Hawai‘i’s Big Island Landscapes

The island of Hawai‘i teaches a family about our vibrant planet — and how to make the most of a trip to paradise.

The island of Hawai‘i (also known as the Big Island) might just be the most interesting natural environment on the planet. The largest land mass in the Hawaiian chain is ever-changing — you can witness stark lava fields, snowcapped, dormant Mauna Kea volcano, and dazzling beaches hugged by lush landscapes — all in a single day.

Holei Sea Arch at Volcanoes National Park

However, the island’s sheer mass can overwhelm visitors, especially those like us on vacation with young children. Like most parents, we desperately needed some real relaxation. We fantasized about hours lazing around white-sand beaches, swimming in the warm ocean among sea turtles and reef fish, and dining with the waves lapping nearby.

Yet, we also understood the island held a prime educational resource for our children. So we knew we had to brave the island’s size, add some time and patience to our itinerary, and take a road trip to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

But not until after we clocked some serious beach time.

Beautiful Hawaiian beaches

Lay of the Land

Imagine this particular landmass as fraternal twins. The rainy Hilo side seeps with history — the ancients created triangular farming regions meant to sustain the community on the lush mountainsides. Today, Hilo is home to one of Hawai‘i’s premier research universities and bustles with street markets, rocky beaches and international eateries.

Because we wanted more dependable weather, we chose to stay on the sunnier Kona side, which essentially runs the length of the island’s western seaboard, and is split into two main regions: the Kohala Coast (including the Waikoloa resort area) and Kailua-Kona itself.

Lava rock dots the arid topography, evoking a lunar landscape that spills into the impossibly blue sea. Regal resorts line prime beaches (all of which remain public), and plenty of restaurants for all budgets hug the various complexes. Kona, the largest community on this side of the island, features walkable commercial stretches along the coast, including Ali‘i Drive, a popular spot for travelers because of the varied eateries, boutiques, and bars.

Paddleboarding in Hawai‘i

The Sea of Possibilities

A local friend instructed us to make our home base the resort village of Waikoloa near Kona. While it may seem a bit bustling for those wanting to escape the masses, we appreciated that a grocery, farmers market and plenty of restaurants were within walking distance of our accommodations.

Two prime shopping areas (the Kings’ Shops and the Queens’ MarketPlace) offered nightly live music, serious aloha souvenir-hunting opportunities (as in Honolua Surf Co. and Reyn Spooner), and various dinner options, including Roy’s Waikoloa, where the crispy blue crab cakes, organic farmer’s salad and pepper-crusted Big Island ahi will not disappoint.

Fresh crab cakes in Hawai‘i

During our first couple of days, we chilled out at ‘Anaeho‘omalu Beach, otherwise known as A-Bay — a choice snorkeling spot, swimming area (though watch out for flying boogie boards) and year-round stand-up paddleboarding destination. On the edge of the beach, the sand-in-your-toes restaurant Lava Lava Beach Club made it all too easy to sidle up each evening for fruity cocktails and pork nachos while watching the sun set over the sea.

Before we got too acclimated to the slow pace of the tropics, though, we signed up for a snorkel tour on Kealakekua Bay. It’s quite possibly the island’s most pristine area to spot sea life. The knowledgeable guides strapped the boys in life vests, offered them boogie boards and led us all on a four-and-a-half-hour morning journey to swim with sea turtles and witness the Hawaiian state fish, the reef triggerfish, (known locally as humuhumunukunukuapuaa) feeding around the colorful coral that rings the shore.

Hawai‘i whale watching

Excited by the abundant sea life, the boys begged us to book another boat trip — this time a whale-watching journey with captain Dan McSweeney. Twice daily during most of winter and spring, McSweeney, a life-long researcher and conservationist, pilots his boat out to view the local humpback whale breeding grounds. Although, the whale spouts didn’t excite my boys as much as the acrobatic spinner dolphins that frolicked in the boat’s wake while we motored about the ocean.

Volcanoes National Park Hawai‘i

Passage of the Ancients

The island of Hawai‘i’s identity is built upon its land as much as the sea, which is why a sojourn to the island’s most famous landmark proved impossible to pass up. But the distance between Waikoloa and Volcanoes National Park is vast, so we made a full day of it.

After breakfast at Island Lava Java, we headed south for a quick morning stroll around Kona town to see Ahu‘ena Heiau — a former home of King Kamehameha — and to purchase picnic fixings at the beloved Da Poke Shack.

North of town lies the esteemed Kona Coffee Belt. This region is characterized by verdant hillsides and a low-key vibe. Sensing it was a good time to let the boys out of the car, we stopped at Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, one of the largest organic coffee farms in the state, and signed up for the Roast Master Experience (mainly because we got to roast about four pounds of beans to take home). Our fun guide even charmed the kids into learning about the entire life cycle of the coffee bean.

After saying goodbye, we rounded the horn of the island and bypassed the turn to Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the U.S., in favor of racing to Na‘ālehu’s famed Punalu‘u Bake Shop & Visitor Center for the island’s best malasadas — delicious Portuguese doughnuts — and other treats.

A few miles later, we entered the domain of Pele, Hawaiian goddess of fire: Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. There were barren, ashen landscapes and dense, seemingly-out-of-place fern forests. This geologic wonder continuously amazes all visitors.

Lava flow at Volcanoes National Park

Start your sightseeing at the Visitor Center. There’s an endless amount of information available, as well as rangers who are happy to instruct you about how to plan your time at the park. Since we’d already been in the car for a few hours, we skipped Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile circumnavigation of the summit’s caldera. Instead, we parked at the Kīlauea Iki Overlook and hiked a short section of the rim, then watched a handful of brave folks descend some 400 feet into the crater itself for a 4-mile trek around the fossilized lava lake bed.

The next morning, the boys chatted about the magnificence of our planet and how they wanted to come back to Hawai‘i soon. It was all very exciting — and I’m already looking forward to these next Big Island adventures. Still, when we asked what we should do for our last day of this trip — posing options for hiking, biking, or surfing — they gave it about two seconds’ thought before explaining that they wanted to leave some of that for next time, and asking if we could simply return to our favorite stretch of sand, A-Bay, for some swimming, yummy eats and, most importantly, some of that relaxation we’d been talking about.


Where to Stay:

Marriott’s Waikoloa Ocean Club


This article originally appeared in Issue 1, 2018, of the North America edition of Interval World magazine, published by Interval International®, Inc., an indirect subsidiary of Marriott Vacations Worldwide Corporation. Any re-use of this content, or any portion of this content, is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved.