Family Paradise

Serenity Zone: Infinity pools and gorgeous vistas bring a touch of the luxe to family-friendly Aulani.

Serenity Zone: Infinity pools and gorgeous vistas bring a touch of the luxe to family-friendly Aulani.

Oahu’s Aulani enchants kids and adults as only Disney can

The family vacation can be a fraught thing. When the kids are happy the adults are tired, and if the adults are happy you can bet the kids are bored. So what if there were a place designed to make everyone happy at once?

That’s the genius of Aulani, a Disney resort and spa on Oahu. If you subscribe to the poet Sark’s view on making kids their best selves (“If they’re crabby, put them in water”), you’ll appreciate the wisdom of building a vacation around 12,000-odd square feet of supervised pool space complete with water slides, two-story play structure and snorkeling lagoon. On the edges of this watery wonderland, within watching-over distance, are havens of adult relaxation: a cocktail patio serving burgers and snacks, an 18-and-over infinity hot tub, decks lined with chaise lounges, an adult-only pool and, in a quiet corner of the property, Disney’s first full-service luxury spa.

On the off chance that this setup doesn’t keep the troops entertained, there’s the world beyond the fictitious Waikolohe Valley nestled between Aulani’s two towers. Steps from the main pool area lies a gorgeous crescent of Hawaiian beach hugging a protected ocean lagoon full of snorkeling, paddle boarding and frolicking possibilities.

Ancient Ways: The Starlit Hui shines a spotlight on traditional kahiko hula.

Ancient Ways: The Starlit Hui shines a spotlight on traditional kahiko hula.

Eyeing the multi-generational families around the property on a visit in early November—the cavorting kids, lounging parents and camera-toting grandparents—I couldn’t help wishing I could travel back in time and get my own extended family into an Aulani villa for a week of hassle-free fun without the inevitable friction caused by complex scheduling. It would have made a wonderful memory for all, I’m sure of it.

Family First

Most of the action in the pool complex is geared for children, including very small ones. A couple of zero-entry points means even toddlers can get in on some ankle-deep fun while older kids play on the double-decker Menehune Bridge or the big water slide. Adults and kids alike seem to love the Waikolohe Stream, a meandering channel lined with gentle underwater jets. It’s hard to describe the utter peace of drifting effortlessly on an innertube past lush greenery and the occasional mini-waterfall, and I saw more than one blissed-out mom napping on this journey.

Joys For Tots: A young guest experiences Keiki Cove.

Joys For Tots: A young guest experiences Keiki Cove.

The Pau Hana Room, with its free ukulele classes and crafts, provides an indoor alternative for family fun. Kids 11 and under must be accompanied by an adult, but older kids can find some independent time here. This is also the starting point for the teen-friendly interactive Menehune Adventure Trail, a high-tech scavenger hunt conducted with enabled iPads. Check them out free of charge at the Pau Hana Room.

In the evening, families can choose from ‘Ohana (Family) Movie Night on the lawn or complimentary DVD rental to pop into the player found in every room. The Disney movie library makes both these options pretty appealing.

When Mama’s Happy…

Aulani offers two amenities designed to make parents’ hearts leap with joy: Aunty’s Beach House and Laniwai.

Aunty’s Beach House is a complimentary, fully staffed, awesomely designed all-day summer camp experience for kids ages 3–12. As long as you pre-register—and you’ll need to be on top of this, especially during peak season—your child will be outfitted with an electronic I.D. bracelet for security and allowed to explore the fascinating nooks and crannies of a “house” equipped with touch-screen games, dress-up costumes, Disney favorites like Stitch, group activities and a trained adult counselor for every 12 kids. Pre-purchased meals are $9. Eureka!

What a fine time to then visit Laniwai, Disney’s first spa and as magnificent a production as you might expect. It begins with the guest choosing a stone inscribed with a word (“harmony” was mine) to set the tone for the session. Then, if you’ve arrived the recommended 60 minutes early, you’re free to visit the tranquil Kula Wai water garden with its hot tubs of varying temperatures, unique series of relaxing outdoor showers and reflexology foot path. Indoors, skilled practitioners offer soothing lomilomi massage, body wraps, facials and luxurious mani-pedis (organic options available), many using ingredients and techniques from the islands. The spa’s signature scent, Maile, is worth the price of admission.

Couple’s and family treatments are also available at Laniwai, while the Painted Sky Teen Spa offers a novel experience for kids with mani-pedis and a DIY mixology station for body polishes.

Comforts of Home

In its accommodations Aulani has managed to hit the sweet spot between homey comfort and luxury. High-quality linens, great mattresses, rain showerheads and excellent soaps and shampoos make for a luxe experience in rooms characterized by warm colors, practical fabrics and nice but not fancy furnishings. All rooms come with folding playpens.

Suites and the villas (1-, 2- and 3-bedroom) offer extra sleeping space via foldout couches and an ingenious panel bed that folds into the entertainment center. Villas are especially well suited to extended stays and large families, as they include a full kitchen, washer and dryer and clever bathroom arrangement that allows bathing in one area and showering in another. The resort offers an unappetizing selection of frozen entrees and very limited fresh food in its oddly stocked Kalepa’s Store, so plan on provisioning at the nearby Costco or Safeway (Kapolei exit, 10 minutes from the resort).

What It’s Not

Aulani is not Disneyland with palm trees. Mickey, Minnie and Goofy, “on vacation” and adorned in Hawaiian prints, show up a couple of times a day and no more. “Big ‘H,’ little ‘d’” is how the Imagineers designed it, with Hawaiian motifs and legends first and Disneyesque elements a distant second.

The Starlit Hui, Aulani’s version of a luau, exemplifies this approach. Though there are two or three classic Disney dance numbers, there is also a lot of traditional storytelling, hula dancing and the ancient chanted form of hula known as kahiko depicting Hawaiian origin myths.

OPEN-AIR GOURMET: ‘Ama ‘Ama offers excellent island-inspired cuisine in a breathtaking setting.

OPEN-AIR GOURMET: ‘Ama ‘Ama offers excellent island-inspired cuisine in a breathtaking setting.

The ‘Olelo Room—the resort’s charming open-air lounge, which offers live music nightly until 10pm at the latest—is the pride of Aulani in this respect. The decor is inspired by the Hawaiian language, in which all employees must be fluent. To get an excellent education in the Hawaiian lore that shaped Aulani’s architecture, art and mythos, ask one of the cultural greeters in the lobby area, identifiable by a sash worn diagonally. A short tour with one of these knowledgeable folks will greatly enrich your stay.

Aulani is not a gourmet destination or a place to savor the authentic flavors of Hawaii. With some exceptions—the delicious poke at ‘Olelo and the excellent fare at the ‘Ama ‘Ama fine dining restaurant come to mind—the food is tailored to the palates of mainlanders under 12. You’ll find no Hawaiian laulau or poi here, though I did scare up a Spam musubi (sushi) in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. Adults seeking a terrific dining experience can easily get it, though, a 5-minute stroll away at the deservedly famous Monkeypod Kitchen.

For some guests, a visit to Hawaii won’t seem complete without leaving the resort. Aulani offers excursions to destinations around the island built around activities like sailing and horseback riding. Our trip to Waimea Valley on the North Shore, led by the extremely knowledgeable and affable Titiana (with entertaining commentary by driver Gonzo), involved a hike to Waimea Falls through a cultural preserve and fascinating insights into Hawaiian mythology and history. It also gave us a peek at the rest of the island, and lunch at a food truck court in the North Shore surfing hamlet of Haleiwa (followed by insanely good malasadas from world-famous Leonard’s) made for a terrific local food experience.

Applause to Aulani for offering an unexpected gem in the form of a trip to Kahumana, a biodynamic farm, restaurant and retreat in the Wai’anae district of western Oahu. Part farm (its produce is prized by chefs around the island) and part social enterprise, with training programs for the disabled and a transitional housing component for homeless families, Kahumana aligns with the best instincts that one detects in Aulani: environmental consciousness (Aulani is Platinum LEED-certified) and respect for the island’s indigenous culture.

Parents seeking a real-world experience for their kids will like this trip. It’s the perfect complement to the easy, lovable and comfortable paradise that is Aulani.

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