Hawaii is a perennially pleasant destination. When our kids were somewhat younger, we visited O’ahu, Mawi, and Kauai, but had been saving Big Island for when they were older. Now that they are teenagers, we saw our chance and decided to turn our 9-day, 8-night Hawaii itinerary into a multi-generational trip by bringing one set of grandparents as well!
Hawaii’s Big Island is best known for the Volcanoes National Park, but also contains plenty of beautiful beaches and lush rainforests. With a warm, tropical climate, abundant natural wonders, and a rich cultural heritage, this island is a popular destination for travelers from around the world. We decided to spend 7 nights on Big Island and 1 night on Oahu.
When visiting Hawaii, you need to understand that the state of Hawaii has several main islands: Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (Big Island), Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, and Niihau. The largest of these is the island of Hawaii. You should quickly be able to recognize the naming problem and see why this island is nicknamed “Big Island.”
Big Island is divided by a large mountain range. The west side of the island is very dry and the east side of the island is very wet. While this is true of most of the the Hawaiian islands, the vast size of Big Island makes this phenomena much more obvious. The dry side is better known for sandy beaches, while the wet side is better known for waterfalls.
Drive times around Big Island are quite long. On Kauai, the longest drive that you will probably encounter is about 1.5 hours each way and it is easy to find much closer destinations. On Big Island, if you want to see all the variety the island has to offer, you may need to plan somewhat better and spend more time in the car.
The main airport is on the dry side of the island in Kona, but there is also a smaller airport on the wet side of the island in Hilo.
Many of the most popular beaches are on the dry side of the island, but one surprise we encountered was that many of them are quite rocky. If there is low surf, these beaches are great for snorkeling. If there is high surf, surfers may find them fun, but will need to ensure not to get smashed into the rocks. Sandy beaches that Jeremy and I typically associate with Hawaii can be a little harder to find unless you are willing to do some hiking. While we did end up finding a couple of sandy beaches that worked for multi-generational travel, it was harder than we expected.
There are a lot of really cool waterfalls near Hilo on the wet side of the island, but again only a few are appropriate if you aren’t willing to hike longish distances. We were able to see some of the easier ones on this particular trip, but the more secluded ones will need to wait for a future trip where everyone has similar hiking abilities.
As you start to explore Big Island, it will quickly become apparent that less of the land is highly developed and therefore is harder to access. Many of the most interesting sights require modest to significant hiking, which may not be ideal if you are traveling with a muti-generational family.
Our Lodging Choices
Since our boys were most interested in exploring beaches and since we were traveling with people of various athletic ability and were concerned about whether we would be able to do significant amounts of hiking, we chose to pick accommodations on the dry side of the island. We knew that getting to both Volcanoes National Park and Hilo would be a bit of a drive, but we like long road trips, so a few long day trips wasn’t a problem.
When staying in Hawaii, our preference is to be in accommodations with a kitchen and to have amazing views of the water. After studying apartment choices on Airbnb, VRBO, and booking.com, we settled on this particular unit in Keauhou.
The apartment was amazing! Furnishings were great, we were steps from a rocky shoreline, and we had stunning views of the sunset. The main downside ended up being that we were quite far from our preferred beaches. There was a fabulous snorkeling beach within walking distance, but it was a bit of a drive to get to long, sandy beaches with great swimming. I guess we can’t have it all!
Read: Travel Logistics: Accommodations
The Volcanic Activity
One of the biggest reasons to go to Big Island is to see volcanic activity. Unfortunately, we had the view that lava flows and toddlers were not a great combination. By waiting for our boys to be “old enough,” we missed our opportunity to see some truly amazing volcanic activity. Of course, with the eruption that happened shortly after our trip, there is a good chance that our next trip will have better lava activity than this particular trip.
Historically, the main place to see volcanic activity is at Volcanoes National Park, although there is always the possibility that new flows will start in other areas of the island. If you want to see the glow, you should go at night, but if you want to do some hiking, the daytime is better. With intergenerational travel, the choice is not obvious, so we decided to split up. My parents decided to go check out the nighttime activity, while the 4 of us decided to do some more strenuous daytime hiking. In the end, this was a great way for everyone to get what they wanted. Of course, if you only have one car, this may not be possible and choices will need to be made.
Read: More Volcanic Destinations Around the World!
While Big Island does have some nice beaches, our take-away from this trip was that if you are looking for a beach vacation, pick a different island. Maui’s and Oahu‘s beaches are far superior to Big Island’s beaches. Kauai’s are lovely as well (and can feel more secluded, if that’s your goal).
The most important thing to know is that all beaches are not created equal. Swimming beaches are sandy with mild surf. Snorkeling beaches have very little surf and are quite rocky so that the sea creatures have somewhere to hide. Surfing beaches have a strong surf and can either be sandy or rocky. Just make sure you know where the dangerous rocks are located before you take your surfboard out!
Read: More Beach Destinations Around the World!
Hawaii has some amazing hiking trails. We took a longer hike in Volcanoes National Park, but since we were traveling as a multi-generational family, most of our hikes were kept quite short so that everyone could participate. We did a few short waterfall hikes near Hilo, but in the end we saved most of the longer hikes for a later trip.
One thing to note is that if you want a beach hike, you are likely to want to stay on the dry side of the island. If you want a hike with lots of waterfalls and lush vegetation, you will want to head to the wet side of the island.
Read: More Hiking Destinations Around the World!
Our itinerary ended up being a little more scattered than we hoped, and while we had fun, we also made a few mistakes. In retrospect, we wonder if the author of our guide book actually visited some of the recommended sites. Learn from our mistakes, so that you build a better itinerary for yourself!
- Day 1: Afternoon arrival: Get settled in Keauhou apartment.
- Day 2: Beach Fails, Beach Win, and a Luau
- Day 3: A Drive from Kona to Hilo
- Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive
- Akaka Falls State Park
- Skipped (but shouldn’t have) Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens
- Fail: Hilo Farmer’s Market
- Liliʻuokalani Gardens
- Rainbow Falls
- A drive on Saddle Road
- Day 4: Hapuna Beach and Historic Kailua Village
- Day 5: Splitting up: Kahalu’u Beach Park and a drive up Mauna Kea
- Option 1: Snorkeling at Kahalu’u Beach Park
- Option 2: A drive up Mauna Kea, then to Waimea and Kohala/Kapaau
- Day 6: Volcanoes National Park
- Old Crater Road Lookout
- Kīlauea Iki Crater Trail
- Viewpoints along Crater Rim Drive
- Day 7: Manini’owali Beach (again) and Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
- Day 8: A Quick Overnight in Waikiki, Oahu
- Late morning arrival in Oahu
- Walk through Waikiki shopping area
- Time on Waikiki Beach
- Day 9: Departure: Morning on Waikiki Beach
- Fail: Morning surf session on Waikiki Beach
- Flight to Phoenix
- Start of American Southwest Road Trip
Read: More Itineraries Around the World!
Day 1: Afternoon arrival: Get settled in Keauhou apartment
With an afternoon arrival, it took some time to pick up a rental car, get checked into our apartment, and buy a starter set of groceries for the week. By the time we were settled, the sun was setting and all we really had time to do was enjoy the beautiful views from our lanai (Hawaiian word for patio).
Read: The full post on Getting Settled on the Big Island.
Day 2: Beach Fails, Beach Win, and a Luau
On our first full day on Big Island, we decided to explore some of the beaches closest to our accommodations in Keauhou. What a mess!
Fail #1 Magic Sands Beach: While Magic Sands Beach can be amazing, every so often a storm comes in and all the sand disappears. The length of the beach is also quite short. Once we saw the situation, we didn’t even bother parking our car and decided to move on.
Fail #2 Old Airport Beach: Our guide book had indicated that the Old Airport Beach was quite nice and that the parking lot was located on an old runway. With a son who is quite obsessed with airplanes and airports, we thought it would be fun. On arrival, we found that the beach did have a lot of sand, but it also had a lot of rock. Combine that with a high surf and it did not look safe for swimming. It may have been a reasonable surfing beach, but only for people who are confident in rocky conditions.
Win #1 Manini’owali Beach: At this point, we decided to ignore our guide book and turn to Google. This led us to Manini’owali Beach. What a great find! The swimming conditions were great, plus the ends of the beach had some nice rocky areas that were great for snorkeling. The only downside was that we had planned to be close to the apartment for lunch and had failed to bring it with us. There were no options for food on the beach, so Jeremy had to drive way too far to pick up food. Plan ahead!
Win #2 Island Breeze Luau: After heading back to our apartment and getting cleaned up, we set out for the Island Breeze Luau. Located near Historic Kailua Village, it was on a great location by the water. We thoroughly enjoyed our buffet dinner – with lots of poke – and the evening performance. Coming from the Boston area, we were a little jet-lagged, but we managed to stay awake. Consider your ability to tolerate jet-lag before booking an expensive evening activity.
Read: The full post on Beach Fails, Beach Win, and a Luau.
Day 3: A Drive from Kona to Hilo
Having spent one day on the beach, we decided it was time to explore the wet side of the island so that we could make a better plan for balancing different activities the rest of the week. If you want to break up your drive, there are a few spots you could stop on the way, but we were a bit put off by the barren volcanic landscape near Kona and bee-lined for green lushness on the other side of the island.
Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive: The drive started to become much more interesting around Honokaa. From there, we kept an eye out for signs pointing the way to the Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive. If you are near Old Mamalahoa Highway on the north side of Hilo, don’t miss this 4 mile stretch through a lush rainforest with fabulous views of the ocean.
Akaka Falls: Our next stop was at Akaka Falls State Park, where we took a short hike in the rain through some very lush landscape to see a nice waterfall. Keep in mind that the reason this area is so green is because the rain falls regularly.
Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens: One stop we wish we would have made time for was the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens. Thinking that we would want to spend more time in Hilo, we didn’t think we had time for this. In retrospect, it probably would have been much better than what we had planned in Hilo.
Hilo Farmers Market: Arriving into Hilo, we decided to stop by the Farmers Market. As it turns out, their “big days” are on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Since we were visiting on an off day, we were quite underwhelmed and moved on quickly.
Japanese Garden: A surprise find was a Japanese Garden called Liliʻuokalani Gardens. We took a walk and enjoyed the scenery.
Rainbow Falls: Having had enough of Hilo, we decided to head towards Rainbow Falls. This waterfall is quite beautiful and since it is viewable from the parking lot, is appropriate for all fitness levels.
Saddle Road: Tired from a long day of exploring, we decided to take the Saddle Road back to our apartment in Keauhou. At the time of our visit, the landscape was quite barren, but it got us close to the Mauna Kea Volcano and we briefly considered driving up, but in-the-end decided that we didn’t have enough energy.
Read: The full post on a Drive from Kona to Hilo.
Day 4: Hapuna Beach and Historic Kailua Village
Hapuna Beach: After a long day of driving, the boys wanted another beach day. This time, we took the advice of a friend and headed to Hapuna Beach State Park. This beach has beautiful sand and is one of the longest on Big Island. The boys were delighted to see a bunch of other kids doing some cliff jumping, and decided to join in the fun.
Historic Kailua Village: After enjoying most of the day at the beach, we decided to head into Historic Kailua Village. There were lots of cute shops, restaurants, and a place to get shave ice. Yum!
Read: The full post on Hapuna Beach and Historic Kailua Village.
Day 5: Splitting up: Kahalu’u Beach Park and a drive up Mauna Kea
On our fifth day on Big Island, we decided to split up. John and I really wanted to go snorkeling, while Jeremy had zero interest in that particular activity. Jeremy and James decided that they really did want to drive up Mauna Kea after all, so they took the car and headed that direction, while the rest of us took a short walk to Kahalu’u Beach Park.
Kahalu’u Beach Park: While Kahalu’u Beach Park is not known for its tiny patch of sand, it is known for its amazing snorkeling. My parents decided that the rocks near the shore were too slippery and set up some beach chairs to watch John and me snorkel. Getting in the water to our waists was quite difficult and I ended up with a few scrapes on my hands, but once we were out there, the sea creatures were amazing! Fish, eels, and sea turtles abounded! John and I had a delightful time! Too bad we didn’t have an underwater camera.
Mauna Kea: Meanwhile, Jeremy and James were driving up Mauna Kea. They had thought about driving all the way up, but once they reached the Visitor’s Center at 9,000 feet, they decided that the rental car really wasn’t up for the challenge and decided to explore that area, then turn around.
Waimea and Kohala/Kapaau: Not ready to be done for the day, they decided to also head towards the north of the island to see Waimea and Kohala/Kapaau, which is close to the birthplace of Hawaiian King Kamehameha I. They were pleased to find the mountain roads to be less dry and quite lush.
Read: The full post on Kahalu’u Beach Park and a drive up Mauna Kea.
Day 6: Volcanoes National Park
For our visit to Volcanoes National Park, we once again decided to split up. Jeremy, the boys, and I really wanted to do some more serious hiking while my parents wanted to enjoy views of volcanic activity without overdoing themselves. Fortunately, a family friend was on the island and decided to drive my parents around for the day.
Kilauea Visitor’s Center: When visiting Volcanoes National Park, your first stop should be the Kilauea Visitor’s Center. Volcanic activity is quite unpredictable and conditions can change with a moment’s notice. The activities that you plan for may not be the best once you actually arrive. When we stopped by, we were told the best viewing point to see lava and were also told that one of our destinations was closed due to structural damage.
Old Crater Road Overlook: On the day of our visit, the best viewing point for volcanic activity was at the Old Crater Road Overlook. We parked at the Devastation Trailhead and did a 1 mile hike (each way) down Old Crater Road. The volcanic activity was a little underwhelming, but you win some, you lose some.
Kīlauea Iki Crater Trail: From there, we could have done a hike through the Kīlauea Iki Crater by starting at the Devastation Trailhead, but since there still seemed to be plenty of parking, we moved our car to the Kīlauea Iki Overlook and started the Kīlauea Iki Trail from there.
Crater Rim Trail: The Kīlauea Iki Trail starts with the Crater Rim Trail, which would have been a great option for my parents if they would have been with us. It is lush and quite flat.
Kīlauea Iki Crater: From there, we took a cutoff which led us into the Kīlauea Iki Crater. The vegetation quickly disappeared and we were left with clear signs of old volcanic activity. What a delightful way to experience a volcano!
Thurston Lava Tubes: It started raining a bit as we approached the other side of the crater, which can make the rocks more slippery, but also helps prevent overheating. We had hoped to hike to the Thurston Lava Tubes, but they were closed due to structural damage, so we decided to head back on the Crater Rim Trail to the car instead.
Crater Rim Drive: Back at the car, we decided to see some of the viewpoints along Crater Rim Drive, stopping by the Steam Vents and making it as far as Uēkahuna. We could have driven the Chain of Craters Road, but in-the-end decided that we had seen enough and we called it a day.
Hilo: We decided to drive back to Hilo and see if it improved on a second visit. We picked up some takeout poke, got some shave ice, and went back to the Liliʻuokalani Gardens again. The boys enjoyed playing on a little island that they discovered.
Evening Visit to Volcanoes National Park: Meanwhile, my parents had spent the day driving around the south side of the island, and made it to Volcanoes National Park in the evening. If you want the most spectacular views of the lava, this is the time to visit. Of course, hiking is probably not advised at this time of the day.
Read: The full post on Volcanoes National Park.
Day 7: Manini’owali Beach and Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
Manini’owali Beach: On our seventh day, we decided to hit the beaches again. Not wanting to face another disappointing beach, we decided to head back to our favorite Manini’owali Beach. Between the swimming, snorkeling with sea turtles, and playing in the sand, we had a great time!
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation: Once we had enough sun, we decided to head towards the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, where we received a fairly interesting free 30 minute tour. They used to have longer tours by reservation only, but these have been paused due to covid.
Historic Kailua Village: On the way back to our apartment, we decided to stop by Historic Kailua Village for some souvenir shopping and some shave ice.
Read: The full post on Manini’owali Beach and Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation.
Day 8: A Quick Overnight in Waikiki, Oahu
Trying to show my parents a different side of Hawaii, we decided to add an overnight on the island of Oahu to our itinerary (and also break up the flights home). Without a car, staying at Waikiki Beach is idea. It is only a 20 minute Uber ride from the airport and has plenty to do. In the end, it probably would have been better to have a slightly longer stay, but we still had fun.
Waikiki Shopping Area: Not being able to check into our hotel and change into our beach gear, we started with lunch and a walk through the shopping area of Waikiki Beach.
Waikiki Beach: Once we were able to check in, the boys wanted to get in the water, so my parents took them to play at the beach while Jeremy and I took a long walk.
Day 9: Departure: Morning on Waikiki Beach
Failed Morning of Surfing: In the morning, we had tried (last minute) to let John surf at Waikiki Beach and checked around for the earliest surf rentals. Finding a beachside shop that we thought would work, we arrived for their opening hour, but things didn’t quite work out as intended. Always keep “Hawaii time” in mind when you are planning precisely timed activities, the locals don’t always adhere to a strict schedule! Fortunately, the rest of our trip was nice enough to counterbalance this one snafu.
Read: The full post on a Quick Overnight in Waikiki, Oahu.
Flight to Phoenix: Heading to the airport, we were looking forward to our upcoming American Southwest Road Trip!
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