It’s tough to go wrong with a family vacation to any of the Hawaiian islands. But if your family is the adventurous type, the Island of Hawaii — a.k.a. the Big Island — should be at the top of your list. Long sunny days on Hawaii pair beautifully with stellar stretches of coastline, volcanoes, waterfalls and extraordinary marine wildlife.
The state of Hawaii is comprised of six major islands, and it shares its name with the largest of these, the Island of Hawai’i. So when someone mentions Hawaii, you have to pay attention to determine if the topic refers to the state or the actual island. The island of Hawaii is often referred to as the “Big Island.” That’s a nickname, but the proper name for the island is either “Hawaii” or “the Island of Hawaii.”
TIP: While “Hawaii” is the accepted spelling throughout most of the United States, locals prefer the more traditional “Hawai’i,” with a punctuation mark called an okina (or an apostrophe) between the last two vowels.
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With 4,028 square miles of land, Hawaii is the largest and youngest Hawaiian island. There are two international airports: Hilo International Airport on the east side of the island, and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole, which is on the west side of the island in Kailua-Kona. Kona is sunnier and especially popular with first-time visitors, whereas Hilo is ideal for those looking to dedicate time to exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Don’t underestimate the size of the Island of Hawaii and the variety of experiences and landscapes it offers visitors. If your goal is to visit both areas in a week, rent a car and prepare for a busy week on the go. If you have more vacation time to spend, don’t hesitate. If not, just know that someday you’ll want to return.
Not far from Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park offers a valuable lesson in Hawaiian culture as well as opportunities to view local wildlife and enjoy the beach. The 1,160-acre seaside park is the site of an ancient Hawaiian settlement; families can visit fish ponds and religious sites (heiau) and see petroglyphs (ki’i pohaku).
Green sea turtles (honu) frequent the park’s shallow waters and are often seen resting on the shore. Viewing turtles can be the highlight of a family’s day or even an entire trip. They are fascinating to watch, but don’t forget they are an endangered species and their safety is paramount. Keep a distance of at least 20 feet when enjoying an encounter. Park docents frequent the beach and offer a great learning opportunity for engaged families. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.
The island of Hawaii is also well-known as a destination where visitors can snorkel with manta rays. All snorkeling experiences take place at night, and many tour operators offer the activity, but groups are typically large and require travel time aboard a boat. Snorkeling trips operate in the evening because lights along the coast (and in some cases, lights submerged in the water) attract plankton that manta rays love to eat.
If you are visiting with children age 12 or older, Manta Ray Advocates offers a memorable introduction to these amazing animals in a quiet and more intimate setting. All snorkeling experiences require a short swim from the beach; as with all water activities, parents and children should be comfortable in the water and know how to swim. Groups are limited to just six people, ensuring the safety of swimmers and manta rays as well as a strong education component. Make reservations as early as possible.
Four Seasons properties are known for taking great care of traveling families, and the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is no exception. The first and only AAA Five-Diamond and Forbes Five-Star Resort on the Big Island, it features 249 guest rooms and suites, a year round Kids For All Seasons program and a seasonal teen program.
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai has a whopping eight pools for kids — and kids at heart — to splash around in, including the 1.8-million-gallon King’s Pond. More like an aquarium you can swim in than a pool, it’s home to 4,000 tropical fish and a spotted eagle ray. It’s a great opportunity for families who aren’t ready for, or interested in, open ocean snorkeling.
TIP: Ciao Bambino is a member of Four Seasons’ preferred program, allowing our clients access to special perks at the brand’s properties.. Reach out for more information or to book.
It’s easy and immensely enjoyable to lose track of time swimming and lounging alongside the protected lagoon at the Fairmont Orchid. Be on the lookout for green sea turtles — they have a habit of popping up when you least expect it. With 540 rooms, the Fairmont Orchid is a huge property, but that also means it’s amenity-rich. Highlights include a massive oceanfront pool, six restaurants, 10 tennis courts, a spa and a 24-hour fitness center.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the arguably the star of the show on the east side of the Island of Hawaii. The park website is the best source of information as to whether any volcanoes are erupting and offering glimpses of lava fountains, or flows. If there isn’t any volcano activity during your visit, that does not mean you shouldn’t make the trip. A Hawaii Volcanoes National Park itinerary is chock-full of family-friendly experiences, including walking through a 500-year-old lava tube or exploring a petroglyph field.
There’s something about chasing waterfalls that’s appealing to all ages. A half-hour north of Hilo, at ‘Akaka Falls State Park, a scenic paved trail that’s less than a half-mile leads the way to two waterfalls. Kahuna Falls are likely the first falls you’ll see, but be sure to keep moving as the walk saves the best for last. ‘Akaka Falls plunges more than 400 feet; the sound alone of the falling water is electrifying.
Just outside downtown Hilo in Wailuku River State Park, the 80-foot Rainbow Falls is known for the rainbows that often form in its mist. The viewing platform is just steps from the parking lot, and there is no park entrance or parking fee.
For a tasty change of pace, save time for lunch and a tour at The Hawaiian Vanilla Co. A bit off the beaten path, this family farm is said to be the first spot in the United States to grow vanilla commercially. The farm tour is entertaining and informative, and at the end you’ll have all the knowledge necessary to create your own vanilla extract at home. It’s a kid-friendly undertaking that will remind you of your vacation over and over again.
A stay at Volcano Village Lodge feels little bit like sleeping in a breathtaking rainforest, and it’s conveniently located two miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are just five rooms at the property, but the Mauna Loa suite is a good fit for families thanks to a list of perks that include two bedrooms, a gas fireplace, a refrigerator, a coffee machine, a tea kettle, a microwave and a toaster oven.
Relative newcomer SCP Hilo Hotel is also winning over traveling families. Along with a pool and complimentary bikes and stand-up paddle boards for guests, the 128-room property offers Essential Rooms with a triple layout featuring two double beds and one twin bed.
Editor’s Note: For review purposes, Dana received media packages from some of the properties mentioned. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann except where noted.
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