My family and I just returned from an amazing family vacation on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where we stayed at the Hale Koa, an Armed Forces Recreation Center located in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu.
The Hale Koa is one of four Armed Forces Recreation Centers around the world run by the Army. AFRCs are resorts that were built for the military and are exclusively for use by military members, retirees, DoD civilians, and other authorized guests.
The Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Programs operate these resorts. These resorts were built with MWR funds and now operate on a self-sustaining basis. Other AFRC resorts are Edelweiss Lodge & Resort in Garmisch, Germany, Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul, Korea and Shades of Green on Walt Disney World, in Orlando, FL. The Navy runs The New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.
These resorts offer a wide variety of amenities that vary by location. I’ll cover the Hale Koa in this article. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to travel to the other locations in the future!
This review will cover the typical eligibility requirements and pricing, then I’ll talk about our experiences, what to do while you’re there, and some tips to help you maximize your Hawaiian vacation.
Hale Koa Hotel – An Affordable Resort in Paradise
The Hale Koa resort is located on 72 acres on Waikiki Beach in downtown Honolulu. The resort features several pools (kiddie pool, family pool, and adult only pool), several restaurants and bars, an Exchange, a fitness center, walking and jogging trail, laundry facilities, parking, and even on-site Starbucks.
The resort is also located right on the beach. So you can walk from your room and be on the beach within 5 minutes. The beach features a rental shop where you can rent beach umbrellas and chairs, snorkel gear, kayaks, long boards, and other gear. The prices are affordable for Waikiki Beach, and they offer military discounts. In fact, several of the amenities at the Hale Koa are open to the public, so many of them offer military discounts.
Hale Koa Eligibility
The Hale Koa is designed for military members and their families, so there are some eligibility restrictions regarding who can use the resort. I recommend visiting the Hale Koa website for a full eligibility list and the required form of ID. I should also note that the following list is current at the time of writing, and is subject to change. In general, eligible members include:
- Armed Forces and their families, to include active duty, Guard / Reserve, a Cadets at the Service Academies. (ID is Common Access Card).
- Other Uniformed Services, including Public Health Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps. (ID is DD Form 2, PHS 1866-1 or 1866-3).
- Military retirees, to include Gray area retirees of the Guard / Reserves (ID is DD Form 2, 1173 or 1173-1).
- Select Separated Service Members: Those with 100% disability rating (ID is DD Form 1173 or DD Form 2765), those who were involuntarily separated and are eligible for TAMP (ID is DD Form 2), and Personnel separated under the Voluntary Separation Incentive and Special Separation Benefit (ID is DD Form 2).
- Former and/or Surviving Spouses and Family Members. (ID is DD Form 1173 or 1173-1).
- Other Supporters of the Department of Defense. Select DoD civilians, foreign military, and others who are working on joint military projects or are otherwise authorized. (ID is DD Form 1173 or 2765).
- S. Department of Defense Civilians and Family Members. Current and retired (APF and NAF) Department of Defense (DoD) and Coast Guard (CG) civilian employees. DOD or CG ID card, Retired ID card, or current Leave and Earnings Statement with photo ID required for check-in.
- Survivor Family Package Eligibility & Gold Star Families. See website.
Eligible members can also sponsor additional rooms for guests. There are restrictions to additional rooms, and rates may vary. Please visit the website or call their customer service for more details. Above all, please confirm eligibility before booking as this is subject to change.
Hale Koa Pricing
Room rates at the Hale Koa range from $94 – $303 per night (current rates valid till September 30, 2016), and are based on two factors: the first is where in the resort the room is located. The better the view, the more expensive the room. There are 7 different room levels, including Standard, Moderate, Garden View, Partial Ocean View, Ocean View, Ocean Front, Deluxe Ocean Front. My family and I stayed in a Garden View Room, and the views were beautiful.
The second pricing factor is the member’s rank or status. If two or more members are eligible, the rate is based on the highest-ranking occupant of the room. There are four rate bands based on rank or other eligibility factors. They are Level I through Level IV. Room rates are very affordable, especially for the Waikiki area.
Here are the rate bands:
- Level I: E1 – E-6
- Level II: E-7 – E-9; WO1 – CW3; O1 – O3; Widows and 100% DAV.
- Level III: CW4 – CW5; O4 – O10; DoD Civilians
- Level IV: Official Travel – All Grades TDY/PCS/TLA; Eligible Foreign Military
You can book rooms up to 365 days in advance, and the Hale Koa recommends booking at least 6 months in advance if you are able to do so, as the rooms fill up quickly. The Hale Koa has referral arrangements with other local hotels in the event they are fully booked when you try to make a reservation.
Room Features & Quality
The room is on par with military lodging. It’s not quite as fancy as what you might find in a high-priced resort that you may expect to pay several hundred dollars per night. But it is the perfect base of operations while you are enjoying all Hawaii has to offer.
The tower we stayed in was built in the 1970s. The rooms are somewhat smaller than you might find in a more recently built hotel (roughly 300 sq. feet). But the space was adequate. Our room featured two queen size beds, a bedside table, a small table or desk area with two chairs, a very small closet area, and a single sink. There was a coffee maker and a fridge, but no microwave. Microwaves are available at the end of the hallway where there is an ice machine and a vending machine. The other end of the hallway features a washer and drier. The washer and drier are $2.25 per use, and you can exchange quarters at the front desk. It’ best to get to the washer and drier at the early part of the day, or late at night. You may also find it better to go up or down a level if the units on your floor are in use. Free Wi-Fi is included.
Our room also featured a balcony that overlooked the Garden, the eastern side of Honolulu, and had a partial ocean view. We loved our view and enjoyed relaxing on the balcony.
We ate breakfast in our room most mornings and usually brought the chairs in from the balcony so we could eat as a family. The weather was nice enough that we could turn off the AC and leave the balcony door open most of the time we were in our room. The only downside to this was the loud rumble from outside. I believe this came from a small building below where the AC units are located. The noise was a small price to pay for the beautiful views and fresh air.
Resort Features and Amenities
The Resort has everything you need for a vacation. You can enjoy Oahu without ever leaving the resort. Of course, Hawaii has much more to offer than just the beaches at Waikiki, so I would encourage you to get out and see some other sights if you are able. The following are some of the events, activities, and amenities found at the Hale Koa. I’ll also follow up with some tips for your vacation.
Hale Koa Restaurants and Bars
As mentioned earlier, the Hale Koa features several restaurants and bars. We enjoyed the buffet at Koko at Kalia. There were a variety of dishes and deserts, including an ice cream bar. The menu changes, so you should plan accordingly. This restaurant is only open for breakfast and dinner. You can see more here.
Bibas Courtyard Grill is only open for dinner (and room service). We ate there once, but were less impressed with the food. It was good, but not great. The Bar at Bibas is open throughout the day, and they feature a happy hour. Check it out here.
There are several other places you can grab a bite to eat, including Happy’s Fast and Fresh, the Barefoot Snack Bar (next to the pool and Barefoot Bar), Koa Oasis, and the java Café. These are great for quick snacks, lunches, etc.
We ate at Happy’s Fast and Fresh and bought Hawaiian Shaved Ice at the Barefoot Snack Bar. Happy’s is mostly a quick order grill with your typical fast food fare and salads. My daughters loved the shaved ice, which is a Hawaii tradition. We didn’t visit the other restaurants, but you can learn more about them here.
The only bar I visited was the Barefoot Bar, which is located next to the pool and the beach. They feature live music every night of the week, right around sunset. That made for the perfect environment. It’s also family friendly, as I saw several families with children during the early evening hours. The music, the view, and the cold drinks created the perfect ambience. The bar is open to the public, as it’s right next to the beach. But they do offer a 20% military discount on drinks, so be sure to have your military ID when you are there.
Warrior’s Lounge is an indoor bar, and they have excellent food options. Bibas also has an indoor / outdoor bar, with food during the restaurant hours. Here is the Hale Koa bar & lounge page for more info.
Hale Koa Entertainment – Luau, Comedy Show, and Magic
There are some other dining options I didn’t mention, as they fall into the entertainment section as much as dining. The first is the Hale Koa Luau, which we attended. My daughters are the perfect age for a luau (4 & 7), but we all loved the show. I’d go so far as to say this was one of the highlights of our entire trip.
Seating & Booking. The luau features reserved seating, so it’s best to book early if you want a prime seat. My wife booked our tickets the day the bookings opened, so we were able to get seats front and center of the stage. Being close to the action was so much fun, and our girls enjoyed the unobstructed views. Our seats are considered Sunshine Seating (uncovered), and there is also Covered Seating. This is important to consider, as the show will go on, rain or shine. We were lucky enough to have perfect weather during the show, but a hard rainstorm opened up 30 minutes after the show ended. So rain is a legitimate concern.
The performance: The performers do dances from several different Pacific Island cultures. Perhaps the highlight of the night was the fire dance, which was amazing. We all rate that one as one of our favorites. Another highlight was the dance off. Each performer went into the crowd to bring audience members on stage for a quick hula dance. Most performers chose an adult and a child (or two). Both of our daughters were lucky enough to be brought on stage – which absolutely made their night (and ours!).
The food: The food was amazing, featuring Kalua Pork, Mahimahi Fish, Soy Sauce Chicken, Teriyaki Beef, Fried Rice, Poi, Sweet Potato, Banana Fritter, desert, and a choice of water, coffee, or tea. There is also a bar, but I’d recommend getting your drinks before the show, as you don’t want to miss it. Admission also includes a punch or rum punch for those who are old enough.
Note for vegetarians: The Hale Koa Luau also features a vegetarian meal. We weren’t impressed. It featured fried rice and tofu steaks. That’s it. My wife ordered it and was disappointed it only came with two vegetarian items, while a full meal included fried rice, sweet potato and the banana fritter. I have no idea why the vegetarian meal also doesn’t feature the sweet potato and banana fritter – so just be aware of that if you order the vegetarian meal. (note the price is the same).
Magic and Comedy. We didn’t see the magic or comedy shows, but they looked like fun. The Magic in Paradise act is on most Wednesday nights and includes a full All-American buffet. This event is family friendly. The High and Right Comedy Show is on Tuesday and Saturday nights and is considered PG-13, so plan accordingly.
I did speak with several visitors who saw these shows and they all spoke highly of them. I’ll definitely keep these in mind if we make a return trip (which we hope to do at some point).
The Hale Koa has several other activities we weren’t able to check out during our time at the resort. Some of these activities only happen once a week, and my family and I opted to visit several other areas of Oahu while we were there. Some of these activities include a garden tour, Friday Night fireworks, concerts, hula classes, tennis, aqua aerobics, seasonal events, the Fort DeRussy Army Museum, an on-site spa, and more. The fireworks are always popular, and run between 7:30 and 8:00 (depending on the time of the sun set). They are right over the beach, so that is a great time to get a spot at the Barefoot Bar. It gets packed, so get your spot early.
The Hale Koa also has a Tour and Travel Desk where you can book local tours. Oahu has hundreds of activities, many of which you can book directly from the Hale Koa Tour and Travel Desk.
Tips for Traveling to the Hale Koa Hotel
Transportation to / from the Hale Koa. The Hale Koa doesn’t have an airport shuttle, so you will need to make your own travel arrangements to and from the resort. Taxi service is approximately $35-$45, or you can arrange an airport shuttle (approximately $11 per person). Plan for it to take 20-30 minutes to get to and from the airport.
We borrowed a car from a friend, which made travel around Oahu much easier for us. (Thanks, Doug!). Other travel methods include renting a car, taking public transportation, or hiring an Uber driver. There is a public bus stop right next to the Hale Koa. On-site parking is $7 for guests. You can also get your parking validated if you are visiting the resort for an event such as the Luau, certain restaurants, shows, etc.
Don’t pack too much. There is an Exchange on the premises. It is open from 6am – 11pm. We were frequent visitors to the Exchange, and purchased breakfast items, gifts, sunscreen, ocean toys, and other things as needs arose. We traveled as a family of four with a backpack each, and two rolling carry on bags. We used the laundry facilities when needed, so we were able to pack light. This made it much easier to travel with young children. The rooms also don’t have a lot of extra room for luggage, so pack accordingly.
Get there early. By “there,” I mean, pretty much everywhere on Oahu. Many places on the island fill up early, especially outdoor activities. We found that we were able to get prime parking and prime locations by arriving earlier than other tourists. We are in Central Standard Time, which is 5 hours behind the local time in Hawaii. So those first few days we found that we were naturally waking up very early (around 4 am), and we were ready for bed by 7 or 8 pm. Take advantage of that time to watch the sun rise, get to high traffic areas such as Hanauma Bay, the Beach, Diamond Head, walking trails, and other locations.
Be prepared to show ID or your room card – everywhere. Because this is am military resort, you will need your military ID available to drive up to the check in area. Your military ID will also help you get certain discounts, including at the bar, at the beach area, and several other locations. Your room card is required to use the elevators, get towels at the pool, etc. So make sure every member of age has a room key, and you have your ID with you at all times.
Share the love. We saw a lot of generosity among the guests at the Hale Koa. We were gifted a cooler and a camp chair by some guests who were checking out of the hotel. Later we were gifted some beach toys, including some buckets and shovels, and a bamboo mat. None of these were items we could take home with us, so we also passed these on before leaving. We also left some small sundries in the laundry room for others to claim. This is a common way to pass on unused sunscreen, laundry detergent, drier sheets, and other small items that you don’t want to throw away.
Buying might be better than renting (for small items). Last year my family went on a cruise. I bought my own snorkel gear after researching how much it cost to rent it on vacation. In many cases, buying your own gear costs roughly the same as a one-time rental. You can buy snorkel gear from around $25-$40, and renting can cost upwards of $30 per hour 9or day, depending on the location). Buying my own snorkel gear was a great investment, as I’ve used it multiple times. You can do the same with Boogie Boards and small gear. Large items aren’t as easy to get your money back quickly, unless you are local. So definitely rent things like kayaks, long boards, paddleboards, etc.
Be prepared for some sticker shock. In general, the Hale Koa is moderately priced – for Hawaii. But it will likely be more expensive than many people are used to, unless they are already living in a high cost of living area. We were able to save money through advance planning, military discounts, eating breakfasts and some lunches in our hotel room, shopping around, and keeping things simple. You can also save money by shopping at the Base Exchange or Commissary if you have a vehicle and don’t mind the drive to Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam. The Hale Koa doesn’t offer any discounts that I am aware of (that is already built in to their pricing model). But you may be able to save money on your airfare, rental car, and other parts of your journey.
Get out and see Oahu! Waikiki is great. We loved the beach and were able to go snorkeling and kayaking right in front of our hotel. We saw a variety of fish and even several sea turtles. But Oahu has so much more to offer than Waikiki Beach and Honolulu. We traveled to Hanauma Bay, Makapu’u Point Lookout, Waikiki Aquarium (free military admission), the North Shore, the central part of Oahu, near Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Airfield, and much more.
Other popular attractions include Pearl Harbor / Hickam, various hiking trails, botanical gardens, and water falls, and much, much more. Hawaii Navy MWR runs a website called Great Life Hawaii, where you can learn more about travel and tour opportunities, ITT discounts, and much more. There are also dozens of websites that can help you plan your Hawaii adventure.
I Highly Recommend Hawaii
My wife and I had briefly been to Oahu over 10 years ago when we were both on active duty. But it was on a brief TDY and we didn’t get to see much of the island. I had the opportunity to go back for a business trip a few months ago and decided I had to bring my family back so they could see the island. We loved it, and would love to go back. Our daughters are still young, so while it was fun to see Hawaii through their eyes, we were also limited with how much we could do on our trip. We had to go at their pace, and there were some things we wanted to do, but weren’t able to (primarily things such as hiking and exploring). My wife and I would love to go again in several years so we can see and do much more than we were able to do this time.
It’s also only fair to note that Hawaii is made up of several major islands, not just Oahu. I’m sure we could spend a month on Oahu and not see or do everything. I can only imagine how much time it would take to properly experience the other islands. Overall, this was a trip we won’t forget. And it’s one we would like to repeat. Hawaii is a magical place, and I hope you have the opportunity to experience it for yourself. And if you’re eligible, the Hale Koa is a great place to stay while you’re there.
Note: The Hale Koa did not compensate me in any way for this review. In fact, they didn’t even know I was there. But I would be happy to stay at any other AFRC resort to write an honest review. Wouldn’t that be nice? 🙂