Until it became the recent vacation destination of the McPhail family, the Rogue Valley's stars of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," few Southern Oregonians had heard of Aulani, a Disney resort and spa in Hawaii.
Recently opened on the leeward shore of Oahu, Aulani (pronounced ow-lawn-nee) provides a quality family vacation experience, hold the theme park, please.
Hawaiian Airlines flies direct to Honolulu International Airport from both Portland and San Francisco, and still offers a complimentary meal on the five-and-a-half-hour flight.
After arriving in Honolulu, families will need to arrange ground transportation to Aulani (25 minutes from the city).
Room rates start at approximately $400 per night, but families can check current pricing and get more information at resorts.disney.go.com/aulani-hawaii-resort/accommodations/resort-rooms-suites/
Stepping off the stuffy Honolulu airport shuttle into the Aulani's open-air lobby, I was welcomed by a warm island breeze, a fresh lei and a chilled glass of pineapple-basil water.
Fans of Disney's mouse and his gang certainly will enjoy face time during their stay, but make no mistake: Aulani is a premiere family resort, not a theme park. Despite the fact that Aulani had been a construction site mere weeks before the McPhails arrived in September, it appeared to have sprung up around the lush gardens, tropical trees, taro fields and other native plants that greet guests at every turn.
Designed in the popular dual-wing resort style, Aulani's central building leads to two main towers that cradle its recreational gathering place, Waikolohe Valley, in a way that illustrates Oahu's landscape of dense, wet interiors and sandy, sunnier outskirts.
Composed of a meandering river, zero-depth-entry pool, extensive water-play space, two infinity spas, artfully designed water slides, plenty of poolside dining and the island's only man-made snorkel lagoon, Waikolohe Valley is a family vacation paradise in and of itself.
The Pacific Ocean is steps away, its waters perfect for small children and families trying their hand at the various water sports on offer. All beaches on Oahu remain public, allowing Aulani guests to venture farther along a beachside path to several additional lagoons and open, sandy beaches, where the snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking are ideal.
Designed with families in mind, all standard rooms at Aulani are spacious and include private balconies or patios, port-a-cribs, full-sized bathtubs and miniature refrigerators to store leftovers or groceries. Additional baby and toddler gear, such as highchairs, water-safety equipment and booster seats, are available for use. Rooms are beautifully appointed, and nightly turn-down service (including those famous Disney towel animals) help families feel pampered.
Throughout my stay, I was continually immersed in Hawaiian culture, art, history and — most appropriately — the tradition of "ohana," or family.
Families can be as relaxed or as busy as they'd like at Aulani. A full range of resort activities are offered daily in addition to all the water fun, including quality kids' programming at Aunty's Beach House for kids 3 to 12, character breakfasts and beach parties, fireside "mo'olelo" (storytelling), treatments in Lanwai (Aulani's spa), ohana hula lessons, "po la'ila'i" (sunset gatherings), socializing in Painted Sky (a spa and activity center just for teens), and Aulani's Starlit Hui, a signature nighttime event.
Adventurous families can venture off-site, as well. I opted to kayak among green sea turtles to a bird sanctuary at Kailua, then skim the translucent waters off nearby Ko' Olina on the deck of a catamaran for dolphin sightings and a perfectly timed sunset.
Car rentals also are available, enabling families to set off on their own, and a nearby shopping complex provides all the makings of quick meals in one's room. Golf courses and a full-service marina are located within minutes of the resort, and local tour operations are one phone call away.
Amy Whitley is a freelance writer and administrator of the family travel website Pit Stops for Kids (www.pitstopsforkids.com). She and her husband and three kids make their home in Medford.