Family Travel: A Short Guide to Hawaii, The Big Island

Let Hawaii Happen.

It’s one of the official hashtags (#LetHawaiiHappen) of Hawaii, The Big Island, and also the perfect description of what travel with a three-year-old really looks like. You can plan all you like, but as we have learned over the years, if you go with the flow and let the day unfold you’re in for an enjoyable ride. Take time to discover the details along the way (toddlers are the perfect guides for pointing out these overlooked wonders!) and you’ll have an even richer experience.

Exploring at Waialea Bay/Beach 69. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Exploring at Waialea Bay/Beach 69. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

In Hawaii, you’ll find beauty in the details, as much as the sights it’s famous for. Being twice the size as the other Hawaiian islands combined, this island beckons you to explore. Here you’ll find 8 of the world’s 13 “climate zones”, so plan ample time so that you can get a good taste of all it has to offer. A lot of these experiences are toddler-friendly (except for maybe the coffee sampling), but you’ll need to consider driving times when you’re clipping your kid into that car seat. Have some stops in mind for the longer journeys, and you’re set.

Hawaii is a big island with lots of possibilities for your trip! This article is by no means comprehensive. Instead, these recommendations are purely based on our experiences as a family. Consider them suggestions and make your trip your own! 

Taking in the sights at Akaka Falls. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Taking in the sights at Akaka Falls. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

When to Go

This is a year-round destination, with an incredibly consistent climate and little variance month by month (there is only a 3.5°C difference between the daily averages for the coldest and hottest months in Kona). When you go is up to you, but keep in mind peak holiday seasons, such as March break, and events like the Kona IRONMAN World Championship when you’re booking.

Getting Around

Everything here requires driving, unless you are staying at one of the few beachside resorts and plan on staying there the whole time. If you’d like to do some exploring and experience this island’s diversity – from beaches to volcanoes – I highly recommend you rent a car and bring your own car seat for your child. There is a bus service to/from Hilo and Kona, but you need to get to the bus stops and that may be an issue if you’re travelling with a toddler. Taxis are on the pricey side.

Wild child on the beach at Waialea Bay - complete with beach hair. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Wild child on the beach at Waialea Bay – complete with beach hair. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

Where to Stay/What to Eat

You’ll find accommodation options of all kinds throughout Hawaii, from beachside resorts to hotels in bustling Kailua and vacation rentals. Our personal preference was to rent a place through VRBO or a similar site, especially because we were staying for a few weeks. We found a place at a very reasonable price, which allowed us to keep our costs down, cook for ourselves when it was convenient and find the right sleeping arrangements (all parents know how important this is!). Plus, our accommodations came with beach towels, boogie boards, Netflix and more!

For Hawaii, The Big Island, I highly recommend staying in the Kona area. Our prime location close to the intersection of Ka’iminani Dr. and Palani Dr. meant we had quick 15-minute access to ‘downtown’ Kailua/Kona, to driving south via HWY 11, north-east via HWY 190, or to beach country (Hapuna Beach State Park was just 35 minutes away).

I hope you're a coffee lover because you're in some of the world's best coffee country. Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
I hope you’re a coffee lover because you’re in some of the world’s best coffee country. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

For food, a vacation rental with a kitchen allows you to cook many of your own meals, but otherwise, we enjoyed eating out at one of the many restaurants in the area. Our favs? Daylight Mind Coffee Company, Splashers Grill and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (Maya’s pick) – all by the seaside in Kailua/Kona. For cappuccinos, our favourite was Kona Mountain Coffee. The malasadas at Punalu’u Bake Shop (the southernmost bakery in the USA) were to die for!

What to Do

Here’s the really exciting part! Hawaii has plenty to do, with or without your toddler in tow (if you’re lucky like us and brought a grandparent/babysitter along for part of the trip).


We loved Hapuna Beach State Park (be careful in the water with a little one and watch for big waves), Waialea Bay/Beach 69 (a big more rugged feeling with lots of shade)and the beach next to the Kailua Pier, outside the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.


Sure, it’s something you can do at home, but all kids need to get their zoomies out (and parents need a place to pass some time). Our favourites were the playground at the Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area and the massive Kamakana Playground at Higashihara Park.


These are perfect for little toddlers, who need protection from waves and undertow if parents are going to feel relaxed. Try Wawaloli Beach State Park (find the tide pool to the very left of the parking lot) and the Two Step area near Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. At Two Step, parents can take their turns snorkelling.


We decided to do Hawaii Volcanoes National Park without the little one since it requires a fair amount of driving from Kona, and she is still too young to appreciate it. Highlights of the park include the Kilauea Caldera, Thurston Lava Tube and Jaggar Museum. Give yourself ample time to check out all the hikes, roadside stops and the Chain of Craters Road.

Other Sights and Activities

This island has plenty more to explore, so tack these onto your journey to the eastern side of the island or make them destinations in themselves: go see Akaka Falls (442 feet high!) in Akaka Falls State Park, sample and buy coffee and macadamia nuts at the Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative near Captain Cook, take in the remarkable murals at The Painted Church (St. Benedict’s), dig your feet into the black sands and explore the solidified lava at Punalu’u Beach, and peruse the various stands at the Kona Farmers Market near the intersection of Hualalai Road and Ali’i Dr.

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

Other Tips

I highly recommend you download the GyPSy Guide app for Hawaii, The Big Island, which uses GPS points to provide an audio tour as you drive. You’ll learn so much! And the great thing is it doesn’t use your phone’s data, just battery (so bring a battery charger, if you can).

For more information and ideas, visit Hawaii, The Big Island.

I’m more than happy to answer specific questions if you have any. Fire away in the comments below!

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

5 thoughts

    1. Perhaps you missed my little comment under Things To Do. 🙂 For the first time EVER we had a grandparent with us and it was amazing! We mostly did stuff with the group of us, but occasionally took our turns with the little one so that the others could go off and do ‘adult’ stuff. It was magic.

  1. Sounds like a great time! This will be super helpful when my family makes a trip out there… Look forward to more.

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