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Hawai'i: A Tropical Dozen

12 authentically awesome activities for family fun in the Hawaiian sun


You’ve got tickets to Hawai‘i. You’ve got visions of Mai Tais by moonlight and two sets of footprints entwined along a pristine beach. Closer inspection reveals, however, that you also have kids. Not a problem: The Hawaiian Islands are as welcoming and wonderful a destination for families as for couples. And each of the islands offers a unique array of activities for you and the keiki.


Polynesian Cultural Center

Wade In: Pūpūkea Tidepools

One of O‘ahu’s best shore dives and snorkel spots, Shark’s Cove, sits adjacent to a collection of what might be called nature’s bathtubs—volcanically formed tidepools of varying size and depths teeming with small, colorful fish, sea urchins, and other creatures of interest. With a pair of reef walkers, even nonswimmers can wade in, don a mask and discover the aquatic ecosystem below.

Park It Here: Polynesian Cultural Center

Hawai‘i is just one of the cultures that inhabit what’s known as the Polynesian triangle. For a sense of the bigger picture, the Polynesian Cultural Center—located on the far northeast corner of the island in the small town of La‘ie—makes for a good introduction. The pleasant, low-key theme park comprises authentic re-creations of six traditional Polynesian villages, plenty of hands-on activities, and one of the better lu‘au performances to be found on the island—a full day of fun and education.

Starlight Express: The Bishop Museum

Visitors often miss this treasure trove of Hawaiian culture in downtown Honolulu, just a few miles from Waikīkī. Founded in 1889, the Bishop Museum houses literally millions of artifacts, documents, and photographs pertaining to Hawaiian history. It’s an immersive, fascinating collection unlike any other. Take a break from the sun and immerse yourself in the cool darkness of the Bishop Museum’s state-of-the-art planetarium to enjoy a show about traditional Polynesian navigation.

Surf’s Up, Slightly: Waikīkī

There’s a lot to learn about the art and the sport of surfing, but that doesn’t mean you should hesitate to hop on a board and give it a try. For kids, the most satisfying approach might be a surfing lesson in Waikīkī. The waves here are generally small, reliable, and close to shore. A good instructor can almost always get beginners up on the board and surfing in the span of one lesson, even if it takes a little push.

Hawai'i Island

Hiking in Wa'ipio Valley

Tropical Tidbit: South Point, on Hawai’i Island, is the southernmost point of the U.S.

Biggest of the Big: Waipi‘o Valley

At the apex of the lush Hamakua coast is one of the most majestic views in all the islands: Waipi‘o Valley, more than a mile wide at its mouth, is home to spectacular cliffs, a black-sand beach, a mere handful of off-the-grid residents, and a herd of wild horses. But even better than observing this awesome view is descending into it. And in this case, getting there is half the fun. You can take a guided horse ride or (if you prefer someone else handle the reins) a horse-drawn wagon. Either way, kids and adults alike will enjoy the adventurous descent into one of the most magnificent valleys in Hawai‘i.

Hot Stuff: Volcanoes National Park

It’s a volcano! ’Nuff said. It also happens to be one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world, making it easy to explore with kids. Start by circumnavigating the stark and steaming landscape of the Kilauea Caldera on the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive. Lava flows dating back to the 1800s are clearly marked, giving visitors an appreciation for the living, breathing formation of this geologically youthful landmass. When you’re ready to dig a little deeper, the Thurston lava tube features a short jungle walk to a 600-foot length of tube formed 500 years ago by flowing magma.

Chocoholic: South Kona

Touring the many coffee plantations of beautiful South Kona is a great way to get over jet lag and learn how the world’s best coffee is grown, harvested, and processed into 100% Kona Coffee.  But your kids aren’t gonna belly up to a cuppa joe, so stop by the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, where Hawai‘i’s very own single-origin cacao beans are cultivated and transformed into sweet treats. Reserve your tour in advance—and save room for dessert.



Tropical Tidbit: Maui is home to the world’s largest banyan tree.

Something Fishy: Maui Ocean Center

Located mid-island on Ma‘alae‘a Bay, Maui Ocean Center is a beautifully designed aquarium with indoor and outdoor exhibits to bring families up close and personal with Hawai‘i’s denizens of the deep. A stroll through the center’s piece de resistance, a long glass tunnel through the shark tank, gives you the feeling of being surrounded by tiger sharks, stingrays, and other intimidating sea life. (Better here than while snorkeling.)

Operaloha: ‘Ulalena

The epic history of the Hawaiian Islands is brought to vivid life in music, dance, and extraordinary stagecraft in the 700-seat theater in Lāhainā. If this sounds too sophisticated for the kids, don’t worry: Eventually undulating fabric “lava” pours off the stage and engulfs the audience in spectacular fashion.

Dive In: Ka‘anapali Beach

If you sat down to design the perfect family beach, Ka‘anapali Beach might be the result. Not only does its soft white sand yield to gentle surf and great snorkeling around Black Rock, the iconic jutting formation that bisects the long strand, but a day at Ka‘anapali is capped by a dramatic sunset torch-lighting ceremony that inevitably leaves beachgoers applauding.

Snorkeling Light: Glass-Bottomed Boats

Even if your kids are too young to snorkel, they needn’t miss out on the spectacle of colorful tropical fish nibbling on the reef. Maui offers a couple of options for seeing the sea without getting wet. Glass-bottom boat tours depart from Lāhainā on 60- or 90-minute excursions. Or go deeper still with the Atlantis submarine, which spirits passengers to the bottom of the ocean for some face time with the fish.


Wailuā River

Tropical Tidbit: Near Kaua'i is Ni'ihau, whose inhabitants speak primarily Hawaiian and live off the grid.

Thrill Ride: Ziplining

If your kids are reaching the adrenaline-fueled teen years, they needn’t be discouraged by Kaua‘i’s lack of amusement parks. The islands have a mean, green thrill machine that rivals any roller coaster. Try dangling from a harness over a deep valley and zipping 1,200 feet to a platform on the other end. Kaua‘i was the first of the Hawaiian islands to boast a zipline course, and it’s still the best. On the north shore, you’ll zip past scenery recognizable from Jurassic Park and other films, and finish your adventure with a swim at the base of a hidden waterfall. How’s that for thrilling?

Oar Try This: Wailuā River Kayaking

Of all the islands, Kaua‘i specializes in freshwater rivers, thanks to the ample rainfall coursing down the flanks of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale. This feature allows for some Indiana Jones-style adventuring along misty jungle rivers. With kids, the most convenient is the Wailuā River, located midway between Līhu'e and Kapa‘a. You can join a kayaking tour or rent your own and go independently. Make sure to inquire about the triple kayaks, which are available for two adults and a small child. Under your own arm-power, you’ll glide into a lush forest, discovering caves and waterfalls you can’t see any other way.

South Shore Vibe: Poi'pū Beach Park

Beaches, like families, come in all shapes and sizes. Poi'pū Beach Park is possibly the perfect beach on Kaua‘i for travelers with kids in tow. It features a gentle, protected cove for the younger kids and good snorkeling for the older ones. There’s even an intriguing sandbar separating two crescent beaches, where waves slap your ankles from both directions. Just behind you as you gaze out to the cerulean sea is a playground, restaurant, and vendor stand for beach toys and snorkel gear. In short, Poi'pū Beach Park is a one-stop shop for family-size surf and sun.

Photos by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Robert Capello and Tor Johnson

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