While many families flock to O’ahu or Maui on their Hawaiian vacation, savvy family travelers know that the lower key vibe of Hawaii’s Big Island can offer just the R&R they seek. My husband’s family has been vacationing on the Big Island of Hawaii on the Kohala Coast since he was a child. When I joined the family nearly 15 years ago, it quickly became the Hawaiian island destination I visited most.
We recently returned from a full week of travel to the Big Island with our two kids. Although our daughter had been twice before, this was our 5 year old son’s first visit to the Big Island. I decided it’s long overdue for me to share a decade and a half’s knowledge about this magnificent island destination with Trips With Tykes readers!
Here are all the essentials you need to know when planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii with kids – from what to do to where to stay, with lots of tips in between!
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Flying to Hawaii’s Big Island
Unlike Oahu and Maui, the Big Island can be a Hawaiian destination that can be a bit harder to reach, especially for East Coasters. Every time we have been, Californians and other West Coasters seem to make up the majority of the clientele. With non-stop flights from every major California airport and West Coast cities like SEA and PDX, this is no surprise. There are no non-stops from even Chicago or New York airports, so travelers from the rest of the country are going to need to connect somewhere to get to the Big Island. But I promise that a connection is well worth it.
There are two commercial airports on the Big Island. Visitors from the mainland will almost always arrive into Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA or often just “Kona Airport”). The other airport, Hilo International (ITO) is served from LAX only and mostly receives inter-island flights. KOA is served from the United States by United, American, Alaska, Hawaiian, and Delta. Look for Southwest Airlines to start its Hawaii flights later in 2019.
KOA is an open air airport and the weather is quite warm year round. I recommend dressing in layers on your flight so you can switch into your island attire and be comfortable upon landing. All the major car rental companies are accessible via shuttle service and very close by. Weekly car rentals at KOA can be fairly inexpensive. My family uses Autoslash to look for deals, but often find great rates with Costco Travel, which enables us to have an additional driver included at no extra cost (and for those of you who have kids of car seat age, remember the free car seat AAA membership benefit with Hertz!).
Uber or Lyft were only just allowed to operate at KOA for pickups as of February 1, 2019. But there’s no indication there are enough ride share drivers on the island to make this a viable ground transportation option at all. Plan on using a cab or pre-booked hotel shuttle if you don’t rent a car.
Big Island Geography & Basics
The Big Island is the newest of the Hawaiian islands, with much more ongoing volcanic activity and lots of newer lava flows. Flying into KOA, you’ll spot little but black rock. Many a visitor’s hopes and dreams of a vacation on a lush tropical island have been dashed by this first look. Even the drive away from the airport looks barren. But never fear. The resorts are tropical oases in a sea of black lava that make for an especially intriguing contrast.
As its name makes obvious, the Big Island is indeed larger than the other islands of Hawaii. That means you’ll need more time to see it all if that is your goal. Most visitors pick one side of the island – Kona or Hilo – and focus their activities there. Travelers from the mainland tend to spend the most time on the western (Kona/Kohala) side of the island where the major resorts are located. To drive from the resorts on the Kohala Coast to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for example, will take well over two hours. Roads can be winding, so day trippers should be prepared and realistic about drive times.
What family travelers will love about the Big Island is the reliable weather, at least on the Kona and Kohala side. That area gets very little rainfall, so you can count on blue skies and beach days for nearly every day of your vacation. High temperatures are usually in the low 80s year round, with the evening lows around 70.
Where to Stay on the Big Island: The Best Big Island Hotels for Families
Family travelers to the Big Island will find no shortage of magnificent hotel properties. Hawaii is certainly more expensive than many travel destinations, but there are still quality resorts for more modest budgets as well. And for luxury travelers, the options are quite extensive. Here are the hotels that work best for families on the Big Island:
As one of the Four Seasons’ flagship properties (and the most expensive hotel on the Big Island), this is an obvious hotel choice for luxury loving family travelers. The Four Seasons signature service abounds, and families will love that a kids club for children ages 5-12 is included in the price. The hotel’s location is more convenient for airport access and activities in and around the village of Kailua-Kona as well. The resort is known more for its pools than its beach, so it may not fit the bill as well if you prefer to spend more of your time on the sand and in the surf.
This is the hotel for luxury seekers who appreciate a hotel with history. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is one of the the original “Rock Resorts” founded by Laurance Rockefeller in the mid-1960s. It is located on one of the Big Island’s best beaches which is highly swimmable for families. The Mauna Kea is now a Marriott Autograph Collection property, so points-loving travelers can earn and spend a valuable loyalty currency here. My brother-in-law was just married at this hotel last year, so my family spent an entire week and can recommend it highly.
Located in the middle of King Kamehameha’s royal fish ponds, the setting of this hotel is dramatic. My family has visited the Mauna Lani Bay more times than all other hotels on the Big Island combined. The hotel had definitely slipped over the years, but a new owner is at the helm. It’s currently undergoing a major (and much-needed) renovation, and will reopen as an Auberge resort in late 2019. All signs point to the fact that the hotel is going to be a Kohala Coast force to be reckoned with once again, aimed directly at the Four Seasons Hualalai and Mauna Kea clientele. I’m hoping to be there as soon as I can after it opens with a full report!
Waikoloa has the most hustle and bustle of any area of the Big Island (but not too much), so I always recommend this area highly for families who like to stay busy. The Hilton Waikoloa Village is the largest property in the area, featuring three pools with waterfalls, a 175 foot waterslide, an on-site luau, a swim with the dolphins experience, and lots of shopping. Transportation-loving kids will adore the canal boats and trams that serve the practical function of getting you around the large resort but are also an activity unto themselves. The resort also has a kids club called Camp Keiki for kids ages 5-12.
For families who still want to be in the center of things at Waikoloa but perhaps at a smaller property, the Marriott fits the bill. The hotel has a number of “Ohana Room” categories which give families staying in a room together extra space for not much of an additional upcharge. With standard room rates fluctuating between $200-400 a night depending on season, this hotel is also more accessible for many family budgets. The hotel has a gorgeous network of pools as well as a luau on site that families will love.
Family travelers on a stricter budget may find King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel the perfect fit. A popular choice for locals taking a staycation, room prices can regularly be found under $200 a night. The hotel is a Marriott Category 4 property so it can also be a great value with points. Located in the village of Kailua-Kona, it’s close to many of the activities that family travelers will want to do. And with a luau, spa, and multiple restaurants, its onsite amenities far exceed many other hotels in this price range.
What to Do on the Big Island with Kids
There are so many things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island that it has taken us numerous trips to even begin to do many of the things on this list. You’ll want to spend a lot of your time enjoying your resort’s beaches, pools, and other amenities, so don’t over-schedule yourself. The whole point of going to the Big Island is to escape the hustle and bustle!
But I’d also recommend doing more than just staying at your resort. Here are our family’s favorite things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island with kids:
1. Attend a Luau
Luaus are a must-do on any Hawaiian vacation, even if they can sometimes be a tad touristy. The food and drinks are always plentiful and kids always seem to enjoy the show. I can personally recommend the Sunset Luau at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa as well as the luau at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort. Others include the Legends of Hawaii Luau at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Island Breeze Luau at the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, and the Voyagers of the Pacific Luau at the Royal Kona Resort.
Most luaus do not run nightly, so be certain to compare schedules of the offerings near you before your trip. For families with younger children, check the age at which the luau begins charging admission. Some have a slightly higher age cutoff and may save you a bundle if your young kids are still free.
2. Snorkel with Manta Rays
There are a couple of coves near the village of Kailua-Kona that serve as feeding spots for giant manta rays at night. Families with kids old enough to be comfortable snorkeling in the ocean at night should book an excursion to swim with them. SCUBA divers dive to the bottom and shine lights up at the snorkelers to attract the plankton that mantas feed on. It’s truly one of the most memorable adventures the Big Island has to offer. I can personally recommend Kona Honu Divers highly for this excursion for divers and snorkelers alike.
3. Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Visitors have flocked for years to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see an active volcano in action. Since the eruption of 2018, however, there is no longer visible lava within the park. But don’t let that deter you from a visit. There are still magnificent hiking trails and lots for your kids to learn within this park.
4. Take a Helicopter Ride
Taking a ride in a helicopter is a pricey excursion, but the views make it well worth the splurge. Take a tour that takes you within view of the volcano as well as the island’s many waterfalls. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters sets the gold standard for these tours and has a location right near the Waikoloa area resorts that is highly accessible to all Kohala Coast visitors.
5. Visit Akaka Falls
The Big Island has no shortage of breathtaking waterfalls, but most of them are on the remote north coast only really visible in a helicopter. Akaka Falls is one of the only ones that is easily accessible for hikers. Just 10 miles from Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park is home to two separate falls: 100-foot Kahuna Falls and 442-foot Akaka Falls. The hike is easy and paved, so it’s an excursion that works well for families of kids of every age.
6. Go Flumin’ Da Ditch
Eco-adventure company Flumin’ Kohala has exclusive rights to access the Kohala Ditch, a 22-mile network of historic irrigation flumes and tunnels around the town of Hawi on the north of the island. You and your kids can book a tour with them to float through portions of this system on a kayak-style raft for a totally unique adventure. Kids as young as 5 can participate, and it’s even an activity that active grandparents could do too. Just be prepared for long and dark tunnels during some of the tour, which is not for the claustrophobic. Our family’s trip was truly the highlight of our most recent Big Island vacation.
7. Dine at the Kona Brewing Company
Yes, you should take your children to a brewery! The Kona Brewing Company is as family-friendly as it gets, with a pub serving lots of things kids will eat and love. Meanwhile, parents can sample some of the more unique beer offerings that you can only get in their island location. It’s a win-win.
8. Sample Shave Ice
It’s Hawaii’s most iconic snack, so make sure to try some authentic shave ice somewhere on the Big Island during your visit. Our family’s pick? Anuenue on the Kohala Coast in the town of Kawaihae. Ululani’s (with a location in Kailua-Kona) is another well-known brand all over Hawaii that won’t steer you wrong.
9. Beach Hop
Not all of the resorts on the Big Island are known for their beaches. So if you choose to stay in a resort that isn’t on an iconic beach, be sure to go visit one or two of the islands best beaches. Favorites for family travelers include the highly swimmable beaches in front of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Kauna’oa Bay) or Westin Hapuna Beach Resort (Hapuna Beach). For a more unique beach-going experience, check out Punalu’u Black Sand Beach on the south side of the island.
10. Hike through a Lava Tube
Not far from KOA airport, you might spot a number of cars pulled off to the side of the Queen’s Highway in the middle of black lava flows. Believe it or not, there is lava tube and cave at this location that you can climb into and explore. It’s a quick stop – plan for maybe 20 minutes or so – but be sure to bring decent hiking shoes because you may cut your feet in flip flops. And be careful of traffic since parking is right along the busy highway.
11. Zip Down a Zipline
There are several zipline tour companies on the lush north and east sides of the Big Island to take your family on an eco-adventure. Kohala Zipline, Skyline Eco-Adventures, and Umauma Falls Zipline & Rappel Experience are the major operators. Just be sure to check age and weight requirements because most companies won’t take younger children.
Additional Tips for Visiting Hawaii’s Big Island
Visiting Hawaii’s Big Island with kids? Here are a few final tips my family has learned from our many experiences there.
- Rent a car: While I have visited O’ahu without a car before, I really wouldn’t recommend it on the Big Island. The distances are too great and the other transportation options are too slim. Cars will give you the freedom to adjust your schedule on the fly and leave your resort for new activities, restaurants, and shopping.
- Consider a condo: Hotels don’t always work for family travelers, especially those with babies who need a separate place to sleep or those with teens who need their privacy. Luckily, many of the hotel properties mentioned in this article have affiliated condo rentals nearby that can give you the best of both worlds. Just check the condo locations closely (many are not located within walking distance of the beach) and make sure you rent from a company that gives you full hotel privileges (some VRBO rentals, for example, can come with restricted access).
- Hire a sitter: If you aren’t staying at a resort with a kids club, I highly recommend hiring a sitter so parents can get a night out. So many of the dining experiences on the Big Island are expensive, and adults can enjoy them and get more value without little ones. Our family has used the excellent and background-checked sitters of Malihini Keiki Care on many vacations for nearly a decade.
- Give yourself a week: So many families want to come to the state of Hawaii on a week’s vacation and island hop to multiple places to see it all. You can’t. I’d recommend at least 4 days on just the Big Island to do it justice, but a full week is even more preferable.