Escape from the mainland and enjoy the gorgeous scenery, relaxed attitude, and abundance of island activities at welcoming prices.
By Ellen H. Parlapiano
Volcanoes rule! You'll find five here, including one of the world's most active, Kilauea. Among other grand-scale attractions: waterfalls, rainforests, black- and green-sand beaches, and the mighty Mauna Kea, at an altitude of almost 14,000 feet. Nibble your way through Hilo's Farmers' Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays—great for souvenir-shopping too. Plan to stay on both sides of this massive island: the sunny Kona-Kohala coast, and the eastern end, closer to the lava flows.
Free for all: Soak away stress while kids snorkel and swim around you in the volcanically heated Ahalanui thermal spring, which has lifeguards, showers, and awesome ocean views. Cool down in the mist of two waterfalls at Akaka Falls State Park, north of Hilo. At Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, on the western coast, see ruins of an ancient temple as well as black-tip sharks (once worshipped by Hawaiians), said to circle a sunken altar. You can spot humpback whales from many points on the island, December through May, and help marine biologists count them on the last Saturday in March (hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov).
Adventures in Paradise: At Volcanoes National Park ($10 per car), hike or bike alongside vast craters, dried lava fields, and smoking steam vents, pausing to walk through the underground Thurston Lava Tube. If Mother Nature cooperates, watch lava slide into the sea from the viewing area at the end of Highway 130 in the Puna district (check eruption conditions at lavainfo.us). It's a splurge, but for a jaw-dropping, close-up view of the hot stuff, take a Lava Ocean Adventures boat tour (adults, $180; kids, $125; lavaocean.com). The Kohala coast is known for snorkeling—the crystal-clear cove at Kahaluu Beach Park is perfect for beginners. Or try something more surreal: a night snorkel with gentle manta rays. Guides at Kona Honu Divers set lanterns on the sea floor, illuminating the 12-foot rays as they gracefully glide around you ($80; konahonudivers.com).
Where to Stay: Kids will never be bored at Kohala's Hilton Waikoloa Village, an enormous resort with a kayaking lagoon, waterslides, and lazy rivers. Hike trails and see petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings), or simply chill at the spa (which offers teen treatments). Rates start at $179 per night (waikoloabeachresort.com). To be nearest to Volcanoes National Park, stay at Kilauea Lodge, a charming B&B located just a mile from park gates. Rooms with fireplaces start at $170 for double occupancy and $185 for cottages; $20 for each additional guest, includes breakfast (kilauealodge.com). Another volcano-viewing option is Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, about 30 minutes from the park, and close to Hilo's Farmers' Market. The harborside hotel has a freshwater pool, buffet restaurant, and rooms starting at $99 a night (castleresorts.com/home/accommodations/hilo-hawaiian-hotel).