Hawaii has a wonderful mixture of warm weather activities along with active explorations of the natural world.
WHICH AGE GROUPS ENJOY THIS AREA?
- INFANTS AND TODDLERS: No
- GRAMMAR-SCHOOL AGED CHILDREN: Yes, as long as they enjoy active excursions
- TWEENS: Yes
- TEENS: Yes
Hawaii is a great family destination because it has a wonderful mixture of warm weather activities - such as snorkeling - along with active explorations of the natural world, including touring volcanoes and scenic canyons. Add to that the cultural lore of the Hawaiian Islands and you have the perfect place for a fun, hands-on learning vacation for your entire family.
However, I do not suggest Hawaii for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers. Having brought my 22- month-old son from the East Coast to Hawaii for a cruise years ago, it seemed a waste of money for my son as well as for his dad and me who had to take turns doing non-active things with him while in port. Another thing to consider is the long plane ride or two to get to Hawaii. Thus you should consider waiting until your child is in grammar school before you check out the Hawaiian Islands by cruise ship.
HOW TO CUT DOWN ON THE WHINE FACTOR:INFANTS, TODDLERS AND CHILDREN: Pack LOTS of small toys, coloring and sticker books and a portable DVD player (or laptop) on which your little one can watch videos during your long flight to Hawaii. If you're from the East Coast or Mid West, this is especially important. These quiet activities are also helpful in the wee hours of the morning if your little one is like mine, who woke up at the crack of dawn due to the time change.
WHEN TO GO:
This region is perfect for cruising year round. Just keep in mind that from June to August the water is warmer for swimming but the land is hot. For that reason, I would NOT choose a shore tour that is primarily on land during the summer. Hanging out in the water during the summer is a MUST to avoid whining.
PORT TIPS FOR TOTS:
Most of the Hawaiian ports do not directly lead to a part of town that is good for pedestrian walking. Thus keep in mind that rather than using your stroller a lot in port, you'll be putting your infant or toddler on an excursion bus (not my favorite thing to do with an infant or toddler); hopping in a cab; or renting a car. Make sure you pack a car seat with you in case you rent a car.
FAMILY PHOTO OPS:
Family photo opportunities abound in each island. Some favorites are with the backdrop of:
- Waimea Canyon in Kauai
- Waikiki beach and Diamond Head in Oahu
- The summit of Haleakala (in Maui) prior to biking down
- The smoking craters of Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island
HOW TO SAVE MONEY:
CAR RENTALS: I found that renting a car makes most sense for families in Hawaiian ports. Car rentals for a day are very reasonable in Hawaii and they give you the flexibility to explore at your children's pace. For example, when my son was 22 months old, we rented a car in Kauai and explored Waimea Canyon. Since it was his naptime, we were able to take turns enjoying the various look-out spots in Waimea Canyon with our older daughter, while the other one stayed in the car with our napping son. Most of the major car rental companies have pick up facilities near the Hawaii ports - look for those which have a free pick-up shuttle from the port.
DISCOUNTED SHORE TOURS: Alternatively, you may want to book shore excursions through two slightly discounted web sites prior to your cruise: http://www.portpromotions.com and http://www.shoretrips.com. These websites allow you to book popular shore excursions worldwide at rates that are often (but not always) lower than the cruise lines'. For example, typical rates range from $5 to $15 off a standard cruise line rate per person. A representative from this company meets you pier side and your shore excursion will often include passengers from other ships in port.
KAUAI: (Nawiliwili) There are a number of active things to do with your family that are within a cab ride of the port. Zip lining is popular in Hawaii especially with tweens and teens. Kauai Backcountry Adventures www.kauaibackcountry.copm) is a short cab ride from the port. Similarly, you can take a taxi (www.kauaitaxico.com) from the port to Kayak Kauai (www.kayakkauai.com) where you can kayak up the Wailua River and hike into the rainforest to see Secret Falls. This beautiful waterfall also has a swimming hole. Another option is Kalapaki Beach which is only a 10-minute walk from the pier and located by the Marriott hotel.
There's also lots to do if you rent a car on Kauai. For example, Kauai's best beach life centers around Poipu Beach, a 30-minute drive from the pier. This resort area is full of family-friendly beaches where you can ride horses, cycle, or rent snorkel equipment. Make sure you stop at Spouting Horn geyser, a lava tube located surfside that shoots water as high as 50 feet.
We spent most of our day exploring breathtaking Waimea Canyon. Dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, it has many lookout points along the winding roadway. This is a wonderful spot to take a family photo, with the many-hued peaks and valleys as a backdrop.
MAUI: (Kahului) From Kahului, you can take a 10 to 15 minute cab ride to Pride of Maui Molokini snorkel tour. Make sure you reserve a morning tour as afternoon ones don't always get to Molokini (an island off of Maui) due to trade winds. Also from Kahului, there is a shuttle bus that operates between the pier and the Maui Ocean Center. Known as the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere, this is perfect for families with younger children.
MAUI: Lahaina: You may also want to consider renting a car and driving 45 minutes to the other side of the island to explore Lahaina. This quaint town was a whaling center in the 1800s and is great for walking around and shopping. From November to May, you can go on a whale watch in Lahaina at the Pacific Whale Foundation (www.pacificwhale.org). Younger children enjoy viewing undersea life via Atlantis Submarines (www.atlantisadventures.com).
BIG ISLAND (Hilo): You can actually see more of Volcanoes National Park (www.nps.gov.havo) independently in a rented car than via an organized tour, including the possibility of hiking out to see the active flow. Don't miss Thurston Lava Tube which shows how lava formed to create a huge tube you can walk through.
BIG ISLAND (Kona): If you opt to rent a car here, you can explore the historical sights along the Kohala Coast (see Puukohola Heiau National Historical park at www.nps.gov/puhe) as well as the lovely white sand beaches of Hapuna Beach State Park. There is also parasailing here with pick-up from the port (UFO Parasailing at www.ufoparasailing.com) or Atlantis Submarine (www.atlantisadventures.com).
OAHU: (Honolulu) You should definitely rent a car if you're staying in Oahu pre- or post cruise since there's much to see. Obviously Pearl Harbor and Arizona Memorial are must-sees (www.nps.gov/vair). Get there very early to avoid long lines. You'll receive a timed ticket for viewing the short documentary film, followed by the launch ride to the poignant Arizona Memorial. Also in Pearl Harbor is the USS Missouri, known as the "Mighty Mo." This massive ship was instrumental in many wars and was the site of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII.
Diamond Head is a long hot climb - I suggest you start early in the day and only take older children/teens on this trek.
My favorite independent excursion in Oahu was to the Polynesian Cultural Center, a 1-1/2 hour drive from Honolulu to the northeastern side of Oahu. This 42-acre attraction features seven different Polynesian island cultures each with its own simulated village where there are hands-on activities going on. For example, we saw a man climb a coconut tree and crack open the coconuts with only a small stone in the Samoa village area. There is a daily canoe pageant that showcases each culture through costumes and dance that is not to be missed. On the way back to Honolulu, stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation for a tour of the working farm.
SPLURGING: OTHER MUST-SEE SHORE EXCURSIONS FOR FAMILIES:
Note: The following are a few family-friendly tours or excursions that are accessed easiest via organized short excursion either purchased through your cruise line or the independent shore excursion companies mentioned above.
BIG ISLAND: (Kona) We went on a shore excursion called Eco Safari and Snorkel and we found it varied and active. First we learned all about orchids at Hawaii Orchids; then we stopped at Lava Tree State Park, where lava once flowed, leaving trees that now look like lava statues. Next stop was Kapoho Coral Gardens, a perfect spot for beginners to learn how to snorkel, since the water is shallow and protected from waves. Our last stop was at Ahalanui Park, home to a natural geothermal pool.
Another family friendly excursion is lush Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden where you can stroll the paths amid tropical foliage and view many exotic birds.
Youngsters who have ridden a horse before will like an excursion into Waipo Valley, known as cowboy country. Your family can also opt for the mule drawn wagon ride through this scenic countryside.
MAUI: (Kahului) The well-known Haleakala downhill bike tour is a good choice for those with tweens and teens who are in good shape. It's either a sunrise or day journey down 38 miles with amazing scenery along the way.
Another shore excursion option is Iao Valley, known as the Yosemite of the Pacific. This is a good place to explore by foot since there are many easy hikes there as well as a family-friendly visitor center. The most photographed spot is Iao Needle, a 1,200-foot rock formation.
There is also a half-day shore excursion to Kaanapali Beach which is a 45 minute bus ride from the port to a resort hotel and beach.
MAUI: (Lahaina) Lahaina's beach is one of the spots where surfing lessons are given via cruise ship shore excursions. Tweens and teens really enjoy learning how to hang ten. There are also a number of luaus for dinner and entertainment in the Lahaina area. If your child is into high action, though, then pass on these.
KAUAI: (Nawiliwili) Helicopter tours abound from Lihue Airport heliport. While these excursions are very pricey, you'll never forget the birds-eye view you'll have of Waimea Canyon.
If you don't want to rent a car but would like a beach day, opt for the Poipu Beach package.
OAHU (Honolulu): If your flight home post-cruise does not leave until late in the day, opt for the Pearl Harbor shore excursion that most cruise lines offer for you to take between disembarkation time and the time you need to be at the airport.
On a lighter side, kids enjoy Sea Life Park (www.sealifeparkhawaii.com) and their dolphin interaction programs; book these ahead of time.