The Big Island with Little Ones - My Family Travels

Is Hawaii still fun for kids? One family retraces its grandparents' steps and their toddler's adventures tell all.

Hawai’i, or the Big Island as it’s fondly known, was destined to be our first long-distance family outing because my husband, John, had spent so many holidays with his own grandparents there when he was a child. As soon as Nathaniel’s second birthday approached, we took the tried and true approach and booked a one-bedroom villa at the resort his Grandma and Grandpa had frequented for more than three decades.

We stayed at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows ( 800/367-2323; 808/885-6622) in a condo villa which gave us added space and a kitchen, while allowing use of the hotel’s beautiful facilities, all for the same rate as a room in the main hotel. The kitchen came in very handy because our son awoke hungry at the oddest hours from jet lag. The Mauna Lani is famous for its much larger, super-deluxe bungalows — the hotel likes to say that Steven Spielberg, Danny DeVito, Roseanne Barr, Billy Crystal and other celebrity families have enjoyed them for years. 

The villa grounds were very pleasant, and it took just a few minutes to push the stroller to the private hotel beach. There, Nathaniel quickly fell in with the toddler set and was content to play in the sand all day with the toys that the hotel provided. We enjoyed the spot also because of the closeness of the beach bar/restaurant. There is even waiter service on the beach if your fantasy is to not move a muscle towards the gathering of food!

In the opposite direction of the hotel beach, but also in easy walking distance, we had access to another little cove where there was pure white sand, very gently surf and nice snorkeling. The beach attendants even had boogie boards with windows in them for the littlest snorkelers to take a peak! 

The main hotel is a little larger and more formal than what I imagined Hawai’i would be, but the rooms were very pretty with louvered doors and balconies looking out to the sea. We’ll return one day when Nathaniel can join the kids’ camp (for ages 5-12; open daily 9am-3:30pm; $50/D) because he loved visiting while older children were doing an arts ‘n crafts project with coconut palm fronds.

Besides enjoy the beach, there is a lot to do as a family. At the Mauna Lani, we took a walk to see some petroglyphs on the property, which kids of any age will find interesting. The hotel also has several fish ponds, turtles and an eel pond on the grounds. Hapuna State Beach, a few miles up the road, has a much bigger beach and nice picnic facilities.

The Big Island’s contrasting characteristics from moon-like lava fields to lush valleys illustrates its varied climate and terrain. Mother Nature was very busy here and most visitors are delighted by her handywork! Touring the Island provides opportunities to experience Hawaii’s rich cultural history, view unusual sights and encounter unique experiences. It will leave you with many memories and a desire to return again and again. 

We planned on taking a helicopter tour of Volcanoes National Park (808/985-6000) so our son could look out and over into a volcano crater, but several tour operators assured us that most young children fall asleep during the helicopter trip. But what’s Hawai’i without a volcano? Madame Pele, goddess of the earth’s volcanic fires, lets you see the island expanding right before your eyes with frequent eruptions creating spectacular fire displays and molten lava flows from the Kilauea Caldera. We drove there on a very long daytrip and all ages really enjoyed walking around the lava fields. It’s a tough outing for small kids because it’s hot and the hardened lava is difficult to walk on, with lots of broken pieces to stumble over. But, what an adventure! You can walk through underground lava tubes, view steam vents and hear the vapor escaping through rock fissures. 

Be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks as there is nothing available nearby. After our day’s adventure we ate dinner in a wonderful ‘retro’ inn near the volcanoes called Kilauea Lodge (808/967-7366), a worn but historic hotel with lots of koa wood trim, off of Highway 11 at the Volcano Village exit. It serves quite good Old World food in a beautiful tranquil dining room. The restaurant tries to be more formal than it actually is, but was very accommodating. Kids were given crayons and pictures to color, and the other guests didn’t seem to mind when their antics disturbed the otherwise peaceful dining experience. 

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park (808/328-2326) in the South Kona district is a fascinating example of ancient Hawai’ian culture. Known as a “City of Refuge,” it is a sacred site where defeated warriors or those who broke a sacred law or tapu were purified by priests and saved from certain death. Those who braved the journey to this isolated spot were absolved of their sins and allowed to return home safely. This compound has been authentically restored and its landscape, simple and starkly beautiful, allows visitors to feel the power of an ancient society. 

We couldn’t go to Waikoloa without seeing the closest thing in the state to Disneyland — the Hilton Waikoloa Village ( 800/445-8667; 808/886-1234). It’s a huge resort with a lot of activities for kids, a tram running around the property, a canal boat, talking parrots, small boats for rent and the chance (for a lot of money) to swim with the dolphins. The latter was not an activity for super young kids but if you’ve got older ones, it’s also important to know that you need to reserve a spot way in advance. Also, the adorable paddle boats you’ll see in their manmade lagoon are not available for rental unless you are a hotel guest. Nathaniel was pretty upset about not being able to swim with the dolphins or ride in the paddle boats, so our visit to the Hilton ended up feeling like Chevy Chase’s trip to Wally World in “National Lampoon’s Vacation!”

Dining and Shopping

With seven days and a rental car, you can find some really fabulous meals at very family-friendly restaurants. The Canoe House is quite upscale, but the food was superb. It’s right on the Mauna Lani property, and because it’s open air, it was quite easy with a toddler. We all enjoyed the atmospheric torches that lit up at dusk. In Kawaihae Center, we found the Harbor Grill (808/882-1368), which serves simply prepared fish at a not-so-expensive price. Their colorful interior makes it appealing to kids and it’s a real native hangout so call ahead for a table. Café Pesto was good for pizza and pasta. Merriman’s (808/885-6822) in Kamuela wasn’t one for the kids, but it was a really delicious dining experience — one of the best on the island and the place we went on our Date Night. (The Mauna Lani concierge connected us an excellent childcare agency, which sent us a list of available sitters, their qualifications, and availability, ahead of time, so we could select one. She was wonderful.) 

While sightseeing, we found some other good dining stops. In Waimea, at the Spencer House, we tried Maha’s Café, which serves Island-style breakfasts and lunches in a historic building. It was a good stopover on our way to Waipio Valley, a spectacular gorge carved by the waterfall activity of the Hamakua Coast. Breath-taking views of the black sand beach below are visible from atop the almost mile-high cliffs. We’re looking forward to coming back when Nathaniel can hike with us down the canyon, or enjoy a horseback tour of the valley. To make more of a day, stop at a good homemade ice cream shop a bit out of the way on Highway 270 in Kapaau called Tropical Dreams (888/888-8031). In the opposite direction, in Kainaliu, there is a really great inexpensive restaurant called the Aloha Angel Café (808/322-3383) which was converted from an old movie theater and serves well-prepared meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) with a health food bent. You can sit on the porch if it’s not too hot. 

The historic Kona Inn is attached to a big, touristy shopping mall, good for those last-minute gift boxes of chocolate macadamia nuts. The only worthwhile store we managed to drag Nathaniel into was Sig Zane Designs in Hilo, en route to the volcanoes. They sell their own designs of Hawai’ian shirts, dresses, and other items in pure cotton, and even had a few baby quilts for about $80, which were quite lovely. 

The Big Island is about 200 miles in circumference, and its varied climate, elevation and temperature make it a land of such dramatic contrasts that we really look forward to returning when our kids are old enough to appreciate more than just sun and sand. Tranquil waterfalls; a scorched desert; colorful botanical gardens; one of the largest ranches in America with paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys; tropical forest reserves; peaceful fishing villages; dramatic mountain vistas and beaches of white, black and even green sand were ours for the taking. Who could ask for anything more.

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