You can't beat the fun that Kahalu`u offers when it comes to viewing, feeding, and swimming with wild fish. Easily one of the Big Island's most popular beaches, Kahalu'u offers parking, equipment rental stalls, a covered pavilion, and a snack bar. A reef far offshore prevents the waters from getting too rough, making a terrific snorkeling opportunity. Have care, though: the beach tends to get crowded early since thousands of locals and tourists flock here to take advantage of the calm turquoise waters. Kahalu'u is situated between Kailua-Kona and Kealakekua. Boogie boards add fun to a day here, and lifeguards keep a look out over the beach.
Encompassing 520 square miles, this national park is one of the most photographed locales in the Hawaiian chain. For more than 70 million years, volcanic heat and pressure from inside the earth have molded the dramatic landscape, which includes Thurston Lava Tube, still-active Halemaumau Crater, and the highly active Pu'u O'o vent, which has been spewing lava since 1983. Visitors are able to drive the park's 66 miles of roadways, which wind in and out of dense tropical rain forest, but are encouraged to stay on guard since volcanic activity is commonplace and conditions change often. There is also the option to explore the more than 155 miles of marked trails on foot. The Kilauea Visitor Center sits just inside the park's main entrance. The park was designated a World Heritage site in 1987.
Children will love viewing the wild green sea turtles at Punalu`u Beach. Wedged between Kau Desert and Ka Lae (the South Cape), this exquisite black sand beach is one of the Big Island's most beautiful. Although facilities are scarce, you'll likely find ample privacy since few visitors make it this far south, save an occasional sea turtle. Freshwater springs that bubble up from the cove's floor chill the water somewhat, making it all the more refreshing during summer months. An interesting tidbit: local legend suggests that the northern and southern tips of the cove were once sites of sacrificial stones.
Children will love riding ATVs through the open fields, and galloping along on a horseback ride. Parker Ranch, one of America's oldest and largest ranches, was founded in 1847. Island visitors eagerly venture here to find out about paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) and to see what ranch life is like in paradise. Guests may opt to tour Parker's historic homes, where they can view heirloom art and furnishings and learn about the ranch's long history. Cattle country tours that expose the workings of the ranch and the beauty of the local landscape are also available. Parker ranch combines a lot of fun with some historical background.
Children will love watching the falls while hearing the thunder of it pouring into the large pool. Just a short drive outside of downtown Hilo, the Wailuku River penetrates dense tropical undergrowth and cascades more than 80 feet into a picturesque gorge. The emerald green pool at the base of the falls used to be a popular swimming hole, especially with daredevils who wanted to explore the cave behind the falls; however, that's now against the law. Instead, visitors must make their way down the slick, stone walkway to the overlook, from which they have a terrific vantage point of this magnificent scene.
For a truly unique experience, call ahead to schedule an up-close-and-personal tour of this facility, which is dedicated to seahorse preservation. Watching the small and colorful seahorses, animals that are very rare to see in nature, will excite the little ones and create a very memorable trip to the Big Island. More than 15,000 of the creatures (swimming happily in 300,000 gallons of seawater) are on display, including 17 species that have been hatched in-house. Learn about Ocean Rider's eco-friendly mission, take a gander in the gift shop, and have a stroll down the coast after the tour is over.
One of the more unique zoos you'll visit, Pana'ewa Reserve allows a glimpse of life in a tropical rainforest, making it the only such facility in the United States. More than 80 species of animals call the reserve "home," including Namaste (a rare white Bengal tiger), an Aldabra tortoise named Beauregard, and Arnie the water buffalo. Other residents include giant anteaters, a pygmy hippo, black-handed spider monkeys, and a butterfly house. Tropical flora, a water garden, and peacocks also add a note of exoticism. On the property are about 150 different animals across 75 types of species. Make sure to check out the petting zoo.
One of the Big Island's top beaches, A-Bay is known for metallic, yellow-hued sands that earn it the nickname "Gold Coast." The bay's crystal blue waters are ideal for snorkeling, scuba, kayaking, surfing, and windsailing. Several popular resort hotels are within easy walking distance of the beach, so you can rest assured that it will always be peppered with a myriad of bathing beauties. During the winter, whales make an annual pass by Anaeho'omalu Bay, so make sure you bring a telescoping lens for your camera. Sea-turtles at play in the bay can also be seen. Bring beach toys and boogie boards.
Hapuna Beach, nestled between Waikui and Puako, is known for being one of the cleanest, most family-friendly beaches on Hawaii. Its smooth, white sands extend far out into the surf, so wading in the shallows is easy on your feet. During summer months, the beach is at its widest and stays crowded from sunup to sunset; in contrast, winter months bring unfriendly waters with deadly riptides. (Combined with the fact that lifeguards don't work the beach during this season, swimming is unwise.) Beach facilities include camping areas, men's and women's showers, a snack bar, and a pavilion. There's limited food available at the top in the small snack shop.
From the ocean floor to Mauna Kea's 14,000 foot summit, this majestic mountain is the world's tallest. Its elevation, combined with its relative isolation from air pollution, also makes it one of the world's foremost locations for stargazing, a fact not lost on astronomers. Indeed, 11 countries, including Japan, France, and scores of American universities, have set up ultra-modern telescopes to peer into the vastness of space. Be sure to stop by the Onizuka Visitor Center, which offers lecture series and nighttime stargazing programs. Dress warmly – at 9500 feet, temperatures tend to drop quickly at sundown, no matter what time of year it is. Most car rental companies prohibit customers from taking cars – even 4X4s – to the summit, so it's best to make alternate arrangements if that's your intention. And make sure to take a full tank of gas.