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Hawaii with Kids: Little Adventures on the Big Island

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National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott recently visited Hawaii with his family. This is his first report.

There’s a surprise waiting around every corner on Hawaii’s big island.

Like the time we ran out of road. We were dizzy with jetlag and like most tourists from the mainland, a little confused.

“Dad, I’m hungry,” my middle son, Iden, complained from the back of the minivan. 

Was it dinnertime? But the sun, high on the horizon, said: “morning.”

Where were we? The map didn’t make sense. We were driving north on Highway 270 to…somewhere? But then the world came into sharp focus: A small parking lot, a cliff, and a black-sand beach below, bordering a seemingly endless North Pacific Ocean.

We’d discovered Pololū Valley Lookout.

A narrow path led to the beach. Signs warned us of multiple-choice mishaps, from falling rock to a dangerous undertow. But we couldn’t resist Polulū’s appeal, a kind of beauty you’re only accustomed to seeing on postcards or the silver screen (Jurassic Park, Lost, or pretty much any film with a tropical setting).

Iden tumbled toward the ocean. But our oldest son, Aren, was content to take a few steps down the path and then turn around. He dreaded the hike back up the hill, a sentiment the adults shared. We compromised and went halfway down the path until we reached a vantage point from which we could see the entire valley.

This may be one of the least-visited parts of the Big Island, but it is some of the most memorable. Surprises are not limited to here, though.

If you fly into Kona, as we did – a place famous for its coffee – you can’t miss the centuries-old lava that makes the island look like a lunar landscape. The black, lifeless rock contrasts to the ocean, teeming with life.

One place overlooked by a lot of visitors is the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. The Aloha State has no choice but to find and tap renewable resources, such as wind, solar and geothermal energy, because there are no naturally occurring fossil fuels, explained its executive director, Guy Toyama.

Nearby businesses like Big Island Abalone piggyback on some of the renewable energy resources, like cold seawater, to farm tasty Abalone. Aren tried to sample the Abalone, but found that it was … well, let’s just call it an acquired taste.

Another surprise: the microclimates. Down in the valley, amid the beaches and black volcanic rock near our room at Mauna Lani Point, it’s desert; in the foothills overlooking the North Pacific where cows and horses graze, it’s Mediterranean, up on the Mauna Kea Observatories, there’s an alpine climate; and as you weave northward along Highway 19, it’s tropical rainforest. As it turns out, most of the world’s microclimates are represented on the island of Hawaii.

Wait, did I just say cows and horses? I sure did. This island is known for its farming and ranching, and up in Waimea, you might think you’re lost in the Old West. We had a chance to tour a new attraction, the historic Anna’s Ranch nearby. The kids were taught how to rope a cow and crack a whip, while the adults learned about the life of the ranch’s namesake, Anna Leialoha Lindsey Perry-Fiske.

Perry-Fiske is something of a legend on this part of the island, a fearless rancher who could ride, rope and mend fences with the best of them. Her home is now a museum and showcase for preserving some of the old traditions on the Big Island.

Maybe the biggest surprise was the volcano, easily accessibly from our accommodations at the appropriately-named Lava Rock Villa. Aren is fascinated by natural disasters, and Hawaii’s Big Island is, in geological terms, a natural disaster waiting to happen. That has happened, actually. There are steam vents, lava flows, mountains crumbling into the ocean, and the occasional tsunami.

The place to go to see almost all of the above is Volcanoes National Park and the guy who took us there — to Kilauea, to be precise — was Rob Pacheco of Hawaii Forest & Trail, a tour operator. Seeing this formidable volcano is a life-changing experience. There’s lava, smoke, danger signs, and anything else you might need to make a parent’s pulse quicken. No children were harmed during the making of this video.

The kids now have a very healthy respect for nature. So do their parents.

The only unpleasant surprise is that Hawaii’s Big Island is often overlooked in favor of its flashier cousins, Oahu and Maui. No disrespect to those destinations, but if you come to Hawaii and don’t see the Big Island, it should come as no surprise that you’re missing one of the most fascinating parts.

Read more of Christopher Elliott in his monthly column, The Insider, and at his blog,

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