The Big Island of Hawaii for Kids and Families

With dozens of adventures, discoveries, and fun-filled beach days, Hawaii is a blast with kids. Even better, the things to do here don't only appeal to small fry. The entire family, parents included, will enjoy surfing, discovering a waterfall in the rain forest, and snorkeling with sea turtles. And there are plenty of organized activities for kids that will give parents time for a few romantic beach strolls.

Choosing a Place to Stay

Resorts: Most of the big resorts make kids' programs a priority, and it shows. When you are booking your room, ask about "kids eat free" deals and the number of kids' pools at the resort. Also check out the size of the groups in the children's programs, and find out whether the cost of the programs includes lunch, equipment, and activities.

The Hilton Waikoloa Village is every kid's fantasy vacation come true, with multiple pool slides, one lagoon for snorkeling and one filled with dolphins, and even a choice between riding a monorail or taking a boat to your room. Not to be outdone, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai has a great program that will keep your little ones happy and occupied all day.

Condos: Condo and vacation rentals are a fantastic value for families vacationing in Hawaii. You can cook your own food, which is cheaper than eating out and sometimes easier (especially if you have a finicky eater in your group), and you'll get twice the space of a hotel room for about a quarter of the price. If you decide to go the condo route, be sure to ask about the size of the complex's pool (some try to pawn off a tiny soaking tub as a pool) and whether barbecues are available. One of the best reasons to stay in your own place is to hold a sunset family barbecue by the pool or overlooking the ocean.

Condos in Kailua-Kona (on or near Alii Drive) are the some of the best values on the Big Island. We like Casa de Emdeko for its oceanfront pool and on-site convenience store. On the Kohala Coast, the Vista Waikoloa complex provides extra-large condos and is walking distance to beautiful Anaehoomalu Bay. Affordable food is available at restaurants in Kona, if you are looking for a family night out or, even better, a date night.

Ocean Activities

On the Beach: Most people like being in the water, but toddlers and school-age kids tend to be especially enamored of it. The swimming pool at your condo or hotel is always an option, but don't be afraid to hit the beach with a little one in tow. There are lots of family-friendly beaches on the Big Island, complete with protected bays and pleasant white sand. As always, use your judgment, and heed all posted signs and lifeguard warnings.

Calm beaches to try include Kamakahonu Beach and Kahaluu Beach Park in Kailua-Kona; Spencer Beach Park, and Waialea Bay in Puako; Ahalanui Beach Park in Puna; and Leleiwi Beach Park in Hilo.

On the Waves: Surf lessons are a great idea for older kids. Beginner lessons are always on safe and easy waves. Most surf schools also offer instruction in stand-up paddleboarding.

For school-age and older kids, book a four-hour surfing lesson with Kahaluu Bay Surf & Sea and either join the kids out on the break or say aloha to a little parents-only time.

The Underwater World: If your kids are ready to try snorkeling, Hawaii is a great place to introduce them to the underwater world. Even without the mask and snorkel, they'll be able to see colorful fish darting this way and that below the surface of the water, and they may also spot turtles at many of the island beaches.

The easily accessible Kahaluu Beach, in Kailua-Kona, is a great introductory snorkel spot because of its many facilities. Protected by a natural breakwater, these shallow reefs attract large numbers of sea creatures, including the Hawaiian green sea turtle. These turtles feed on seaweed near shore and sometimes can be spotted basking on the rocks.

On the southern tip of the island, Punaluu Black Sand Beach provides opportunities to see the sea turtles up close. Though the water can be rough, the hawksbill turtles nest here, and there are nearly always one or two napping on the beach. At nighttime, head to the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, or Huggo's on the Rocks in Kailua-Kona, to view manta rays; each place shines a bright spotlight on the water to attract them. Anyone, but especially kids, could sit and watch them glide through the ocean in graceful circles for hours. No snorkel required!

Another great option is to book a snorkel cruise or opt to stay dry inside the Atlantis Submarine that operates out of Kailua-Kona. Kids love crawling down into a real-life submarine and viewing the ocean world through its little portholes.

Land Activities

In addition to beach experiences, Hawaii Island has easy waterfall hikes, botanical gardens, a zoo, and hands-on museums that will keep your kids entertained and out of the sun for a day.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must for any family vacation. Even grumpy teenagers will acknowledge the coolness of lava tubes, steaming volcanic craters, and a fiery nighttime lava show.

On the Hilo side, the Panaewa Rain Forest Zoo is small, but free, and lots of fun for the little ones, with a small petting zoo on Saturday. Your kids might even get to hold a Hawaiian hawk. Just a few miles north, on the Hamakua Coast, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden makes a beautiful and fun stop for kids, filled with huge lily pads and noisy frogs.

School-age and older kids will get a kick out of the ATV tours on the rim above Waipio Valley, and horseback rides past the waterfalls of Waipio Valley via Naalapa Stables.

After Dark

At night, younger kids get a kick out of attending a luau, and many of the shows incorporate young audience members, adding to the fun. Teens and adults alike are sure to enjoy the music and overall theatrical quality of the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa’s "Haleo," the story of the Keauhou ahupuaa (land division).

Stargazing from Maunakea is another treat. The visitor center has telescopes set up for all visitors to use. If you'd rather leave the planning to someone else, book a tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail. Its unbelievably knowledgeable guides are great at sharing that knowledge in a narrative form that kids—and adults, for that matter—enjoy.

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