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Hawaii’s Most Fun and Affordable Things to do For The Military Family: Part 1

This is part one of a series on fun and affordable things to do in Hawaii. This series also aims to highlight the need to find the positives in every assignment, even if it is not in paradise.  🙂  

Hawaii: a beautiful, lush set of islands with endless possibilities. My husband and I have a list of places that would be our “dream” assignments, and Hawaii was definitely on that list. However, once we received our orders and started our research, we quickly learned how pricey our new home would be for all six of us.

Hawaii is one of the most expensive states to live in, and everything from food to gas to air conditioning comes at a steep price. It frightened us a little. We had been living in Europe and had been traveling frugally for years – now we would be stuck on a tiny, expensive island?

If Hawaii is in your future and your saving are low, do not fret! I have found through research, experience, and word-of-mouth that there are so many things to do here that are both fun and affordable.

I will admit that the touristy/iconic things to do in Hawaii can be expensive, but there are ways around this. It would be a shame to live in such a beautiful paradise and not be able to do anything!

In Part 1 of this series, I will focus on Oahu’s beaches.

Beaches are plentiful on the island of Oahu (where most military are assigned). There are over 125 beaches on Oahu alone! According to state law, all beaches are public up to the vegetation line, and most have free access to paths and parking. How do you decide where to go?  My goal is to see every beach on this island even if I do not swim in the water. Here is my breakdown of some kid-friendly and activity-loaded beaches to see while here:

North Shore

You can stop nearly anywhere along the highway lining this area and find a shore. Our favorite is Pūpūkea Beach, which is comprised of three areas. If you are traveling north along Kamehameha Highway, the first is Three Tables, aptly named because of the three tablelike reefs visible from the shore.  This is perfect for snorkeling!  The main section is cordoned off by rocks both under and above water, but do not let this dissuade you.  There are practically no waves here, the water remains shallow for a good distance into the water, there is plenty of free parking available, and there are food trucks and paddle board/surfboard rentals across the street.  This section is our go-to area!  The last area is Shark’s Cove, which is also a bit rocky but perfect for snorkeling and diving.  The caveat about the North Shore is that the current and waves are seasonal; the winter season brings high waves, strong currents, and surfers from around the world.  Even if you do not swim, you can take a whole day watching a surf competition or eating and drinking your way through bullet coffee, acai bowls, and garlic shrimp if you prefer not to risk swimming!

East (Windward) Shore

This area is past the Kualoa Mountains and is breathtakingly beautiful.  If you are looking for a beach here, you must go to Kailua or Lanikai.  These beaches are next to one another, so you can easily see both in a day. When you think of Hawaii, your mind conjures up these beaches: white sand, clear blue water, islands in the near distance to paddle board and canoe to, and endless sunshine. Kailua has a fair share of free parking during the week, but the weekends and holidays can be extremely busy; Lanikai has virtually no parking but some small off-road dirt paths. Go early or plan to walk a good distance to your destination, but believe me – it is worth it.

Marine Corps Base Kaneohe is also located on this side.  There are plenty of beaches here, so long as you can gain base access.  You will need to get a temporary vehicle pass to enter, if you are not registered with the base, but this requires standard vehicle documents (i.e. license, registration, military ID, etc.).  Click the link above to prepare before you go.  Bellows Air Force Station also boasts its own secluded beachfront, although the waves and current can be a little stronger here.  There are also cabins, condos, and campsites to rent, as well as other facility areas, water and paintball activities, and a few food and beverage shops. The link above tells you a little more about the area and what it has to offer.

South Shore

Again, when you think of Hawaii, you probably think of Waikiki. This stretch of beach, in the heart of Honolulu, is a tourist’s dream. Stay in one of the hotels lining the water, and you have access to restaurants, amenities, beaches, and parks. However, those stationed here can still enjoy the area without shelling out a large amount of money.  The Hale Koa hotel is an Armed Forces hotel and resort, and active-duty military and DoD personnel can enjoy the amenities here and park for a discounted rate.  We like to use the parking garage or overflow area for cheaper parking while we explore Waikiki.  There is reasonable paid parking along the beachfront, but I also learned that there is free parking available in Kapiolani Park. This is the section furthest back from the shore, so the walk takes a little longer, but it is free! You can also explore the park and ponds as you make your way to the shoreline.

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam is located in Honolulu and has its own beaches within the base. These have the benefit of being limited to those who have base access and are untainted by the public! We particularly like Hickam Harbor and Beach, which has plenty of bathrooms, parking, and a very nice restaurant, The Lanai at Mamala Bay, right next to it.  While not free, the restaurant has a great menu and excellent atmosphere. How can you not love dining next to the water?

West (Leeward) Shore

The best spot for families is Ko’Olina, a community just past the commercial district of Kapolei. This is a resort area away from Honolulu with many amenities and restaurants. For an affordable day, you can park at one of the lagoons. These areas are shallow, mellow, and picturesque; however, there is very limited free parking at each lagoon. You can arrive early in the morning or wait in line for a spot (I have seen lines of 4+ cars that will wait as long as it takes for a free spot!) or you can head to the paid parking at lagoon 4. It is a flat $10 for the day, but you are rewarded with close parking and a calm body of water to let the children frolic around. If you are stationed here and looking for a staycation, there are several resorts in Ko’Olina.  You can even inquire about discounted rates and reservations with the local military travel and activities office.

As you drive towards Waianae, the landscape turns from green to dry and brown – this side of the island does not see as much rain and is subject to high temperatures and direct sun.  What I like about this side of the island is the people, who are unfailingly nice and helpful. Our favorite on this side is Pokai Bay. The water is generally calm and clear, parking is free, and this beach is less crowded during the week. Regardless, there are beaches nearly everywhere along this coast that are easily marked.  There is also a military section, Pililaau Army Recreation Center, that offers cabin rentals, showers, beach access, and a small Exchange.  

I am certain that I missed other beaches for families on Oahu.  I have lived here for less than a year, and even if I have driven the entire island, I am still finding new beaches with their own pros and cons. The biggest and most important tip is to check the surf and weather conditions before you go the beach. This will save you a deal of heartache, time, and gas money. With a picnic, sunscreen, and your favorite beach towel, you and your family can spend a fun and affordable day on Oahu for next to nothing.

 Mahalo and look for the next part of this series – outdoor activities!

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One Response to Hawaii’s Most Fun and Affordable Things to do For The Military Family: Part 1

  1. Linda Mitchell
    Linda Mitchell October 21, 2017 at 7:03 am #

    Well done, Rachel! I think you did an awesome job with both parts of this series! I will share with my family as we may be visiting them on Oahu in a couple months. . .

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