The best Hawaiian island for your family vacation

Aerial view of Honolulu skyline and coastline
View of golf course from a vacation rental in Princeville, HI

As far as vacations go, Hawaii will always be a chart-topper among travelers. With warm ocean waters, island breezes, and thick green forests to explore, it’s easy to see why. So when you’re ready for your family trip to Hawaii, where will you put your home base?

Among the archipelago’s 137 volcanic islands are the four main vacation spots: Hawai’i (or the Big Island), Maui, O’ahu, and Kaua’i. Each island has something new to offer, and you want to be sure you’ve picked the perfect family-friendly resort with enough access to adventure. Here are a few points to consider when traveling to Hawaii with kids.

Hawaii (The Big Island)

Pros

The Big Island is teeming with over 100 beautiful beaches to choose from for sunbathing, snorkeling, and sand-castle building. Having that variety is a great place to start when traveling with babies and toddlers (plus more options of restaurants and spas for parents). Kid-friendly activities might include a day trip snorkeling along Hawaii's populated and bright reefs, or rambling the Pana'ewa Reserve’s petting zoo (on the Hilo side) and a chance to see Namaste, their rare white Bengal tiger.

For adventurous older kids and teenagers, there’s nothing like trekking the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for a lesson in science and seeing some active volcanoes. For more wide-eyed wonder, visit Rainbow Falls––a short and worthwhile jungle hike where, on sunny days, you’ll find a shimmering rainbow sprouting out from the bottom pool.

Cons

The Big Island has no theme or water parks for quick day trips, and as the name suggests, it's a lot larger than the other islands. This means you’ll have to plan your activities strategically based upon how far out you’re willing to drive. Travelers typically pick one side of the island (Kona or Hilo) to spend the bulk of their vacation. This might not be a problem when traveling with teenagers, but a winding journey over to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park might pose a challenge when babies are on board

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Maui oceanfront resort

Maui

Pros

If you’re looking for a hands-on adventure for your family vacation, Maui is the island to visit. Whether it’s an afternoon at the Maui Ocean Center, a volcanic crater hike, a visit to the Maui Arts & Cultural center, or exploring the beachy coast through a guided driving tour, it’s unlikely your kids will have a chance to be bored. The Maui Ocean Center is rated one of the “Top 10 Aquariums in the World” by TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards, making it a perfect destination site for a wide age range of children.

Kahekili Beach and Olowalu Beach offer easy water entry and beach facilities, ideal for beginner snorkelers, swimmers, or those traveling with babies and toddlers. For hiking trips, the serene Pools of ‘Oheo’o rest along a 0.6-mile trail with waterfall views, or turn your boots to Haleakalā National Park for some volcanic cinder cone craters and lava flows.

Cons

While you can tell there’s plenty to do in Maui, this also makes it one of the most popular Hawaiian islands for tourists. This can drive up prices for activities and bring larger crowds (and less parking) to adventure hotspots. You also won’t find a city center in Maui, so there’s less nightlife for parents to enjoy, and most towns call it a night by 10 p.m.

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Oahu

Pros

O’ahu has the most must-see places for any Hawaiian vacation. Here you’ll find the state’s capital, Honolulu, as well as Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor, and the North Shore. For youngsters, parks like Sea Life Park Hawaii or Honolulu Zoo make exploring O’ahu with kids a breeze.

Older crowds have fun in store too, with Hanauma Bay for snorkeling, ziplining across Kualoa Ranch, and reaching the view at Diamond Head State Monument, a hikeable volcanic crater tuff cone that resembles a tuna’s dorsal fin. Take your pick of museum tours, including the Bishop Museum, the Hawaii State Art Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, or Iolani Palace. When it comes to food, there’s a range of local eateries on O’ahu, and the city of Waikiki allows an array of options for picky eaters.

Cons

Like Maui, O’ahu is more populated because of its busy city nightlife. Honolulu is heavily commercialized, so it may not be the ideal location if you’re looking for the “real Hawaii'' experience.

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Kauai

Pros

Kaua’i, the smallest and oldest of the four major islands, might be the ideal place if you’re looking for the true island feel for your Hawaiian family vacation. With no cities or skyscrapers, Kaua’i provides a more quiet, natural beauty for your postcard paradise. If you’re traveling with babies and toddlers, Salt Pond Beach and Anini Beach have calmer waters to enjoy a sunset and swimming. There’s also the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge to stroll through lush jungle and play “I Spy” with tropical birds or whale watching.

Mountain tubing with Kauai Backcountry offers an exciting lazy river ride through tunnels and surrounding mountains, a dream day trip for youngsters age 5 and older. Don’t forget the ​​Lydgate Farms Chocolate and Island Fruit Tour—where you can satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh Hawaiian fruit and, of course, chocolate. For older kids and teens, strap on your hiking boots and head to Waimea Canyon State Park, where you’ll explore the Koa Forest and spot native hibiscus.

Cons

Because Kaua’i has no cities, there’s not much of a nightlife for parents after kids have gone to bed. It’s also worth noting that Kaua’i is so green because it receives the most rainfall out of the four major islands, so be prepared for intermittent rain when you pack. Though there are a handful of sandy beaches for kids to enjoy, the Kaua’i coastline is much rockier, so swimming and boogie-boarding are not always an option.

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Hawaii family vacations FAQ

The REAL ID deadline has been extended to May 3, 2023. Until then, Hawaii does not require REAL ID in your passport to travel.

The best season to visit Hawaii depends on what you’re looking for. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, July and December are the islands’ busiest months. Budget-friendly travelers should book during the shoulder season, when there are fewer tourists (May and September). For surfers, Hawaii’s waves are typically larger in the winter months, and whale watchers will be more likely to catch sightings from December through May.

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