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Kayaking on Oahu with kids: Holokai Adventures

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So many families come to a destination like Hawaii eager to try out new adventures, but they don’t know where to start – after all, not every operator is ideally suited to working with young kids. Holokai Adventures’ guided tour fit the bill. You can also now find them listed as Kama’aina Kayak, which reflects the name of the sponsoring non-profit.

While it wasn’t our first time paddling, our kids are young enough that they need frequent refreshers on technique – both in and out of the water – and they don’t have the stamina for long trips where they have to paddle. Our experience with Holokai Kayak and Snorkel Adventures was a great one, and read on to see if their Kaneohe Bay kayak tour might be right for your family.

Our day started bright and early as we headed to He’eia State Park, Holokai’s homebase and the launching point for our adventure. He’eia State Park is located on the windward side of the island and is an entry point to the gorgeous Kane’ohe Bay. If you don’t have your own wheels, Holokai offers pick up and drop off at Waikiki hotels. The initial assembly takes place inside the park’s meeting space, where you’ll fill out the liability waiver and receive your snorkel gear and dry bag.

After meeting the staff we moved outside for our safety briefing. The staff made sure to provide a thorough overview of the gear and safety tips for kayaking and snorkeling. Even though our tour group was mixed between skill levels, the guides did an excellent job making us all feel prepared and excited for our trip.

The launching point for the kayak tour and Kaneohe Bay kayak rental operation is down the hill in a secluded cove. We usually call or email boating-related tour operators in advance to confirm that they’ll have the right size life jackets for our kids, but it was no worry with Holokai Adventures – in the summer they run a day camp teaching hundreds of local kids how to kayak and sail, so they have racks full of life jackets in all sizes.

With our safety gear on and our personal belongings stored away in our dry bags, we boarded the kayaks to head out into the bay. The trade winds generally blow directly on-shore in Kaneohe Bay, which can make getting out to the bay’s numerous snorkel spots a real challenge for young or inexperienced paddlers. To ease the burden and make it a fun introduction to kayaking, Holokai uses a tow boat to pull the kayaks half-way out to our snorkel site at Horseshoe Reef.

Thanks to our initial tow, kayaking to the reef wasn’t too strenuous – even for the first timers in our group. We were lucky to have extremely calm water was calm, and the kids even got in on the action with their miniature paddles… at least for a few minutes, until they realized they could let Mom and Dad do all the work.

Check out more awesome things to do on Oahu with kids

Once we arrived at the reef, our kayaks were tethered again and we boarded the tow boat. We were pleasantly surprised to find a cooler with delicious juices and yummy snacks waiting for us on the boat. After our brief snack break we gathered around for our snorkel orientation.

We were very fortunate to have Natalie serve as our lead staff. She has a background as a marine biologist and provided an educational overview about the sea life and the reef. Natalie made sure everyone had the appropriate snorkel masks and fins – the masks were already treated with defogger and ready to go, which made the snorkeling much more enjoyable without having to worry about visibility. Most importantly, the nurturing and patient staff made all of our group’s participants feel comfortable and safe out on (and in) the water.

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We all climbed into the water and were guided to the first site of our snorkel tour. Since some participants were trying it for the first time, Natalie stayed with them to provide instruction while Colby swam out with the rest of us. The kids were happy to have floating noodles in addition to their life vests. Kaneohe Bay’s Horseshoe Reef is a wonderful snorkeling site, with abundant fish of all different colors. Some highlights included butterflyfish, parrotfish, and humuhumunukunukuapua’a among others. The reef itself is enormous and has an impressive array of colors, with several different areas to explore.

Along the different stops in the water the staff would point out interesting facts about the sea life. We even swam through a patch of sea cucumbers and got a lesson about its impressive digestive tract. We also were able to spot a couple of the elusive aha needlefish. Overall, our hour-long snorkeling session was fun and easy for the whole tour group. The staff were great about bringing the kids back to the boat when they got tired and allowing us adults to continue snorkeling.

Upon the completion of our snorkel tour we headed back to the lead boat. After taking a moment to put the gear away and enjoy additional snacks, we loaded back into our kayaks and began our journey back. Since we had the trade winds to help push us toward shore, we paddled the whole way in only about 20 minutes. The view of the ruggedly lush Ko’olau mountains and stunning coastline was breathtaking! There’s something special about exploring the open ocean with the tropical paradise of Oahu as your backdrop. With the trade winds at our backs, the return paddle only took around 20 minutes and was very manageable.

When we arrived back at the cove, there were additional staff from Holokai waiting to help make our landing a smooth one – landing kayaks, helping us out and returning all the gear to the right places. After we gathered our belongings we were guided up a path back to the He’eia State Park community center to clean up a bit before the barbecue.

The barbecue site is a secluded beach about a half a mile from the main parking area, but the road down is steep and can be muddy so the shuttle van took everyone down. Lunch was a tented buffet – with plenty of shade to go around. The food was delicious and included rice, corn, salad, pork ribs, barbecue chicken and refreshing drinks. It was a very pleasant way to conclude our kayak and snorkel excursion with our new friends. After lunch, a shuttle was ready to take participants back to their cars or Waikiki hotels.

If you’re heading to Oahu and curious to try out kayaking and snorkeling, we highly recommend joining Kama’aina Kayak for a tour – it’s a safe, fun way to test your limits just enough and experience something amazing.

What to bring on your Kaneohe Bay kayak tour

The good news is that all basic safety equipment and kayaking and snorkel gear is provided! There are just a few things you should bring:

Reef-safe sunscreen

Hawaii has begun cracking down on sunscreens that can damage its delicate coral reef ecosystems, outright banning some chemicals over the next few years. Be sure to shop wisely, especially for a trip like this when you’ll be swimming amidst the corals. Check out our new favorite that we discovered while we were in Hawaii.

UV rash guard

You can minimize the amount of sunscreen you use (and your chance of sun burn) by wearing a UV-blocking rash guard. It’s especially important for a kayak/snorkel excursion since you’re out in direct sun for around two hours. Fortunately there are plenty of great options now!


It’s BYOT, folks. Fortunately the sun will do much of the work drying you off, but paddling a sit-on kayak is not a “dry” sport. If you don’t want to risk bringing a hotel or condo towel, throw in a quick-drying travel towel.

Underwater camera

We love having an underwater camera now for snorkeling! We couldn’t justify the price of a GoPro for our occasional use, so we picked up a budget-friendly alternative. Click here to read our complete review.

Kid-sized snorkel gear

Holokai Adventures does a great job of providing kid-sized snorkel gear – even fins! But if your little one is especially young, check out our top kids snorkel gear to find the right snorkel and mask for you toddler.

Thank you to Holokai Kayak and Snorkel Adventures for hosting our tour; all opinions are our own.

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General Hawaii resources:
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Oahu resources:
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Maui resources:
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Kauai resources:
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