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Most travelers who are visiting Hawaii, especially first-timers, opt for vacations on O’ahu or Maui. My traveling family, however, does things a little differently. Hawaii’s Big Island is the island we have visited most often with our kids. The Big Island can be a little harder to reach, but it is teeming with family-friendly Hawaiian resorts and things to do. It also offers a less crowded island vacation experience that can serve up just the R&R that many families so desperately need without making you feel like you are at a “vacation factory.”
Big Island Basics
If you aren’t familiar with the Big Island, let’s start with a few basics. As the name suggests, it is indeed the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. It has, in fact, grown with each volcanic eruption.
The island is large enough that it can be a challenge to tackle it all in a single visit, particularly for travelers planning to visit other islands on their Hawaiian vacation. Don’t try to do too much. The Big Island vibe is laid-back and relaxed. You can’t fully partake in that atmosphere if you are rushing from one destination or activity to another.
If your vacation is less than a week, I’d recommend picking one of the two sides of the island and sticking to activities on a single side. Most visitors stay on the western side of the island, either in the city of Kailua-Kona or farther north along the Kohala Coast, where the major resorts are located. (Some of the major points hotels in that area include The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, Hilton Waikoloa Village, Marriott Resort Waikoloa Beach and the Fairmont Orchid.) The eastern side, near Hilo, is less popular with tourists and doesn’t have major resorts. But, Hilo is closer to many outdoor adventures like waterfalls and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (which has reopened).
When flying to Hawaii, travelers should know that the two sides of the island are served by two major airports: Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) on the west side of the island and Hilo International Airport (ITO) on the east. KOA has nonstop service from most major West Coast airports and from the neighboring islands. ITO has minimal service to and from the mainland (mostly to Los Angeles/LAX). It is most often reached by island-hopper flights from neighboring islands.
Things to Do On the Big Island With Kids
Here are a few of the activities that my kids really enjoy when we visit the Big Island.
1. Hit the Big Island’s Best Beaches
Before delving into all the Big Island activities that will cost families precious extra cash, let’s start with what’s free – the beaches! After all, beaches are the reason most families want to visit Hawaii in the first place.
With its more geologically recent black lava flows, the Big Island has very different topography than the other Hawaiian Islands. Not all the beaches offer white sand. But this also means there are some very unique beach experiences for adventurous families who want to explore. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, which is easy to access for travelers with kids, is one to consider if your travels take you to the south side of the island.
For a more typical beach-going experience, the beach in front of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast at Kauna’oa Bayone is one of the best beaches on the island for families. The neighboring Hapuna Beach (in front of the newly renovated Westin Hapuna Beach Resort) has a similar family-friendly vibe with fine white sand. It is one of the most swimmable beaches on the island. There are a multitude of amazing beaches all over the island, so my best advice is to pick a hotel or resort first and then research your best beach choices nearby.
2. Attend a Luau
Attending a luau can be a bit touristy, but it’s a mistake to make the trip all the way to Hawaii and not experience one. Kids of all ages enjoy the show, and the large buffets offer a chance to sample a lot of local foods at once.
The commercial luaus on the Big Island are near Kailua-Kona or on the Kohala Coast. I’ve personally attended the Sunset Luau at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa as well as the luau at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort and found them both well worth the expense. Other popular luaus on the island include the Legends of Hawaii Luau at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Island Breeze Luau at the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel and the Voyagers of the Pacific Luau at the Royal Kona Resort.
Many luaus only run a couple of nights a week, so check the schedule and prebook to avoid disappointment. Before choosing a luau, also consider the ages of your children. The luaus begin charging child prices at different age cutoffs. My family chose the Sunset Luau at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott on our last trip because the resort does not charge for children ages 5 and under. This saved us a bundle with four kids in our extended traveling family who fell below the age cutoff.
3. Snorkel With Manta Rays
Two coves near the city of Kailua-Kona are a popular feeding spot for giant manta rays. Adventurous families can swim among these gentle giants by booking a nighttime snorkeling adventure. SCUBA divers on the sea floor shine giant lights up at the snorkelers above that attract plankton for the mantas to feed on, bringing the creatures within inches. For parents or any teens who are SCUBA-certified, I highly recommend booking the night dive, but snorkelers of all ages will get an amazing once-in-a-lifetime view as well.
4. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the island’s top attractions. One of just two national parks on the islands (the other is Haleakala on Maui), it protects the area around the active Kilauea volcano.
For families with kids like mine who are fascinated by volcanoes, a visit affords the chance to educate while kids think they are simply having fun. Stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center and continue along the crater rim drive for an introduction to the park. Several short hikes, including Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) and Devastation Trail, which are both about a mile in length, are ideal for visitors with younger kids.
Visitors should be aware that the well-publicized major eruption of Kilauea that started in the spring of 2018 have brought major changes to the park. While lava was previously visible from Halema‘uma‘u crater, there is no longer visible molten lava within the park. Of course, conditions can rapidly change when it comes to an active volcano, so always check the National Park Service’s website for current conditions before visiting.
For visitors staying in and around Kailua-Kona, visiting the national park makes for a very long day trip. From Kona or the Kohala Coast, the drive to the Visitor Center is about two hours each way, so plan accordingly.
5. Experience Flumin’ Kohala
For a completely unique Big Island eco-adventure with a dose of history, plan a half-day excursion with Flumin’ Kohala. This local company in the town of Hawi in the north has exclusive rights to access the Kohala Ditch, a 22-mile network of historic irrigation flumes, channels and tunnels. Part of the ditch dates back to the time of King Kamehameha, although it was greatly extended and expanded to its current form by Japanese workers in 1905–1906.
Guides take guests on a large kayak-style raft to float through portions of this system. There are no rapids, so even kids as young as five can participate (and active seniors could too). There are many long and dark tunnels so this adventure is not for the claustrophobic. My husband and I have had this excursion on our radar for over 15 years, but we were only finally able to take it with our kids on our most recent visit to the Big Island. It lived up to a decade-and-a-half of hype, and is undoubtedly one of our favorite Hawaii experiences.
6. Take a Helicopter Ride
Taking a helicopter ride is certainly a pricy excursion. But on the Big Island, the splurge can be well worth it, especially with older kids. Depending on weather and volcano conditions, rides will take you to view the majestic waterfalls on the north coast of the island and often within view of flowing lava when it is visible near Kilauea. There are a number of reputable Big Island helicopter tour operators with excellent safety records, the best-known of which is Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.
7. Hike to a Waterfall
Speaking of waterfalls, the Big Island has many of them. Unfortunately, most of them on the coast are impossible to reach without some impressive backcountry trekking and climbing skills. Those are not exactly kid-friendly.
Luckily, one of the most beautiful, Akaka Falls, is easily accessible about 10 miles from Hilo. Akaka Falls State Park actually features two separate falls: 100-foot Kahuna Falls and 442-foot Akaka Falls. Both of these waterfalls are along a short and easy paved path requiring about a half-mile of hiking round trip, making this a doable excursion even for families with babies and toddlers.
8. Go Ziplining
My kids are still too young (or more accurately, too light) for ziplining with most operators, but it’s a very popular activity on the Big Island for travelers with older kids and teens. The lush valleys of the northern and eastern sides of the island are home to several zipline tour companies. One of these companies (Kohala Zipline) has lines that pass directly over portions of the Kohala Ditch that Flumin’ Kohala regularly navigates.
Guests staying closer to Hilo have a few more options for zipline excursions. Skyline Eco-Adventures and Umauma Falls Zipline & Rappel Experience are the major operators on the eastern side of the island. The latter takes kids as young as four and 35 pounds, but the other tour companies have much higher age and/or weight requirements.
9. Sample Shave Ice
Last, but certainly not least, no trip to Hawaii is complete without making time for an iconic snack: a Hawaiian shave ice. Kids love being able to create a rainbow of colors and parents will love how cheap the treat is. Order it with ice cream or a snow cap (topped with sweetened condensed milk) for an even more authentic experience.
There are shave ice stands and stores all over the island. Ululani’s is one of the major names all over the Hawaiian Islands and has a store in the city of Kailua-Kona. The Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. is a another local favorite. With trucks stationed in different locations daily, you won’t have to travel far to taste it. My family loved going to a small but highly rated hole-in-the-wall, Anuenue, all the way up the Kohala Coast in the town of Kawaihae.
If you’re hoping to hit the Hawaiian Islands with your family on miles and points, here’s some advice that can help plan your trip:
- The Best Way to Fly With Kids to Hawaii
- Plan Hawaii Vacations on Miles: Airline Award Options
- These Are the Best Times to Visit Hawaii
- Hawaii Vacations on Miles: Intra-Hawaii Flights
- Hawaii’s Most Amazing Hotel Pools
- Everything You Need to Know to Plan an LGBTQ-Friendly Hawaiian Vacation
You almost can’t go wrong in Hawaii, but for an unforgettable, beautiful but laid-back experience, the Big Island tops our list of Hawaiian destinations with kids.
Featured image by author.
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