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Family Travel Activities on the Big Island

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Family Travel Activities on the Big Island

A family trip to the Big Island is sure to be a hit with your young ones. There are many fascinating adventures awaiting children of all ages.

The Big Island is really big – twice as big as all the other Hawaiian islands combined! A drive around the Big Island offers many breath-taking experiences, but this giant jewel is best enjoyed in segments. Try planning your activities by the following regions: Hilo, Kona, Volcano, Kohala, and Ka Lae (the point – southernmost point in the U.S.). It’ll save your family from endless hours in the car.

Your keiki (child or children in Hawaiian, pronounced kay-key) will enjoy exploring the Big Island’s unique (and growing) shore. Many shallow and clear lava tide pools dot the coast of this volcanically active island, and you’ll find easily accessible ones at the beach parks along the Kona Coast. With or without a snorkel, in or out of the water, you can watch a colorful variety of grazing marine life, including exotic fish and endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles.

On moonless evenings, the lights from Kona Coast hotels attract manta rays. You can watch them gliding through the tidepools without getting wet!

Colorful, sturdy, water-proof guide cards about Hawaii’s tidepools, birds, shells, plants, and fish are available at many island shops. The cards help even the youngest explorers identify the unusual creatures they find.

If you’d like to plan ahead for exciting and informed marine encounters, visit one of the following Hawaiian green sea turtle Internet sites: Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Sea Turtle Research Program home page (a cooperative Big Island study between HPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service) at; or try for Hawaii’s resolution to preserve and study Hawaii’s green sea turtles. Each site has many fascinating facts, images and links certain to captivate each member of your family.

During your tidepool trips, remember that what you see above the ocean is what you feel below the ocean – jagged lava!! Take some protective, rubber-soled, water shoes – your family’s feet will thank you!

Keep those water shoes handy, because you won’t find many soft and sandy beaches on this Hawaiian giant. The Big Island is the infant in the island chain (except submarine volcano Loihi, located about 20 miles off the south coast, more than 3,000 feet below the ocean surface), and she’s still growing. Since January 1983, Kilauea (a shield volcano) on the east flank of Mauna Loa (a mammoth volcano, elev. 13,677 feet) has been continuously oozing lava down the mountain, through the forests, over roads, towns and beaches, and into the ocean.

The Big Island is the only place in the U.S. to see an active volcano, and its coast is strikingly unique and diverse. Variations in the environments are dramatically evident, even to the youngest visitors. From the current Kilauea eruptions to Kohala’s ancient flows from 120,000 years ago, the Big Island offers many opportunities to study the evolution of life on a tropical volcanic island. Check out the Volcano feature section for some exciting volcanic explorations suitable for sharing with your keiki.

Hilo has a vast greenspace which offers opportunities for many family activities. Cleared by two devastating tsunamis (tidal waves) in 1946 and 1960, the waterfront space was never re-developed. The area is currently home to Wailoa State Park, with paths and foot bridges meandering around and over a large lagoon, and the Wailoa Center for Culture and the Arts (with rotating exhibits accompanying a permanent tsunami exhibit). The Hilo Bay Recreational Area is the perfect place to take your keiki for rollerblading, skateboarding and bicycling. Since the one-fourth mile, two-lane road along the bay is closed to traffic, it’s a safe environment for all ages.

While on the Hilo side of the island, stop by the only natural rainforest zoo in the U.S., the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, which receives more than 125 inches of rain annually. It is home to a variety of rainforest animals and endangered Hawaiian animals, as well as animals from other habitats, and a botanical garden. The Panaewa Zoo, about 4 miles from Hilo, is open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. On Saturday, there is a Petting Zoo from 1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. Admission is free.

For a hands-on wildlife experience, perhaps your young buckaroos would like to strap on a saddle and get the feel of a Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) experience. A large variety of Big Island trail-rides are available. Waipio Valley, South Kohala ranchlands, and the Keauhou Mauka (mountain) rainforest provide a variety of riding experiences. The Dahana Ranch in Waimea offers rides for all experience levels, including the youngest, ages 3 and up. Click here for Big Island Horseback Riding Providers.

For a sweeping bird’s eye view of the exquisite Kona Coast and an exciting family experience, check out parasailing. UFO Parasail in Kona (the only current operator) offers year-round parasailing adventures for ages 3 and up. Side-by-side rides are also available, with a weight maximum of 350 pounds. Click here for Big Island Parasailing Providers.

Curious minds will be captivated and excited by a variety of informative exhibits at the Onizuka Space Center, centrally located in the Keahole-Kona International Airport. Launch a miniature space shuttle, manipulate a Manned Maneuvering Unit, test a gravity well, watch space videos, interact with computers – you’ll find many treasures in this small, two-story museum. The interactive, educational facility is dedicated to the memory of Ellison S. Onizuka, Hawaii’s first astronaut. Born and raised in Kona, Onizuka and his Challenger Space Shuttle crewmates died tragically on Jan. 28, 1986, during the launch of the 25th Space Shuttle mission. The Onizuka Space Center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is only $2 for adults, 50 cents for children.

You’ll find enchanting Hawaiian legends, stories, travel tips and other information in many island book shops and coffee houses. Local authors and artists are continually expanding the variety of books available to help you and your family prepare for your adventures and understand your encounters. Hawaiian books also make wonderful mementos of your family’s tropical journey, and are unusual treasures to share with friends and family at home. (Age-appropriate books stuffed into your carry-on luggage make great airplane surprises for cooperative travelers who are heading home!!) Click here for Big Island Coffee Houses/Cafes, or here for Big Island Book Providers.

Many more Big Island adventures await your young explorers. Browse through some of the other Hawaii State Vacation Planner Big Island feature sections for additional activities you may share with your keiki.