Your children will never be bored in Hawaii, especially on Maui and the Big Island. Besides miles of fantasy beaches, each of these islands offers exciting family adventures: exploring volcanoes, visiting orchid nurseries, driving by waterfalls and snorkeling surrounded by scores of rainbow-colored fish.
In Hawaiian, Haleakala means "house of the sun." Spend a day exploring this dormant volcano, which dominates the island. You can drive, hike or bike down.
Start early, before dawn to see the sunrise hit. At the top, at 10,000 feet, the mountain looms as a moonscape of brown and red craters. White wisps of clouds hang suspended against the gray peaks of lava cones, and the earth inside is a trail of black ashen pebbles and thin quietness. The Visitors' Center here offers a great view, and several informative books to buy. Silverswords, a plant with spindly shooting tendrils that only grows in the high dry lava beds of volcanic peaks, dot the hillsides.
A bicycle tour, from the van ride up, to the bike ride down with a stop for lunch, can take four hours. It's best to go in the morning before the mist obscures some views. Because the mountain features 29 hairpin turns, this exhilarating outing is recommended only for agile parents and children 12 and over who follow directions. The precipice of a mountain is no place for daredevil kids.
Biking lets you savor the scenery, but a car trip gets the same views. As you descend, the scenery changes from earth browns and reds to the greens of koa trees. The wind blows ripples in the pili grass that covers the hillsides. When you pass the eucalyptus grove, the air is pungent and filled with mint. For the last 1,500 feet you'll see cows grazing in meadows and sugar cane fields.
Take the children for breakfast or lunch on Haleakala's slopes at the Kula Lodge, whose inexpensive entrees include omelets, bean soup and burgers.
While on Haleakala, sample the cowboy flair of the "upcountry" with a horseback ride and a stop at Makawao, a small town with a western ambience. Pony Express tours takes you for a two-hour guided ranch ride at 4,200 feet up. While the horses keep an easy walking pace, you enjoy the sweeping vistas of sugar cane fields far down the slopes that reach to the blue Pacific. Minimum age for children is 10. Cost is about $45 for two hours, adult or child. For those who can sit in the saddle for seven hours, Pony Express offers horseback trips into the crater. Information: (808) 878-6698.
Just a few miles from Pony Express, Makawao, a simple town, features local craft shops and galleries along Baldwin Avenue. For some of the best saimin (a native soup of noodles and pork), stop at Kitada's, a one-room cafe where diners squeeze in with others at the yellow Formica tables. For the bargain price of $2.25, you get a steamy bowl big enough for two.
In Maui's seas, boats cruise by schools of whales from December until May as scores of humpbacks crest the waters, birthing their young.
Some of the best snorkeling anywhere can be found at Molikini, a volcanic crater whose conelike crescent breaches the Pacific about an hour's launch from Maalaea Harbor. Because this is a preserve, the tame fish eat from your hands, and even the most blase video tyke will be impressed when tiers of rainbow-colored parrotfish, yellow tangs and blue-and-green wrasse nibble bread from his fingers.
Many boats have "seeboards" equipped with built-in masks so that small children and non-swimmers still can get eyeball to eyeball with the fish. These rent quickly, so reserve one as soon as you get on deck. Most companies include lunch. Four Winds is one of the few that offer a hot barbecue lunch of burgers, chicken or mahi mahi. Although afternoon cruises sail to Molikini, it's best to book the morning trip, as the seas get rougher after 1 p.m.
Back on land, be sure to take the children for a T-shirt-hopping spree in Lahaina, a harbor town with a seafaring history, trendy shops and cheap eats at yogurt, burger and pizza places.
If your children don't turn green at the thought of twisting roads, drive to Hana. But first book an overnight stay, and wear a bathing suit so you can sample the waterfalls and superb beaches.
The Hana road, which stretches from Kahului for 52 miles -- about three hours -- is one of America's great drives. The route presents a panorama of Old Hawaii's best: pineapple fields, black sand beaches, cascading waterfalls, grotto-carved swimming holes and lush vegetation. One sees sweeping vistas of coast, cliffs and clouds, but no hotels, billboards or condos to mar this commune with nature.
One of the first stops: Hookipa Beach, one of Maui's best wind-surfing spots. Hau tree branches canopy the path allowing thin slants of light, but around the next bend the road breaks into bright sun as feathery hillsides of wild mango, guava and papaya trees billow toward the sea. The rustle of 30-foot-high tall bamboo and the rush of waterfalls accompanies the trip across one-lane bridges.
The Big Island
No trip to Hawaii is complete without a visit to the Big Island. This is the Hawaii of legendary volcanoes and landscapes of lava-striped earth, complete with the active volcano Kilauea, which shoots red-hot lava steaming into the Pacific or oozing over a roadside. Here are some Big Island adventures that a family will long remember:
Save an entire day for exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about 30 miles (45 minutes) from Hilo. At the Visitors Center, view the 12-minute volcano film and obtain the "Road Guide to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park," an indispensable book with clear explanations and mile markers that make a self-driven tour easy and informative.
Tour Crater Rim Drive, which makes an 11-mile circuit around Kilauea, taking you through a rain forest of ohia trees and roadsides full of ferns. There are scenic stops at the Kilauea Iki crater, a crusted lava lake 3,000 feet wide, where steam vents form clouds. Other highlights: the Thurston Lava Tube and Devastation Trail. At the lava tube, visitors can walk through the tunnel of a cooled-down lava flow. Along Devastation Trail, a boardwalk through the swath of 1959 lava destruction that felled an ohia tree forest, the contrast of the white gray limbs against the blackish brown ground gives children a sense of volcanic force.
At the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, children will love the exhibits of seismographs and scientific explanations for volcanic eruptions that are coupled with dioramas of the Hawaiian legends of Pele. The Chain of Craters road takes you 25 miles past more rift zones and crater overlooks. Check at the Visitors' Center to see if you may drive right up to some of Kilauea's most recent lava flows.
Hilo, the capital, curls around the harbor. Visit Hilo's several parks and flower nurseries. The colorful Liliuokalani Gardens on Banyan Drive exhibit the Japanese influence with arched bridges and pagodas.
The waterfalls at Rainbow Falls, about two miles from town in Wailuku River Park, give you a quick trip to this staple of Hawaiian legend. Farther out of town, Akaka Falls State Park, 13 1/2 miles north of Hilo on Route 19, offers hikes -- some uphill -- to another pretty falls.
The Kailua-Kona area on the west coast offers Hawaiian history. In Kailua, the Hulihee Palace, built of coral and lava as a retreat for King Kalalkaua, has fine koa wood furnishings.
Even more interesting for learning ancient Hawaiian history is Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, formerly called the City of Refuge National Historical Park, about 19 miles south of Kailua. This sanctuary, established in the 15th century, gave refuge to defeated warriors, women and children in wartime, as well as those who had broken religious taboos and were seeking purification by priests.
Now wander among displays of giant carved idols, ruins of a temple, carved totem poles, historic campsites and displays of koa wood canoes, and try your hand at an ancient game of konane (checkers). A simple peace pervades this 180-acre park. It's a pleasant place to spend an hour or so imagining the Hawaii of ancient kings and priests and enjoying a picnic lunch.