A great Oahu family vacation

Oahu, HAWAII -- Paradise Cove -- At the

Oahu, HAWAII -- Paradise Cove -- At the private beach adjacent to Koolina, a hula show can be enjoyed. (Credit: Hawaii Tourism Japan)

Oahu is the Rodney Dangerfield of Hawaiian islands. People rave about the whales and waterfalls of Maui, the primeval energy of the Big Island, the lush greenery of Kauai - but Oahu? All too often, it’s dismissed as a mere jumping-off point for trendier Hawaiian hot spots -- an over-touristed landscape of high-rises, crowded beaches and Don Ho impersonators.

And that’s a shame, because Oahu is special. Honolulu, the state capital, is an irresistible mix of laid-back and big-city charms - all those bureaucrats striding along next to swimsuit-clad tourists on their way to the beach. Drive an hour from Waikiki and you’ll find giant waves and jungly terrain to rival anything in Maui. Add the island’s funky small towns, the many cultural and historic attractions, the trove of ethnic eateries and the pathos of Pearl Harbor, and it’s clear that this is a world-class destination.

For the Buziak family of Frederick, Md., returning to Oahu will be a homecoming of sorts: Chris Buziak was stationed at Pearl Harbor when he and Patti got married, and now they want to introduce their 7-year-old daughters, Amelia and Marina, to the island. They asked for our help in planning a visit next summer, hoping to keep expenses under $6,000.

Getting there. It’s not something airline ads and travel agents tend to emphasize, but Hawaii is a long way from the East Coast - we’re talking five time zones and an average of 13 hours’ travel time, with airfares to match. But with their trip a year off, the Buziaks have time to track airfares at sites such as Bing (www.bing.com/travel), Smarter Travel (www.smartertravel.com) and FareCompare (www.farecompare.com). A recent online search showed round-trip fares from Washington starting at about $900, or $745 on Alaska Air (with some truly horrendous layovers). But sale fares can go as low as $600 or $650, so sign up for fare alerts and be ready to pounce when you see a price you like.

Timing. While winter is high season in Hawaii, with the biggest crowds and the highest prices, summer is a close second, especially for families with school-age children. If you can swing it, consider traveling in spring or fall for smaller crowds and the best rates.

Lodging. Whether you want to base yourself near Waikiki, for optimum options, or on the quieter windward (east) coast or North Shore, a search on Expedia (www.expedia.com), Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) or other booking site will turn up a wide range of hotels and resorts in all price ranges. Don’t let the $500-a-day tariffs scare you: You should be able to find a place that sleeps four, with cooking facilities, for less than $100 a night. For example, the Ohana Waikiki West Hotel, a 10-minute walk to the beach, features rooms with kitchenettes and has (in descending order of importance for families) a pool, a Chili’s and a Starbucks; there’s also a grocery store across the street. Rooms start at $95 per night, or $758 for a week including taxes.

For one-of-a-kind options and possible savings, take a look at the offerings on Vacation Rentals by Owner (www.vrbo.com), a source for short-term rental houses, condos, cabins, villas and apartments offered by, you guessed it, property owners. A recent search, for example, turned up the darling Kalama Kai Cottage in the small town of Kailua, on Oahu’s east coast. The recently renovated one-bedroom cottage sleeps four and has a full kitchen, a large covered lanai (porch) and a fenced-in yard with tropical landscaping. It’s a two-block walk to Kailua Beach (a windsurfing hot spot) and 12 to 14 miles to Waikiki and Honolulu. Rate: $95 per night, plus $10 a night extra for third and fourth guests. Info: 808-227-6791, www.vrbo.com/68966. As with any online transaction, be sure to check references, scrutinize photos and compare prices before you pay.

What to do. Oahu is so much more than ersatz luaus and “Tiny Bubbles” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona memorial are a poignant reminder of the cost of freedom and should be at the top of anyone’s list. Other possibilities: Hike the 0.7-mile trail to the top of Diamond Head, the island’s iconic extinct volcano; sign up for surfing lessons and canoe paddling; go whale-watching (December to May - another reason to visit in spring, if you can); explore the wild North Shore; visit such cultural landmarks as the Iolani Palace, the Bishop Museum and the Contemporary Museum. For details on all: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 800-GO-HAWAII, www.gohawaii.com.

The Buziaks wondered whether a day trip from Oahu to the Big Island was feasible. It is, but be prepared for a long day and a budget-busting price. You can make arrangements on your own to fly to the Big Island (round-trip fares from Honolulu start at about $150 per person) and rent a car (about $60 for the day on Hotwire.com) for the drive from Hilo airport to Volcanoes National Park, for a total of about $660. Or, to maximize your time, consider going with a tour operator who will handle all the details. Most will pick you up in Waikiki at about 6:30 a.m and return about 7:30 p.m. Hawaii Activities, for example, has a Volcano Adventure Tour that includes pickup in Waikiki, round-trip air from Honolulu to Hilo, stops at Rainbow Falls and a macadamia nut factory, and a visit to Kilauea Volcano. Prices start at $282 for adults and $255 for kids 3 to 11, plus 4.7 percent tax. Total for a family of four: $1,128. Info: 877-877-1222, www.hawaiiactivities.com.

Cost. Assuming a week’s stay, plan on anywhere from $2,600 to $3,600 for airfare, $800 for lodging and $255 for a rental car.

Total: $3,655 to $4,655, leaving $2,345 to $1,345 for food, admissions and incidentals. If you watch the food budget (thank goodness for shrimp trucks and plate lunches), the trip is doable on a $6,000 budget.

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