Thursday, June 21, 2018

Disney Aulani Review

Aulani Resort & Spa

I had heard SO MUCH about the Aulani, and have always wanted to check it out. Everyone said to wait until M was 3 years old and potty trained, so she could take advantage of Aunty's Beach House (essentially an included daycare option where you can drop off kids).

The price is a little expensive (smallest room cost around $500+), which is why we only stayed for two nights. I think that was actually a good amount of time, since we really maximized our first day by coming early.

Aulani is located in Kapolei, which is about a 45-minute drive from Waikiki. Since we didn't have a rental car, we booked a one-way taxi with Charley's which cost $89 before gratuities.  The Aulani is located in a manicured development area and reminded me a lot of Wailea, Maui and Punta Mita, Mexico. There were a few other resorts/condos around the area, too, such as the Four Seasons and the Marriott.

There's a small market, restaurants, and coffee shop within walking distance from the Aulani, which was nice as we got really tired of the overpriced hotel food.

Check In

We purposely came early (around 10 AM) to maximize our time at the Aulani. Even though official check in time is not until 4 PM, we knew we could get started with enjoying the pool facilities, play areas, etc.

They provided us with lei greeting for the adults and a kid's necklace for M. Right next to the check-in area, there's a kids play area with videos playing. We were given the map of the resort, as well as an access key to the check-in/out lounge to change and shower. We grabbed our swimsuits, dropped off our bags with the concierge, and then headed down to the lounge.


We booked the Studio garden view room (their cheapest option!), and our view was of the parking lot. :p  I probably would recommend booking at least the next category up, which would at least give a view of the lawn area for not that much more.

The room felt a little small (around 380 sq feet). I think this was probably because we just came from the Hyatt Centric Waikiki which had much bigger rooms. The room is a little bit older, but not super worn out.  They do have a microwave, fridge, plates/glasses, dish soap, etc. which is nice. I also noticed a pack and play with sheets in the closet if needed for little ones.

The sofa pulls out to a queen size bed, which we actually used because the regular bed was too small for the 3 of us.

In the bathroom, there was also a step stool for kids, which was really nice, so M could go up to wash her hands at the sink by herself!

Aunty's Beach House

We registered M up for Aunty's Beach House. There's a $12.95 fee/deposit for the bracelet (which is used to track where she is at all times), and this is refundable. There is an "open house" each morning from 8 - 9:30AM where families can stay with their children to explore and enjoy the facility. From 9:30AM onward, only kids are allowed to stay.

A lot of families took advantage of this and dropped their kids off for the whole day. M didn't want to be left alone, so we only did the open house one morning before heading to the pool.

For the most part, this is covered as part of the stay. There are some other "premium" activities that you would have to pay extra for, which were noted in the schedule. They offer to serve kids meals (lunch/dinner) for an additional fee also.

Pool Area

By the time we got changed after we arrived, it was probably around 10:30AM. We went to the towel check-in area, where we showed our keys to get wristbands, towels, and a kid floaty. Every day we have to get a new wristband (different color), which is how the resort knows how to differentiate guests vs non-guests at the pool.

The pool area was so CROWDED. I walked around a few times and could not find a single seat. I finally found a pair of seats by luck, and we put our stuff there and were finally able to swim.

I read some reviews on Yelp that said that people camp out slightly before 8 AM to get the "premium" pool chairs. I found this to be true. The next day we came down before 8AM to get the seats we wanted. This takes away a little bit from the experience, as I felt that we shouldn't have to fight to get pool seating when on vacation. The resort seemed to be full, and from what I understand, the hotel has a 4,000 person capacity and only 1,000 lounge chairs, which is not a good ratio. As the time went by, I started seeing more and more guests looking for chairs, and I felt bad for all these guests paying so much and couldn't even find a pool chair! By the second day, we learned that you have to be down by 8:30-9 AM at the latest to find seating.

Honestly, we were already up early anyway because of the jet lag, so it's not a huge issue to come down by 8AM. It just made the whole experience less relaxing, as we had to make sure we get down at a certain time and make sure we keep checking on our seat (as they remove your stuff after 1 hour if you leave your seats).

There are multiple pool areas: regular swimming pool, lazy river, kiddie pool, adult pool, etc. so the pool itself doesn't feel that crowded, just the seating areas did.

Beach Area

The beach area is actually somewhat less crowded. We went around 10AM another day and still found plenty of seats available.

The resort provides free sand toys on a first come, first served basis, I heard they run out quickly, so we went early also, around 8:30AM to borrow one.

There's a small shack that sells snacks (pretzel, soft serve, etc.) right by the beach.

The beach area is in a small cove, and the water is very calm, perfect for little kids.

Laniwai Spa

I booked a massage at the Laniwai Spa. Dan offered to watch M, which was really nice of him. :) They automatically include gratuities, and the total was around $199. Not cheap, but I guess it is the standard for a "nicer" spa.

The experience was actually really nice. The whole spa area felt very secluded, not crowded like everywhere else at the Aulani! After checking in, I was greeted by someone who asked me to choose a stone that is engraved with Hawaiian terms - mine meant "Dream". She then asked me to drop it in a small pool area with my wish. She then walked me through the different areas (changing room, relaxation room, outdoor tubs, etc). They have 2 hot tubs, an area with 5-6 different rain showers, and a warm whirlpool and a cold plunge pool. There's also a seating lounge for people to relax. 

They called me in the co-ed lounge and took me to the treatment room. They provided options for the lotion, as well as music. The massage was great, and overall experience was very relaxing.

Ka wa'a Luau

Aulani introduced a luau not too long ago. We bought the general admission tickets, which was $119 for adult and $79 for kids. The other option is premium admission, which was $159 for adult and $109 for kids. The premium admission allows early entrance (15 minutes before), closer seating, and unlimited drinks.

We waited in line one hour before because I thought that they would be opening the entrance one hour before, but the opening time was actually the stated time on the ticket (6:15 PM). Again, this is a similar aspect of this resort that I am not a fan of. People line up early to get "better" seats, etc., after already paying for the ticket. I just wished they have pre-assigned seating for everyone, so we don't have to line up.

There are several pre-show activities that are all kid friendly. M got a "tattoo", learned how to pound poi, made a flower bracelet, etc. There is a little bit of a line for each of the activities, but not too bad.

The actual food is not served until another hour later (7:15 PM), and by this time, a lot of the guests & kids were very hungry. I wished that they would just start allowing people to eat at 6:15 or maybe 6:30, but not an hour after. The people in our table actually complained to the server about the lines after lines for everything, which I kind of agree with.

Food is provided buffet style, and they dismiss each table beginning from the first rows, etc. There is a separate buffet food for the kids which had pasta, mac and cheese, fruit cup, etc. The adult buffet style was actually pretty good. There's salad, poke, fish, chicken, pork, and sliced prime rib.

The actual show is nice, Disney style, and again very kid friendly. They try to incorporate kids when possible (for example: inviting kids to dance on stage with the hula dancers).

We didn't end up staying the whole show, as M got really sleepy around 8:40 PM.

Overall it was a nice show, but the lines were too much (lines for entrance, lines for activities, lines for food, etc.). Hopefully they have a better system with pre-assigned seats upon booking, and then serving food not too long after the luau opens. I probably would recommend purchasing the "premium" ticket so you can avoid some of the lines.

Overall Thoughts on Aulani

We are glad that we were finally able to experience what Aulani is all about. However, we probably will not be back.

The price of the resort is a little expensive ($500+/night) for the entry level category, and we felt that the experience didn't fully justify the price, as there were lines for everything. When we go on vacation, we want to feel relaxed. However, at Aulani, it's hard to feel relax when you have to wake up really early to get a spot for the pool chairs.

Everywhere we go in the resort (except the Spa), is super crowded, and it just felt like they really try to maximize the most number of rooms/people for profit, which then negatively affects the actual experience.

We do appreciate the kid friendliness of the resort (step stool in bathroom, pack and play in every room, etc.) -- and service in general is very good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Oahu Trip


We were looking to split our stay between Waikiki and the Aulani resort. So when I heard about the opening of the Hyatt Centric Waikiki, I thought it would be a good option. I always like new hotels, and this one was available via Hyatt points and would have been opened for a few months by the time our trip rolled around.

For the Aulani (since it's so expensive!), we only booked for two nights.

We also didn't rent a car for the entirety our trip. We only rented for one day which worked out fine. There's lots of places around Waikiki that we could walk to or take taxi. It is still more convenient to have a car if you don't mind paying for parking fees.

This was our second trip to Waikiki; we had done most of the touristy stuff the first time. So we didn't really have anything planned other than relaxing and enjoying some good food.

Hyatt Centric Waikiki

The facility is actually an old office building that was completely renovated to be the new Hyatt Centric. The location of the hotel is not beachside but is walking distance to the beach (3-4 blocks). The hotel provides free beach chairs, beach towels, and even sand toys that we took advantage of. I actually really like the location of the hotel--it is close to a lot of eateries and basically next door to the new International Marketplace.

The main entrance on the first floor is really just the entry way.  We had to take the elevator to the 8th floor for the actual lobby and reception area. The lobby is beautiful, with a view of the small swimming pool and is also connected to the main hotel restaurant. At check in, we were welcomed with shell leis and a refreshing pineapple juice drink.

The room is actually quite spacious, and I love how new everything is. There is a small seating area right by the entrance, a full shower/bathroom, another seating area/office, a seating nook, and a King size bed.

The design is modern Hawaiian, and there's a floor to ceiling window. The only thing "missing" is that there is no lanai, per se. But we didn't mind it too much.

The pool is probably one of the few downsides. It is really small, and extremely shallow.  M, our 3-year old, was able to stand in the deepest water area. So it's not really a true swimming pool, more like a water play area for toddlers & kids.

Another downside is that we could hear the nightclub music and traffic from our room. There did not appear to be much soundproofing. You could probably try asking for higher floors, but not sure if that would help with the noise.

Also like I mentioned earlier, this hotel is not beach side. It's about a 3-4 block walk to the beach. The hotel does provide free beach chair, beach towels, and sand toys.

Service was really good; everyone was very friendly and helpful.

There is a daily resort fee as well as additional parking fee. I think parking is $34 daily. Also, since we booked with points, our resort fee was waived, which was nice!

Overall we had a pleasant stay. We feel this is a great option if you are looking for a newer hotel in Waikiki area.

Kid-Friendly Activities

Hawaii Children's Discovery Center

We visited the Children's Discovery Center and M had a blast. The center is like a pretend/play city. There are various stations that mimic real life: supermarket, post office, bank, car repair shop, etc. The entrance fee was $12/person, and the center has 3 floors to explore.

The first floor has the main attractions/pretend city; the second floor has this really awesome Hawaiian Airlines exhibit with actual airplane seats & area for kids to play pilot and flight attendant); and the third floor has exhibits representing various countries.

Overall we had a wonderful time and highly recomend it if you are looking for a place to take young kids in Oahu.

Beach Day

Since the Hyatt is not beachside, we walked a few blocks to access the public beach. The hotel provided free beach chairs, towels, and toys, which was very nice. We still had to carry the stuff ourselves to the beach. The hotel recommended the area in front of Duke's restaurant. We found a partially shaded area by a palm tree, but we ended up renting a beach umbrella from one of the rental shops. In hindsight, I probably would have just rented the umbrella and chairs at the beach instead of carrying from the hotel.

Ala Moana Mall

We went to the Ala Moana mall to look around. We checked out the new Shirokiya food court and the  arcade games for M.

International Market Place - Music/Dancing Show at 6:30 PM

The new International Market Place had just recently reopened. We love the main courtyard area where there's artificial grass, a water area, and stone seatings. They have a cultural music and dance show free to the public every night at 6:30 PM.

Food in Oahu

Island Vintage Coffee

We went here for breakfast almost every day! The location is very close to our hotel, and they open very early at 6 AM. Since we were all jet lagged and up very early, this was a nice and easy choice for us.

We tried the Acai bowl, Vintage Kona Mocha, taro bagel, peanut butter & mango sandwich, and the Island style breakfast plate.
  • Acai bowl: One of the best Acai bowls I've had. The consistency is very good, and they give LOTS of granola (at the bottom of the bowl, in the middle, and at the top). I usually order extra granola at other Acai places, but Island Vintage knows my heart and provides enough granola! :) They also put lots of honey which I love. 
  • Vintage Kona Mocha: This is one of their signature drinks, it's like a Starbucks Frappucino, but with hints of coconut, macadamia, and coffee pieces!
  • Taro bagel: It looks so interesting (purple color!). The taste is very mild but still good.
  • Peanut butter & mango sandwich: An interesting twist to the PB & banana sandwich. It's a tasty, sweet sandwich for breakfast/lunch.
  • Island style breakfast plate: This was pretty good, but we were not a fan of the purple sticky rice.

Overall this is just a great place overall. Almost everything we had was very good. The Waikiki location is very busy. We were glad to find another location in Kapolei, across from the Aulani, so we could have more Acai bowls!

Island Vintage Shave Ice

This was probably the best shave ice in Oahu. I have only tried Matsumoto's and Waiola, and I think Island Vintage beats them all! It is a bit more pricey (I paid around $9), but it's worth it. It's a small stand on the street level, below where the coffee shop is.

I got the coconut and mango flavors with macadamia nut gelato and mochi. The shaved ice was super soft, and the syrup all tasted home made. I could also tell that the mochi was home made. Overall, very, very good shave ice!

Yokocho Gourmet Alley

We ate twice at this food court:  The first time at Tsujita Ramen (same ramen place as the famous one in LA), and the second time at Hannosuke Hawaii.

Tsuijta Ramen was good. The tsukemen is probably my favorite--very chewy noodles and unique, unlike regular ramen. The noodles come separately from the broth, so you eat by dipping it in the heavy pork broth each time.

Hannosuke specializes in tempura meal sets. I got the premium tempura bowl, and Dan got the regular tempura set. The bowl includes all the tempura over rice, with a sauce already pre drizzled. The tempura set has a slight salty sauce, and the rice and sauce comes separately. I actually like the bowl as the sauce is mixed in, but Dan preferred the set. There was actually a bit of a line when we came here for dinner. The tempura was very good quality, super fresh and great consistency.

Nana's Green Tea

We were so full after the tempera meal, but I had to try this dessert place. I ended up getting the Matcha Nama Chocolate Parfait, which consisted of a layer of jelly, vanilla ice cream, corn flakes, green tea chocolate, red bean, green tea ice cream, and whipped cream. It was so, so yummy and made me feel that I was actually in Japan! It was a bit pricey ($12.85), but still very worth it.

Marukame Udon

This restaurant is probably the most popular restaurant in Oahu. There are 5000+ reviews on Yelp with a 4.5 star rating. This restaurant is across the street from our hotel, so we passed by it a few times, and there is always a long line of at least 20-30 people around dinner time.

We went during an off hour (3 PM) and didn't have to wait in line. The restaurant was actually cafetaria/self-serve style, where you select the type of udon, and then self-serve the tempura items.

The noodle consistency was good. The tempura was pretty good, however, since we didn't come during peak hours, our tempura was slightly cold.

Overall I was a bit underwhelmed by the food here, and felt that the restaurant was overhyped, but we were still glad that we tried.

Rainbow Drive Inn

This is the place to go for cheap, no frills, Hawaiian food. We got the mixed grill plate which consisted of beef, fried chicken, fried fish, macaroni salad, and rice. We especially liked the fried chicken and fried fish; both were very tender and the breading was tasty. We also got a side order of chili over rice which was pretty good. We tried the loco moco on our last trip, and it was excellent. The food here is very unhealthy though. :) Almost everything was fried and there's no veggie option at all.  :p

Leonard's Malasadas

This bakery is very, very popular; there always seems to be a line. I probably waited in line for 10-15 minutes. I ordered 2 regular malasadas and 4 with fillings (custard, chocolate, macadamia nut, and banana). I think the regular malasadas are better than the filled ones. Everything is made fresh to order, and biting into these fresh malasadas is just really wonderful.

Musubi Iyasume

We tried a few musubi places, and Iyasume was the best. They have various toppings like spam/avocado/egg/bacon, and I also like the other ongiris (tuna salad, chicken salad, etc). Their rice is also very good, very sticky and has nice flavor. I do think that they put a little too much rice, but it's still yummy overall.

Waiola Shave Ice

I heard that this is the best shave ice in Oahu, but I would have to say that Island Vintage Shave ice is actually better. The ice at Waiola is pretty smooth, but the flavoring was just so-so. I wouldn't make a special trip here, but would stop by if I'm around the area.