Three weeks after our wedding anniversary, Boris and I made a 6-day, 5-night trip to Hawaii’s most populous island Oahu, where the state’s capital city of Honolulu is located. We are visiting Disney’s newest non-park resort and Vacation Club destination, Aulani. We plan to spend our time checking out the resort, so if you are looking for tips for places to visit in Hawaii or even just on Oahu, this isn’t the post for you. However, if you want to know general information about how COVID restrictions affect travel to Hawaii, whether to rent a car or not, or about this Disney Resort, read on.
With COVID upending many of my travel plans, I ended up with Disney Vacation Club points that I needed to use before the end of the month. We wanted to make the trip before the heavy Thanksgiving crowds descend on the island, so we traveled to Hawaii the weekend daylight savings time ended.
Hawaii still has strict COVID regulations in place. Its not too tough if you are vaccinated as Boris and I are. In fact, we both got booster shots just prior to the trip. You’ll need to go to their Safe Travels website and register yourself and anyone in your family under 18. Each adult has to do their own separate registration. Then you provide your trip details. Finally, you upload your vaccination card or recent test results. We did all this about a week before our trip. Just prior to departure, you also fill out a health questionnaire. Having completed this process, we were given special wrist bands in the airport in Houston and thus completed the screening process. There was nothing more for us to do for the State of Hawaii on arrival. If your departure city does not offer the wrist band clearance, you’ll have to make an extra stop just after you get off the plane when you arrive at the airport in Honolulu.
I found the website forms a little cumbersome to get through, but I think most younger people will have no problem with them. One tip, the places for signatures really are looking for you to use your finger (or perhaps a mouse) to create a signature. It is unlike some forms where you just type in your name.
Although we could have taken a cheaper flight with a California stopover, we flew directly from Houston to Hawaii on United Airlines. From Houston, it takes about eight and half hours to reach Honolulu and just over seven hours to get back. We flew over when daylight savings time was still in place, so there was a five-hour difference from Central Time. Hawaii does NOT observe daylight savings time, so by the end of our trip we will only have a four-hour time difference.
Boris and I have been to four of the Hawaiian Islands-Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island of Hawaii. We have stayed at convention hotels (the worst), resort hotels, boutique hotels, condos, and rental homes (the best). In all instances, we rented a car and you almost always want one. (We could have done without one when we were at the convention hotel, but I hated Waikiki Beach and the excessive crowds who had no concept of personal space. I used the car to get away from that area of the island while Boris was in meetings.)
If you are staying at a rental property with a kitchen, you’ll want the car to get to the grocery store or for longer stays a warehouse retailer like Costco. If you are at a resort, you might want a car to go to “off property” restaurants. The resort dining options-Aulani included-are very expensive and you will get tired of the limited choices after a while. Additionally, to get to various attractions or shopping destinations around the island you will probably want a car.
All that said, since Boris and I are here for less than a week and we have visited Oahu several times, we decided to save the money on parking and a car and just got transportation directly to Aulani. Aulani also has an on-site car rental facility, so we figured we could just rent a car for a day or two if we wanted to visit anything in particular. If you are going to go this route, make sure the Aulani rental office is open. I found the car rental office while on property, but it looked closed.
I should also note that this past summer (2021) there was a severe shortage of rental cars on the islands. Actually, all over the United States. I have friends that were quoted ridiculous prices to rent a car on the Hawaiian Islands. I also spoke with someone who lives on Oahu and she said many people stayed home from work and rented out their cars to travelers because they made more money that way. I admit that factored into our decision to not rent a vehicle. Given the cost of onsite dining, a large family would probably still have been better off renting a car to access grocery stores and offsite restaurants. With just the two of us and Boris’ love of being served his meals, not renting a car worked for us.
Although this post is really not about all the very cool things to do on Oahu, I highly recommend a visit to Pearl Harbor, The Polynesian Cultural Center, Diamond Head, the beaches on the western side of the island and ok, probably the famous Waikiki Beach (only to say you have been there). You’ll need a car to get to these places if you are staying at Aulani. I also want to see the place where they filmed Jurassic Park which is also on this island. Boris didn’t want to go, but I know Rocky will go with me on another visit. You would need to rent a car or hire a driver/guide for that. Only other alternative would be to book a tour that picks you up at the hotel. I did see island tour buses arriving at Aulani.
Since we didn’t rent a car, we could have taken a group shuttle to Aulani, but most of what I read online warned that currently there are often excessive waits for the shuttles. We hired a private transfer service, Honolulu Airport Transfer. Aulani is about 30-40 minutes away from the airport depending on traffic. Our driver watched our flight schedule, called us directly after we landed, and picked us up just outside baggage claim. We went directly to Aulani and beat the crowd at check-in. Plus, since we arrived earlier than most new guests, our room was already available for immediate occupancy. We rolled our bags up, unpacked, and when we came down less than an hour later to make dining reservations. By that time, the front desk lines were very long and people were told that their rooms would not be ready until the normal check-in time. The private transfer was easy and worth the extra cost to start out the vacation in a more relaxed manner. I also recommended taking advantage of Aulani’s online check-in prior to arrival at the hotel.
If you are a DVC member, be sure to take your membership card for discounts. If you forget it, you can take a screen shot of the card after you pull up a temporary one on the Vacation Club web site. No discounts at the sit-down restaurants at Aulani like at the Florida resorts and parks, but there is a 10% discount in the shops and you get cooler wristbands at the pool.
You will also need to show your vaccination card at check-in. You’ll be given a special wristband. If you are not vaccinated, Aulani requires you to do periodic testing during your stay. We even got a call at home from the resort several days before trip making sure we were aware that masks are still required to be worn in all indoor spaces at Aulani (and they enforce that rule), that you need to be vaccinated or take frequent tests, and that you need to follow the State of Hawaii guidelines for entering the islands.
You will find that all of the local restaurants and shops require you to wear a mask inside. Additionally, you are asked to present your vaccination card at all restaurants whether you are seated inside or in their outdoor dining areas. They take the name of all the members of your party and a phone number, presumably for contract tracing and notification. Some places even have you fill out and sign a health form.
Another tip unrelated to COVID, the State of Hawaii requires all retailers to charge for bags. I have encountered this in foreign countries, but not in the US. Unaware, when I questioned the charge, I was informed that “it is the law”. Outwardly, this is an ecological policy to encourage people to reuse their bags. Retailers will tell you it is just another way for the state government to tax unknowing visitors. You will want to pack a beach tote for a trip to Hawaii anyway, so take the tote with you (empty) when you go shopping and save the cost of buying a bag.
That first afternoon at the resort after unpacking, we stopped at the concierge to make dining reservations. I usually do this online, but we wanted recommendations for the resort and the area. We found that the only sit-down breakfast option at the resort was the 3-course character breakfast. To Boris, this is THE way to start off the day-the served breakfast, not the characters. He agreed to go; I was shocked. We also made reservations for Makahiki, the one dine-in restaurant that is currently operating at the resort (in the same location as the breakfast) and some offsite places that had been recommended to us. The concierge was pleasant and made all the reservations for us, but she really didn’t offer any suggestions other than to mention the other Ko Olina resorts.
Next, we walked around the property to familiarize ourself a bit and ended up sitting under an umbrella on the beach just enjoying the view. Finally, we grabbed a drink at the Off the Hook bar while we waited for the restaurant to open for our 5 pm dinner reservations. I know that is really early, but we had eaten almost nothing in the last 24 hours.
Makahiki has a lovely setting overlooking the koi pond and fountains. There is indoor and outdoor seating, but the interior is completely open to the porch so everyone is essentially in covered outdoor seating. The restaurant was clearly designed for buffet dining (at least at breakfast) and there is a lot of real estate that is currently not being used. During our visit, there was a three-course fixed price menu. We found plenty of things that interested us, but it was an expensive meal so we ended up going with steaks to get the most bang for our buck. We were very surprised that no bread course was served and when I asked about it, the server told us that the resort prides itself on its ability to serve those with dining restrictions and it is just too hard to serve bread that everyone can enjoy. She did say they get lots of requests for bread. None is served, even on request.
Next door is the completely open and uncovered ‘Olelo patio. Service includes heavy appetizers and drinks starting at 5 pm. The inside ‘Olelo Room is a sushi bar and the décor includes beautiful carved wooden panels. In Hawaiian, ‘Olelo means word or to converse. Live music on the outdoor stage begins around 6 pm and continues until 9 or 10 pm. The patio lounge is very popular. No reservations are taken, so it is first come, first served. There is always a line.
We headed up to our room after dinner and from our balcony we can look directly down into the ‘Olelo lounge area. Boris and I enjoyed the music nightly without standing in line. I don’t usually spring for the waterfront rooms at our home resort at the Polynesian because we are not often in the room. However, this being our anniversary celebration and knowing we were going to be hanging around the resort, I booked a room with an ocean view. In this instance it was well worth the extra Disney Vacation Club points. We have a gorgeous view of the resort facilities, including the beach, and spectacular sunset views every night.
More resort details to come in my next post…Aloha.