Family-Friendly Activities on Hawaii, the Big Island

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.

Looking for sea life in the tidepools at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

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.

Thinking about Hawaii with Kids? Don’t start planning without reading these tips from Y Travel Blog!

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.

My son gets up on an itty-bitty wave! Pretty sure he’s making the “shaka” sign. That’s his patient instructor Ossian in white sitting on the surfboard at right.

Next up: my daughter. Note the number of other people in the water — this is not a secluded learning spot, for sure. Still, the lesson was a great experience.

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.

In the front seat and ready to fly! My son his holding a button you press when you want to use your headset to speak to others in the helicopter.

Red-hot lava spouting from Kilauea Crater.

Getting up close and personal with cascades of water on the “Circle of Fire plus Waterfalls” tour.

I’m glad the weather improved so three generations could enjoy our helicopter flight above Hawaii!

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.

Guests take a quick boat ride from the Kailua pier to the Atlantis Submarine for boarding.

My son descends into the sub. I thought I might feel claustrophobic, but I didn’t at all.

All of my underwater photos came out really blue (the color red disappears as you go deep in the ocean), but this gives you an idea of the viewing benches inside the submarine.

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!

The Pinzgauer we rode in for the bumpy ride to the kayaking put-in point.

Getting settled in our kayaks at the start of the tour.

On the tour, we passed through 10 tunnels. Some of them were quite long; all of them were quite dark!

Usually the ditches are only wide enough for one kayak, but at a good stopping point, the guide snapped our group photo.

This super-blurry photo captures the crazy fast silly ATV ride back to the tour headquarters. Super fun!

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.

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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.

6 Comments on "Family-Friendly Activities on Hawaii, the Big Island"

  1. That totally a fun experience in Hawaii plus spending it with your family is totally great.

  2. Really it is awesome to walk to area of Hawaii. I enjoy my life by having having fun with different types of location and resources created by people of Hawaii. Loved to see these pictures.

    Thanks !

  3. My husband and I visited both the Big Island and Oahu while were in Hawaii several years back and we did many of those same things. I totally fell in love with the sea turtles and we stopped at South Point. We snorkeled in the bay and took a helicopter ride. I LOVE Hawaii and can’t wait to make it back there. I enjoyed the Big Island more then Oahu personally because of the uniqueness of the island. Your post brings back fabulous memories :). Thanks!

  4. Beautiful photos and great list of things to do on The Big Island. I hope to visit one day with my family (the kayak tour looks like a lot of fun!)

  5. Wow. I want to experience that entire trip, it sounds like the best vacation ever! My teenagers would love the FBI surfing school (had to crack up at what FBI stands for!). I think Hawaii is calling my name. Thanks for linking up to the Best of the USA blog hop- your trip sounds absolutely incredible!

  6. JustJoannie | June 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm |

    I love getting the whole family together and doing at least a week long vacation every year. Last year were a few of Martha’s Vineyard rentals. It was a great chance to see everyone, some of whom I only get to see at the once a year getaway. We’re thinking the next big trip might be a cruise!

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