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Ko’olina is an oceanfront resort area on the leeward (west) side of Oahu. It’s a preplanned community (as in, much of the infrastructure was laid out before many of the resorts and restaurants moved in) so it has a bit of a curated and idyllic vibe that although is definitely not “local” Hawaii, is nevertheless heavenly for vacationers. It’s location on the leeward side means that the weather is almost always dry and sunny, and it’s home to some of the island’s loveliest beaches. There are four lagoons in the Ko’olina resort area that are ideal, protected places to swim.
Where to Stay
The Ko’olina resort isn’t that big so narrowing down a place to stay won’t be too difficult.
Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa: Aulani is the big star around these parts. While being “Disney,” it’s surprisingly the most “Hawaiian” resort I’ve come across in Hawaii. The resort has taken amazing steps to preserve and honor Hawaiian culture and heritage as well as share it with guests. It’s definitely THE place to stay if you have kids. It practically has its own waterpark, and the place has a very comfortable but upscale feel. There’s so much to do at this resort that you’ll constantly be torn between taking advantage of all of the activities and wanting to just lounge around the amazing beach and pools. Read this post for a more in depth review of Aulani. Check rates and read reviews here.
Four Seasons Oahu: If you’re looking for luxury, you’ll find it at the Four Seasons. Recently renovated and converted from a JW Marriott, this property is everything you’d expect from the Four Seasons. With an amazing spa, tennis facility, multiple pools, and yummy restaurants, you’ll be able to pass your vacation here in style. This Four Seasons is considered an entry level Four Seasons property (not quite as lavish and expansive as the resorts on Maui and the Big Island), so if you’d like to experience luxury at a lower price point, this is a great option. It’s usually on par price wise with Aulani. Check rates and read reviews here.
Marriott Ko’olina Beach Club: If you’re a points tracker or loyal to Marriott/Starwood, you’ll definitely want to check out this spot. This gorgeous resort has more pools than you can imagine and wonderful amenities if you’re looking for good bang for your buck. The resort has 1-3 bedroom villas with kitchens so you’ll have more room to spread out. The Marriott is also the only resort on lagoon #3 in Ko’olina (Aulani and the Four Seasons share lagoon #1), so it may seem a little quieter. Check rates and read reviews here.
Ko’olina Beach Villas Resort: If you’re looking for a spacious condo with resort like amenities, you’ll love this place. It’s located on Lagoon #2 and it’s a great option to save some money while still feeling like you’re living it up. You can book your unit through the resort or independently through owner via sites like Airbnb (use this link for $40 off your first stay) or Vrbo.
RELATED: Not very familiar with Oahu? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and where to stay plus my favorite beach resorts, budget hotels, Airbnbs, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.
Kapolei: If you’re looking for something even cheaper, expand your search to the nearby town of Kapolei. It’s inland a few miles but still close enough to pop over to the beach and you might find more economical accommodations if you’re just looking for someplace to set up a basecamp to explore the island from.
Where to Eat
Most restaurants in the Ko’olina area are either located in resorts or the Ko’olina Center (a small shopping center across the street from Aulani). This isn’t a comprehensive listing of every restaurant in the area, but these are some of my favorites:
Monkeypod: This is hands down my favorite spot in Ko’olina (and one of my top in Hawaii!). Monkeypod is a concept by Hawaii famous chef Peter Merriman who pioneered the farm to table movement in Hawaii. He has some pretty highend restaurants, but the Monkeypod is considered the “bar food” version of his other places. It has the BEST food and I would consider it an “upscale casual” restaurant. There’s almost always live music and they have great happy hour specials. It’s located in the Ko’olina Center across the street from Aulani.
Roy’s: Chef Roy Yamaguchi is famous in Hawaii and he’s brought his signature restaurant chain out to Ko’olina. It’s got a nice location on the golf course. You can expect your typical steak and seafood fare here.
La Hiki: This spot at the Four Seasons does a breakfast buffet every morning followed by American style lunch and dinner, but the real draw here is the weekend brunch buffet. It’s not cheap, but the all you can eat buffet hosted on Saturdays and Sundays may be the most lavish experience of your trip to Hawaii. If you’re staying in the area (and hey, many people drive all the way over from town for it), you’ve definitely got to make a reservation.
Egg’s n Things: This famous Waikiki breakfast joint now has a location on the west side in the Ko’olina Center. It’s a great, low-key spot for breakfast.
Longhi’s: Located at the Marriott, Longhi’s has operated a couple of locations on Maui before coming to Oahu. They do a good breakfast/brunch and somewhat high end dinner. It’s not located right on the water, but most of the restaurant does face the ocean.
Makahiki: This is the place to do a character breakfast or dinner at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa. It’s a bountiful buffet, and great way to meet a few Disney characters if you’re not staying at the resort.
AMA AMA: This “signature” dining spot at Aulani is worth visiting for the location alone. It’s right on the ocean and besides Mina’s Fish House next door at the Four Seasons, it’s the only high end restaurant in Ko’olina where you’ll find beach front dining. I’ve never been blown away with the dinner menu (it’s not bad, just not great considering the price), but breakfast is outstanding and lunch is a better value than dinner.
Mina’s Fish House: This upscale line-to-table seafood restaurant at the Four Seasons is probably the poshest place in Ko’olina. It’s a multi tiered indoor/outdoor restaurant with plenty of couches for lounging and taking in the sunset.
Noe: Located at the Four Seasons, this is probably your best bet for upscale Italian food in Ko’olina.
Olelo Room: This is my pick for the “must be” spot in Ko’olina after the sun goes down. This lounge has some of the best live music I’ve heard anywhere in Hawaii. They also have linguists on hand to demonstrate the Hawaiian language for you.
Island Country Market: AKA an ABC Store, which is a local convenience/souvenir shop chain in Hawaii. This one is really big though and has a decent selection of groceries and prepared foods. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen (or at least a fridge), you may want to stock up here. It’s located in the Ko’olina Center.
Island Vintage Coffee: In addition to your morning java, you can grab acai bowls and sandwiches here. It’s located in the Ko’olina Center.
Longboard’s Bar & Grill: Located at the Marriott, this is the place to go for a casual beachfront meal.
Ko’olina Hawaiian Bar-B-Que: Nothing much to write home about, but if you’re looking for something quick (for dine in or carry out), you’ll find some local style favorites here. Located in the Ko’olina Center.
Just Tacos Mexican Grill & Cantina: If you’ve got a craving for Mexican food, they can fill it here. They also have over 300 types of tequila. Located in the Ko’olina Center.
In Kapolei: You’ll need a car to get there, but just a few miles down the road in Kapolei you’ll find a California Pizza Kitchen and Eating House 1849 (one of my favorites on Kauai) and a lot of other options.
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Things to Do
Beach Lagoons: Obviously the number one thing to do in Hawaii is bum around the beach and you’ll find some lovely ones in Ko’olina. There are four protected lagoons in the area. Lagoon number one (closest to the marina) has the most public parking and there’s no resort on it so it may be less crowded, however crowds pick up on the weekends.
Paradise Cove Luau: Usually rated as the number one luau on Oahu, the Paradise Cove Luau is within easy walking distance if you’re staying in Ko’olina. It’s a great luau for kids, it’s right on the beach, and they put on a great show. Make reservations in advance. Read my full review here.
Ka Wa’a Luau: This newer luau at Aulani doesn’t draw the crowds that Paradise Cove Luau does so it feels a bit more intimate. It’s not on the beach, but there are numerous cultural activities to enjoy before the show starts. It’s targeted more towards small children as Moana, Mickey, and Minnie are included throughout the night. It’s also the best luau food I’ve ever had, but that may be largely due to the fact that it’s suited more towards an American palate and it’s not as authentic in taste and flavor as other luaus. They also have a kids buffet. Read my full review here.
Golf: The course at the Ko’olina Golf Club has been named in the top 75 resort courses in the US by Golf Digest, so if you’re a golfer, you definitely don’t want to miss this one!
Tennis: The Four Seasons has a phenomenal rooftop tennis facility that’s open to non resort guests. Book a lesson with a pro, attend a daily clinic, or just reserve a court for a friendly match.
Snorkel Trip: Book a snorkeling trip out of the Ko’olina Marina where you’re almost guaranteed to spot dolphins and even whales in season.
Water Rentals: Each resort in Ko’olina has rentals for paddle boards and snorkel gear so you can get out and enjoy life on and under the water in the lagoons.
Ride the Sugar Cane Train: The Hawaiian Railway Society Cane Train runs right through Ko’olina, but you’ll have to drive over to Ewa to catch it. The 90-minute ride takes you from Ewa to Kahe Beach Park and back on Saturday and Sunday for $15. You’ll hear stories about the old sugar cane trains and plantations as well as see points of interest along the west side of the island.
Pros & Cons of Staying in Ko’olina
Ko’olina is indeed a lovely place to stay on Oahu, but let me break down some of the pros and cons for you so you can decide if it’s right for you:
Pros: The biggest pro of staying out in Ko’olina is its distance from Waikiki. It’s not actually that far, but you’ll feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki. If you’re looking for serenity and a well maintained resort area, Ko’olina is exactly what you’re looking for. Another big positive is the weather. It’s nearly always hot and sunny in Ko’olina no matter the time of year. Even when it’s rainy or overcast on other parts of the island, the leeward side is more often than not sunny. If you’re goal is to stay at a nice resort and not have to get out and about around the island, Ko’olina is definitely set up for that. The three resorts here are mega resorts (which I define as big and nice with enough amenities that you don’t actually ever have to leave) and the Ko’olina Center offers enough shopping and dining options to have a little variety. Also, being able to catch a snorkel/dolphin excursion from the marina is a nice convenience. If you’re not planning to leave the Ko’olina area, you can definitely manage without a car. There’s also a complimentary shuttle that runs between all of the resorts, the golf club, and the marina.
Another big plus to staying in Ko’olina is its proximity to Kapolei. You’ll find a Target and Costco there along with a nice selection of restaurants. If you have a car, it’s a nice place to stock up on necessities before hitting your resort.
Cons: It kind of feels like its out in the middle of nowhere. And actually, it is haha. The resort’s seclusion, which is a pro, can also be a con if you’re interested in getting out and exploring the whole island. It’s only about 30 minutes into Waikiki, but traffic can make it a lot longer and many of the most beautiful parts of the island (the north shore and the windward side) are much further.
Ko’olina is beautiful, but it’s not exactly the “real Hawaii.” While it is in close proximity to local towns like Waianae and Makaha on the west side, these places don’t have the draw that local towns on the north shore and windward side of the island have and that’s mainly because they haven’t been as developed and still maintain a stigma as being unsafe for tourists from decades past when crime rates where very high (opinions of whether or not this is still true vary greatly).
So if you’re staying in Ko’olina, it’s highly likely that all of your island exploring is going to happen back towards the east. It is however pretty much the only “resort area” you’ll find on Oahu outside of Waikiki. Turtle Bay on the north shore is lovely but it’s just a single resort and points of interest along the north shore are rather spread out so it’s not walkable like Ko’olina.
To sum it up, if you’re looking for a nice and relaxed Hawaiian beach location and you’re willing to rent a car and get out and explore the island, Ko’olina is a lovely place to stay. Especially if you can swing Aulani or the Four Seasons : )
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