Hawaii's Big Island Kona approved for all ages

With 11 of the planet’s 13 climate zones, Hawaii’s Big Island is more diverse than entire continents, yet small enough to drive around in an afternoon.

Ages 3+

Biology & History

Travel is a swift and engaging teacher, but I still don’t quite believe what I am hearing.

In fact, I thought I misheard my three-year-old son’s request—obstructed by its high-pitched delivery and made even more nasally by the goggles that had slid down over his SPF-40-caked nose. But as I push his paddle board back aboard the Fair Wind II, the 60-foot catamaran anchored in the blue, teeming waters of Kealakekua Bay, south of Kona, HI, he demands again.

“I want to see where Captain Cook died!” he yells. I’m not exactly sure where he picked up on the historical significance of our snorkelling spot that day where, 232 years prior, the revered English explorer met his watery grave at the hands of perturbed locals. But it must have had something to do with the mellow narrative delivered by our captain, piped over the catamaran’s speakers during the one-hour sailing south from Kona along the parched, black lava-encrusted west coast of the Big Island. Then there is the gaggle of under-10 year-olds who listen to and analyze every factoid like a Justin Bieber tweet.

History doesn’t get more exciting than when it’s being recalled with blissed-out family members tickled by the same ancient trade winds that have seduced explorers for centuries.

Not surprisingly, this 4.5-hour adventure—bookended by a buffet breakfast and a barbecue lunch stacked high with organic and locally grown goodies, and including complimentary snorkelling gear for every age—is the 40-year-old company’s bread and butter.

With about 30 minutes left of our 2.5-hour snorkelling window, I give in to my wiggling anthropologist and push his boogie board—a modified rubber-ringed glass viewer for kids too young for a mask and snorkel—along the bay’s 100-foot lava cliffs to the white Captain Cook Monument.

When we actually arrive at the obelisk, my son, the history buff, resumes being my son, the three-year-old, entranced by what is under us: the Big Island’s only underwater state park teeming with iridescent marine bounty like the Oval Butterfly Fish, crimson octopi and languid sea turtles. Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides (US$129 for adults; US$75 for children 4–12; US$29 for children 3 and under)

Ages 5+

Rays of light

If it wasn’t for the need to resurface for air every 20 seconds or so, night-diving with monstrously large (but completely docile and wonderfully sting-free) mantas off the rocky outcrop of the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa just south of Kona would be indistinguishable from a floating dream. The descent into this invisible world starts at sunset aboard a dive boat and quickly escalates to lying straight on the surface of the black Pacific, staring down at a diver whose lights attract the plankton that attracts the 10-foot-wide mantas. Their electro-reception tells them exactly what’s in the way, which means they swim right at you, only to pivot at the last second. The flying grey giants, the stillness of an ocean at night and the ethereal lights of the staff divers makes this attraction a favourite. Fair Wind Ocean Guides (US$99)

Ages 8+

SUP, Dude

Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) is one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world, and a 90-minute lesson from one of the mellow instructors at Kona Boys will have you paddling in no time. After a 30-minute orientation, newbies glide their boards into the calm Kamakahonu Bay in front of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel in the heart of Kona town. Kona Boys Beach Shack (From US$75 per person)

The only way to fly

If there’s one Hawaiian island with the best bang for your helicopter buck, it’s the Big Island. The three-hour Volcano and Valley Landing trip is a terrific geography lesson, thanks, in large part, to owner Calvin Dorn. He swoops his six-passenger helicopter through furry-green valleys on the island’s remote north side, right up to  920 m (2,800-ft.) waterfalls, and then southeast through the interior, over lava flows and lush cloud forest to the star of the show: the Kilauea volcano’s neon-orange lava flow. Paradise Helicopters (From US$400)

Ages 10+

Go to space

38 Mauna Kea sunrise. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Touism Authority and Kirk Lee Aeder

Only on the Big Island can travellers summit the highest mountain in the world (when measured from the ocean floor). After reaching the top of Mauna Kea, watch the brightest stars visible from Earth. How bright is the view from the 13,800-foot summit? Over the next five years, the most powerful (and—at US$1.2 billion—one of the most expensive) telescopes on the planet will open on the summit, despite local reservation about the scientific community encroaching on a sacred site and its archeological bounty. (There are already 13 telescopes up there.) Hawaii Forest & Trail (US$189 for an eight-hour tour)

All ages

Visit sacred Hawaii

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is a place frozen in time. The sparse, reconstructed 16th-century Hawaiian temples (called heiau) are some of the best-preserved in the state, and dominate the heavenly, 180-acre seaside grounds. Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (US$5 per car)