What to do with family on trip to big island Hawaii
November 20, 2023 12:47 AM   Subscribe

We have flights (from Canada) and accommodation booked near White Sands beach just south of Kona and are staying there for about a week - but we haven't booked any activities yet and feeling a bit lost on what we should book ahead of time. I've seen this relevant question on the green, but I have a few specific questions not addressed there.

We looking for family friendly activities for my partner and our two kids (aged 9 and 10) to do. Some things that appeal include snorkelling, visiting volcanic areas, visiting Moana Loa, beaches, interesting (5km max say) walks etc... We're looking for a relaxing week, but it would be great to book 2-3 activities ahead of time so we are making the most of our time.

Also, and this is a big one, should we book a vehicle for the week to get around, or can we rely on Uber and public transportation? We had a car when we last visited (pre kids) in 2012 but I don't know how things have changed since then in terms of transportation options.

More specifically:
- Should we book a snorkelling tour or should we just go ourselves? We don't have any gear (except wetsuits) and it would be the first time for the kids (they can swim but I'm concerned using a snorkel might be a challenge at first). A tour that combines a boat trip to a good snorkelling destination would be ideal I think. I imagine we'd also like to go more than once but paying for two tours might be prohibitively expensive.
- I'd like to go up to Moana Loa but according to this site it looks like the observatory and access road is closed - does this mean we cannot go up there at all, or that it isn't worth the trip?
- Is there anywhere to see Lava flows or volcanic activity right now?
- We'd like to get up to Mauna Kea and some of the other nice beaches, which seem to be driving distance from where we are staying. Should we book a car for the week or rely on other transportation options? If we book a car, is it best just to book something ahead at the airport?
- Are there any other family friendly activities we should consider? I know from the other question, swimming with Manta rays was mentioned a few times, but my wife and I discussed this and would prefer scuba diving.
- What are the best beaches for safe swimming? The kids will likely spend 80% of the time in the water and the adults like 20%...
- Some suggestions of a restaurant for a special night out (One of us is having a birthday).
posted by piyushnz to Travel & Transportation around Hawaii (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I used to snorkel with my parents when I was a kid and took a trip to the big island with my mother that included snorkeling about 5 years ago. I would strongly recommend taking your kinds to one of the “family friendly” snorkeling destinations if it’s their first time instead of going out on a boat. As a kid, my physical endurance / attention span was 30-45 minutes and most of the tours are a couple of hours. Some people also get panicky breathing the first time they try to snorkel and it’s good to be in a place where the water is shallow and you can stand instead of out at sea or on a coral reef where you shouldn’t stand up. I’ve also gotten kind of seasick on boat rides out to snorkel (including to see the manta rays at night on the big island which is cool but scuba is probably cooler, however I saw a monk seal which made it all worth it for me), and if any of those had been my first time snorkeling I think I would have been done with it forever instead of merely annoyed and uncomfortable with the situation.

You could split the difference and take the kids to a beach where they can snorkel at the beginning of the week and take them out on a boat later in the week if they do well with it. If it’s their first time they won’t care if it’s the best view / reef anyways.
posted by A Blue Moon at 6:49 AM on November 20 [3 favorites]

Where are you staying?

The Big Island is very large. If you don't plan to constrict your trip to just the resort or rental you're staying at, Uber rides will add up fast.
posted by potrzebie at 8:06 AM on November 20

I agree with A Blue Mooon about taking the kids to a smaller beach instead of a tour, which can be intimidating even for adults, as the water is usually very deep and stamina is required, and fish are farther away. Trip Advisor has good reviews of beaches, or Moons Travel Book is another good guide to beaches and everything else.As for renting a car, yes. I can't imagine trying to get around without one on the Big Island, although for a tour of Moana Loa you should take a tour - highly recommend these for adults and kids although it's a lot of driving so kids might get bored and I can't speak to current road closure conditions. Volcanoes National Park is a must-see - not sure if lava is flowing now, but it's awesome either way. Make sure to walk through a lava tube. I'd also look into whale watching; I think humpbacks are migrating there in December. I recommend manta ray viewing at night via a snorkeling tour. You just hang on to a handle with your snorkeling gear on, and lights from nearby light up and attract them - very easy, although some people get freaked out about being in deep water at night, even though you are holding on and secure. There's snorkeling everywhere so it might be worth it to by your own masks. I used fins once and then watershoes which I found easier to manage. Never need a wetsuit, water is warm.
posted by j810c at 8:09 AM on November 20

When you sign up for a tour, they provide snorkle gear. You can rent snorkle gear from activity stores like Boss Frog, or sometimes the hotel has an activity desk, if you decide to explore from the shore.

+1 to researching the family-friendly places, and pay close attention to the ocean condition flags. Sorry I’m not more specific on that; this is the island I’ve spent the least time at. This list seems legit.

You will probably not need full wet suits, but will want uv protective rash guards, water shoes if not wearing fins.

Here are some hikes.

I would rent a car from the airport location. While there is a bus system, distances can be long which would add considerable time to any excursion, and makes ubering expensive. But, I did just spend a delightful, car-less week touring a city, so there is some appeal … here is the transit site if you want to weigh your options.

Have a wonderful time! Aloha!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:11 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

We rented a car when we went in 2019 and I can't imagine having a real vacation there without it. Things are super spread out and a few of our favorite things were not accessible by transit or would have been an insane uber charge. You definitely want to get beyond the urban area.

I really enjoyed the green sand beach and it's really rare in the world. If it's too far from the road for the kids, you can pay a dude to take you in a jeep when you arrive.

We weren't able to book anything ahead and had an amazing trip kind of making it up as we go along, but if you want a boat/snorkeling tour, that might be smart to book ahead.
posted by *s at 8:44 AM on November 20 [3 favorites]

You are most likely mixing up a few of the mountain names...

Mauna Kea is the one with the visitor center, Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. Mauna Loa has the scientific observatory but isn't a tourist destination. If you want to go visit Mauna Kea, and especially if you are coming from the Kona side of the island with kids, your own rental vehicle is essential imo. It's so cool to go up there just before/after sunset, drive past the cloud layer, and then see the Milky Way. They have a few telescopes set up with a volunteer to explain stuff.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:13 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

P.S. Remember to use reef safe sunscreen on the kids (and yourselves)! Your flight will probably play a video PSA about the 2021 law that bans sunscreens with oxybenzone and similar ingredients.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:20 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

Mauna Kea was absolutely awesome, and should not be missed. They have telescopes set up on the stone patio in front of the gift shop and ongoing astronomy talks where they discuss the constellations, we saw the space station drift by, and there is a cool gift shop. I don't think there was a charge for the astronomy talk and telescope-peeking, but it's been a few years since I've been there. We rented a car which we felt we really needed, as the transportation options on the island were much more focused on circling the island, not going from the East coast to the West coast, and vice versa, and my memory is that Mauna Kea is in the geographic interior of the island. I don't remember any sort of shuttle up to the Mauna Kea visitor center, either, but that might have changed.

Volcano National Park was fascinating. There is a lot of walking, I recall, if that's an issue for any of your party.

Kona was fun, and we ran into several quirky "hippie" shop enclaves selling clothes, artwork, and souvenirs. They were not on the main streets in Kona, rather on roads partway up the hills above the city. Kona is also known for a fantastic farmer's market if you are doing any cooking.

I do remember that is was effing COLD up there on the mountain, so take those Canadian parkas and gloves.
posted by citygirl at 11:29 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]

Do a lava tube excursion if you can. It’s super memorable.

The town of Hawi is cute and old school Hawaiian. You can do a steep walk down from near there to a fairly isolated black sand beach in the Pololu Valley.
posted by vunder at 11:35 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]

Haven't been there in many years, but had a great time on the Kohala Zipline, if that appeals to you all - it's a solid drive from Kona. Definitely rent a car and definitely drive to Volcano National Park -- there are great hikes there over lava beds and so on and you can see what's happening there. On one trip we took a helicopter tour over the island. Expensive, and depends on tolerance of being in a small helicopter but absolutely amazing views of the island, including lava falling into the ocean.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:50 PM on November 20

Definitely rent a car for the week. There's so much to see and not a lot of public transport.

When we were there in 2018, we took our own snorkel gear which meant, because we had a car, we could just stop at a nice-looking beach and go for a snorkel when we felt like it. If you're buying or hiring snorkel gear, DO NOT use the full-face masks unless you like drowning. A boat tour would be great but, if your kids haven't snorkeled before, give them a chance to get used to it first somewhere shallow where you can watch them. Snorkeling from a boat is more challenging than off a beach and I'd hate to do it for the first time in deep water.

The big-ticket thing we did on the Big Island was a doors-off helicopter tour over Kilauea. It was very active at the time and we flew low over the lava flows (could feel the heat on our legs through the door openings). It was very expensive, but one of those experiences that you and your kids will remember forever. It was amazing to be flying through the 'weather' system created by the heat from the lava.

Mostly, though, it was awesome to be able to drive around and find interesting places without planning anything too much. We were able to book tours and things (except the helicopter tour - book well ahead for that) on the day or the night before without trouble. Hawaii is the sort of place where you don't want to plan too much ahead and can just go with the flow.
posted by dg at 5:55 PM on November 20 [1 favorite]

Is there anywhere to see Lava flows or volcanic activity right now?

None right now, but that could change at any time. The Kilauea summit and the drive from the summit down to the sea is awesome to behold anyway.
posted by polecat at 10:10 PM on November 20

Response by poster: These answers are fantastic - and thanks for setting me straight on some of the names I had mixed up!

We're a bit hesitant on the more expensive activities (zip line and helicopter) because they seem to be at least $200 per person which adds up to quite a bit after multiplying by 4. I'll still look into it though and we can decide closer to the time. I'm hoping we are there at a relatively quiet time of year. Sounds like I should book a car tomorrow and take it from there.

A couple of followup questions:
Should we buy snorkelling gear in Canada before we leave or is it reasonably priced to buy or hire there?
Is the airport the best place to rent a car or are there better (ie. more affordable) options?
For the drive up Moana Kea do I need an SUV or jeep?
posted by piyushnz at 12:24 AM on November 21

We drove up Moana Kea in a hired X-Trail, but any car would have done. It's a smooth (but narrow and winding) sealed road all the way. We rolled all the way to the bottom.
posted by dg at 1:20 AM on November 21

(all information ten years old)

> For the drive up Moana Kea do I need an SUV or jeep?

To get to the visitor's center at 9000 feet, no. This is where all of the amateur telescopes with volunteers are set up. Amazing experience, highly recommended, maybe a can't miss. This is also where you will want to wait for half an hour to altitude acclimatize.

To get to the summit with the big telescopes, it's recommended. It is almost certainly against the terms of your rental car contract not to. I've done it with a private AWD vehicle. It was easy, but I had sufficient experience on that road. Bad things do happen.

I'll reinforce what was said above. Rent a car. The island is truly large with no center of gravity that you can camp out in and just Uber/walk your way around. The bus can reposition you, but even with a car you will be spending lots of time in transit.

Have a great trip.
posted by minedev at 4:38 AM on November 21

You can rent snorkel gear for the week without a tour. Kona Boys, Jack's Diving Locker, many others. They can give advice on easy beaches, and there are plenty of books and online guides. Costco also sells snorkel gear, but now you have gear to deal with, and it's lower quality than the rentals. As was said upthread, if you want to do a guided tour, you rarely need to book too far in advance. One exception might be Captain Cook Monument, where they restrict the number of visitors per day and require a tour guide. It's a nice, easy snorkel but requires a short kayak ride; not sure about age limits. Don't mess with the dolphins.

The airport is the primary place to rent a car. Online sites may have better deals - google Hawaii discount car rentals and you'll find some. You can use services like Turo to rent from individuals. The Big Island has run out of rental cars before, especially during the holidays, so take care of this early.

I recommend getting out of the town of Kona and doing some exploring, depending on your tastes and the kids' tolerance. Yelp usually has pretty good info for the Big Island, down to the smallest places. South Kona and Captain Cook have a lot of character. The Place of Refuge (Pu'uhonua o Honaunau) is a sacred place with a museum and restored sites that will teach some history and culture, highly recommended. There are also farm tours, unique places like the Poke Shack, Hotel Manago Restaurant, and Teshima's. Stop at some roadside stands or farmers markets. Volcanoes National Park is farther than you think but can barely be done in a day. On the way, you can stop and eat pie at the southern-most restaurant in the USA. North of Kona you'll hit lava fields and resorts, but if you go to Waimea you get ranches and cowboys.

As Mournful Bagel Song points out, you're a visitor on a colonized island. Be friendly, patient, and kind. Spend money, especially with locals. Be interested but sensitive about people's real life culture. Obey signs, both for cultural and safety reasons. Don't litter. Don't steal coral.
posted by troyer at 11:16 AM on November 21

(I live in Kona, happy to give more details via MeMail…)

100% get a car, and at the airport. Lots of quirky shops and places to eat in Captain Cook/Kelakekua.

Your kids will love you forever if you get to Paradise Bakery one morning for their amazing pastries.
posted by billsaysthis at 8:45 PM on November 21

In terms of special dinners out, Merriman's is the classic. I thought it was good and very pleasant but nothing over the top special. But Hawaii-style fancy and has local ingredients.

The Sunday brunch at the Mauna Kea Resort is an (expensive) big deal there. In addition to the cost per person, you pay parking, but it also gives you easy access to their very nice beach (called Kauna'oa, which is publicly accessible by law but they make it a pain on purpose). With kids, that might be a nice option for your fancy meal.

FYI: Mauna (MAH-nuh) is the word for mountain, it's only 2 syllables. Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa. Moana (Moh-AH-nuh) is a word for ocean, three syllables, and also a Disney movie, which is probably why it's being confused.
posted by vunder at 9:23 AM on November 22

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