Think Hawaii is just for honeymooners and couples in love? Or maybe as a parent you’ve never considered an exotic island vacation for the under-12 set? I thought the same, but couldn’t imagine a two-week vacation to Hawaii to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary without bringing our two boys (ages 6 and 8). As it turned out, our Hawaiian vacation was the perfect trip for our “keikis.” With its wide variety of family-friendly activities, Hawaii is the one family vacation my youngest is begging to repeat.
So whether your family members are Type A travelers who like adventure and constant activities, or Type Bs who enjoy basking in the sun and lots of breaks, the following 10 hot spots and activities will ensure that everyone gets what they want from the trip.
It’s hard to imagine visiting Hawaii and not learning to surf. But what about the kids? When we visited Oahu, I knew I wanted to surf, but I didn’t want to leave them out of the fun.
As long as your kids can swim, they can learn to surf. Oahu and Kauai offer the gentlest waves to learn and under the expert guidance of the Waikiki Beachboys of WBS, your little ones will probably be “hanging ten” much faster than you. (And since their instructor tows them out to the surf zone and you have to paddle, they’ll be considerably less exhausted!) Lessons are offered throughout the day and children under 12 are required to have private instructors. For another “kid-friendly” surfing spot, try Poipu Beach on Kauai.
Visiting Pearl Harbor is an activity suited to all ages. True, your children might not be interested in history, but they’ll be fascinated by the USS Missouri (site of the Japanese surrender), the USS Bowfin (a World War Two sub nicknamed “The Pearl Harbor Avenger”), and the Pacific Aviation Museum (a converted airplane hangar filled with refurbished planes from the war). Add in the USS Arizona Memorial, and they’ll leave with a deeper appreciation of these fallen soldiers’ sacrifice. For those under five, it might be wiser to skip the boat launch out to the USS Arizona Memorial – it’s a pretty somber experience and one that might be too heavy for the youngest kids.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you’re visiting the Big Island, set aside a day to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kids will enjoy watching the perpetual cloud billowing over the erupting Kilauea and exploring the slightly spooky Thurston Lava Tube.
Add a relatively easy hike into the Kilauea Iki Crater to your visit and the kids will understand the destructive nature of a volcano. They’ll be able to touch hardened lava and feel the heat from molten rock a few hundred feet beneath them. If the road is open, try to budget in some time to visit Kalapana, where you can view lava flowing into the ocean. The hike to the viewing area (open from 2 pm to 10 pm with the last car permitted in at 8 pm) is difficult, though, so it’s one best undertaken with older kids, unless you’re prepared to carry tired little ones.
Hawaiian culture for kids
Whenever our family travels to a new place, I always try to include an activity that teaches my boys about the culture or history of the region. On the Big Island, there is no better spot to learn about Hawaii than at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Once a place of refuge for those who had broken the law, the park offers kids a unique opportunity to experience Hawaii the way it was. My guys loved the carved wooden statues positioned around the site and the long canoes used for fishing.
For those families staying on Oahu, the Polynesian Cultural Center near the North Shore offers children a way to learn not only about Hawaiian culture, but other island nations such as Fiji and Tonga.
Snorkeling for beginners
Snorkeling is fun, easy, and doesn’t require certification like scuba diving. Molokini Crater off the coast of Maui, is a good place for kids to get acquainted with the basics of snorkeling, though the area doesn’t have many fish. Other great snorkeling spots in the islands are Hanauma Bay (Oahu), Kealakekua Bay (Big Island), and Hulopoe Beach (Lanai).
Lots of boats offer charters to these popular spots, but don’t feel like you need to spend a lot of money to have fun. Just slap a mask, mouthpiece, and flippers on and go out in the water. The kids will have a fabulous time.
Rainy day fun
For a rainy day (yes, they do have those in Hawaii) or when the kids’ skin can’t take any more sun (even with the mounds of sunscreen applied), the Bishop Museum on Oahu has a little bit of everything that is Hawaii.
Whether you have a budding scientist who wants to learn how a volcano erupts or a dancer who’d like to learn the graceful moves of the hula, the Bishop Museum provides the answer. And if you can’t make it to the Polynesian Cultural Center or Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, it’s also a great place to learn about Hawaiian culture.
Hawaii is filled with unique plants and animals, but sometimes kids want an up-close and personal encounter. For my boys, that meant swimming with dolphins. Dolphin Quest (on either Oahu or the Big Island) gives children as young as two a chance to get in the water and touch these gentle creatures. It’s a pricey adventure, but an unforgettable memory for little ones.
If larger animals are more interesting to your crowd, humpback whales regularly migrate to the islands from December to April. There are several companies who offer whale-watching tours from Maui or the Big Island. And for those children only interested in looking at animals from a safe distance, the Maui Ocean Center and the Honolulu Zoo provide more traditional animal encounters.
Luau for the little ones
Luaus are certainly “touristy” activities, but they’re also one of the quintessential Hawaiian experiences. And since it’s not likely you’ll be attending a luau with a local family (jump on it, though, if you’re invited), a touristy luau with hula dancers, poi, and a large pig is perfect kid entertainment. Unless you have an adventurous eater, children probably won’t eat much, but that’s not the point of a luau. It’s meant to be fun.
The Kona Village Luau on the Big Island is unique in that you actually get to see the pig removed and unwrapped from the imu (a Hawaiian earthen oven) rather than just seeing the finished product on a large buffet table. It also offers a more educational component to the entertainment. Traditional dances (including the hula), singing, and fire-juggling are interspersed with lessons on Hawaiian history.
Families who want to visit visit Mount Haleakala on Maui may not want to make the drive up a winding mountain road in the dark to watch the sunrise. It requires waking at around 2AM to make it to the top in time, and once there, the kids are often too young to bike down or take a horse ride into the crater (both popular adult options). But kids can still enjoy the park even without the more adventurous activities. Traveling the winding road above the clouds later in the day can also mean a relatively crowd-free view of the crater and more time for hiking the trails surrounding the peak searching for silverswords, a plant unique to the area.
For more adventurous families, take the road to Hana and Kipahulu, the other end of Haleakala National Park. Along the winding, roller-coaster of a ride you can stop for waterfalls and amazing vistas before taking a dip in one of the seven pools of Oheo Gulch.
White sand or black sand, deserted or filled with crowds, there’s a beach in Hawaii for everyone, even families. On Oahu, get away from the crowds at Waikiki and journey to East Oahu and Kailua Beach Park. For those on Maui, try Kapalua Beach on the northwest section of the island or a day trip to the island of Lanai and Hulopoe Beach.
The Big Island has black and green sand beaches for the adventurous and beautiful Hapuna Beach, consistently named one of the best in the country. Last, but not least, try Poipu Beach if your family is on the island of Kauai. A perfect place to snorkel, surf, or just build sandcastles, it’ll provide a lifetime of memories.
Photos by: Pearl Harbor – Marcelo Tourne; Puuhonua o Honaunau -ClarkRealty; Bishop Museum – bishop_museum_online; Luau – d.monyak; Haleakala – TheSeafarer; Beach – Lance Shields; all others property of the author and may not be used without permission.