There is no other state in the nation quite like Hawaii. Families consistently rank the islands as one of their top vacation destinations for many reasons, including aesthetics. Our 50th state is truly one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, with dramatic geography dominated by volcanoes, palm trees, and pristine beaches. So what is a family to do once they hop off the airplane and set foot on Hawaiian soil? Here are our top ten things for families to do in Hawaii.
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10. See a Volcano
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The Hawaiian Islands wouldn’t exist without volcanic activity. The island chain continues to grow because of these lava spewing behemoths, with over 500 acres of new land created on the Big Island by Kilauea since 1983. If you want to see an active volcano, lava flows, and (if you’re lucky) new land being formed, there is no better place than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kids will love exploring lava tubes, hiking lava fields, and seeing steam rise from the volcanic vents. Depending on the flow’s distance from the road and the direction of the wind, it may be possible to get pretty close to an active flow, just heed park ranger advice and current warnings.
The sunrises on Haleakala are the stuff of legends. Every day, hundreds of people make a pre-dawn pilgrimage up the mountain to Haleakala National Park’s visitor center observation deck at 9,740 feet in elevation. The weather is very chilly (temperatures are usually in the 40’s) but the colors are spectacular. Once the sun has put on its show, consider hiking one of the park’s trails before biking down the volcano. That’s right, I said bike down the volcano. One of my favorite Hawaiian memories was taking the two-wheeled journey back down the mountain to sea level. This experience is best suited for experienced riders age 10 and up that have a good grasp on the concept of braking because pedaling is pretty much non-existent on this downhill adventure.
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9. Swim with the Fish
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Much of the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands can be found under the sea, so strap on some fins, throw on a mask, and start exploring. Hanauma Bay is the most popular spot for tourists to snorkel on Oahu due to its proximity to Waikiki, but my favorite spot on the island is Sharks Cove inside Pupukea Beach Park on the North Shore. Though the name may sound ominous, the destination is pure paradise. The reef is filled with tropical fish including tang, parrot fish, perch, and even a few sea turtles! Families that have visited Kauai recommend Ke’e Beach for snorkeling. On Maui, Molokini Crater and Black Rock are two of the most popular spots while on the Big Island Kahaluu and Kealakekua Bay are amongst the most popular spots to see bright fish swimming about.
8. Experience a Hike that Leaves You in Awe
It is so easy to get comfortable at a beachfront resort and never actually see Hawaii beyond the rides to and from the airport. I consider that a travesty! The natural beauty of these diverse islands can be explored on a variety of family-friendly hikes. On Oahu, Diamond Head is definitely the most popular and while the trip to the top is both steep and hot, it is certainly worth the effort. The trail to Makapuu Lighthouse is quite arid compared to the lushness of the rainforest hike to Manoa Falls, but both are incredible experiences for outdoor lovers. On Maui, families can hike the lunar-looking crater on Haleakala or the emerald green Iao Valley. On Kauai, the most dramatic views can be found while walking along the dramatic Napali Coast, but this cliffside hike is best done with teens and tweens.
Before visiting Haleakala on Maui make sure to check out this guide to Haleakala National Park.
7. Encounter Sea Life and More
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Hawaii’s waters are filled with all sorts of incredible critters. Turtles are among the most popular sea animals that visitors are hoping to catch a glimpse of. Punaluu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island and Poipu Beach on Kauai are both great places to spot a sea turtle, aka honu, swimming in the water. Honu are often seen at Lanikea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, basking in the sun directly on the beach. If your dream is to see dolphins or whales swimming freely in the ocean, there are several outfitters specializing in tours. Maui is especially popular with whale watchers during the winter months. If you want to guarantee a dolphin sighting, Oahu’s Sea Life Park is a sure thing. For a more adrenaline-inducing adventure, consider Hawaii Shark Encounters which operate on Oahu’s North Shore. The company takes guests out on boats and into shark cages to see massive Galapagos Sharks in the wild; an experience definitely on my to-do list! Finally, if you would rather stick to creatures that live on land, head to the Honolulu Zoo to see gibbons, Galapagos tortoises, cheetahs, and more.
6. Experience the Rich History of the Pacific Monuments
On December 7, 1941, the course of United States history was forever changed. The Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 American military personnel and civilians. Today, Pearl Harbor is home to five different historic sites that serve as both memorials and museums. The most well-known memorial is the USS Arizona Memorial, but the USS Oklahoma Memorial, a memorial dedicated to the crewman of this ship who lost their lives that day, is also worth visiting. Two vessels that played a part in World War II are open for exploration. The USS Bowfin Submarine Museum tells the story of the battle waged under the sea and gives visitors an opportunity to see what submarine life was like. The USS Missouri allows families the opportunity to head onboard a real battleship. Kids that love airplanes will really enjoy the Pacific Aviation Museum where authentic World War II planes such as B-25B Bombers are on display in a 42,000 square foot hangar that actually survived the Pearl Harbor attack.
Wonder about budgeting for a trip to Hawaii? Check out this guide to how much a trip to Hawaii costs and tips to not break your budget.
5. Learn about Polynesian History and Culture
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Each of the island groups in Polynesia has developed a unique culture and identity due in part to their remote location and centuries of relative isolation. The Bishop Museum gives visitors the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia. At the Polynesian Cultural Center, families can visit different villages representing various islands around Polynesia including Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii. Families will love all the hands-on activities such as spear throwing, coconut tree climbing, canoe racing, and Samoan cooking, as well as the shows and cultural presentations. Its fascinating Polynesian culture makes this one of the top ten things for families to do in Hawaii.
The past two centuries of Hawaiian history were shaped both by its monarchy and the development of agriculture by colonists. Remnants of the Hawaiian monarchy can be found in places such as Iolani Palace, the former home of King Kalākaua Queen Lili‘uokalani. Sugar cane played a huge role in the colonization of the Hawaiian Islands. Sugar cane trains on Maui, Oahu, and Kauai give adults and older kids a chance to learn about the history of the sugar cane industry in Hawaii while the little ones are tickled pink to be riding a train. Those interested in hearing about pineapple plantation life (and sampling a delicious Dole Whip) should head to the Dole Pineapple Plantation where a train, gardens, and one heck of a botanical maze await.
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4. Enjoy some Classic Hawaii Experiences
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There are just some things that those of us living thousands of miles away from the islands dream of doing on our Hawaiian vacations. Yes, they are cliché, but they are also really fun so I say go for it! Families will have a blast trying poi (which I swear tastes like paste), stuffing themselves full of moist kalua pork, and watching Polynesian performers put on quite a show at luaus such as the Paradise Cove Luau on Oahu or the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui, which consistently rank as the best. After all that great authentic Hawaiian food, you will probably feel the need to work it off. What better way to burn calories than to take surf lessons? Kids as young as young as five or six can learn to surf (probably quicker than us old folks!) at schools such as Surf Academy by Dane Kealoha which have been teaching rookies to surf gentle Waikiki waves for decades. Then, after all that eating and surfing, make sure to save some time to soar above the islands in a helicopter (Trekaroo families love Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours) and take in views of remote waterfalls, active volcanoes, and dramatic coasts.
3. Watch Tropical Waters Plunge over Scenic Falls
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Hawaii is famous for its waterfalls and for good reason- they are jaw-droppingly gorgeous! Many falls are only reachable via helicopter or serious treks through the jungle, but some are quite easy for families to access. On Oahu, the base of 150-foot Manoa Falls is reached via a short, and often wet, hike through the rainforest. On the North Shore, families can take a stroller-friendly walk through the beautifully landscaped gardens of the Waimea Valley Audubon Center which ends at Waimea Falls, a waterfall with a swimmable pool. On Maui, several waterfalls can be spotted while taking the famous Road to Hana, including those at the Seven Sacred Pools. Adventurous families can opt to take the 4-mile hike to Waimoku Falls which is located on the far end of Haleakala National Park. On Kauai, Wailua Falls and Opeakaa Falls are especially easy to reach, making them perfect for families with young kids. The Big Island is home to Rainbow Falls in Hilo and Akaka Falls, the stunner on those famous Go Hawaii commercials.
2. Visit a Neighbor Island
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You’ve flown all the way across the Pacific to visit Hawaii, so why limit your time to one island? Each island has its own personality, geography, and feel. Inter-island flights are short in duration and often quite reasonably priced. If you are looking for big city fun, Oahu’s Honolulu is a great place to visit but if you want to see black sand beaches, volcanoes, and the rainiest city in the USA, the Big Island is the way to go. Kauai is much more “small town” than “big city,” and its lush interior has been the setting of many films, including Jurassic Park. Many families visit Maui (for good reason, it’s a great island), but the small and rural islands of Molokai and Lanai are just across the channel and easily reached by a boat ride or short flight. These islands allow families to catch a glimpse of what Hawaii must have looked like for generations.
Need more guidance on which Hawaiian island to choose? Check out this guide to choosing the best Hawaiian island for your family.
1. Enjoy Hawaii’s Beaches of Many Colors
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It may come as no surprise, but number one on the top ten things for families to do in Hawaii is the beaches. Hawaii is home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, many of which are havens for families. On the Big Island, black sand beaches such as Punaluu are shining examples of Hawaii’s volcanic roots (plus, green sea turtles frequent the waters!). Those looking for a unique experience should consider taking the hike (suitable for adventurous older children) to the Big island’s Green Sand Beach. Many of the beaches that Trekaroo families rank at the top of their lists are full of the powdery white sand. Wailea Beach on Maui’s south shore is fronted by some of the most luxurious resorts in the islands but here’s a secret- all beaches in Hawaii are public so families can enjoy this gorgeous stretch of sand no matter where they are staying. On Oahu’s windward side, Kailua Beach and Lanikai Beach are unbelievably gorgeous and devoid of the masses of tourists that line the beaches of Waikiki. Dr. Beach himself has put these beaches at the top of his rankings for years.
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Looking to explore more? Check out our tide pool guides for the islands: