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Dreaming of Hawaii? With its distinctive landscape, stunning beauty, extraordinary culture, and thrilling adventures, Hawaii is the vacation destination of a lifetime. The spirit of Aloha is alive and real, especially on the Big Island. These three, splurge-worthy experiences will show you the Big Island in a unique way and provide lasting family memories of a very special vacation.
Visiting the Big Island with Kids
Traveling to the Big Island of Hawaii with kids? There are so many things to do, it is hard to narrow it down. Should we visit the Waipio Valley, the Kohala coast or Kohala mountains?
If you come all the way to Hawaii with kids, you want them to remember it, so my advice is to go Big (Island) or go home. And, if they learn something along the way or even conquer a fear, even better!
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Here are three unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences you can do on the Big Island that are completely worth the splurge.
- View the splendor of an active volcano from above.
- Observe Hawaiian sea life up close and personal.
- Embrace the volcanic landscape on foot.
Blue Hawaiian Circle of Fire Helicopter Tour
One of the first things people think of when you mention Hawaii is the image of a volcano. And, indeed, the Hawaii island chain is made up of volcanoes.
If you are a volcano fanatic, you may be interested to know Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is reported to be – from its base (which is underwater) to tip – the largest mountain in the world. Nearby Mauna Loa has slightly less height but more mass than Mauna Kea, much of which is also underwater, making it bigger from a size perspective. It hasn’t erupted in many years but is considered an active volcano. But we were curious about the very active Kilauea volcano.
My husband and oldest son, who is 10, also wanted an adventure. I, on the other hand, would be happy lounging by the pool with a book. And, truth be told, I am afraid of heights. But, how often can you see the most unpredictable, active volcano on earth and cascading waterfalls from above? Going on a Big Island helicopter tour is the best way to do this!
Circle of Fire Tour
We chose Blue Hawaiian Helicopter tours, because it is one of the most popular sightseeing companies on the island. It did not disappoint with a deluxe experience. While we missed out on the Kohala coast on this visit, our experience included a guided air tour of the Kilauea volcano on the Circle of Fire tour.
We not only got aerial views of the lava flows bubbling in the center of the volcano, but we also witnessed the amazing phenomenon of the lava flow entering the sea. Sadly, we also saw some of the destruction from the most recent volcanic activity – a most humbling moment to understand the power of mother nature and Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. And, as the local Hawaiians say of Pele, volcanoes destroy, but they also create islands and life, making them most worth getting over the splurge – and my fear of heights!
More Than A Volcano
In addition to the majestic Kilauea volcano, we also had the privilege to see some of the island’s amazing lush rainforest, cascading waterfalls, black sand beaches, and glorious landscape. These were awe-inspiring moments for our family, to see some of the most spectacular sights and raw nature on the island.
Seeing this side of the island of Hawaii and quite honestly, the earth, from this view was memorable and soulful. It was a most extraordinary island tour experience for our kids to learn about – and appreciate – nature in this way. After this experience, we knew we wanted to see and learn more, so we planned a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Motion Sickness: The helicopter ride is smooth, but I highly advise taking motion sickness precautions, and avoid a large meal ahead of time. Blue Hawaiian is prepared for this, with air-sickness bags at the ready.
All of us were fine until the pilot circled around the volcano a few times too many, when my husband turned a bit green. That coupled with the large pancake meal and Kona coffee at Ken’s House of Pancakes (a local favorite spot in Hilo you should try AFTER the helicopter ride) did not go well him. But, the rest of us quite enjoyed the scenery.
Seating: You won’t have a choice of seat, as the seating is assigned for weight distribution (yes, that means you must fess up the real number.) My older son and I got the front row, and my husband and younger two got the back row. But all the seats had a great aerial view, even if they weren’t all window seats.
Getting to the Heliport
From the Waikoloa resort area, the drive to Hilo airport is about an hour and 15 minutes and from Kona it is about 45 minutes. Be sure to plan enough time to arrive early. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters depart from a heliport at the airport. If you book a later flight time, you may be able to enjoy a sunset experience as well, which is another one of those spectacular experiences in Hawaii.
A Note about Safety
In 2019, a helicopter crash occurred on Oahu during one of the Hawaii helicopter tours. According to news reports, the company involved was not Blue Hawaiian, though the company had crashes in 2011, 2007, 2005, and 2004. Despite these tragic situations, Blue Hawaiian reports itself on its website as the leading helicopter tour company in Hawaii since 1985, and the only company to service the four major Hawaiian islands (Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island of Hawaii.) The website notes several safety programs in which they participate or have received certification.
The website also reports that it is the only company to receive the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Certificate of Excellence – Diamond Award” each year since 1997. It is also important to note that, just like airline travel, the majority of flights happen without incident.
Need to Know
The 2019 pricing for the Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Circle of Fire Tour starts at $249 per person (child and adult.) There is no minimum age for children, but the company charges by the seat. Kids under 2 can be lap infants on a helicopter flight, and therefore may not be charged. However, children ages 2 and up will be charged the per-person rate.
If air tours of volcanoes are not your thing, Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours also has aerial tours of the Kohala Coast, the Big Island Spectacular (which departs from Waikoloa and includes a Kohala landing, towering sea cliffs, and Kohala coast adventure), and Hilo.
Get the kids excited for Hawaii and learn a few Hawaiian words! Read Too Many Mangos by Tammy Paikai.
Ali’I Snorkel Tour
For an island culture like Hawaii, the ocean has critical importance. Not only is it a source of food and enjoyment, but like the volcanoes, the ocean is respected by the locals. Having the opportunity to snorkel in Hawaiian waters is a tremendous privilege and a chance to see amazing wildlife.
My kids love the ocean and have really taken to snorkeling. Seeing a green sea turtle (called honu in Hawaiian) or the humuhumu fish (called humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa in Hawaiian and the state fish) with its signature blue lips and striking coloring is another special way to feel the Aloha of the island.
We love teaching our children Hawaiian words whenever possible. It is an opportunity to expose them to another culture. Even though Hawaii is one of the 50 United States, its culture is very much present and important to appreciate as a visitor.
Snorkeling has also been a tangible way for my kids to learn about and appreciate the need for conservation and protecting the amazing sea life they have seen in action. So, when we learned we could snorkel at one of the most picturesque reefs in the entire state, we jumped at the experience!
Kid-Friendly Snorkeling Tour
On our tour, we enjoyed two snorkel stops. The first was an area nearer to shore. While on the way there we were fortunate to spot some dolphins!
Once in the water, we were able to see a variety of fish. And, as the dolphins were near, we were able to hear them communicating with squeaks and ticking sounds. Green sea turtles are also living in Hawaiian waters and are sometimes seen as well.
My daughter wasn’t comfortable with the snorkel gear, so she was given a boogie board with a window in it and my son was given a noodle. The wonderful staff member who helped my daughter would tell her when to put her face in the water to see something go by, and in one case, it was a dolphin! My younger son, who was 5 years old at the time, was intimidated by the ocean. So, my husband and I took turns in the water and staying on the boat with him.
Following this stop was our visit to the world-famous Kealakekua Bay, a shallow reef with reportedly some of the best snorkeling in the state of Hawaii. My son saw eels and a variety of colorful sea life and coral in the pristine and crystal-clear water, near a monument to Captain James Cook. One of the crew members reported this bay was the inspiration for Disney’s Finding Nemo! It was a special, almost soulful experience to have been graced by the presence of these beautiful animals.
Protecting Sea Life
One important note is that Hawaii protects its sea life. While you may have the privilege to see a green sea turtle or even a dolphin on your snorkeling adventure, it is recommended you stay at least 10 feet from turtles and 50 yards from dolphins and not to touch or harass them in any way. Doing so can interfere with their natural patterns, which can be harmful to the animals.
The same goes for the coral and the reef. Touching the coral can damage it, not to mention there are creatures in the coral that may sting you. Using reef-friendly sunscreen is another way to protect the reef.
When snorkeling, you can observe, but don’t touch. And, should you see a turtle or dolphin, move back to give it plenty of space.
Ali’I is a very family-friendly snorkel tour company. The boat provides reef-friendly sunscreen (though always a good idea to bring your own), towels, beverages, snorkel gear, floatation devices, and a meal. It was a deluxe experience compared to other tour companies with whom we have traveled.
While it is a kid-friendly experience, younger kids might be afraid of being in the ocean, the sea life, or snorkel gear. You can get back onto the boat at any time.
I also recommend bringing life vest or floaties for the young ones. While the boat has some, they may not have the right size or ones your child likes, so better to be safe than sorry.
You can bring your own snorkel gear, but it is not necessary. This experience is fine for beginners but be sure and let the staff know. I also recommend taking motion sickness precautions. Sometimes the boat ride can be bumpy, or wavy, especially when it is anchored.
Need to Know
Prices are $169 for adults and $129 for children ages 12 and under. If you want to bring a non-swimmer to ride along, the price is $89 each. It is a four-hour experience, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Get the Kids Excited
Read Kai, The Honu Who Didn’t Know He Was Brave by Mora Ebie.
Volcanoes National Park
If you come all the way to the Big Island of Hawaii, you must make a trek to the Volcanoes National Park. It is not necessarily a splurge in terms of cost, but it is a splurge in terms of time. It is worth taking up a whole day to visit and well worth the drive if you are staying in one of the farther resort areas in Waikoloa or Kona. There are also tour companies if you do not have a rental car.
My kids are fascinated by science, so visiting the site of a real, active volcano, is most thrilling. We first visited the Kīlauea Visitor Center, where we learned a little bit about what we were going to see and where to go. They provided information about ranger-led tours, trails, and safety information.
What to Do at Volcanoes National Park
We decided to follow the Crater Rim Drive, which then headed us toward the Steam Vents area, to see the steam coming from the hot volcanic rocks. You can also take a short walk to Steaming Bluff and Ha’akulamanu – Sulphur Banks. We continued along the Crater Rim Drive to stop at the various lookouts, which include:
We were a bit of a distance away from the volcano, but you can see smoke billowing out. There are rangers at various spots and loads of information to learn about the volcano, making it a very educational experience for the whole family. They even offer junior ranger kid programs to make it fun while they learn.
At the time of our visit, our kids weren’t up for a hike, but if you care to, there are hikes available nearby. There are so many ways to explore Volcanoes National Park.
TravelingMom tip: Get there early, as it will get crowded. Bring lots of water, in case you plan to walk or take one of the hikes. The eruption of 2018 had a major impact on the area surrounding the Volcanoes National Park. While many areas have reopened, some areas are in need of repair and other areas are closed indefinitely. Before you go, be sure to check for the most up to date information to avoid disappointment.
Need to Know
National Park admission fees in 2019:
- $25 per private non-commercial vehicle (capacity 15 or less) – 7 days
$12 per pedestrian or bicycle – 7 days
$20 per motorcycle – 7 days
$50 Hawai‘i Tri-park Annual Pass
Visit the National Park website to plan for your visit.
Get the Kids Excited
Read Pele Finds A Home by Gabrielle Ahulii.
With much more to see on the Big Island, we will most certainly be back. But if you have a short few days to visit, these three gems are worth splurge.
- See tips on planning your travel for your vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii.
- Looking for some other day trips on the Big Island? See great tips from an insider!