Ever since Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch” came out, my children have been enamored with the idea of a family vacation in Hawaii, the land of hula skirts, pineapples and missing consonants.
We chose to spend our family vacation on the Big Island. Specifically, the Kona Coast. When I traveled there about 10 years ago, I was smitten with the stark Crayola contrast between black volcanic rock, lush green resorts, deep-blue water and white-sand beaches. It’s twice the size of all the other islands combined, and its land mass grows every day from lava bursts out of fiery Kilauea, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.
While there are many places to vacation with the family on the Big Island — condos, villas, bed-and-breakfasts, budget hotels and campsites — we opted to stay at a few luxurious resorts — probably because we were invited as special media guests.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hotel on the Big Island, three words: Hilton Waikoloa Village, named the #1 Top Family Resort in Hawaii by Travel + Leisure Family Magazine a few years back. This massive, 62-acre masterpiece is a city unto itself. Once you unpack your bags here, you really don’t have to go anywhere else.
To get from one end to the other, you can either take a very ambitious walk through tropical gardens (thank goodness for the hammock midway through), hop on the Swiss-made trams that wind around the resort or climb aboard one of 12 Disney-engineered boats that ferry guests continuously from their rooms to within easy walking distance of three freshwater pools, restaurants, a museum, the sports club and spa, and the grand, open-aired lobby lorded over by a very chatty parrot.
My daughters felt they were “too grown-up” for Camp Menehune, the kids’ club that caters to 5- to 12-year-olds. But they were easily entertained at the Kona Pool with its sparkling waterfalls and 175-foot twisting water slide. I even slid down it TWICE, proving to my incredulous daughters that I can be a free spirit, too. (More like a terrified spirit if you look closely at the picture they snapped.)
The centerpiece of this resort is the Dolphin Quest experience, where you can wade in a saltwater lagoon with 10 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Assisted by a handler, you’ll get to touch them, shake their fins, rub their bellies, kiss their noses and mug together for a keepsake photo. (Ours is right here on my desk to remind me of less stressful times.) Guests can also enjoy Dolphin Quest Village, which includes an education portal and video production center. Splashing around with these beautiful creatures is an absolute MUST-DO activity for your family!
Heaven on earth
From the moment we stepped into the lobby at The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, we knew we were someplace special. The staff greeted us with chilled hand towels and cups of POG (an island drink made from pineapple, orange and guava juices that my kids insist on mixing up in our kitchen even today), and placed fresh, sweet-smelling orchid leis around our necks. It felt so . . . Hawaiian!
Interesting facts about the Big Island of Hawaii:
In contrast to the buzz of activity at the Hilton, the Four Seasons is a place where you can relax, reflect and rejuvenate, even when traveling with kids. Stressed-out mommies will find welcome refuge in the resort’s signature oceanfront bungalows stocked with every imaginable amenity. One of my fondest memories is of me, a book and a chaise lounge on my lanai overlooking the ocean. Deadlines? Errand-running? I forgot about it!
Lest you think your children won’t have fun on a family vacation here, think again. They can splash around in three oceanfront swimming pools or play in the surf right on the resort’s private beach; snorkel off-shore or at King’s Pond, a man-made home to nearly 3,000 reef fish and a handful of eagle rays; weave bracelets and Christmas ornaments from leaves at the Cultural Center; or, as my daughters did, spend hours at Kids For All Seasons — a complimentary children’s program that includes rock-wall climbing, canoe and hula lessons, lei making, tide pooling and an activity center offering up PlayStation 2 C-Box, billiards, foosball and ping pong. It was no more than 30 kid steps from our bungalow and I had to practically drag my daughters out of there.
Ladies, do yourselves a huge favor: Immediately book a massage at the acclaimed Hulalai Sports Club & Spa – hands down, the most incredible spa and fitness center I have EVER been to! You could easily spend your entire vacation there.
I indulged in the 90-minute Polynesian Niu Coconut Scrub, a signature treatment that includes a body polish, face and neck massage, a warm body wrap and a moisturizing finale of lotion and coconut milk. Afterward, I smelled like a big fruit salad, but felt like a delectable dish.
Sheraton Keauhou Bay
Down the Queen Ka’ ahumanu Highway, past the airport to the south, sits the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa (formerly the landmark Kona Surf Hotel), a jewel of a resort that I’m sure you’d recognize from aerial photos. The resort rests on a lava bed so close to the ocean, it’s practically on top of it. In fact, I was told by a staff member, that they don’t allow resorts to be built this close to the ocean anymore.
My girls spent much of their time on the 200-foot lava tube waterslide. But the magnificence of this resort was not lost on me. Keauhou means “new beginning” and my soul absorbed all the inspiration it could get.
Probably the best memory made here was the tandem massage I shared with my tween on an outdoor covered patio at the impressive Ho’ola Spa. To watch her experience the joyful pleasure of her first massage while waves crashed around us was, well, I don’t have the words for it. But the memory is indelible.
Another signature experience at the Sheraton is watching the manta-ray feedings at night from your lanai or an observation deck. These 2,000-pound sea creatures with wing spans of more than 20 feet feed off tiny organisms that are drawn to the resort’s lighted waters. By moonlight, it’s an incredible sight.
What I especially loved about this ocean-hugging resort is that it’s within walking distance to Keauhou Bay, a hub for several first-class snorkeling cruises. On our last day on the Big Island, we hopped aboard the Hula Kai, a 55-foot power catamaran that took us for a five-hour snorkel adventure to two exclusive diving spots. The $155-per-person charge also includes a buffet breakfast, drinks and a barbecue lunch. The Hula Kai has become an “adults only” boat. However, her sister vessel, The Fair Wind II, continues to run its family snorkeling cruises.
We had been told by the captain that we might see some sea turtles. Sure enough, we saw one. My oldest daughter, thinking she could swim with the turtle, as she did the dolphins, paddled eagerly toward it. But the turtle was much faster and not in the mood to play. As this magnificent commander of the sea turned away from us and headed west, we swam back to the boat, to the east, ready to begin our journey back home.
If you go:
To help plan your family vacation on the Big Island, contact the Big Island Visitors Bureau. A very knowledgeable staff will help you put together the perfect getaway for your bunch based on your budget and particular interests. Just make sure you have at least a week to spend in Hawaii. With a five-hour plane flight each way, you can subtract one full day of travel from all the fun.