Family fun on Hawaiis Big Island

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Family fun on Hawaii’s Big Island
Question: We would like to plan a vacation to the Big Island with our family of five, which includes our kids ages 11, 15, and 17. We enjoy snorkeling, hiking, biking and canoeing. Can you suggest an itinerary that would include the best of these activities on the island? We’re planning to spend a week there in July. Any suggestions for accommodations would be helpful, too. Thanks.

Randy Mittelstet
Arvada, Colorado

Kealakekua Bay is an excellent snorkeling area
Adventure Adviser: The Big Island is a perfect choice for an action-packed family vacation. Sure, it lacks the nightlife of Honolulu and the strip beach of Waikiki, but who wants that anyway? In addition to Hawaii’s signature attractions — waterfalls, palm-lined beaches, and volcanoes — the Big Island boasts plenty of state and national parks to explore, good deep-sea fishing off the Kona coast, snorkeling and kayaking in Kealakekua Bay and endless adventuring. This is the birthplace of King Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first ruler, and the island remains strongly linked to it’s Polynesian past. Given the Big Island’s tremendous diversity, I suggest you rent a car at the Keahole/Kona airport and make a week-long loop adventure.

Begin your exploration along the black-lava covered Kona coast, best known for its coffee and the Iron Man. Kailua-Kona has a full range of accommodation, so call the Hawaiian Hotels and Resorts Association for assistance (800-774-5662). At the seaside Royal Kona Resort (808-329-3111) a double with breakfast starts at $99/night. There’s some great snorkeling close to town — the perfect thing to do on your first afternoon. Follow Ali’i Drive past St. Peter’s Church to crescent-shaped Kahalu’u Beach Park, where you can rent equipment and swim with the fish close to shore. The Palm Cafe is a good dinner spot in town, and in the morning have breakfast at the local’s favorite Lava Java.

From Kailua-Kona, head south through lush and velvety coffee farms and macadamia nut groves. I’d reserve at least half a day for Kealakekua Bay of Captain Cook fame. Kayak rentals are readily available, and you can paddle out to Cook’s monument. This is also an excellent snorkeling area, with very deep waters just off the coast. There are plenty of boating and snorkeling trips from Kona to Kealakekua Bay, so if you’d rather join an organized tour, check in with Jack’s Kona Charters (808-325-7558) or Red Sail Sports (808-885-2876). You can also see this area by horse via King’s Trail Rides of Kona (808-323-2388).

After Kalakekua, spend the afternoon exploring Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (“Place of Refuge”), with its palm-fringed volcanic beaches, heiaus (ancient temples) and petroglyph walks. If not using Kailua-Kona as a base, then consider spending the night in the tiny hillside town of Captain Cook. Run by a Japanese family, the friendly Manago Hotel will make you feel like you’re in another country (808-323-2642). Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a Big Island highlight, so plan on taking at least one full day to explore this wild place. Overlooking the moon-like Kilauea Calder, the Volcano House (808-967-7321) is a fun place to stay with kids. From here you can access the Crater Rim Trail or any other of the park’s fine hikes. If lava’s flowing into the sea, the hotel staff will help you arrange a helicopter tour to see the awesome site.

From the park, it’s a quick drive downhill to Hilo, America’s rainiest city. With the exception of some fine orchid farms, there’s really not a whole lot to see in Hilo, but it is well-placed for an overnight, and a hike out to Akaka Falls makes a great half-day trip from here. Surrounded by fruit trees, the Dolphin Bay Hotel has moderately-priced multi-bedroom suites (808-935-1466).

In cool contrast to the lava-baked east coast, is the tropical western side of the island. Here the air is heavy with moisture and the hillsides are cloaked with deep forests, wild orchids and fruit trees. Nowhere is more verdant than Waipi’o Valley, a wide fluorescent green valley teeming with waterfalls. It’s a scenic drive from Hilo to Waipi’o, which is best explored on foot or horse; Waipi’o Na’alapa Trail Rides (808-775-0419) offers half-day excursions.

Heading inland again, drive up into the rolling prairies of Waimea, Hawaii’s cattle country, which feels more like Wyoming than the South Pacific. You can stay at the casual Waimea Country Lodge (808-885-4100) and eat at Merriman’s, one of the island’s best restaurants. Waimea is the perfect gateway to the Saddle Road, which climbs dramatically between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, or incredibly scenic Route 250, which leads into the Kohala Mountains before dipping down to the coast. Many bike outfitters (Dave’s Bikes, for one: 808-329-4522) offer day-trips into the Kohalas, leaving you off at the summit so you can enjoy the thrilling, long downhill to the coast.

A couple of beach days and nights on the north Kona coast would round out your trip. Since most of the Kona resorts are pretty fancy, your best bet might be a condo rental. Call the Condo Bay Club at 808-885-7979 for details. For the prettiest place to sun and swim, check out Spencer Beach Park and its glistening Ohai’ula Beach. Look for snow-capped Mauna Kea, just under 14000’, visible from many of the Kohala beaches. Other sites worth seeing in this area are the Pu’u Loa petroglyphs and the Pololu Valley overlook, at the end of Route 270.

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