On our first major vacation in well over a year, our family of five ventured to the Big Island of Hawaii in March. We have a tradition in our family — when you turn 10 years old, you get to pick the family vacation.
This entails not only picking the location, but working on the budget and figuring out when to go, where to stay, and what activities to do. Our daughter Quinlen chose the Big Island because it seemed pretty wild and fun, then the pandemic hit and we postponed our vacation for six months.
Hawaii continues to be a safe bet due to the state’s strict COVID precautions. You must get a COVID test prior to going — a specific test, from a specific place, at a specific time. You must also fill out paperwork online to confirm all your details.
We timed our tests perfectly at a local Walmart and got the results easily before our Yakima outbound flight. Upon landing, we had a second test at the airport. While following these exact protocols caused us some anxiety, all went smoothly for our family. And it was a great preview of what may be to come as the world reopens after the worst of the pandemic.
The Big Island boasts some diverse terrain, including some of the highest rainfall in the United States as well as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and some beautiful white sand beaches. The variety makes it a locale you may want to spend a good 10 days exploring.
We started our trip on the east side of the island near Hilo. From the airport, it took us roughly two hours to drive up and over the crest of the island to the rainiest area.
We booked ourselves into an Airbnb farm stay, a two-bedroom apartment on a working farm tucked away in a lush garden. The kids loved the adventure of hunting for frogs, petting the goats and zooming along on the family zip line.
Whenever possible, we stay at two locations when we travel for over a week to break up the trip and give our kids some variety. It was a learning location, too, and the kids marveled at “shy grass” and the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables grown on the farm.
We had complimentary local coffee and farm-grown mangos and papayas upon arrival in our adorably decorated apartment.
Our first full day on the island was spent at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In advance, we booked a family-friendly scavenger hunt from Creative Soul Scavenger Hunts. We had an active, immersive, and challenging adventure as we explored the art, history and nature of the park.
While we didn’t see any active volcanic activity, the entire park was other-worldly and exciting for our whole family. We hiked and explored and wondered at what lava flow can do to a landscape.
After a few days in Hilo, we headed back across the island, stopping at the famous Punalu’u Beach, which boasts fantastic black sand and, on the day we visited, tons of basking sea turtles. After a few hours of beach time, we continued on the loop road to our two-bedroom rental condo at Magic Sands Beach.
The Big Island does not have expansive, long sand beaches like the other Hawaiian islands due to its recent volcanic activity. Magic Sands Beach is a gorgeous little sand beach, but peculiar. If you don’t time your stay to the right season, there may be no sand at all. Lucky for us, there was plenty of golden, deep sand and it was gorgeous.
The beach was filled with families, there were lifeguards on duty all day and plenty of activities including body boarding, snorkeling, and even the luck of having a sea turtle lazily bump into you as you stood in the surf. Our condo also had a pool, which was a nice reprieve from the beach after a few days. Our house-bound pandemic skin was quickly worn out from the sun, surf and sand.
A mile down the road from Magic Sands is Kahaluu-Keauhou Beach Park, where my husband and son spent one morning surfing while the girls and I explored the shallow, warm lagoon. This beach is also one of the top snorkeling spots on the island.
Always up for an adventure, one afternoon we headed up to Waimea for some horseback riding. We chose Dahana Ranch from several choices due to the reviews.
We were not disappointed.
The ride was over the rolling green hills of a working cattle ranch and every rider was encouraged to ride their own path; nose to tail — the typical vacation trail ride — was highly discouraged. I’m not sure what I would rave about more: the beauty of the landscape or the great horses.
We ended our trip at the Marriott Waikoloa, our third location on the island for our final few nights. Back in March, the island was just waking up from its long pandemic slumber and flights were finally full. But most resorts and restaurants were not staffed adequately, nor did they have the typical supplies on hand.
The Marriott was a nice choice to end the vacation with several pools and a waterslide and great shopping and restaurants within an easy walk. Our son made it his goal to try every virgin pina colada he could find and after about a dozen samples, he found the winning concoction at Foster’s Kitchen near the Marriott. Once the staff knew his goal, they made an extraordinary effort to win.
Our very best beach adventure was Makalawena Beach. This is not for the tentative adventurer though. It includes a slow and careful drive down a pot-hole-filled, long road through a lava field, then a one-mile hike over somewhat tricky terrain. But only the most daring go, so it is all the more heavenly with few people, deep white sand and the bluest water we saw on the entire island.
Hawaii makes taking a vacation easy with abundant resorts, restaurants, shopping, private and unique rental homes as well as epic excursions and adventures. The pattern that fit our family best was two relaxing days at the beach or pool followed by a day doing an excursion. Besides horseback riding and hiking, we also took a chance on deep sea fishing. We learned, unfortunately, that our family is prone to motion sickness.
For next time, we’d love to add these excursions to our Big Island experience: a star gazing tour, kayaking down the Kohala Ditch, an authentic Luau, ziplining, swimming with a manta ray and finally, the quintessential helicopter tour of Waipi’o Valley.