While Hawaii, the Big Island, may not boast as many white-sand beaches as its neighboring Hawaiian islands, it does entertain visitors with its unique black-sand beaches, active volcanoes and lush rainforest. The island abounds with things to do for active families.
On our 9-night vacation to Hawaii earlier this year, not only did we snorkel in the calm waters in front of the wonderful Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, but we traipsed through the rain to check out the waterfalls at Akaka Falls State Park, drove to the southernmost point in the United States (stopping for treats at the southernmost bakery along the way), spotted sea life (including turtles!) in numerous tidepools and ate incredibly well at a variety of family-friendly restaurants, some of them right on the ocean.
Here’s a look at some of the other fabulous activities my family and I enjoyed on Hawaii, the Big Island:
Surfing with Ossian Farmer of FBI Surf School
My children — ages 10 and 12 — had never ever been on a surfboard in their lives. Yet within minutes — literally minutes — of getting in the water with patient, knowledgeable instructor Ossian Farmer, who runs FBI Surf School, they were standing up on boards and riding the (little) waves.
We booked a semi-private lesson with Ossian (his name is pronounced “ocean”!), who basically works out of his truck. We arranged a class time in the morning, and basically just met him on the side of Alii Drive at Kahalu’u Beach Park, where we found his white truck with the FBI (From Big Island) logo. He brought surfboards, surf shirts and booties for the kids, and I felt quite at ease with laid-back Ossian, who told me he’s taught hundreds of children — including three of his own. After just a few minutes of instruction on land, the trio headed into the waves — along with several other instructors and students from other surf schools.
Indeed, there are very few beginner surf breaks on the Big Island, so this learning spot at Kahalu’u Beach Park is quite popular. At times, I’ll admit, I was nervous my children were going to run into other novice surfers (and we did witness some crashes); the break is also close to shallow volcanic rock, so if students go off course, they can crash into the reef.
Thankfully, my kids learned to get up on their surfboards without any incident. Ossian would paddle out with them, wait for a good wave and then give their board a good shove and they’d hop up themselves. It was such fun to watch!
After the 90-minute lesson, we paid by credit card at Ossian’s truck (and his handy credit card app on his phone). It was certainly a fun activity for all — especially for Mom and Dad who were able to see all the action from a great viewing location on shore.
Volcano Helicopter Tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
As we were planning our week on Hawaii, my husband and I knew that one of our must-do experiences with the kids was going to be a helicopter tour over an erupting volcano. When he and I traveled to Hawaii together in 1997, this was one of our most memorable experiences. At the time, lava was sliding down the edge of the island in to the ocean, producing the most phenomal billows of steam — truly amazing. Alas, this year we didn’t get quite as amazing a show; still, it was pretty cool to witness bright-orange lava gurgling and spouting from Kilauea crater while we hovered above it.
Even though we were staying near Waikoloa — the west side of the island — we opted not to book a Blue Hawaiian helicopter trip from Waikoloa, namely because the tours are twice as expensive since they begin from a farther distance from the active volcano. We made the two-hour drive to Hilo on the east side of the island, not only to be able to explore a bit by car, but to save some money.
What we weren’t counting on, however, was being rained out of our first scheduled helicopter tour! Indeed, when we arrived at the Hilo airport for our 9 a.m. departure, the weather wasn’t cooperating. Wind, clouds and rain meant it wasn’t safe to go up. So, went immediately to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the bulk of the day (I highly recommend exploring here!), and then returned to the Hilo airport to try again at 3 p.m. Alas, no go again; the weather was still too dangerous.
So we rescheduled our helicopter tour later in our vacation — we were that determined to see an active volcano from the air, darnit! And this time it worked out; even better, my mom had joined our vacation by that time, so she got to accompany us on our helicopter ride.
After a safety briefing and video, we boarded a six-passenger Eco Star and listed to our accomplished, knowledgeable pilot as he described some of the history, geology and ecology of the island. While we also passed by some waterfalls and Hilo harbor on our “Circle of Fire plus Waterfalls” tour, the highlight was definitely seeing the erupting Kilauea Crater, and the massive amounts of hardened black lava that had cascaded from it over the years.
Going underwater with Atlantis Submarine
To be frank, I much prefer to be in the water with fish — snorkeling or scuba diving — not viewing them through a porthole. But my 10-year-old son saw the full-page ad for an Atlantis Submarine tour in one of the activity brochures I’d picked up, and asked if it were something we could do. Heck, we’re on vacation, I thought. Why not try something different? So he and I ventured 100 feet underwater, in a metal tube with about 40 other people.
We departed from a convenient dock in Kailua-Kona for our 35-minute journey underwater. The submarine is built to maximize viewing for participants — you sit on one of two long benches with good-sized portholes in front of them, so there’s no “bad” seat. The captain and guide do a great job of pointing out the fish, sea creatures and coral reefs that come into view; the captain turns the sub around and tries to get everyone inside a good viewpoint when we pass by something especially cool.
The highlights of the trip were passing by two nifty shipwrecks, each of which have interesting stories (tall tales?!) associated with them. Our guide did an excellent job keeping us entertained. But the biggest thrill was when we saw a huge moray eel — even the guide got really excited and told us how rare a sighting that was!
While I did enjoy our Atlantis Submarine tour, I still much prefer snorkeling or diving to see underwater life. But if you’re traveling to Hawaii with folks who don’t swim or don’t like to even get their hair wet (I’m thinking senior citizens or kids ages 3 to 6 who aren’t that experienced in the water), this tour is a great way for them to at least get a glimpse of Hawaii’s underwater world.
Kayaking with Kohala Ditch Adventures
For an unusual family adventure on Hawaii, I recommend a kayaking tour through old sugar-cane irrigation ditches with Kohala Ditch Adventures. The Kohala Ditch Trail no longer channels water to the sugar-cane fields, but visitors can paddle about 2.5 miles of the 17-mile channel network, with highly experienced and informative guides.
The kayak tour begins with a ride into the Kohala mountains via an old Pinzgauer military truck. Then it’s a short walk to the kayak put-in point. My family set out in two kayaks — my husband with the two children, and my mom and I together in one kayak — behind our guide, a fifth-generation native of Hawaii. Her commentary about the history of the ditches and the ecology of the lush areas we passed along the way was excellent.
Though I’d say this is a tame adventure (my husband prefers kayaking through Colorado’s exciting rapids), passing through a number of dark tunnels while wearing headlamps was quite cool (literally and figuratively; we kayaked on a cloudy day and it was a bit chilly while seated in a couple of inches of water in the kayaks). Overall, it was pleasant to basically float along the channels without much effort on our part — “soft adventure” if you will.
As much as the kayak tour may be mellow, the ride back to “base camp” is anything but. We boarded six-passenger ATVs for rides through the forest and macadamia nut orchards. By all means, do not tell your driver that you don’t like going fast in these vehicles — he just may drive faster! Truly, we laughed so hard, and bounced all around, on our speedy ride back to headquarters — it was definitely the most thrilling part of the day!
I received media rates for the four excursions I describe above. Thanks to the Big Island Visitors Bureau for helping to arrange my family’s incredible trip to Hawaii.