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Our Travels – Aulani: Living Up to the Disney Legacy

Walking along the beach near Aulani.

I’m a firm believer that if you travel to Hawaii & you have a bad time, it’s probably your own fault. In fact, I’ve recently written a blog about how even traveling during COVID can be a fantastic experience if you’re safe & smart about it. Read more about that here: Oahu, Hawaii During COVID. But back to the topic at hand. Just because Hawaii is fantastic by just existing, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain experiences that can make an already great location that much better. Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa is one of those experiences.

Notice I said “experience” and not hotel. We have stayed in several really nice hotels throughout the years, but I wouldn’t say very many, if any at all, gave me an “experience” as part of my stay. It makes a lot of sense though that a resort built by Disney would give you more than just a nice place to sleep. The Walt Disney Company is known world-wide for creating “experiences” for their guests, particularly in their parks & hotels. In fact, the inspiration for Disneyland came because Walt wanted to give families a place where they could enjoy fun experiences together. That philosophy has extended throughout the organization & Aulani is no different. It is meant to be a place where you can gather with your ‘ohana’ & all have a wonderful time. In my opinion, it lives up to all Walt would want it to be. Let’s talk about why.

Aulani’s Story

Most hotels have some sort of “theme” or at least a common design scheme, but Aulani takes it a step further and has their own “story.” If you’re familiar with any of the Disney parks, storytelling is everywhere. You will find stories in every attraction as soon as you enter the queue, all the way until you exit & sometimes beyond. Every restaurant has a story too from the design elements, to what the workers are wearing, and throughout the menu. Sometimes even the bathrooms play along to whatever story is being told in the area! Point being, Disney prides themselves on being master storytellers & they have certainly lived up to that with their design of Aulani.

Aulani was designed by none other than the world-famous Disney Imagineers who worked hand-in-hand with local artisans & cultural experts to celebrate the beauty & history of the island. This is something that I greatly appreciated because for me, one of the best parts of traveling is getting a feel for the local culture. Having been to all four of the major Hawaiian Islands, I can confidently say that Oahu, the island where Aulani is located, is BY FAR the most commercialized of all the islands. If you’re unfamiliar, Oahu is home to the state capitol of Honolulu, the famous Waikiki Beach, and Pearl Harbor. It is the most densely populated island in the Hawaiian chain, and so, I suppose, it would make sense that it’s the most commercialized. Unfortunately, it is for that reason that I believe a lot of what makes the Hawaiian culture & islands so wonderful is lost. In stark contrast to the vast majority of other hotels & resorts on the island, Aulani purposely celebrates the culture of the Hawaiian people. Just in general, it feels much more organic than most resorts. For example, the hotel towers are shaped like canoes, there is contemporary Hawaiian artwork throughout the resort, everything has a Hawaiian name including the pools & restaurants & their unofficial mascot is the Menehune (small, mythological craftspeople said to live in the forest of the Hawaiian Islands). Even their color scheme matches the surrounding landscape of the leeward side of the island. 

Hawaiian Artwork in Aulani’s Lobby

There are also other elements that make it feel like you’re being immersed in the Hawaiian culture. One of my favorites has been storytelling by ‘Uncle’ around the campfire (or pool during COVID season). He tells stories based on local folklore & I feel like through the simple act of listening to a story, I learned so much about ancient Hawaiian culture. We also really enjoyed the Menehune Adventure game. For this, you can check out a tablet from the Community Hall & ‘Aunty’ takes you on an adventure throughout the gardens & pool area of the resort. Not only does the game allow you to do cool things (like send fire out of a volcano or drop a waterfall into one of the pools), it also helps you to get a feel for some of the local culture. Another of my favorites is all of the live music you can find throughout the resort.  The last time we were there, they weren’t doing their luau (which by the way, was awesome the first time we got to go to Aulani), but on the weekend, they had ‘Aunty’ singing Hawaiian songs & someone dancing with her on the lawn while we waited to meet the characters. It’s simple things like that which contribute to the overall celebration of the Hawaiian culture as part of the resort’s story.

Something for Everyone

As with the Disney parks, there is literally something for everyone at Aulani & a lot can be done together as a family. For us, and I imagine most who visit Aulani, the Waikolohe Valley became the center of our visit there.  This is the garden/pool area between the two towers at Aulani. It features a long lazy river (it takes 15 minutes to float around), two water slides (one body, one tube), play area for the kids & splash pad for the littles, two big family pools with three family hot tubs, plus an adult-only pool & two-level infinity hot tub overlooking the ocean (perfect for watching the sunset as you soak). If you’d like to try snorkeling, but are worried about doing it in the ocean, there is also the Rainbow Reef where for a surcharge you can snorkel with the native fish of Hawaii. Additionally, you are only a few steps away from the perfectly golden beach on the lagoon (sand toys & boogie boards are complimentary!).  

Watching the Sunset from the Adult-Only Infinity Hot Tub

When the Imagineers designed the Waikolohe valley, they knew what they are doing.  Everything is spaced out very well so it disburses the crowds. They have also worked hard to provide chairs & shade for everyone either from the trees in the garden or via umbrella. There are also multiple places to get food whether it be shave ice, counter service, or sit-down meals. You could literally spend your entire vacation in the Waikolohe Valley and be just fine. I don’t necessarily recommend that because there is a lot to see on the island, but I would definitely commit at least a few days to staying at the resort & to use the pool area as a place to unwind at the end of the day.

That being said, there are some quirks about this area. It seems like it would go without saying, but only Aulani guests are allowed to use the pools. The beach is technically open to the public (though the chairs & umbrellas are not), so I think some of the beach visitors try to sneak into the pool area. This must be somewhat of a problem because guests are required to get a different colored wristband every day to prove they are a guest of the resort as they use the pools. Some may think that is inconvenient, but we found it to be reassuring that only guests of the resorts are using the accommodations we paid for. They also have a system where if a cast member folds a towel over the headrest of the chair you’ve staked out & put your stuff on, you have one hour to take it down or they will remove your belongings & securely store them where you pick up your wristbands. We just made sure to circle back once an hour to get a drink or a snack and make sure that our towels were not signaling we had been gone. This is their way of making sure everyone has an equal chance at the poolside chairs. We’ve been to Aulani twice now (once before COVID & once during COVID), and we have never had a problem finding a chair or having our stuff moved. Everyone is very courteous & as long as you circle back once an hour, you’re just fine.

One of the Family Pools at Aulani

There are a few other areas at the resort that should also be mentioned.  First, what would a Disney vacation be without the characters?! Usually, you can find them interspersed in the Waikolohe Valley, but with COVID, right now they are meeting on the lawn (where they usually have the luau). We’ve met Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Stich, Duffy, Shellie Mae & Moana. It just brings a little bit of extra Disney magic to your trip being able to meet them while you’re there. Also, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the spa on property as well. When COVID isn’t a thing, they offer a full-service spa with treatments for teens, individuals & couples. There is also the Community Hall where you can pick up the Menehune Adventure game, rent movies & games & make crafts. It’s a place where everyone can come in and enjoy. Additionally, when COVID isn’t a thing, the kids can enjoy activities for their age group at Aunty’s Beach House. The counselors there will keep your kids entertained so you can go to the spa, explore the island, or just take a nap while knowing your kids are safe & entertained. There is so much to do at Aulani! I promise you can find plenty to make you & your family happy while you stay there.

Meeting Donald & Daisy at Aulani

Accommodations

Speaking of staying there, there are a number of different room types available at Aulani to accommodate any family. Aulani is considered a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) property. That means the people who have bought into Disney’s timeshare program can stay there using their membership.  However, you DO NOT need to be a DVC member to stay there.  ANYONE can book a room at Aulani & enjoy the resort. Room types range anywhere from a traditional hotel-style standard room with two queen-sized beds, to a three-bedroom villa with full kitchen. We have stayed in both a standard room & a 1-bedroom villa with full kitchen. Both suited our needs just fine for the different trips we took. We did enjoy having a full kitchen with the villa because we could save some money by cooking some of our own meals, but the standard room has a mini-fridge so you can keep some things in there too. Whatever type of room you stay in, they are very nice & I’m sure you will be very comfortable.

Kitchen Ares in the 1-Bedroom Villa

Location on the Island

Aulani is located on western side of Oahu in the Ko Olina development. This is the leeward side of the island, so where it is rains almost every day on the windward side of the island, Aulani has beautiful sun-filled days with very limited rain. It is somewhat out of the way, at least compared to the hustle & bustle of downtown Honolulu & Waikiki Beach.  However, we have never found it to be a problem. In fact, Aulani is just as convenient to get to the East & North sides of the island as Waikiki due to traffic & access to the freeways that take you to those sides. However, if you’d like a comparison, let me share my opinion as we have stayed both in Waikiki & at Aulani.

Waikiki is in the heart of Honolulu & like all major cities, it is very loud & crowded. It is as touristy as it gets in Hawaii, and as previously mentioned, it is very commercialized. The beach itself is typically covered with tourists & honestly, is only one of many beautiful beaches on Oahu. I would by no means call it the best beach on the island, just the most crowded. If you are looking to do some sightseeing outside of Waikiki, due to Honolulu traffic, it really isn’t more convenient than Aulani if you’re visiting anywhere besides Honolulu. If you’re looking at staying at Waikiki because you believe it is more convenient, it truly is only convenient to itself, not the rest of the island. If you like the hustle & bustle of a big city, Waikiki is for you. If you prefer a much calmer & quiet vacation with significantly more amenities, than Aulani would be your best bet. We have stayed at both, and for us, there was no comparison. Our time at Aulani was significantly better than Waikiki.  

Mickey Shave Ice at Aulani

Never a Better Time to Go

The two weeks we’ve spent at Aulani during two different vacations (one pre- & one post-COVID) have convinced us that it is one of the best resorts on the island. It is beautiful, it celebrates Hawaiian culture, it has something to keep everyone entertained & happy, plus there’s an added dose of Disney magic thrown in there as the cherry on top. A stay there is absolutely worth it.

If you need more convincing, Aulani is currently offering 30% off 5-night stays between now & June 10, 2021. You can do it! You can go to Aulani & we would be happy to help you. To request a quote, visit our website:: https://woodbreyfamilytravel.com/getaquote.php

Our Travels – Oahu, Hawaii During COVID

Aloha! In our second “Our Travels” installment, we will be discussing what it was like to travel to the island of Oahu in the beautiful state of Hawaii right now. We recognize that COVID has a lot of travelers concerned (rightfully so), but you can still travel safely if you pay attention to local regulations & follow them. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed traveling to Hawaii right now because there simply aren’t the crowds there normally are. But let’s start from the beginning – getting there.

Sunset from the Adult-Only Infinity Hot Tub at Aulani

Before You Arrive

As mentioned, we had a great trip to Oahu last week, but I’d be lying if the preparation to arrive there wasn’t a bit stressful. As with everything COVID-related, the State of Hawaii & their policies are constantly evolving. The requirements changed twice between us booking our trip at the end of October & actually traveling at the beginning on December. As of right now (12/17/20), they are requiring a negative COVID test in-hand upon arrival to Oahu, Maui & Hawaii, which was taken no more than 72-hours before the final leg of your flight. If you do not have that negative test in-hand, you will be required to quarantine for 14 days, no exceptions. If you want to visit Kauai, they are requiring a mandatory 14-day quarantine even with a negative test. That being said, things will continue to change, I’m sure.  You can find the most up-to-date information about travel to Hawaii on this website: https://hawaiicovid19.com/travel/  

What hasn’t changed, is that every traveler to the islands must create a Safe Travels account on the state’s website. Once you’ve logged in, you can register for your trip, upload your negative test results & complete the mandatory health questionnaire that will be available to you 24-hours in advance of your trip. You will find the Safe Travels website here: https://travel.hawaii.gov/. There is a helpful video imbedded into the homepage with more information.

The trickiest part for us, was getting a Hawaii-approved COVID test within 72-hours of the last leg of our flight into Hawaii. In fact, it was kind of a nightmare because there simply aren’t very many places offering approved tests where we live. I don’t need to rehash it all here, but if you’d like to hear more about that experience, check out our blog, “Handling Stress on Vacation.” I don’t believe our experience is the norm, but if it happens to you too, I’ve got some advice outlined in that blog post. You can find a list of approved Trusted Testing & Travel Partners on this website: https://hawaiicovid19.com/travel-partners/.

As you go through this list of Trusted Testing & Travel Partners, pay attention to the timelines each company provides. Our flight left on a Wednesday morning, so 72-hours prior to that would have been Sunday morning. However, not very many places are open for testing on Sunday. That meant that of the few options we had in our area, most wouldn’t have been available to do the test until Monday, which was only 48 hours before we left & they couldn’t guarantee we would get our results in time. You have to pay attention to what you are choosing so you can make sure you will have those test results in hand. It is worth doing your research.

Walking on the beach at Aulani

Arrival to the Islands

As previously mentioned, it was stressful trying to make sure we were prepared to arrive in Oahu. However, everything worked out. We had our negative tests in-hand, we had filled out the health questionnaire & we were ready to go. Once we landed in Oahu, we had to present our documentation. As we exited the plane, I noticed two military personnel monitoring people’s temperatures as we disembarked.  We must have walked under a sensor that was checking our temperatures because they didn’t stop you unless they saw something off. We watched as they stopped a little girl in front of us and double-checked her temperature using a handheld touchless thermometer. I think most people wouldn’t have noticed them at all, but because they stopped the girl in front of me, I paid more attention.  We were then filed into a line to wait our turn to present our documentation.

As mentioned, 24-hours before arrival, you must complete a health questionnaire in your Safe Travels account.  Once you have, they email you a QR code. You will present that QR code to the authorities in the airport.  We uploaded our negative tests as well, but they hadn’t been reviewed yet, so they asked us to produce a physical copy. We did & they approved us & we were on our way in just a few minutes.  Honestly, the process once we got there was pretty quick. Granted, we were some of the first off of the plane, so we didn’t have to wait in any sort of line, but I’m sure they moved through the line quickly as there were several agents waiting to check people’s documentation.

Plumeria blooming at the Punchbowl Cemetary

I will mention, as easy as it was to be cleared since we came prepared, they didn’t have any bathrooms available to you until after you had been approved to enter. We were grateful we didn’t have to wait in line because we had to go! You may have to wait in line though, so I’d recommend going on the plane before you start your final descent into the islands. That way you’re not crossing your legs doing the potty dance while waiting to be cleared.

We were so relieved once we were cleared to enter (& went to the bathroom). Theoretically, once you’ve been cleared at the airport, you should be fine to roam about the island without any restrictions.  This is true, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to verify you’ve been approved again.  Specifically, when we picked up our rental car & when we checked into our hotel, we all had to have our Safe Travels account up & show them we had been approved to enter the state.  They are simply wanting to make sure no one slipped through the cracks, which I totally understand.  Just make sure you know your username & password for your account & can sign-in on your mobile device to show your status. Your status will change in your account once the authorities clear you. Those were the only two times we were asked to verify our status. Otherwise, we really were free to roam the island as we pleased.

Beach at Haunama Bay Nature Preserve

Enjoying the Island

I’m a firm believer that if you have a crappy time in Hawaii, it’s your own fault. There is so much to do even with COVID restrictions! We were on the island of Oahu, which is where Honolulu is located.  It’s the most urban of the islands with major attractions like Pearl Harbor & Waikiki Beach available. As of right now, most tourist attractions are open including: Pearl Harbor, Haunama Bay, Kualoa Ranch, Waimea Valley, all beaches & most hiking trails. The only places we would have liked to go that aren’t open yet are Diamond Head & the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC).  However, the PCC is scheduled to open in January.

Hawaii just started welcoming visitors back last month, so they are slowly opening up more & more. Even without some of the major tourist attractions, there is plenty to do on every island, most of which won’t cost you anything. The places we enjoyed on our trip include: relaxing at the resort (we stayed at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa – I HIGHLY recommend it), Haunama Bay, Halona Blow Hole, Waimanalo Beach, Manoa Chocolate Factory (free walk-in tastings!), Maunawili Falls, Kailua Beach, Tropical Farms Macadamia Nuts, Aiea Loop Trail, watching big-wave surfing on the North Shore, Kahe Point Beach Park, Pearl Harbor (including tour of the Arizona Memorial), Waikiki, several shave ice establishments & Leonard’s Malasadas (multiple times), etc. Point being, there is SO MUCH to do.

Hiking the Aeia Loop Trail

That being said, are there things you may not be able to do? Yes. The one that was most notable for us, was the number of restaurants that are still closed. Unfortunately, I suspect many of the closed restaurants will never re-open. However, those that are open are offering a variety of safe options including take-out & delivery. Sit-down restaurants are not allowing more than groups of five to sit together, so keep that in mind if you have a group traveling together. We were also asked to fill out our info on a form for contact tracing whenever we chose to sit-down at a restaurant.  Some may be annoyed by that, but I was reassured that they really are doing all they can to make traveling to their state a safe experience.

As with most places across the country, they also require face coverings to be worn in public spaces.  However, you don’t have to wear them in the pool or on the beach. In fact, we found most everyone to be really respectful in keeping their distance in these places so we could all relax without our face coverings while swimming or lying on the beach. Since we’ve been wearing masks for nine months now, it really wasn’t a big deal to continue that habit in public.

USS Arizona Memorial – Pearl Harbor

Conclusion

So, is traveling to Hawaii during COVID worth it? I can say for us, it was a huge, resounding, YES! Is it different than what we have experienced in the past? Yes. Was getting our negative test beforehand a bit of a pain? Yes. Was what I had to go through worth it? YES. Are the islands just as beautiful & wonderful as they have been in the past? Yes! If you are willing to jump through the hoops before arrival, a trip to Hawaii during COVID can be as great as it ever has been. This was our fifth trip to the islands & I can honestly say it was one of the most relaxing & fun.

If you’re interested in booking a trip to Hawaii, we would love to help you! Feel free to request a quote here: http://woodbreyfamilytravel.com/getaquote.php  Aloha!

Respect the Ground You Walk On

Like so many others, I remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard about the attacks of September 11, 2001.  I was in ninth grade & heard my older brothers talking about some kind of plane crash as I got ready for school.  At that point, it wasn’t clear what was actually happening & I remember one of them saying they thought it was an accident.  I went to school not realizing how serious the situation was.  When I got there, they had all the TVs in the school turned on. As I hung out with my friends before school started, I remember standing in the common area, all staring at the TV that hung there watching the towers smoke & finally realizing how serious of a situation it was.  It was during my first period English class that we watched live as the first tower fell. I remember how quiet it was as we all sat there in shock & my teacher quietly walked over to the TV and turned it off before we had the chance to watch anything else. We then spent the rest of the day, wandering from class to class, our poor teachers trying to help us stay calm & understand.  Of course, I came home & as a family we tried to understand it as well, along with the rest of the country & world. I cried many times that day & in the following weeks. I’ve cried many times since when I think of the lives lost to the senseless act of terrorism. I feel it deep in my heart the importance of remembering what happened & the people we lost.

9/11 Memorial – New York City

Consequently, when we had the chance to visit New York City many years later, we made it a priority to visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. For me, it felt like a token of respect. I could not in good conscious go to New York City & not visit.  I felt the same way when I visited the island of Oahu. I felt compelled to visit Pearl Harbor for the same reason.  There are just certain places that though they are the sites of tragedies, they have since been turned into beautiful memorials that we are then allowed to visit.  Historic sites in general, whether they be memorials, battlefields, burial grounds, churches, etc., can be some of the best places to visit as a traveler. The history of the world is held in those special places & I believe it is a good & important thing for all of us to visit, learn, show our respect & remember. So how do we do that?

Since we often visit these places of importance while on vacation, it’s easy to let the levity of being on vacation overshadow the fact that we are often, walking on sacred ground.  Below you’ll find a few tips for how to enjoy your experience at these important places, but also show respect to the events that happened there.

First, talk about where you’re going in advance. Whether you’re traveling as a family & have kids, or you’re doing a getaway with adult friends, I would encourage you to talk with everyone about these important sites before you go there. Talk about where you are going & why it is important. Everyone has a different perspective & understanding of the world & just because I may understand the importance of a site, that doesn’t mean the people I’m traveling with do. Or maybe none of us understand why a site is important, but we know everyone visits there for some reason. Do some basic research & talk about what happened at these sites before you get there. This allows everyone to put a site in context & in my opinion, you’ll then arrive with a sense of respect that will help everyone govern their behavior in a positive & respectful way.  

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

Second, be respectful of posted placards.  This may seem obvious, but there have been many times I’ve visited a memorial & even though there is a sign that says, “Please stay off the memorial,” some kid is being allowed to play on it.  Or we go into a church & they have it posted, “Please, no pictures,” and someone is going around taking pictures of everything. I saw this very thing happen when we were visiting Westminster Abbey in London. If you haven’t been there, it is a remarkable place with incredible historic value. Part of that comes from the fact that the church is basically a cemetery. There are hundreds of people buried in the floor & in the walls, so you are literally walking over the final resting place of many. They tell you multiple times as you move through the queue to enter that pictures are not allowed once inside. There are posted placards everywhere saying the same thing. Yet, every few minutes we would hear one of the people working there announce, “No pictures, please.” Or you’d see them approach someone and kindly ask them to put their camera away. Sometimes, it’s not about the next great Instagram photo you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s about appreciating where you are & showing the respect a place deserves. The bottom line is, we are guests in the places we visit & it is not for us to determine that our opinions or wants are above what the stewards of those places have deemed appropriate.

Westminster Abbey, London

Lastly, though not required when visiting a site, I recommend using provided audio guides or at least reading available signage about a place. This allows you to slow down, take a breath and learn. Allow yourself some time to briefly dive into the specifics of what makes a place important. It’s not just a building or a statue or a relic. Important things happened in these places. People lived & often died in these places we now visit in our abundance as tourists. They have stories to tell if we will only listen. I have found that when I do this, I am often touched and the feelings I experience give me a greater appreciation for those that came before me & it solidifies in my memory the importance of a place. I firmly believe that everyone can feel the spirit & energy of a place by slowing down enough to learn & appreciate.

There are so many wonderful places in the world to visit.  Some of the best have the hardest pieces of history attached to them. They are worth visiting & we should visit them. We need to be respectful though. At least understand the basics of why a place is important before you arrive so you can gauge your behavior in a respectful manner.  Follow posted placards.  Remember, you are a guest and if the stewards of a place ask that you do something, it is your responsibility to do it.  Finally, learn all you can. It is our duty to remember the past so we do not repeat it. I firmly believe travel is one of the best educators, but it is only through our respect of the places we visit that history can be heard.