with its Safe Travels program in place, many beaches are still uncharacteristically quiet, popular attractions are still unavailable and capacity is still limited. But, with a little planning, anything is possible. And, with limited crowds, it’s actually the perfect time to enjoy the islands.
The locals, who financially depend on tourism, are ready for tourists to return. Here’s what we learned along the way, island by island, and what we recommend families explore during their stay.
The state’s Safe Travels program requires visitors to receive COVID-19 tests up to three days in advance of travel, upload the results through the specified portal and answer a questionnaire the day before departure. If you’re traveling as a couple, it’s easy. With kids, it gets a bit more tedious.
But know this: Names and birthdates connected to the tests have to exactly match names and birthdates on the airline tickets. It’s non-negotiable, and a mistake could upend your trip. So pay close attention to that. Visitors who don’t follow testing protocols could be required to quarantine for up to 10 days upon arrival. We were tested through the airport lab partner, and paid a premium for the tests as compared to tests at a pharmacy, but we were guaranteed results in time for our departure, which was key. We just considered it a cost of travel.
Tips for visiting four of the main islands:
Plan ahead and reserve tickets to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial through recreation.gov. The tickets are only $1 each, but they meter access, and with sparse crowds at the moment, it’s the best way to see such a historic site. For fun, snorkel at Electric Beach. Take highway 93 until it ends at Makua Beach for excellent snorkeling and incredible mountain views, or cruise to the North Shore for food trucks, beaches and killer waves.
Take the drive to Hana and stay. Wai’anapanapa State Park offers campsites above a secluded black sand beach, and it isn’t far from Haleakala National Park, which is a must-see. If you go during humpback season (the winter months), you’ll be able to sit on pretty much any shoreline and see female humpback whales in the distance teaching their calves how to navigate the waters.
On the Big Island, we know families would love Lava Lava Beach Club, a beachside walk-up restaurant that might even feature a couple of wandering cats. We’ve snorkeled with dolphins on two islands and preferred the experience on Hawaii, and if we go back, we would definitely try the nighttime manta ray dive. And, you can’t miss Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
We love every island, but have a soft spot for Kauai. This is the island where a guide we found through AirBnB Experiences taught us to dance with fire at his home, where we kayaked the Wailua River at dawn before hiking to a waterfall, and where we scarfed down incredible burgers at Bubba Burger.
Airfare is still pretty favorable right now, and there are still affordable (or discounted) places to stay on any of the islands. The memories and experiences are worth the expense and worth the errands needed for testing.
Before you go
These websites can help you plan a family adventure in the Aloha State:
Hawaii’s Safe Travels program details all the latest travel requirements, including the pre-travel testing program, the Mandatory State of Hawaii Travel and Health Form, and temperature screening upon arrival.
Hawaii Tourism Authority is a good site for up-to-date information and ideas about tourist destinations and experiences you might want to check off your list. Many sites require advance reservations, so it’s important to have some idea of what you’d like to do/see before you arrive.
AllTrails is a must-check to discover the best hiking in the area, particularly waterfall hikes.
AirBnB Experiences is a good website to explore unique experiences — such as private hiking tours, snorkeling trips, cooking lessons or even fire dancing — offered by locals. It’s a great site to check wherever you may travel.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Visit the memorial to the more than 2,000 civilians and service members who died on Dec. 7, 1941, when Oahu was struck by a surprise Japanese military attack that pulled America into World War II. It includes the USS Arizona Memorial.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Extending from sea level to 13,677 feet, this one-of-a-kind park encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kı–lauea and Mauna Loa.
Haleakala National Park. Maui visitors know this as the best place to watch a sunrise or sunset or to gaze at the starry night sky. The National Park Service now requires a reservation for parking at the summit. Campers and hikers are drawn to its landscapes that range from Mars-like red deserts and rock gardens near the summit to lush waterfalls and streams near Hana.