The Big Island Three Ways

Up until very recently, the Hawaiian islands have been synonymous with beaches for me.  Of course I knew there was more to the 50th state than miles and miles of golden sand, but frankly I just wasn’t all that interested.

Then I visited the Big Island.  It’s got rain forests, lava deserts, snow covered mountains, and an active volcano.   Beaches are a little tougher to come by, but my kids and I were almost too busy to notice.

Here are three great ways to experience the Big Island with your family without staying on the beach.

On the gold coast

Imagine for a moment that your children were to design a resort.  What might they include?  Pools with slides, waterfalls and Indiana Jones-style swinging footbridges?  Exotic birds up the wazoo?  One lagoon full of dolphins and another one full of sea turtles?  Welcome to the Hilton Waikoloa Village.

I missed the beach for about, oh, six seconds.  Then I made myself very comfortable under a palm frond umbrella on the sand of the Hilton’s four-acre saltwater lagoon, and forgot all about it.  I find that kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming with turtles can take your mind off just about anything.

Resort amenities don’t come cheap here (or anywhere, for that matter), but your spacious room comes equipped with a coffeemaker and empty minifridge.  We made good use of ours.

We parked our car and left it for the three days we were here.  This might not be an authentic old Hawaii experience, but who cares?  It’s big time family fun and we loved every minute of it.

Ranch style

Cattle ranching began in Hawaii in 1798 when King Kamehameha was presented five black longhorn cattle as a gift.  Horses followed, as did Mexican vaqueros with bovine experience.  Two hundred years later, cowboy culture is alive and well on the Big Island and you can experience it at a vacation home at Puakea Ranch in North Kohala.

As we bumped up the dirt road to the ranch, I wondered if my kids would miss the Hilton’s dolphins, turtles, and flamingos.  I needn’t have worried.  When I stopped the car, they tumbled out and chorused: “It’s perfect!”  And it is.

Your first clue that you’ve arrived somewhere different and special is the driving directions.  “Turn right after mile marker 18,” they politely advise.  “Please close the cattle gate behind you.”

Just big enough for four (or five, if one is a baby in a crib), this remodeled 1930s cottage is so lovely, restful, and private that I never wanted to leave.  It’s a wonderful place for busy families to decompress.  You sleep with the windows open, wander over to the hen house for fresh eggs in the morning, and swim in your private pool as the whim takes you.

Animal-loving kids will be in heaven.  In addition to chickens, the ranch is home to cows, two friendly and funny dogs, and horses.  The horses are for petting and feeding, not riding.  (When you’re ready to saddle up, you’ll definitely want to visit Dahana Ranch).

There are a few other houses on the property (and in the works): some bigger, some smaller, all very private.  We loved lounging in our hammock and gazing at the Pacific from the comfort of our front porch.  I am very not very good at relaxing, but even I unwound here.

Just a few minutes up the road are the charming and historic towns of Hawi and Kapaau, whose temptations include bakeries, shops, and restaurants.  If you really must have a beach, Hapuna Beach (which is regularly and justifiably rated one of the best beaches in America) is just 15 easy minutes south.

Under a volcano

Who in their right mind would pass up the opportunity to visit the world’s most active volcano?  Not us.  That’s why our final stop on the Big Island was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where Kilauea Volcano has been continuously erupting since January 3, 1983.  This is not as scary as it sounds.  Picture slow-moving, molten cake batter and huge columns of steam instead of deadly Pompeii-style explosions.

You’ll want to spend at least two nights (and ideally three, especially if you like to hike) in Volcano Village in order to best experience this fascinating corner of the world.  We set up camp at Kate’s Volcano Cottage, a snug and comfortable studio cottage that sleeps four in one big room.

Kate’s has everything you need, and is located just 5 minutes from the park entrance.  Owner Kathryn Grout is a valuable source of information, and is generous with her time and considerable volcano expertise.  The house comes with umbrellas and flashlights, as well as books, maps, and DVDs about the eruptions.

We loved having breakfast on the covered back porch, which overlooks the lush rain forest just beyond, and made good use of those flashlights when we trekked across the lava fields one night to see the lava flowing into the sea.

Volcano Village gets an astonishing twelve feet of rain a year, so pack raincoats.  Falling asleep to the music of torrential rain on the cottage roof was an experience we’ll never forget.

For our full reviews of these three properties as well as video tours, visit our Big Island page.  Looking for more to do on the Big Island?  Check out our Five Family Favorites.



  1. says

    Wow!! All these options in one visit. What a great trip. I can’t wait to plan our trip to Hawaii.

    Based on your personal experience, which island should be the first one we visit? Big Island? It seems to have a lot of different things to do.

  2. says

    Isn’t the Hilton lovely? We stayed there every December for my husband’s company party. What a treat.

    Amy, I lived on the Big Island – there’s plenty to see, yes. But all of the islands are different, each having something different to offer! All of the islands offer great views and lots of free cultural and music events.

    The Big Island is…BIG. Lots of open range, lots of lava fields, not as many lovely beaches as some of the islands. Hilo town is fun to visit, great whale watching in the late winter/spring.

    O‘ahu is more metropolitan but has lots of history (Pearl Harbor, I‘olani Palace, Bishop Museum).

    Kauai is small and funky. Maui is busier and has whaling history (and also good whale watching).

    It really just depends on the *kind* of vacation your family is looking for!

  3. says

    Jamie, you are the ultimate reference. When I saw this post in my reader it reminded me that you had written about Honolulu as well, which is where we are about to head. So I searched for “Hawaii” in your handy dandy site search, and came up with what I was looking for:

    Mahalo!!! (Or, better yet, “Mahalo for your Aloha” – from a sign near Mama’s Fish House on Maui that I will never forget.)

  4. says

    Wow – what a great site this is! I am so happy to have stumbled onto it. Since my husband and I split time between Africa and the States we are constantly on the go with kids. So I was chuckling and nodding my head along reading your intro experience about catching you-know-what in your hands and with only a single napkin offered in assistance. Yikes! Been there done that! I’m curious if you take story submissions to this blog, because I have, like, a TON! ;)


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