A gorgeous chain of eight major islands strung across the mid-Pacific, Hawaii is one of the best, and most exotic, parts of the US. It is also – for many travellers – the most distant part of the country. Too far away for children? Not at all. If you take things at an easy pace to adjust to the time difference (Hawaii exists 6 hours behind the East Coast), it’s a tropical paradise for family vacations. And while famous Oahu, is often considered the most child-friendly section of the islands, there is much to be said for an escape to “The Big Island” as the main island of Hawaii is colloquially known. Easily the largest of all the islands – so enormous that it is greater in size than the other seven combined – this is Hawaii at its most rugged and breathtaking. Here, giant volcanoes spew and spit lava, offering thrilling (but safe) geography lessons to junior visitors. Lovely beaches and comfortable hotels seal the deal.
HILO, on Hawaii’s eastern shore, is a fine place to start. Not only is this where the airport is located, but it’s also where paradise meets the real world, with pockets of schools and homes as well as hotels. Here you can begin to relax and shrug off any jet-lag within earshot of ocean waves. Carlsmith Beach Park is one of several gorgeous locations on the land’s edge – nothing says relaxing beach vacation like a grassy enclave where you can eat a picnic under palm trees. And while the beach may be rocky, there is a sandy bottom to the shallows where the water is warm and clear enough for swimming and snorkeling. Lucky guests may even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle or two.
STAY The Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is a pleasing mid-range retreat with a big outdoor freshwater pool and family-sized rooms.
Drive 30 miles southwest on the 11 into the heart of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (nps.gov/havo; $25 per vehicle, permit valid for seven days). This geological wonder frames two fiery mountains. By most calculations, Mauna Loa is the world’s largest volcano, a bulky giant rising to 13,679 ft. But it is its neighbour, Kilauea, that is the star attraction. Though it’s the smaller of the two at 4091 ft, Kilauea is known for a temper that has seen it erupt almost continuously since 1983. Its astonishing fury can be watched (without danger) from the observation deck which looks into the Halema’uma’u Crater next to the Thomas A Jaggar Museum (which explains both how scientists study volcanoes, and how, occasionally, as its exhibits reveal, see their clothing catch flame). Both the museum and platform are part of “Crater Rim Drive,” an iconic 11-mile route for cars which takes a circular path around Kilauea’s wide rim. Other landmarks on this high-wire road include the Nahuku-Thurston Lava Tube. Hidden at the end of a half-mile hiking trail, this hole in the earth is open to be explored by tourists, who can now walk where lava once raced.
STAY: Remarkably, you can sleep in the national park. Volcano House provides hotel and cabin accommodation on the lip of the Halema’uma’u Crater and there are bikes available which are free to use.
Distance in the day: 41 miles.
Linger in the national park and drive its other great “highway” – the incomparable “Chain of Craters Road.” This 19-mile stretch showcases Hawaii’s craggy majesty as it plunges down Kilauea’s southern side, twisting and winding down 3700 ft all the way to the ocean. It slices through incredible volcanic scenery and veers so close to eruption points that it has had to be repaired several times in the last three decades, after being overrun by lava (clear national park warnings will tell you whether the road is affected by volcanic activity during your stay).
Take the road at a leisurely pace, pausing at landmarks such as the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs (a “gallery” of some 23,000 human figures). These ancient drawings were scratched into cooled lava by indigenous Hawaiians between 1200 and 1450 and are visible from a 1.5-mile boardwalk trail. The unforgettable route ends at the ocean with one final attraction: The Holei Sea Arch is a 90 ft gap blasted through the cliff-face by the insistent force of the Pacific Ocean.
Distance in the day: 38 miles.
Leave Volcano House and the national park, and forge west on the 11, which runs around the lower portion of Mauna Loa before turning north up Hawaii’s west coast. Take a quick break from your journey at Manuka State Wayside, a protected site at the island’s southwest corner where a two-mile trail dissects a leafy realm. Further north, Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park marks the spot where explorer Captain James Cook “discovered” the island in 1779. A monument salutes his memory above a beach that offers excellent snorkeling.
STAY: Roll to a finish at KAILUA-KONA, the prime holiday hotspot on Hawaii’s west coast. Here, the Royal Kona Resort is a pleasant option for kids, with its outdoor pool, tennis courts and sunset views.
Distance in the day: 96 miles.