With its phenomenal natural beauty, Hawaiʻi is perfect for a family vacation. Nā keiki (kids) can play on sandy beaches galore, snorkel amid tropical fish, zipline in forest canopies and even watch lava flow. Then get them out of the sun (or rain) for a spell at family-friendly museums.

Best Regions for Kids

  • Kailua-Kona

Has the shopping goodness of Aliʻi Dr, plus good intro beaches for bodysurfing, stand-up paddling and snorkeling. Up the mountain, the Donkey Mill Arts Center has tons of children's programming.

  • South Kohala

The resorts of this area all include family-friendly amenities and infrastructure. Kids have access to pools in case the water in the ocean is too rough.

  • North Kohala

There are lots of educational programs, like the Kohala Institute and Kohala Mountain Educational Farm, aimed at children.

  • Hilo

Many of the parks, museums and educational centers in this town are either aimed at kids, or accommodate their needs.

  • Puna

Some of the markets and weekly events in Puna are kid-friendly; the general hippie vibe is in line with the 'it takes a village' approach.

  • Volcano & Around

The sheer natural beauty of the national park, plus many ranger-led activities, should wow older kids.

The Big Island for Kids

Activities

Mixing up natural and cultural sites and activities, as well as managing expectations, helps to maximize children's fun. The latter is especially important when it comes to lava: kids may be sorely disappointed, expecting the fiery fountains dramatically seen on the Discovery Channel. Check current lava flows with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php) before booking an expensive helicopter or boat tour.

Commercial luau might seem like cheesy Vegas dinner shows to adults, but many kids love the flashy dances and fire tricks. Children typically get discounted tickets (and sometimes free admission when accompanied by a paying adult).

Food & Drink

Hawaiʻi has to be one of the most food-friendly places for kids on the planet. Not only are all the favorites available but there are also tempting exotic tidbits like crack seed and Spam masubi. Wrinkly passion fruit, spiky rambutan and downright strange soursop are just some of the odd duck fruits you can find at farmers markets, which are a fun introduction for kids to Hawaiʻi's tropical bounty.

You'd be surprised how many restaurants – including upscale places like Brown's Beach House – warmly welcome children, and even have specific keiki menus. However, children are expected to behave – one screech and you'll be getting the 'stink eye' from other diners. One of our top picks for white tablecloth kiddie dining is Jackie Rey's Ohana Grill in Kailua-Kona, where the tablecloths can be colored in and kids are invited to check out 300lb fish hanging from hooks in the freezer. Aloha, Big Island style.

The island's many small-to-medium-size diners and plate-lunch joints are all sustained by repeat, family-oriented clientele; if you're ever in need of a spot where the food is clean, the portions are enormous and the price is right, you really can't go wrong with a plate-lunch establishment.

Children's Highlights

Animal Encounters

Three Ring Ranch Exotic Animal Sanctuary, Kailua-Kona More mature kids will be wowed by this incredible wildlife sanctuary.

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, Keahole Point Seahorses (which are always cute) are raised and reared at this conservation facility.

Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens, Hilo The only zoo in the USA located within an actual rainforest.

Beginner Snorkeling, Island-wide Spots like Kahaluu Beach, Mahukona and Wawaloli Beach are perfect for young snorkelers.

Sea Turtles, Kiholo Bay There are areas on the northern side of this beach where sea turtles regularly bask.

Education & Exploration

ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi, Hilo A brilliant, immersive exploration of the universe and Polynesian culture.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Junior Ranger Program, Volcanoes National Park Learn about the raw power of nature – by an actual volcano!

The Kohala Institute, Kapaʻau Hosts programs that focus on sustainability and environmental education.

Donkey Mill Art Center, Holualoa A brilliant spot for Big Island arts education.

Kona Coffee Living History Farm, Captain Cook Older kids will appreciate this outdoor exhibition.

Planning

Accommodations

Choose accommodations based on your family's sightseeing and activity priorities. Resorts offer spectacular swimming pools, along with kids' activity day camps and on-call babysitting services. But some parents prefer the convenience and cost savings of having a full kitchen and washer/dryer, which many condominiums and vacation rentals offer. Smaller B&Bs may have a more familial vibe – and on that note, many Big Islanders have a big soft spot for kids – but you run the risk of limited kid-friendly amenities.

Children often stay free when sharing a hotel or resort room with their parents, but only if they use existing bedding. Otherwise roll-away beds may be available – sometimes free, but usually for a surcharge of up to $40 per night. At condos, kids above a certain age might count as extra guests and entail an additional nightly surcharge.

Because long drive times can make kids antsy, you may not want to base yourself in just one place on the Big Island. On the other hand, for that very reason you may want to find one area that has everything you need within quick tripping distance.

When to Go

When deciding when and where to visit, know that most families choose the sunny leeward side of the island, staying around Kailua-Kona or on the South Kohala coast. The windward side of the Big Island gets more rain year-round and higher waves in winter, which can nix swimming. Year-round, vog (volcanic smog) can be a factor island-wide. Sometimes the air pollution is negligible, but at other times its health effects can be hazardous, especially for young children and pregnant women.

What to Pack

Hawaiʻi's small-town vibe means that almost no place – apart from star chef's restaurants and five-star resorts – is formal, whether in attitude or attire. You can let your kids wear T-shirts, shorts and rubbah slippah (flip-flops) just about anywhere. When visiting Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and the island's windward side, rain gear and a sweater or fleece jacket will come in handy – those areas experience some wacky weather.

At tourist convenience shops, such as the ABC Store, you can buy inexpensive water-sports equipment (eg floaties, snorkel sets and boogie boards). In Kailua-Kona, Snorkel Bob's rents and sells all kinds of water sports gear for kids, from reef shoes to snorkel masks. If you do forget some critical item from home, services like Big Island Baby Rentals rent cribs, strollers, car seats, backpacks, beach toys and more.

Resources

  • Travel with Children (Lonely Planet) Loaded with valuable tips and amusing tales, especially for first-time parents.
  • Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) Ask questions and get advice from other travelers in the Thorn Tree's online 'Kids to Go' forum.
  • Go Hawaii (www.gohawaii.com) The state's official tourism site lists family-friendly activities, special events and more – just search the site using terms like ʻkids' or ʻfamily.'

Need to Know

  • Baby food and formula Sold at supermarkets and pharmacies.
  • Babysitting Ask your hotel concierge; some resorts offer day-care programs and kids' activity clubs.
  • Breastfeeding Done discreetly (cover up) or in private.
  • Car seats Reserve in advance through car-rental companies.
  • Changing facilities Ubiquitous in public restrooms except at beaches.
  • Diapers (nappies) Sold everywhere (eg supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores).
  • Dining out High chairs and kids' menus are available at most sit-down restaurants, except top-end dining rooms.
  • Hiking Keep hydrated and wear sunscreen. Be careful when hiking over sharp aʻa lava, which can be painful even through rubber soles. Be on the lookout for kiawe thorns, which can pierce rubber soles.
  • Strollers Bring from home or reserve via Big Island Baby Rentals.
  • Swimming The waters off of Hawai'i have incredibly strong currents and undertows. Tide pools are the safest spot for novice swimmers.