Big Island of Hawaii: Top Attractions

Big Island of Hawaii
Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii  (Bob Abraham)

The Big Island of Hawaii, the largest in the Hawaiian chain, is known for landscapes of lava-striped earth and legendary volcanoes. After all, it's here you'll find the moon-like calderas and fuming sulfur vents of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the oozing red-hot lava of active Kilauea spewing across roadsides. Talk about family drama.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
The most exciting way to view an active volcano is to swoop high above its fiery slopes and look into its steaming mouth. Blue Hawaiian's Circle of Fire 45-minute helicopter tour departs from Hilo on the island's east end. If you're near Waikoloa on the northwest, consider the company's Big Island Spectacular, a two-hour tour de force over the grassy hills of the Parker Ranch, past the jagged ridges of Mauna Kea, above Kilauea, and back through the steep ravines of a rainforest laced with dramatic, billowing waterfalls.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters: 800.786.2583, www.bluehawaiian.com

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, situated 30 miles from Hilo, the Thurston Lava Tube wows kids as they stroll through the ten- to 20-foot-tall tunnel created when an outer layer of lava cooled around a hot central core. Two other park highlights are Crater Rim Drive, a popular 11-mile loop around the Kilauea caldera, and the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, where working seismographs and scientific evidence co-exist with displays depicting the myths of Madame Pele, Hawaii's volcano goddess.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: 808.985.6000, www.nps.gov/havo

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park
At Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, about 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona, learn about ancient Hawaiian traditions. Established in the 15th century as a sanctuary for women, defeated warriors, and taboo breakers, the 180-acre park features replicas of carved idols and a restored temple that holds the bones of ancient Hawaiian chiefs. Let your kids wander the grounds, peering at koa wood canoes and trying konane—an ancient version of checkers.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park: 808.328.2326, www.nps.gov/puho

Swim With Dolphins
The Hilton's Dolphin Quest program uses hands-on encounters to teach kids and adults about these intelligent mammals. With the popular Dolphin Discovery experience, ages five to 12 find out about Hawaiian eco-systems through games before getting in shallow water with the stars. For 30 minutes, children listen to dolphin clicks, discover how these animals navigate, and touch their rubbery backs. With the half-day Animal Training Adventure, ages 13 and over learn about, and use, the skills required by dolphin trainers—from food preparation to obedience training to in-the-pool skills. Additional programs are available.
Hilton Waikoloa Village's Dolphin Quest: 800.248.3316, www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com

Horseback Riding at Parker Ranch
Riding horses at the Parker Ranch gives you a taste of life as a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. Here, real-life wranglers have been working the ranches and rounding up cattle since 1847. With 175,000 acres, Parker Ranch is one of the largest privately owned spreads in the United States. Its green slopes and pastures seem endless, and are best enjoyed on a guided horseback ride. Watch out for pheasants, wild pigs, and of course, the 5,000 head of Hereford cows on the spectacular slopes of Mauna Kea. Recommended for children seven and older.
Parker Ranch: 808.885.7311, www.parkerranch.com

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens
The Hawaii Tropical (not to be confused with Hawaiian Tropic) Botanical Gardens is a 40-acre oasis replete with 1,800 species of plants and trails that leads through groves of palms, past waterfalls and orchids, and along a stream shaded by a tall banyan tree. Bounce merrily through cascades of heliconia blooms and torch gingers atop 10-foot stalks. Even the most blasé of kids muster a few "wows" when strolling through these mystical gardens.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens: 808.964.5233, www.htbg.com

Mauna Kea Summit Stargazing
Eleven governments consider Mauna Kea's 13,796-foot summit to be a prime spot for astronomy and, as such, operate 13 telescopes pointed towards the heavens. Think you'll see something fascinating? Rather than ascend the mountain yourself to get to the free visitor information tours, book a guided trip through Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. This outfitter will get your family to Mauna Kea's summit for sunset, provide parkas to fight dropping temperatures, set up high-powered telescopes to browse the universe, and explain the dazzling array of stars. Minimum age is 13.
Mauna Kea Summit Adventure: 888.322.2366, www.maunakea.com

Valley Waterfall Adventure
Picture walking behind a streaming curtain of water from Kapoloa Falls as it tumbles 500 feet down a mountain. Your family can experience the sensation created by this experience by signing up with Hawaii Forest & Trail's Valley Waterfall Adventure. The hike through the three-mile Kohala Ditch path is notched into the cliff 1,000 feet above the valley and features five cascading waterfalls. The adventure is recommended for eight years or older, and note that if heights trouble you or a member of your family, the hike might best be avoided.
Hawaii Forest & Trail: 800.464.1993, www.hawaii-forest.com

Akaka Falls
Nature defined aquatic perfection as Akaka Falls, a 442-foot waterfall nestled in the state park bearing its name. The park is a mere three and a half miles from Honomu, and the hike is less than a mile from the parking lot, making the falls a must-see attraction for families staying on the Big Island. Bamboo, ginger plants, orchids, and ferns line the hiking trail.
Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau: 808.587.0320, www.gohawaii.com

Night Dive or Snorkel with Manta Rays
Try and mimic the rhythmic undulations of the manta rays of Keauhou Bay on a night dive or snorkel, undoubtedly a true family bonding experience. Through the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, families can book what amounts to a live IMAX film on these graceful creatures. Timid children can stay on land and watch the manta rays glide into nearby coves to dine. For a more intense, deeper-water encounter, book Dolphin Dreams snorkel or dive trip.
Dolphin Dreams: 808.987.8660, www.dolphindreams.com

Published: 11 Apr 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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