Can I just start by telling you that our trip to Hawaii was the best vacation I’ve ever had? It was absolutely my favorite. I was nervous going in because when it comes to Hawaii, everybody has a favorite island. We heard from friends who swear by Oahu, an eye doctor who lives for Kauai, and neighbors who adore Maui. But when it came to seeking Big Island enthusiasts, well, I guess the lava rock isn’t for everybody. I’m here to tell you, though, that the Big Island is a dream destination because a) it’s obscenely beautiful and b) there are endless possibilities for both adventure and relaxation. I’m officially smitten and have every intention of returning sooner than later.
I’m going to be doing a full trip report here on the blog, detailing our experiences, but for now, I’m offering our top five picks for family-friendly fun on the Big Island of Hawaii (presented in no particular order).
Nestled along a scenic Hawaiian drive, you’ll find the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. We visited on a Monday afternoon and practically had the whole place to ourselves. From start to finish, walking the paved path through the garden took us just over an hour.
We were given a map, but for the most part the route was easy to follow without consulting the guide. Near the end, the view opens up to a beautiful crystal-blue bay. We spent a fair amount of time there checking out both the geckos scurrying across the handrails and the crabs on the rocks below. The colorful flowers were definitely a feast for these desert-dwelling eyes of mine, but so, too was the greenery. Towering trees with gnarled roots and vines, leaves as tall as me and texture everywhere–it was a tropical paradise bursting with every shade of green you could imagine.
Prior to visiting this one, I admittedly always assumed that botanical gardens were, well, boring. I can’t say whether or not that is indeed true of most, but I can say that this particular botanical garden was not boring in the least. Even my children (16,14 and 8) were entertained, walking along the path and pointing out unique plants, trees and flowers. A trip here would be especially great for a budding photographer.
We began our trip on the east side of the island, flying into Hilo. We did so primarily because we wanted to have plenty of time to explore Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. We wanted to do more, though, than just see the sights; we wanted to gain an in-depth knowledge of all there was to take in at the park. Rather than rely on a guidebook, we decided to tour with a native, Warren Costa, and I’m so glad we did.
Warren met us at the Visitor’s Center one morning. After we acquainted ourselves, Warren loaded my family into his minivan and drove us to one of the lesser-traveled hiking trails. It was a short trip, but along the way, Warren offered insight on Hawaiian culture and life on the Big Island. He was both thorough and patient in answering all of our questions. Once we arrived at the trailhead, we started the hike in a wooded area. As we went, Warren stopped several times to point out plant life. He offered interesting tidbits on the leaves we were treading on as well as the canopy overhead–things we never would have learned about had we gone it alone.
At the end of the wooded trail, we continued our hike out onto a lava field. This, I suspect, is the part of Hawaii that leaves some folks wanting for white sandy beaches and a mai tai. Maybe it’s the desert-dweller in me, but I couldn’t help but admire the beauty there. Black lava fields set against a bright blue sky? The contrast was gorgeous.
Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t stop marveling over the fact that–from that black lava–there grows life. It’s absurd, right? Beautifully absurd.
Once the hike was complete, Warren loaded us all back into his van and drove us to a shaded picnic spot within the park. There, he whipped out a Hawaiian snack: pineapple (which he quickly cut right before our eyes), mac nuts, POG (passion orange guava juice) and li hing mui (a salty dried plum). As we sat and ate our snack, Warren continued to make us jealous of his life in Hawaii by telling us all about the produce he is able to grow right in his yard. He also gave us an update on current lava flow and shared with us how it is affecting his small town.
Given the chance, I’d tour with Native Guide Hawaii again in a heartbeat.
Our particular Hawaiian vacation included more than just your average, everyday lounging on a tropical beach (though there was plenty of that, too). Two of my children consider our zipline adventure with KapohoKine their absolute favorite takeway from our Big Island trip. I can see why; it was a blast from start to finish!
We met in Hilo and were driven to the zip site by way of a quick twenty minute, narrated ride. Upon arrival, we met our adventure guides for the day. There were three of them (Matt, Tiare and Diez) for our ten person tour group.
When we arrived, they had our gear all set up, just waiting for us to slip into it. The process was quick and easy. They explained a few rules (namely, don’t mess with your harness!) and procedures. I’d say that within twenty minutes of arriving at the site, we were all suited up and headed up the first platform. The course consisted of eight lines, all of which feature parallel runs, so you’re always zipping alongside someone else. It’s also fun to note that there are only two points within the tour at which your feet touch the ground; the rest of the time, you zip from one platform to the next. The photo below gives you an idea of what the parallel lines look like, as well as how long they are. You can also see the destination platform towards the left of the photo.
About halfway through the course, we stopped for a snack. This was one of the points at which our feet touched the ground. KaphoKine offers sandwiches (ordered ahead of time) for purchase, or a wide variety of local fruits on a complimentary basis. That was fun. We tried all kinds of exotic fruits including Rambutan, passion fruit, starfruit and apple bananas.
The second half of the course zips over beautiful terrain, including two waterfalls. Here is a shot of Cassidy nearing the destination platform after zipping past a waterfall. The views were gorgeous (and only a teensy bit intimidating!).
All told, we had such a fun day zipping with KapohoKine. We felt safe and secure the entire time. In fact, if anything, there were too many ropes and straps connecting us rather than not enough (which is always a good thing, in my book). Our day spent zipping over the waterfalls on the Hilo side of Hawaii will definitely go down as one of my favorite days of the trip.
4. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
How many times have you frolicked on a black sand beach? None, you say? All the more reason that Punalu’u should be a must do on your trip to the Big Island. We visited one evening if for no other reason than to get an obligatory photo. You guys, I had it all planned out. I bought shirts for my family in varying shades of white/cream. I’m not normally a fan of matchy-matchy photos like that, but set against the contrasting black sand, I thought it would be super cute. As you can see in the photo below, though, it didn’t work out. Why? Oh just because my husband (who only packed for himself, mind you) neglected to pack the linen shirt I bought him specifically for this picture. Ironic, when I managed to remember mine as well as those of the other two children I packed for. In any case, left with few options, I switched Cassidy into a black shirt at the last minute so that my husband wouldn’t stand out quite so much. The picture (taken with the help of my tripod) didn’t turn out anything like I had hoped it would. All the more reason to return, I guess.
Even if you don’t have your heart set on a family portrait like I did, you should still visit Punalu’u. The contrast of the black sand against the green brush and palm trees is something you should set your heart on seeing. This is one unique beach.
Since we’re talking about beaches, I have to admit that I had a favorite: Kaunaoa Bay at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. This is the quintessential Hawaiian beach, my friends. It offers easy swimming for little ones, snorkeling for adventurous types, and plenty of opportunity to relax and enjoy the view. White sands, blue sky, and warm turquoise water–what else do you need in a beach?
This particular beach is most easily accessed by guests of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, though it is open to the public as well. The catch is that parking at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is very limited and you’ll need to arrive early to be one of the lucky few to secure a spot.
The hotel offers lounge chairs, umbrellas, towels and facilities for its guests. Non-resort guests are not permitted to use hotel amenities, of course, but they are welcome to grab a bite to eat at Hau Tree, Mauna Kea Hotel’s restaurant on the beach. If pina coladas are more in line with your beach day plans, The Gazebo Bar will gladly accommodate. One of the perks of this particular beach is that there is quite a lot of shade to be had outside of the hotel’s lounge chairs; several trees towards the south end of the beach provide a nice canopy for beach bums who’ve had enough sun.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes my list of Top 5 picks for family-friendly fun on the Big Island. I will be offering more details about and photos from our trip over the coming week. Stay tuned for those! And feel free to chime in with any questions in the comments; I’ll do my best to answer.