Choosing five favorite family activities on the Big Island was exquisite torture. Never have I been so tempted to extend the list to 6, 7, 8, or 9 items. If you go (and you should), allow plenty of time for sightseeing and loafing—they don’t call it the Big Island for nothing.
1. Get close to a volcano
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an extraordinary place. Where else can you see land being made? The highlights for children are Chain of Craters Road, the Thurston Lava Tube (go early before the tour buses arrive), and the Steam Vents (best seen at dusk on your way to the Jaggar Museum).
When we visited, a lava lake in Halema’uma’u Crater made the steam emerging from it glow bright orange after dark. This was hugely impressive, but conditions change so check with rangers before setting off.
Lava is unpredictable. As of July 2009, it was flowing outside of the park, and could only be accessed by driving to the end of Highway 130 in Kalapana. The county manages the parking lot there (open from 5-10 p.m., last car allowed in at 8 p.m.). Bring flashlights, raincoats, and water for the 3/4-mile hike out to the viewing area. Even if you don’t see surface flow, you will probably see small explosions and plenty of steam as the molten lava hits the sea.
Arriving at the family-run Dahana Ranch in Waimea, you’ll wonder if you somehow took a wrong turn and wound up in Ireland—it’s that green. Like the city slickers that we are, we arrived at the ranch woefully unprepared for a spell of wet (but warm) weather, and were pleasantly surprised to find a rack of waterproof jackets, jeans and boots available to borrow. These people have thought of everything.
Led by mounted wranglers, children as young as three can go riding here. This isn’t the usual dusty nose-to-tail trail riding either, and the scenery (the Waipi’o Valley and Mauna Kea on a clear day) is spectacular. The horses are exceptionally healthy and well-trained, and the guides take fun and safety equally seriously. Older kids can do their own steering, and even go on a cattle drive if time and parental finances permit.
3. See petroglyphs
Somewhere between the years of 1,200 and 1,450 AD, pre-contact Hawaiians were moved to scratch a record of their existence into the Pahoehoe lava (the smooth kind) at the end of Chain of Craters Road on what is now called the Pu’uloa Petroglyph Trail. There are lots of dots and circles which may represent births, as well as a few figures.
The 3/4-mile hike out to the field is a big part of the fun. It takes you over a lumpy, bumpy terrain with only piles of rocks to mark the trail. Because the petroglyphs are fragile, there is a raised walkway for viewing them.
Don’t forget to bring water (like I did), or you will never hear the end of it from your parched and whining kids. You might even have to carry one of them back to the car.
A couple hours south of Kona (and very convenient if you’re volcano-bound) is a fascinating spot called Pu’uhonua o Honaunau or Place of Refuge.
In ancient times, islanders lives were governed by a dizzying number of rules. If you walked on the royal trails, you were put to death. Men and women who ate together were put to death. And the penalty for allowing your shadow to fall across the chief? You guessed it: death. If you did something really bad, they’d execute your whole family too for good measure.
But if the lawbreaker could somehow get to the Place of Refuge before his spear-wielding pursuers caught up with him, he would be granted asylum. Nutty? Uh, yeah. But interesting too.
Allow about an hour to explore the ponds, stone walls, and temples here. It’s a holy place so there’s no swimming or sunbathing allowed, but if you’re brazen you can take some seriously funny tiki photos.
5. Splash off
While picking up some groceries at Foodland Farms at The Shops at Mauna Lani (in South Kohala), my kids and I discovered something extraordinary. It’s a large water fountain synchronized to Hawaiian music, and kids are allowed to play in it.
Grab a takeout lunch from Foodland, pull up an umbrella-shaded table and chairs, and watch your children play to the music of slide guitars and ukeleles to their hearts’ content.
It’s an absolutely restful and unique experience—especially when you have the whole fountain to yourself.
We kept staying for just one more song, and wound up lingering for over an hour. There’s a Marble Slab Creamery there too for sodas and ice cream while your kids are drying off afterward.