By Guest blogger Emily Brendler Shoff
Traveling to Hawaii with children can seem daunting. The flights are long and can get expensive. Oceanfront lodging can cost you a bundle, and planning affordable activities that make everyone happy can seem trickier than keeping salt water out of a kid’s snorkel.
But a trip to Hawaii doesn’t have to be hard. My husband and I have gone to the Big Island for the past decade, and in recent years, have taken our girls, ages 2 and 5. Whether we’re exploring lava tubes, chasing waterfalls, snorkeling turquoise waters, relaxing on white sand beaches, or meandering through farmer’s markets, we always leave the Big Island a little more in love with it and each other.
We love that we get to feel like travelers on the Big Island. Isolated from any major landmass by at least 2,000 miles, it’s one of the most unique, fragile ecosystems in the world. Compared to the other major Hawaiian islands, it’s still relatively inexpensive and adventurous: The lava still flows, the land is still farmed, and the Hawaiian culture is still strong. Here's our tried-and-true system for launching a getaway to the Big Island that won’t blow your budget or your sanity.
We set a strict budget of $5,000 for the 10-day trip, so flights to Kona have to be cheap. We’ve had luck departing from Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Consider flying into Kona, on the west coast, and out of Hilo, on the east coast, to pack in more of the island.
If we can, we try to arrive in Kona early in the day, which enables us to grab a rental car and groceries and still arrive in our favorite spot, Puako (about half an hour north of Kona) by sunset. For the return, consider the night flight. Eventually, everyone sleeps.
Tips for making the long flight go by quickly:
- Lots of snacks packed in a variety of bags + a bag of treats
- Two or three activities wrapped as presents
- A few movies they’ll love
On the Ground
Car: Reserve a rental car ahead of time with a budget site like Hotwire or Expedia. Get the cheapest thing you can fit into. (We never pay more than $20/ day.) Contrary to the hype, you don’t need four-wheel drive to cross the island via the winding Saddle Road, but they can be great for getting to some of the more remote beaches, as well as to the top of Mauna Kea.
Food: Get a Costco card. I know: You want fresh pineapple; you want fish. Trust me, the Kona Costco has it. And by stocking up on groceries there, you’ll save money for the farmer’s market in Hilo and shave ices down the road. Plus, picnics are a great way to experience Hawaii and save money.
Lodging: VRBO and Hawaii Ocean Front have great condos for under $150/night. In recent years, we’ve based ourselves out of Puako Beach Condos. They’re spacious, have a great pool, are across the street from a toddler-friendly tidepool beach, and are less than a mile from Hapuna Beach, often called one of the top ten beaches in the world. Poolside condos are great if you can get one (we've discovered the baby monitor's range extends there). State parks have camping, and there are rustic shelters at Hapuna Beach State park (reserve online in advance). If you’re looking to splurge, check out the condos at Waikoloa and the Mauna Kea resort; Expedia will have the best deals.
Activities: The island is full of pocket adventures: green sand beaches, lava tubes, lava-heated swimming holes, secret bays where you can swim with turtles and dolphins, old plantation towns. It’s worth getting in the car to check out a few of these places.
Hapuna Beach, north of Puako: long white sand beach, snorkeling, perfect spot to teach the kikis (kids) to boogie board; free parking and showers
Beach 69, 30 miles north of Kona on Waialea Bay: protected water, shady spots if you need a break from the sun, simple walk-in snorkeling, no crowds
Mauna Kea: a calm beach north of Hapuna and Puako; get there early—the resort offers 40 parking spots for the general public
Best Snorkeling Spots (all south of Kona):
• Kahaluu Beach Park, South Kona, perfect beginner, kid-friendly snorkeling spot with sandy entrance and shade trees
• Two Step Beach, Honaunau Bay, City of Refuge: next level snorkeling: walk down “two steps” and slide into water teeming with fish; afterwards check out the National Historic Park and the ancient Hawaiian’s place of refuge.
• Captain Cook Monument, Kealakekua Bay: For a big adventure, kayak across the bay or hike down to the monument, accessible only by foot or water. This is some of the best snorkeling in the state; keep your eyes open for spinner dolphins and Hawaiian sea turtles. Check out coffee plantations on the way home.
•Volcanoes National Park: Our favorite is the four-mile Kilauea Iki Loop (fern tree forests, steaming lava lake). While you’re there, be sure to check out the Thurston Lava Tube; take a headlamp and go into the unlighted cave right near the end of the tube, where most people exit.
• Akaka Falls: A half-mile hike through the rainforest to a 420-foot waterfall in Akaka Falls State Park
• Pololu Valley, just outside of Hawi on North Kohala Coast. Steep, 30-minute hike down to a lush valley and black sand beach. Trail gets very slippery in the rain; watch the pounding surf as you near the water.
•Driving to the summit of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea; measured from its base on the bottom of the ocean floor to the peak, it’s the tallest mountain in the world—so massive, it warps the crust beneath it. 4WD recommended.
• Stargazing at the Mauna Kea Observatory, at 9,300 feet on the mountain, guaranteed to be the most dazzling night sky you’ll ever see.
• The old ranching town of Waimea, “upcountry” on the Kohala Coast, at 2,700 feet above sea level (bring a sweater—it’s cooler up there)
• The arts community of Hawi, on the northern tip of the island
• Hilo Farmer’s market, Wednesdays and Saturdays
• Tex’s Drive-In, just north of Hilo in Honoka’a, for hot malasadas (Portugese doughnuts)
• Waimea Coffee Company in Waimea, above the Kohala Coast, for heavenly iced lattes
• Hula Sue’s Barbeque in Waimea
• Kona Brewery in Kona
• Shave ice at Kawaihae Harbor, about 30 miles north of Kona
For an on-the-go guidebook, pick up a copy of Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, the perfect companion for a family of adventurers.
Emily Brendler Shoff is a writer in Telluride, Colorado, where she blogs about getting outside at Wildflower Telluride.