From hiking along the ancient lava flows at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to night snorkeling with manta rays and stargazing at Mauna Kea, the island of Hawai’i is filled with endless adventure for the entire family. Here is my curated list of the top ten unforgettable Family Experiences on the island of Hawai’i
The island of Hawai’i – the largest inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago – has it all. Nowhere else on earth can you find so much ecological diversity jam-packed into one place. Pristine rain forests, lava deserts, world-class beaches, snow-covered peaks, an active volcano, stunning sunsets, and just about every adventure you can imagine.
Given the island of Hawai’i’s unique geography (there are all but four of the world’s subclimate zones on the island of Hawai’i), there is much more to do than simply lay on the beach. Here are my top ten ideas for the best way to explore this amazing place, ideas that the entire family will enjoy. I have also included information on how to visit Hawai’i sustainably while respecting the native culture, history, and land.
Author’s note: All these opinions are based on my own experiences and perspectives. The article is about how I personally experienced Hawai’i through my eyes as an American woman and tourist visiting the island of Hawai’i.
The Top Ten Unforgettable Family Experiences on the island of Hawai’i
Spend an afternoon or evening snorkeling with Fair Winds Cruises
The entire Hawaiian archipelago consists of 132 islands, reefs, and shoals stretching across 1,523 miles of the North Pacific Ocean making it a great place to snorkel with tons of colorful fish and marine life. While you can snorkel at most of the beaches, the best snorkeling we found was during our 5-hour trip aboard the Hula Kai, a Fair Wind boat.
Family-owned and operated since 1971, Fair Wind Cruises provides top-rated, sustainable snorkel tours from Kona along with delightful vegan breakfast and lunch. Hop aboard for daily Kona snorkel tours to the pristine waters of Kealakekua Bay or explore remote south Kona. For those more adventurous, set out on a night snorkel to Manta Ray Village.
Learn to Surf with Kona Town Surf Adventures
Surfing, known as he‘e nalu or “wave sliding” in the native language,” originated in Hawai‘i long before contact with the Western world. With its miles of shoreline and abundant beaches, Hawai’i is a wonderful place to surf!
Kona Town Surf Adventures is a family-run business that offers affordable two-hour private, semi-private, or group surf lessons. Most surfing is in Kona however the beach locations change depending on surf conditions. Our teens surfed at Kona Airport Beach and the experience was a highlight of our trip.
Hike the short majestic Polulū valley or the thigh-burning Pu’u Wa’awa’a
Given its diverse landscape, there are tons of amazing hikes around the island of Hawai’i. Home to five national parks (including the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park which is so grand it is mentioned separately) and countless well-maintained trails, the options for hiking are endless.
The one thing to be mindful of is the time of day given the unrelenting sun and heat. A lot of the beautiful coastal hikes have no sun protection so go early. Since we were in Hawai’i in August (the hottest month) we did not do as much hiking as we had originally planned.
I found an excellent site that gives incredibly detailed descriptions of every single hike on the island of Hawai’i. Two of my favorites include the short, steep hike to magical Pololū Valley and for those craving a vertical challenge that is not as extreme as Mauna Kea but still gets your heart rate up, there is the 8-mile round trip hike up an ancient cinder cone, Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a. On a clear day, the views are incredible!
Spend a day at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
A visit to the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is an absolute must and we would have spent more time there if we hadn’t recently visited Iceland. This incredible park “protects some of the most unique geological, biological, and cherished cultural landscapes in the world” and extends “from sea level to 13,681 feet, the park encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Maunaloa” (Source: US National Park Service).
With so much to explore, you can either drive on one of two road tours through the park (Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road), or you can check the park out on foot with one of their many hikes.
I recommend first stopping at the Visitor Center to get an update on what trails are open and closed. You can also check out the webcam to see if an eruption going on. For us, the volcano was erupting so we headed to the lookout first before doing the Devastation trail to Uēaloha (Byron Ledge) hike.
You can easily spend an entire day there or more. When the volcano is erupting, watching the sunset and hiking to see the red hot lava in the dark are supposedly spectacular.
With more miles of coastline than any other Hawaiian Island, and its volcanic landscape, the island of Hawai’i has some of the most beautiful and varied beaches in the world. From the black sand, untouched beaches along the Kona coast all the way up to the Pololū Valley to the vast white sand Hapuna beach, there is no shortage of choices for beach lovers. Best of all, beaches are public land so anyone can access them even if the beach is at a private resort like the lovely beach at the Fairmont Orchid or the stunning beach at Mauna Kea Beach resort.
Some beaches are so remote you can only access them via trail and have little to no services so be prepared. If you are a huge beach-goer I found this guide of the top ten beaches on the island of Hawai’i helpful. These are three beaches our family enjoyed and why.
The best beach for families and waves: Hapuna Beach. If you enjoy boogie boarding, then Hapuna Beach is your best bet. Check out the wave check conditions here before going to make sure there are at least 2-3 foot waves. It is an expansive place with gorgeous white sand.
My favorite beach for snorkeling was found at the Fairmont Orchid Resort Beach where the sea turtles nest nearby. If you are lucky and snorkel early, you may see a turtle. However, be very respectful as the Honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle), is an endangered species that is protected by law. It is illegal to disturb sea turtles when they are nesting and if you are lucky enough to see one when swimming, be sure to give it plenty of respect and a lot of space. (It is recommended to give Honu at least 10 feet of space).
Hands down, the best beach for a sunset swim is at the luxurious, stunning Mauna Kea Beach Resort. If you arrive a little before sunset you may luck out with one of the few free parking spots (or else given the expense of this resort be forced to pay a lot to park). We did not go until our last night in Hawai’i and had I known how incredibly spectacular this beach is we would have gone every night! It was stunning.
The beach has a floating platform where you can brave the waves and whatever is lurking underneath, you can swim to watch the sunset. Night manta ray snorkeling tours are offered at the beach so if you are lucky you may spy some.
Our Airbnb was located in Mauna Lani Resort right next to the Fairmont Orchid and we had access to the resort’s beach, the Mauna Lani Beach Club, which was also nice for snorkeling yet it was busier than the nearby Fairmont Orchid. This beach club is one of the few beaches that is private and only members of the Mauna Lani resort and its guests can access it.
Visit a Cloud Forest
Looking to escape the heat and see the only tropical cloud forest in the United States? Book a private, three-hour guided tour at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary. Tours are run by retired Professor and world-renowned horticulturist Norman Benzona (who has run the forest since 1985). Tropical cloud forests are so rare – they represent less than half of a percent of the landmass in the world – yet are home to over 15% of the world’s species. It is a magical place and Norman is insanely knowledgeable. You will learn all about why we must conserve and protect these rare forests while seeing endemic flora and fauna.
Tour a Chocolate, Vanilla, or Coffee farm
Everybody loves chocolate and learning about the process of how chocolate is made is a fun way to spend a couple of hours on the rainy, lush side of Hilo. We had a wonderful time at the Lavaloha Chocolate Farm and especially enjoyed sampling the delicious chocolate and the impressive gift shop! We learned so much about chocolate during this tour that it was a winning experience for the entire family.
If vanilla is your gig, you can check out a tour at The Hawaiian Vanilla Company. They also offer a pretty extravagant lunch combined with the tour (we did not do this because it was expensive for a family but would be delightful for a couple).
For those coffee connoisseurs, you are in luck as there are tons of places to do a tour and sample world-famous Kona Coffee. Embark on a tour of Greenwell Farms and sample their award-winning 100% Kona Coffee.
Do a Driving Tour around the island
The island of Hawai’i is extraordinarily stunning and incredibly diverse. With 8 out of the 13 known climate zones, all packed into one relatively small island, a driving tour to see how much the landscape and scenery change is an absolute must. We did a day trip heading east to Hilo for our chocolate tour, then proceeded on to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and circled all the way around the wild, achingly beautiful southern tip and back to Kona. It was a long day but absolutely amazing to see all the different ecosystems and appreciate how truly incredible this island is.
Our Airbnb host recommended purchasing a set of GPS-guided tours from the Shaka Guide-Big Island app. We did not do this but would have if we had more time.
Watch the sunset and stargaze on Maunakea
Rising over 4,200 meters above the sea is the mighty dormant volcano Maunakea, the highest mountain in Hawaii. It is a sacred site for Native Hawaiians and also home to the best astronomical viewing on Earth with thirteen working telescopes allowing visitors to stargaze into the endless night sky.
Only a select number of tour companies are permitted to bring guests to this mountain given it is a sacred place. Therefore be sure to book early to avoid disappointment. Options include Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (west side departures) and Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking Ad-ventures (east side departures).
Learn about Hawaiian culture and history
As tourism rebounds around the world, the threat of over-tourism to the environment and culture of a place can be quite negative. When visiting places like Hawai’i it is critical to remember that we as travelers are guests visiting their sacred land. It is also important to understand the past. An excellent resource for those wanting to learn more about the past is found in this toolkit from the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.
A visit to the Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Park is also worth a stop. The park is considered a place of refuge and features heiau (historic temple), ki‘i (carved figures), and interpretive exhibits of Hawaiian life and culture.
Finally, a fun experience for the entire family is to check out a local Farmer’s Market where you can sample many of Hawaii’s unique fruits. Wednesday and Saturday are the best days to find a local market and there are tons of options all around the island. Check out this list for information on all the farmer’s markets on the island of Hawai’i.
There are two universals: Hawai’i is not cheap and teens need their space. Instead of staying in a tiny one-bedroom at one of Hawaii’s resorts, our family opted for a 2 bedroom, 2.5 bath Airbnb with plenty of space for privacy, and a huge kitchen and patio for our meals. The Airbnb is located at the Mauna Lani Resort in Kohala Coast, approximately 21 miles from Kona, and we had access to the pool and nearby beach which was perfect for a family of four. It also has a pool, a great walking area, and is really close to a grocery store. Plus a special plug for our amazing Airbnb host Janine who is a wealth of information and knowledge on what to do on the island and provided a lot of the information found in this post.
Want to learn more about Hawai’i?
Check out these interesting facts about Hawai’i’s culture, geography, history, and more!
The entire Hawaiian archipelago consists of 132 islands, reefs, and shoals stretching across 1,523 miles of the North Pacific Ocean. Only the islands on the southeast end of the archipelago are inhabited and constitute what is commonly known as the Hawaiian Islands. The remainder of the archipelago is part of Papahānaumokuākea, one of the largest protected marine areas in the world.
A few quick notes about laws and respecting (treading lightly):
The Hawaiian name is ‘āpapapa. Hawai‘i’s coral reefs are a fragile ecosystem that has been damaged by people standing on coral heads or removing living coral. Beachgoers should not remove or otherwise damage coral. Coral (as well as with rocks to which marine life is attached) is protected under Hawai‘i state law.
In 2018, Hawai‘i became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals that contribute to coral bleaching. Please use only reef-safe sunscreen!
Hawai‘i is home to more endangered species than anywhere else in the United States. We must be mindful to protect these species and their delicate ecosystems. For example, honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas) and ‘īlioholoikauaua (Hawaiian monk seal, neomonachus schauinslandi) are endangered species protected by law. Observers must view these animals from a distance – NOAA recommends 150 feet away from ‘īlioholoikauaua, and 10 feet away from honu.
Whale watching is a wonderful way to see these magnificent mammals in the wild. Whale watching season is run from the months of late November – early May only. The best months to see these impressive creatures are January and February.
Native Hawaiians consider the land to have cultural significance and as a result, treat it with the utmost respect. Prominent geographic features (such as Maunakea or Halema‘uma‘u) have deep cultural significance as well. Visitors should not disturb cultural or historic sites. Visitors must be aware that these and other culturally significant sites should be treated with respect
In closing, there is so much to do and see on this unbelievable island that it is hard to put it all in one short guide. While we didn’t have time to do it all and this guide certainly doesn’t contain a lot of other experiences, I found these tips to be extremely helpful in planning a varied week-long visit. Aloha!
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