“I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaiiiiii…” This catchy tune ran through my head as I momentarily woke every so often from light turbulence on our red-eye home, happy and fulfilled from our 10 days in the Big Island with kids, two little sleeping heads on my lap.
The Big Island with Kids
Hawaii offers the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation. Throw in a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and the “relaxation” part suffers, but it’s an easy and reliable place to travel with kids, especially given its proximity to Western Canada where we live. And it’s freaking beautiful.
On the other hand, I consider Hawaii rather predictable and expensive. But it was our first visit to the Big Island so we focused on the positives above and it was amazing!
10 days in Hawaii is a great amount of time to explore one island. You could easily spend more, but our overall impression of our time in the Big Island with kids was similar to what we experienced in Maui – beautiful scenery and beaches, great weather, friendly locals, delicious food, lots to see and do, and many ideal photography locations. We stayed at the Fairmont Orchid which isn’t the cheapest option, but I highly recommend it for its beautiful surroundings, amazing food, and excellent service (check out this bang-on overview of what it’s like to stay there for more details). You’ll need a rental car (we used Budget) if you want to explore.
For the sights below, I’d suggest an alternating schedule of one day on the resort and the next day off, for a good mix with kids. Each of the below are within a two-hour or less drive from Kona one way, and sights on the Kohala or Kona Coast can be done in a half-day trips. I gave each of the activities below a rating out of five, for those skimmers who want the goods without the details.
Resort Activities and the Kohala Coast – 5/5
Pauoa Bay – most resorts in Hawaii have so much to do that you don’t even need to step off the property for your whole time in the Big Island with kids. The Fairmont Orchid was exceptional for this – the highlight being the calm, turquoise beach lagoon at Puaoa Bay, with great snorkelling, kayaking, and stand up paddle boarding (SUP). We spent a good chunk of time there during our 10 days in Hawaii, where we snorkelled with turtles and tropical fish, took the kids on kayak and SUP rides, and I tried a new activity I loved and highly recommend – SUP yoga.
All beaches in Hawaii are public so you can visit (check out the best beaches on the Big Island here), and while you’re there pop into Hale Kai just over from the beach for a mouth-watering crushed pineapple mojito, some tuna poke, and a stellar sunset.
Other resort activities – pool time, hula dancing, lei making, Hawaiian games, beach volleyball, tennis, and bike rides also kept us busy at the Fairmont Orchid. Our kiddos LOVED the nightly torch lighting and conch shell blowing, where they exuberantly followed a traditionally dressed Hawaiian staff member all around the resort, “helping” him light the tiki torches.
Shopping – The Waikoloa Beach Resort area 30 minutes north of Kona features a plethora of resorts/hotels, restaurants, and shopping. Queen’s Marketplace has stores like Quiksilver and Sunglass Hut, and Kings’ Shops features high-end art galleries and designer shops such as Michael Kors and Tiffany & Co.
Petroglyph Hike – I found the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Reserve fairly underwhelming and wouldn’t do it again. The 1.4 mile hike has a few petroglyphs near the start and the hike itself is OK, but when you arrive at the end, the petroglyphs are rather hard to see and blocked off by a railing. They all looked quite similar (think: stick man) and this just wasn’t really our jam. P.S. – don’t wear flip-flops.
Sunsets – I gave this its own category as you have to make time to watch and photograph the jaw-dropping sunsets (best served with a happy hour buzz) from the West Coast of the Big Island. The first one we saw was so ridiculously good that even the staff took photos.
Kailua-Kona – 4/5
Kailua-Kona, the hub of the Big Island, is a fun town to wander in for a few hours. Similar to Lahaina, Maui or Byron Bay, Australia with less charm, most attractions (restaurants, bars, shopping, etc.) are conveniently located on the main tourist street right along the ocean – Ali-i Drive.
We loved our lunch at On the Rocks, an open air restaurant overlooking the ocean with a sandy floor. We also had a delicious dinner at Huggo’s, also on the ocean. Scandinavian Shave Ice was a hit with the kids, featuring about a bazillion flavours. When I told Nick we should go for happy hour at Humpy’s, he was a bit confused about what we were going to do, and although it was fun since we were sans kids (thank you, Molokini Keiki Care!), the appies were the only thing that was dirty. The great ocean views, hefty wine glass pours, and great company made up for it!
East Coast – Hilo (2/5) and Akaka Falls State Park (5/5)
We probably didn’t give Hilo a fair shot, but in the time we spent there, we didn’t find much of a draw. On the “rainy side” of the island, I found it to have a rough edge. My guidebook didn’t offer much of interest to us in the town itself, although we made stops at Big Island Candies (not worth it) and Lucy’s Taqueria, for tasty authentic tacos and a good bar selection. I read that the free Pana’Ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens just outside of Hilo was good, but we didn’t fit it into our day.
Akaka Falls was stunning. I highly recommend driving to this area of the island as the topography is very different from the West Coast. You’re surrounded by lush, green rainforest reminiscent of parts of the Road to Hana in Maui, as opposed to lava plains. The walk to the falls through lush greenery and a bamboo forest is short and beautiful (easy with kids). Take the full loop rather than cutting straight to the falls. Akaka Falls was just the majestic, perfect and misty waterfall I hoped for.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – 4/5
Given the age of our kids and heavy rain while we were there, we didn’t spend as much time as we’d hoped to at Volcanoes National Park. Most of the highlights are seen by taking long hikes, which we weren’t able to do with our kids. If it were just Nick and I, we would’ve chosen the Kilauea Iki Trail, a popular four-mile loop hike that is said to feature “rainforest, birds, insects, a 1959 lava lake, steam vents, cinder and spatter cone.”
Instead we saw steam vents right off the main road, the Kilauea lookout, the Jaggar Museum and overlook, and the Thurston Lava Tube – all worth a stop. The views from the top of the crater are grandeur; you can’t picture the size of this massive volcano until you see it. We lucked out and saw lava flowing in the distance, which is unusual during the day. We learned that in order to see abundant lava flowing close-up, you have to take a helicopter or a 10-mile hike.
The Thurston Lava Tube is extra cool for kids. It’s a massive lava tunnel (like a cave – see photo below). A short walk from the parking lot takes you to the dewy entrance, which looks as if it’ll swallow you up into a mouth of black, but inside it’s very neat (and a little spooky).
Also check out this post from Aloha with Love on visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at night!
Offshore – amazing snorkelling excursions – 5+/5
Our two snorkelling excursions with Kona Ocean Experience in Hawaii that were unreal. They were the highlights of our 10 days in Hawaii and I wrote about them in a separate post. We snorkelled alongside a pod of spinner dolphins and five giant manta rays, coming within inches of both. Like move-out-of-the-way close. If you love snorkelling and ocean wildlife, you HAVE to do these excursions!
Our trips included a morning “spinner dolphin encounter” and Kealakekua Bay snorkel, and a “manta ray night snorkel,” both leaving from Keauhou Bay, about 15 minutes south of Kona. The video below captures the experiences of swimming alongside 80-100 dolphins and five giant manta rays.
The snorkelling a Kealakekua Bay was good – nothing out of this world – but featured great visibility and an abundance of different types of fish swimming among the coral.
Snorkelling around the Big Island with kids can easily be done, especially if they are older and comfortable with water. We brought Cohen and Vayla on the dolphin/Kealakekua Bay cruise, but got a babysitting service for the manta ray night snorkel. Cohen got in with the dolphins but said the water was too cold so got back out, but both kids loved watching the dolphins jump in and out of the water from the boat. Vayla got in the (cold) water at Kealakekua Bay and snorkelled for about 30 seconds before getting water in her mask and asking to go back on the boat. They were only five and three after all, and we were proud of both of them for trying.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what you can do in 10 days in the Big Island with kids, but I believe we hit up some of the best highlights. A “maybes” on our list that we didn’t make it to were Hapuna Beach, the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, and Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, which all had great reviews in the research I did. I guess we’ll have to go back!
For a family-friendly, easy and safe vacation with many adventures activities, I highly recommend Hawaii’s Big Island with kids, where you may even see a “Humuhumu, Nukunuku a pua’a go swimming byyyy…”