Ian and I tend to fancy ourselves a pair of fairly with-it twenty-somethings — though I admit I’m concerned that saying so is the blogging equivalent of wearing non-ironic mom jeans. When we travel, we like to book boutique hotels, chic apartments, or design hostels; go out to eat at trendy local cafés and restaurants; and get out and explore new places and tackle active adventures.
So suffice it to say I was a bit hesitant to suggest to Ian that we stay at the mega-resort that is Disney Aulani on the island of Oahu. Unlike me, Ian did not grow up surrounded by Disney magic, and we both are fairly skeptical of destinations that involve hundreds of lightly supervised children shrieking with joy. I knew Aulani was a top-notch, excellently executed resort; it regularly wins top awards for family travel across the industry. I just wasn’t sure it was the right destination for us.
If you read my previous Hawaii love letter, you know that all our concerns look laughable in retrospect. In fact, we loved Aulani so much we literally shifted our entire itinerary to bump our stay from four nights to five upon arrival.
Our biggest surprise? Aulani is a fantastic destination not just for kids and families but also for adults — we found that as a young couple looking for a relaxing Hawaiian getaway, we were just as catered to as anyone. With adult-only pools, an award-winning spa, an array of dining options, an incredible onsite fitness program and more, we really could not have asked for a more perfect place to start our Aloha State adventure.
And oh right, it was free.
Yes, I’m insanely lucky — my Dad is a Disney Vacation Club member and since he seems determined to work until they spin him to his retirement party in a wheelchair, he doesn’t ever have time to use his points. Thus, he generously gifts them to us kids whenever we have the opportunity to use them.
Adult Only Aulani
Of course, at any resort, your room is your sanctuary.
Aulani books out quickly, especially DVC rooms, but we managed to score a one bedroom villa with a poolside gardens view. We weren’t too fussed about the view when we booked — we’d have loved an ocean view, of course, but none were available and we quickly realized that the poolside view rooms were closest to the restaurants, pools, gym and lobby — plus they were less points. We would have also happily gone with an islands garden view, but I read many complaints about the standard view rooms that face the parking lots and garages, so perhaps we were lucky those were sold out too. Ground floor rooms are perfect for those with young kids (and are super popular — the first to be filled!), but otherwise I’d avoid them and trade convenience for the privacy and quiet of higher floors.
You can cram a full five guests into this room, which was perfect for us as we were able to register our kama’aina friends Wim and Dave as well as their twins (who were under two, so didn’t need to be counted in the guest total) to our room so they would get wristbands to use the pools and sunbeds and whatnot on the days they visited us — days we had the insanely fun experiences of confirming how much fun Aulani is with keiki — the cute Hawaiian word for kids.
Ah, our room. This bed was heaven on earth. Though we had spent a brief two nights in Los Angeles en route to Hawaii, Ian was coming from Newfoundland and I was coming from Florida, and so we were majorly jet lagged when we hit Hawaii, as all visitors coming from the US and Canada will likely be. This bed made it the most pleasant jetlag experience of my life.
We had a kitchen and dining area, a living room, a separate bedroom, two bathrooms and a washer dryer, which was a treat for us as our trip was continuing on for quite some time and it allowed us to do laundry the last night. The master bathroom separated into two rooms, one with a shower and one with a bathtub and both with mirrors, which would be perfect for a big family or even two couples sharing the room.
At over 750 square feet, this room was bigger than many New York apartments!
Disney Aulani is located in Ko Olina, West Oahu’s resort community, with the Four Seasons, the Marriott, and the Ko Olina Golf Club its neighbors along four man-made lagoons. While families adore the calm, sheltered lagoons for taking young kids to the beach — my friends come here with their twins all the time! — we found them equally appealing.
The wide pathway that connects all four lagoons and the attached beach park is a 2.7 mile loop round trip — perfect for a morning run. And the lagoons are lovely for swimming lap to cool down after. I did both on this trip and couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful way to start the day.
While the amount of pools, lazy rivers, hot tubs, and beyond at Disney Aulani can be almost dizzying, there are a few spots reserved specifically for adults. The Wailana Pool and Bar is Aulani’s heated, adult-only pool area for those 18 and up.
‘Alohi Point is another area that at least technically is for guests 18 and older, though unlike The Wailana Pool, this wasn’t really enforced. These two terraced infinity hot tubs had dreamy views out over the beach, and were cleverly designed to feel like a secret hideaway from the rest of the bustling resort. We totally regretted not watching a sunset from here — one of our biggest oopses of the trip!
Of course, don’t miss the rest of the fun. The waterslides in particular were incredibly fun, and more intense than we’d have guessed — we regretted leaving them to the last day!
Where To Eat
Aulani is fairly isolated, at least in the culinary sense. The good news? Aulani has a range of onsite restaurants. The bad news? They have a fairly so-so reputation online for being dramatically overpriced and only mediocre in execution. It’s the one somewhat sore spot in the resort’s otherwise immaculate reputation.
‘Ama ‘Ama is Aulani’s high-end restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I noted that the most rave reviews were reserved for breakfast, and since that just so happens to be my favorite meal of the day, we couldn’t resist. I went with the widely-beloved macadamia nut pancakes ($18), which Ian ordered the kālua pig and spinach omelette ($21). Both were excellent — as were the views and the restaurant design.
We loved breakfast here and would highly recommend it — lunch also looked tempting, though dinner will probably only appeal to high-rollers who love either steak or seafood.
Another place we were very excited to try was The ‘Ōlelo Room, a Hawaiian-themed bar which features live local musicians every night and has an appetizer menu that could easily charade as dinner — think guava barbequed chicken wings, calamari, teriyaki beef sliders and shrimp tempura. Even better, the sunset menu from 5-7pm has specially priced drinks and appetizers that are probably the best deal in all of Aulani. We sat at the bar and ordered cocktails as well as all three of the special apps — edamame ($5), loaded kālua pork nachos with taro chips and pineapple salsa ($9), and garlic parmesan fries ($5) — and made dinner out of it.
The bar staff here is required to speak fluent Hawaiian, which I found fascinating — pity our bartender wasn’t super friendly or chatty. And as we learned later on our DVC tour (more on that in a bit), the bartenders are the only staff at any Disney property anywhere in the world that are allowed to have visible tattoos.
We had a very early dinner the night of our arrival at Off The Hook, a casual poolside option for lunch or dinner. They offer a standard menu of salads, sandwiches, burgers, and beyond — personally, I went for the appetizer sized Volcano Kālua Pork Quesadilla ($13), and while we weren’t raving about Off The Hook or rushing to go back, I’m sure if we’d stayed a few more days we would have ended up having another lunch here.
The sleeper hit of the trip? Ulu Cafe was a surprisingly knock-out for a quick-service cafe. Ulu served grab ‘n go breakfast and lunch as well as a rotating weekly dinner menu of a specialty hot plate and pizza takeout, and fun little snacks like Mickey-shaped spam musabi! It would be hard to get bored here even over a long stay as there was a rotating and ever-different soup of the day, hot sandwich of the day, and hot plate of the day. The breakfast menu in particular was great here — salmon or scramble flatbreads, tortilla wraps, Big Island lehua honey oatmeal, malasadas, and more.
We split the kālua pork and pineapple flatbread one day for lunch and couldn’t stop raving it was probably our favorite thing we ate at Aulani — and if you’re sensing that we need to go to rehab for an addiction to kālua pork, you are indeed onto something there. The seating area at Ulu was pretty cafeteria-esque and not appealing, but we just grabbed food and went to Wailana Pool or elsewhere to enjoy it. I wish we’d had a chance to try one of the dinners!
The only major restaurant we didn’t eat at was Makahiki, where they do the character breakfasts and a buffet dinner. We weren’t interested in a character breakfast and while menu looked nice for dinner we just couldn’t justify spending $49 on a buffet that we suspected would be pretty chaotic and family-oriented in atmosphere.
There are also several other small pool bars and snack counters throughout Aulani, including:
• Wailana Pool Bar: Snacks and drinks at the adult only pool, and a special coffee bar from 6-10am.
• Pāpālua Shave Ice: My favorite Hawaiian treat with tempting flavors like lilikoi and lychee. You know I went here!
• Mama’s Snack Stop: Kid-oriented pool food and snacks.
• Little ‘Opihi’s: A beachside kiosk with light lunches, ice cream, and more.
• Lava Shack: Packaged snacks and sundries.
Lucky for everyone, both with and without a car, there are a few excellent offsite dining options within easy walking distance. Of course you can check out the restaurants in the neighboring resorts, though expect to pay similar prices to those at Aulani. Yet across the street in Ko Olina Station, your wallet can take a break.
Monkeypod Kitchen is the big favorite here and we were gutted we never got to it for dinner — it gets rave reviews and is top of my list for next trip (that jetlag issue was no joke!). We did however lose it over Island Vintage Coffee, a Hawaiian chain with a menu I’m obsessed with — think bagels, acai bowls, and a mango and peanut butter breakfast sandwich that changed my life.
There’s also an ice cream parlor, a taco place with so-so reviews, a bbq place with terrible reviews, and Pizza Corner, where we ordered delivery from one night that was so inedible we threw it out — our one truly awful meal in Ko Olina. We should have ordered from Ulu Cafe instead!
Ko Olina Station also boasts some super cute boutiques that we had fun window shopping in, and a mildly overpriced outlet of Island Country Markets with groceries, prepared food, a small coffee bar, a dole whip machine, souvenirs, and more — it’s a good alternative if you didn’t rent a car to pick up groceries en route, or just need to top up your supplies (it’s still way cheaper to go to Target or Costco or Safeway in Kapolei.)
Unfortunately, having a rental car doesn’t really help enormously if you’re looking to drive somewhere exclusively for a meal. Of course, if you’re out and about, take advantage and grab lunch or dinner while exploring the island, but nearby Kapolei and other West Coast neighborhoods are more residential than tourist-oriented, and it’s at least an hour’s drive to either Waikiki or Haleiwa, the nearest places I’d consider epicenters for great food. One very cool exception? The Kapolei A-Go-Go food truck event every Tuesday night — I wish we hadn’t missed it!
Again, one of the major benefits of staying in a DVC villa over a standard hotel room is that you don’t have to rely on eating every single meal out — you can cook or snack or even reheat leftovers in your room.
What To Do
One of the things Ian and I loved about Aulani was the onsite fitness program. Every single day there was a wide array of classes, both free and for premium, led by a lovely staff and mostly held outside on the beach!
One morning we took ocean yoga and ocean fitness, both half hour classes on paddleboards in the lagoon for the $15 premium class fee each — well worth it, even stacked up one after the other. Other premium offerings include spinning and various yoga classes. (I missed sunrise yoga another morning because I got lost — the resort is huge!)
We also tried two of the free fifty-minute classes, Total Body Circuit and Beach Boot Camp, which were surprisingly tough — and fun! Other free outdoor classes are TRX Body Blast, Cardio Rush, Seaside Stretch, and more. Plus, the adult-only Mikimiki Fitness Center is open 24 hours a day. There are also fitness classes geared specifically to teens, which leaves the standard classes pretty adult-exclusive.
The fitness staff at Aulani were absolutely lovely. They knew our names by the second day and seemed genuinely excited to see us every time we showed up for a class, always taking the time to ask about our days and our trips and seeming genuinely enthusiastic about their jobs.
Aulani also offers an array of art and culture activities. While most of them are fairly family-oriented (like the ukelele class where Ian was the only student over twelve, ha) like at many Disney properties there are really interesting free tours of the resorts offered throughout the week.
The Māka‘ika‘i Art And Culture tour is offered Sunday and Wednesday and shows off Aulani’s native Hawaiian art collection, one of the largest in the world. Meanwhile, the Māka‘ika‘i Nature and Wildlife tour is offered Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday, and delves into the natural inspiration behind Aulani, as well as the native flora and fauna found there today.
We took a kind of hybrid of the two exclusive to DVC members. I took a similar tour at Disney Orlando’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and loved it — it’s so interesting to get some insight into the incredible design processes of the Disney Imagineers! In addition to learning about small details we never would have noticed on our own, we got some fascinating info on the history of Aulani. I was fascinated to learn the same head Imagineer Joe Rohde was in fact behind both Animal Kingdom and Aulani, my two favorite Disney resorts. Part of the reason Aulani is so rich with Hawaiian tradition and culture is that Rohde grew up in Waikiki, and was a driving force in bringing Disney to Oahu.
Ah, and then there’s the spa. Laniwai is a large, luxurious spa given the Disney Imagineer attention to detail. Upon check in, you’re led to pick a small smooth stone from a basket, and the Hawaiian word printed on your stone is something you’re encouraged to focus on during your stay. You then walk down a long, beautiful hallway, toss your stone into a beautiful fountain, and enter the spa.
We arrived over an hour early for our treatment in order to enjoy Kula Wai, the outdoor hydrotherapy garden. We alternated between six rain-style showers, whirlpool jet spas, cold water plunge pools, and indoor and outdoor relaxation areas where we were offered an array of hot and cold teas as well as small healthy treats like granola, mini-muffins, and fruit.
We also made sure to stop at the Pulu Bar, where an attendant showed us various oils and herbs to create complimentary, personalized body polishes to take home… or use in the soak tub in our villa! They also give you a small bag of bath salts upon check out too, as a goodbye gift.
Then, we settled into a treatment room for our couple’s Lomilomi massage, a traditional local treatment that I’ve been lucky to try before in Maui. It’s similar to a Swedish massage, with a Hawaiian twist. We were prompted to choose our own massage oil and even our own music from a range of options, and promptly blissed out to our incredible treatments.
At $150 per person for a fifty minute couple’s massage before tax or tip, it’s not cheap, clearly. But you could literally spend at least several hours here, the treatments are top-notch and it’s overall one of the most well designed spa experiences I’ve ever had.
Laniwai is another adult-only sanctuary at Aulani (there’s a separate spa, Painted Sky, for teens, which looked adorable.) If you’re not sure if you’re interested, take one of the twice daily free tours of the spa to see if it tickles you.
So, wondering about activities beyond the resort? As this was my third trip to Oahu, and we were combining our stay with a long weekend in Waikiki, I was content to essentially never leave. However, Ian did spend one day driving up to the North Shore, which is pretty convenient to get to from Aulani, while I had a girl’s day back at the hotel with Wim.
Our only other excursion together (that wasn’t going to dinner at Wim’s house in Ewa Beach!) was going on a sunset cruise with Hawaii Nautical. Our friend Dave works there and I’ve been out on one of their afternoon snorkel tours on a previous trip — the views of the Waianae Mountain Range are incredible, and the staff makes the trips so much fun.
While Dave scored us a great deal, the standard price is $89 for a two hour sail with open bar and heavy pupus (or appetizers, the one Hawaiian words I don’t like, ha!) and while we’d planned to go to dinner after, we were actually full enough that we didn’t need to — making it an excellent value. While we had a car and drove, there is a free shuttle from Aulani. There’s actually a cruise a few times a week exclusive to Aulani guests, but you’ll pay a premium of $154 per person for it (and there’s no booze!)
Feeling adventures and want to explore more of the West Coast? Search for trail guides to The Summit of Kea’au, a beautiful hike I did on a previous trip, or head to the more well-marked Kaena Point Trail, which I tackled from the North Shore, but which also has a West Coast entry. You could also head to Kaneana Cave or any of the local beach parks — just keep in mind that West Oahu is the island’s primary native Hawaiian stronghold and hotbed for the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, and be respectful when you’re exploring.
Aulani After Dark
Don’t come to Aulani looking for access to crazy nightlife, cause there is none! (Really, the only serious nightlife on Oahu is in Honolulu). For us this was perfect — we were so jetlagged we were lucky to make it to 9pm before passing out, and we loved being somewhere where we didn’t have massive FOMO for doing so.
However, if you’re looking for something to do, check the Ohana Disney Movie Nights scheduled on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. While most of the showings are animated Disney favorites, they also occasionally show more grown-up fare like Star Wars (and let’s face it, I am 100% down with watching Moana, The Little Mermaid, or just about any other animated Disney movie.) They set up a projector on the lawn and sell popcorn — it’s cute! There’s also plenty of live Hawaiian music around the resort (The ‘Ōlelo Room was our favorite) for free, as well as special events like the KA WA’A Luau, a stargazing program, and sunset photography training classes for an extra fee.
If you have your own wheels, there’s also a couple of fancy movie theaters in nearby Kapolei that we kicked ourselves for not trying.
Conclusion and Advice
Disney Aulani is, spoiler alert, never going to be a budget getaway. Frankly, it was an expensive trip for us even without paying for accommodation! But from what I gathered while researching our stay, the most affordable way to stay there is not to pay rack rate on the hotel rooms but rather to rent DVC points from members who aren’t using theirs — there’s a whole industry for doing so. For reference, our villa was 44 points per night. Not only will you end up paying less on lodging itself, but the DVC villas come with kitchens, which will save you bundles even if you just have one meal a day there, and also come with free parking, which saves you a whopping $37 a day if you plan to rent a car (don’t get me started on parking rates in Hawaii.)
If you’re a DVC member or like me, lucky enough to be loved by one, don’t get discouraged if the website shows little to no availability. This was my third time using DVC points and all three times, I’ve found that when I call in, the friendly customer service reps are always able to pull something together that the online booking engine doesn’t show! For this trip, we were initially only able to find three nights in a row but went on a waiting list for the prior night, and it quickly opened up to four. During our stay we decided to extend again and had no problem adding an extra night, without having to move our rooms. So there’s more wiggle room than you might at first think.
We were excited to try the food at Aulani and the surrounding area’s various restaurants, but also were wary of insane price tags. So we stopped at Safeway en route and stocked up on fruit, yogurt, tea, and other snacks we’d need for our stay so we didn’t have to wince every time we were a bit peckish. With a few exceptions, we mostly had breakfast and snacks in the condo and ate out for dinner and light lunches — or as I like to call it, shave ice. If you don’t rent a car, walk to Island Country Markets across the street in Ko Olina Station to stock up.
Speaking of car rentals — there is an onsite Alamo counter, but unless you literally only want a car for one day, it’s probably a better deal to rent from the Honolulu Airport. Despite the fact that we knew we were going to use it very little, we priced out the options and decided that with our free parking, and with cab fares so high, we ended up renting a car for our entire eight nights on Oahu instead. We calculated that our cab fares between our two hotels and the airport alone would be $170, so suddenly that $230 car rental didn’t look so bad. Expect to pay at least $50 to get between Aulani and the airport, and make your calculations from there. I’ve used Discount Hawaii Car Rental twice now after reading rave views online and I’ve been really happy with them.
Aulani only opened in 2011, but Disney fans love to blog and so no stone has been unturned online — you’ll find plenty of material for researching a trip here. My go-to source for all things Disney is actually another young couple, the pair behind the excellent and exhausting Disney Tourist Blog. They have some great reviews and research on Aulani.
So, is Aulani the right choice for a couple? In our case, the answer was definitely yes! Of course, we were very happy that we combined our stay with a weekend in Honolulu so we could experience some of those highlights without having to constantly drive back and forth. For first time Oahu visitors especially, I’d definitely recommend doing something similar.
Overall, I could not have asked for a more relaxing and carefree kick-off to our Hawaii travels. Aulani really is a special place for everyone — I already can’t wait to go back.
Mahalo, Aulani — and on to Waikiki!
Mahalo to Disney Aulani for hosting us for a spa treatment — and to my dad for gifting us DVC points!
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in October of 2016 in Hawaii, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.