We love the Hawaiian Islands.  From the Bay Area it’s an easy nonstop flight to any of the bigger islands (Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii), there is a minimal time difference, so much to do (or not do), and it’s warm year-round.  It’s a perfect spot whether you prefer to park yourself at the beach/pool or be active and adventurous.  We’ve left the kids at home and gone as a couple several times, but we also love it for family travel and have been when we had babies and now with our big kid, tween and teen!

Until recently, the Big Island of Hawaii had not really been on my radar.  I’m not entirely sure why because it’s a pretty amazing island.  I’m glad we’ve discovered it and while Kauai will always be our go-to island, the Big Island is a close second!

  • It is the youngest and largest island in the Hawaiian Island chain (nearly twice the size of all the other Hawaiian Islands combined)
  • It has two active volcanoes as well as a beach with green sand and another with black sand
  • Measured from its sea floor base to its highest peak, the Big Island’s Mauna Kea is the world’s largest mountain – larger than Mount Everest
  • The island has 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones  (or maybe it’s 10 of 14; or 8 of 13 – it depends where you get your info, but the bottom line is there are a lot of climate zones on the island of Hawaii!)

Activities with Kids on the Big Island

Volcanoes National Park

Kilaeua Crater - Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Kilaeua Caldera

We only spent one day at Volcanoes National Park, but we could have easily spent several more.  What better way to learn about volcanoes than to actually explore one?  We were able to walk on an active volcano and through a lava tube, climb on lava rocks, see flowing lava, steam vents, and a steaming crater!  There are so many ways to get around the park – we chose to go on a bike tour.  It was a lot of fun to ride on trails while enjoying the scenery and it was so easy to hop on/off our bikes at each stop.

Read about our entire bike tour: Volcanoes National Park With Kids

By Helicopter

Our doors off helicopter in Hilo
Our doors off helicopter in Hilo

To get a bird’s eye view of the park and to truly grasp the reach of decades of lava flow, a helicopter tour is the way to go.  We opted for a doors off ride over Kilaeua and left from Hilo Airport.  We flew over 2000 degree lava and could feel the heat 500 feet above in the air, we flew through clouds and rain, saw rainbows, waterfalls, and lava fields that went on & on.  We were hoping to see the lava flowing into the ocean which we heard is quite a show, but we were at the mercy of Mother Nature and there was no show that day.

Get all the details of our tour: Doors Off Helicopter Tour

Night Snorkel with Manta Rays

Arriving at Kona Ocean Adventures for our manta ray snorkel
Arriving at Kona Ocean Adventures for our manta ray snorkel

We debated whether this would be something the kids would like or if they might be scared or intimidated:  Snorkeling in the dark watching giant manta rays come straight at us with mouths (as big as footballs) wide open.  I’m glad we decided to just try it as it was easily the highlight of our trip!

We met our guide in Kona, got decked out in wetsuits and then rode about 30 minutes by boat to the manta ray feeding area.  We hopped into the water, hung on to a floatation device with lights illuminating the water below us and had an amazing show!

Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay

Ready to snorkel! GoPro in hand
Ready to snorkel! GoPro in hand

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to snorkel in an aquarium?  The snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay by the Captain Cook Monument was fantastic.  It’s a perfect place to take kids because of the calm clear water and abundance of colorful fish and coral.  There’s nothing that makes our kids lose interest in snorkeling faster than swimming in choppy murky water and hoping for a glimpse of a fish here or there.  No matter which way we swam in Kealakekua Bay we always had an incredible view.

Kealakekua Bay was the second stop on our snorkeling tour with Fair Wind Cruises. We thought the entire excursion was executed exceptionally well, but Kealakekua Bay was our favorite!

Our full experience and underwater videos are here: The Big Island: Our Best Snorkeling Yet

ATV Tour in Hawi

Hang Loose! Big Island Hawaii
“Driving” our 4-person ATV

The quaint town of Hawi is located on the northern shore of the island in North Kohala.  Just an hour north of our hotel in South Kohala, we drove from dry sunny lava fields to the lush, green and rainy town.  We let the kids plan the day in Hawi and they chose to do an ATV tour.  We chose the 2-hour Waterfall & Rainforest Adventure with trails that took us all the way from the beach, through a rainforest, up to 2500 feet above sea level.  We ended the adventure with a swim in a private waterfall and swimming hole!

Our entire adventure is here: Exploring the Big Island by ATV

Boogie Boarding at Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Hapuna Beach

We could have spent an entire week just exploring the trails, beaches and swimming holes along the Kohala Coast.  Our residence came stocked with boogie boards so we felt obligated to use them at Hapuna Beach.  Hapuna Beach is the biggest beach on the island, stretching nearly a half mile of white sand, and is exactly how you’d picture a tropical beach.  There was lots of parking in the lot and while it’s possibly free at certain points in the year, we had to pay $5.  This is a popular beach and we were not the only ones there, but it’s big enough that we had plenty of space to set up our chairs & umbrellas on our own patch of beach.  It’s a great beach for kids – the waves were big enough for them to boogie board & body surf, but not so big where I felt nervous.

Heading out to boogie board at Hapuna Beach. Big Island, Hawaii
Heading out to boogie board at Hapuna Beach
Catching waves at Hapuna Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Catching waves

Where to Stay on the Big Island

Fairmont Orchid

The beach at the Fairmont Orchid. Kohala Coast. Big Island, Hawaii
The beach at the Fairmont Orchid

Up until this trip we had only stayed at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast.  This time we branched out (slightly) and stayed in the Pauoa Beach Neighborhood which is right next door to the Orchid!  The Orchid is great with a very calm beach, cabanas for shade, and equipment rentals (boogie boards, Stand Up Paddle Boards, kayaks, and snorkel gear) – of course, it would be even better if these rentals were included in your stay!  There are plenty of restaurants on site and it’s walking distance to the shops at Mauna Lani for even more dining options, plus a grocery store and some shops.

Spa therapy rooms perched near the waterfall. Fairmont Orchid. Big Island, Hawaii.
Spa therapy rooms perched near the waterfall

The Orchid has a wonderful “Spa Without Walls”.  You can choose to have a massage in a hut by the waterfall (above) or by the ocean.

Just a note that it can get windy on the Kohala Coast.  When we were there in October it was very windy for the three days we were there.  When we went back in November it was calm to only mildly windy.

Pauoa Beach Neighborhood

Enjoying our private pool. Pauoa Beach Neighborhood. Big Island, Hawaii
Enjoying our private pool

We stayed in a residence in the Pauoa Beach Neighborhood.  It was a great 3-bedroom house with a kitchen, living room and a large outdoor space with lawn and pool overlooking the golf course at the Fairmont Orchid.  The residence came with a golf cart to get around, boogie boards, ice chests, pool toys etc.  The neighborhood had its own beach club with a fitness center, pool, and bbq area and was right next door to the Fairmont Orchid.  This was hands down one of our favorite places to stay (ever)!

View from our backyard overlooking the golf course and mountains at sunset. Pauoa Beach Club Neighborhood. Big Island Hawaii
View from our backyard overlooking the golf course and mountains at sunset

Four Seasons Hualalai

We’ve never stayed here, but it’s next on my list.  It consistently ranks as one of the best hotels in the Hawaiian Islands and everyone I know who has stayed here raves about it.

Where We Ate

We had a kitchen at our residence so we ate most breakfasts & lunches there and then dined out for dinner.

  • Kohala Village HUB PUB – a fantastic spot for lunch in Hawi.  Indoor/Outdoor seating.  Salads, Sandwiches, fish, pasta – all great!
  • Tommy Bahama’s – Located in the shops at Mauna Lani – we ate dinner out on the lanai with great sunset views.
  • Napua Beach Club – At the Mauna Lani Beach Club – right on the ocean with a large lawn for the kids to run around!
  • Lava Lava Beach Club – Right on the sand – great atmosphere for lunch, dinner or drinks! They do not take advance reservations – only call ahead seating.
  • Fairmont Orchid Thanksgiving Dinner Buffet – We ate here for Thanksgiving. Traditional Thanksgiving dinner plus sushi & seafood, prime rib, a kids’ buffet with pizza, chicken fingers, etc, a candy display and so many desserts!  We ate outside overlooking the pool & ocean and watched the sunset.  Plus there was a huge lawn for the kids to run around on.  We reserved this about a month in advance.
  • Luau at Marriott Waikaloa – This luau is offered every Monday and Wednesday evening. The kids had never been to a luau and this was a great one!  It includes unearthing the imu (underground oven) to reveal the Kalua Pig, crafts for kids, open bar, conch shell blowing contest, and live music with Polynesian dancing & storytelling – culminating in an exciting fire dance. The cost was: Adults (13+): $102, Children (6-12): $48. We paid for an upgraded seating option which guarantees reserved seating in the first row (the pricing is additional $25 per person).  I was glad we did this as we showed up late from our day trip to Hawi and 5 seats had been saved together at a front table for us.  If we hadn’t done this we would have had to take whatever seating was left and likely wouldn’t have been seated together!  We also had a front row view of the dancing so the kids were able to enjoy the show even more.
Thanksgiving dinner at the Fairmont Orchid. Big Island Hawaii
Thanksgiving dinner at the Fairmont Orchid

What We Didn’t Have Time For (Next Time!)

  • Visit Waipi’o Valley (Hiking, waterfall, beach)
  • Helicopter zipline & waterfall tour
  • Kilaeua Iki Trail
  • Papakolea Green Sand Beach – Southern most tip of the island and then a 2.5 mile hike (oneway) to get there, but the sand & beach is supposed to be worth it!
  • Punalu’u Black Sand Beach – A great place for spotting sea turtles.
  • Tsunami Museum in Hilo
  • Akaka Falls

What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below what we should be sure to do on our next trip!

Read about our favorite things to do on Kauai and Oahu.

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