Kona (West Side)
Kid Friendly Beaches: Hapuna beach, Beach 69, Spencer Beach Park, Kona Keiki Ponds, Magic Sands Beach. You no doubt will be spending a great deal of time at the beach! (Insider’s tip: hit the Goodwill or thrift shops on the island to find beach gear. Especially in Kona, travelers drop off used beach gear after a trip. If you are staying at a vacation rental, often the hosts supply beach chairs, towels, etc.)
Atlantis Submarine Tour. This is well worth the price. A small boat takes you from the bay to the submarine docking area off shore. The Submarine tour goes down to 100 feet at the deepest and tours around a coral reef area and an underwater shipwreck. You see lots of fish and the tour guide explains what you are seeing as the tour progresses. This was a huge hit with my kids. Atlantis has good Kama’aina rates if you have a Hawaiian Driver’s License.
Hilton Waikoloa. This place is setup for kids! With all the pools and water slides, the ocean bay with paddle board rentals, and the Ocean center and Kids Corner, there is so much to do. The resort is so big there is a train and a water ferry that takes guests from one end of the park to the other. Unless you get a very expensive room, there is no kitchenette. Some rooms have mini fridges that you can use. The restaurants inside the resort are spendy and the food isn’t that amazing for the price. When we visit we make other food plans (either to eat at a restaurant outside the resort or food that we bring in a cooler ourselves. (Hilton does have Kama’aina rates that vary depending on the traffic level of each tourist season.)
Hiking Kiholo Bay is a great hike for the Keiki with a secluded beach reward at the end. You’ll need to pack in and out all of your items and trash.
Helicopter Tours. Departing from both Kona or Hilo, Paradise Helicopters has a range of tours for lava, waterfalls, and coastal sights.
Big Island Bees. There is a conventional bee farm on the hillside in the neighborhood area. They have a free tour every day, making reservations ahead is advised. There is a museum and of course a honey shop too. On the tour they open a hive behind screens and discuss what is inside the hive. If you are lucky, they might find a drone (he has no stinger) and the kids can hold him.
Beaches: Ho’Okena Beach Park: This is a black sand beach with big waves and a chance to boggie board. There are some areas with tide pools, safer for small children to enter the water. This beach isn’t as clean as some other beaches on the west side, but it is often quiet, and the black sand is worth a look. Pae’a (aka “Two Step”): As long as you wear water shoes and watch out for sea urchins, this is a beautiful and safe place to snorkle and see lots of underwater creatures. Don’t try to park down by the water. Just pay to park in the national park, the walk is short.
Harold H Higashihara Park & Playground. I was astonished by how large and extensive is this playground! There is equipment for all ages. We love the wooden structures. It is shady too, and lots of places for parents to sit. There are gazebos for picnics and bathroom facilities as well.
Hilo (East Side)
Kid Friendly Beaches: Onekahakaha, Carlsmith, Coconut Island. A word to the wise: stay away from rocky cliffs, and avoid the ocean when the surf, swell, and tides are high. The ocean is powerful: if in doubt, don’t risk it.
Where to Stay: There are very few hotels on the east side of Hawaii. Your best bet is to find a rental on AirBnB or VBRO. A great neighborhood and centrally located place to stay is in Hawaiian Paradise Park. It is about 20 minutes to Hilo, or to the lava flows down near Kalapana. Hawaiian Paradise Park is even an easy 35 minute drive from Volcano National Park, which you can see in a day trip.
Pana’ewa Zoo & Playground. This is the only zoo on the island, and has a beautiful playground and picnic area as well. The zoo is free and open to the public, 9a-4p daily. There is a small petting zoo within the zoo grounds, which is only open Saturdays from 1:30-2:30p. One feature that my kids love about the zoo is all the free range peacocks and peahens. Don’t miss the butterfly pavilion at the beginning of the zoo! And though it is free, please consider donating during your visit, this is a wonderful park and resource for the keiki on the island!
Mokupāpapa Discovery Center. If you are in Hilo downtown, this is a fun, quick, (free) stop with the kids. There is a 3500 gallon saltwater aquarium, interactive educational exhibits, hawaiian art and cultural learning displays. Ask at the desk for activities for the kids (sometimes they have coloring pages or treasure hunt activities).
Imiloa Astronomy center. Imiloa (said “ee-me-low-uh”) has much to offer for kids 4 and up, and is a great idea for a rainy day. Admission includes access to the astronomy museum and one planetarium show. The museum features many interactive educational displays. If you visit over a mealtime, there is a cafe as well. The planetary showtimes are listed on the website, and at the time this article was written, the only keiki show is run on Saturdays at 10am. Although, for my young children, we have found that many of the 2pm or 3pm shows that rotate monthly interest them a great deal.
Hobby Garden. Located in Hawaiian Paradise Park, the Hobby Garden is an odd little place that offers a bazaar mix of rainy day entertainment for kids. Because the east side lacks anything resembling an indoor play space, the Hobby Garden does it’s part to fill this void. There is a giant fish pond where kids can fish “catch and release” for tilapia using blunted hooks and balls of dough. There is an endless display of miniature towns, trains, and water structures to look at, and a covered play area in back. There is a strange little train to ride if you dare! They often sell fruit and veggies, plants and sometimes pond fish too. For a few dollars, it is a great place to explore on a rainy day.
Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls. Akaka Falls is located about 20 minutes north of Hilo. A 1 mile loop trail takes you through the park and within view of Akaka Falls. There is a small entrance fee to the park. Rainbow Falls is within the city of Hilo, with no walk to see the falls. Parking and entrance is free. There are two viewing places for the falls. (Insider tip: take the small trail up to the top viewing area, then take the trail to the left into the trees. There is a large banyan tree that is fun to climb.)
Lava Flows Trip. When the lava is flowing, there are usually a few ways to get out to the flow. Recently, in 2017, the lava was accessible before and after it crossed the government road near the edge of the park. To reach the flow, visitors parked at the end of the road in Kalapana, and then walked the 10 mile round trip or rented mountain bikes from the various vendors camped out there. Recently, there was a large selection of bike carriers for kids. Bike rentals averaged about $20 for the day, $15 for a kid carrier or wagon. It is highly recommended to rent bikes with kids. The road is gravel, and most bike outfitters supply lights and locks for the bikes. Be sure to bring plenty of water, closed toe walking shoes, snacks, lights, and rain gear. It can also get chilly at night if windy. There are port-a-potties at the start of the trek and a set at about the halfway point. The best time to view is at dusk and after dark. To get the latest on the flows, visit the National Parks Page
Uncle Roberts Market. To get deep into Pahoa country, a visit to Uncle Roberts is in order! Every Wednesday at 5pm, this place is hopping with local music, food, and craft vendors. Parking is $3 per vehicle (cash). With the kids, plan to get there at 4:30pm to make the short hike to the ocean first. From the parking lot, follow the red cinder trail to a beautiful black sand beach with incredible views (Kaimu Beach). This place is also magical at sunset. Do not go into the water! The waves here are very big. Stay back from the water and just play in the sand and listen to the crashing waves. (You can also park and enjoy this park free of charge when there are not events at Uncle Robert’s.)
Farmer’s Markets. There are so many farmer’s markets on the island! This is a good problem to have. This website has a wonderful compilation of them, should you like to make plans.
Hawai’i Volcanos National Park. This is a must if you visit the Big Island, the island of lava and birthplace of new land. The park entrance fee is by vehicle, with a day pass costing $20. The whole park is drivable in one day, which will allow you to see all the major sights. If you have more than one day to visit, buy the annual pass for just $25. When you enter, the rangers hand out maps. Drive down to the Jaggar Museum and take a look at the crater. This is a great spot to have a pair of binoculars along. The museum and gift shop are located there as well. Stop at the steam vents parking on your back from the Jaggar Museum. Take the short walk to the crater edge to see more steam vents. Drive down the Chain of Craters road. On the way there, stop at the Thurston Lava Tube, a short loop hike that takes you through a lava tube (it is lighted so you don’t need to bring flashlights). Driving down Chain of Craters road, you can choose to stop along the way. When you get to the bottom, be sure to walk to the sea look out and spot the arch rock in the water. If you have time or visit another day, there are many hiking trails in the park of various lengths and difficulty. A short loop trail is the Kīpukapuaulu Trail. (Tip: There isn’t much for restaurants or shops in Volcano. Kid friendly advice: bring lunch and snacks on this outing.)
Cooper Center Playground. After a day in volcano park, your kiddos might need a car break before driving back to Hilo or wherever you are staying. Cooper Center Playground is the perfect place. There is even a skate park that is covered if it is raining.
Camping at Namakanipaio. This woodsy campground is located a few miles west of the entrance to Volcanoes National Park, and is still considered to be inside the park boundaries. A vehicle permit is required from the park, in addition to a camping permit. The campsites at this park are all first come first serve, $15 per night. The camper cabins, featuring beds, bedding, and a small fireplace outside, can be reserved through Hawaii Volcano House. They also offer camping gear rental and setup, if you want to camp but didn’t bring your tent on your checked baggage flying over here. Campfires in the designated fire rings are allowed, and last time we were there, collecting wood on the ground in the area was also allowed.
Driving between the East and West Side.
It is about a 2 hour drive one way, by either taking Saddle Road route or the Waimea Hwy 19 route. For both routes, the scenery is drastically different. If you can, drive each route. For the kids, there is a playground at about the halfway mark for both routes. In Waimea, there is a beautiful large wooden playground and park (located across from Parker School on Lindsey Road). On Saddle Road, there is a brand new playground, restrooms, and walkpaths (Mauna Kea Recreation Area). It can be chilly and windy at this location, so bring jackets.
There are no fuel stations or towns between Hilo and Kona on the Saddle Road stretch. There is fuel in Waimea on the Hwy 19 stretch, but it is much more expensive than fuel in Hilo or Kona.
Along Saddle Road, there is a wonderful small hike to explore: Pu’u Huluhulu. It is an oasis island of ancient plants, moss and trees in the middle of more recent lava flows that have gone around it. There are short trails that wind around and over the hill.
We hope your visit to Hawaii is beautiful, restful, and connects you to nature.
Thank you for visiting!