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Our Guide to Visiting Hawaii with Kids

With soft-sand beaches, lush jungles, interesting little towns, and thousands of years of cultural history, the island archipelago of Hawaii might be the best family-travel destination on Earth

Matt Villano
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Oahu: Superb Shoreline

Everybody knows Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach is one of Oahu’s top vacation destinations, but Sunset Beach is far more family-friendly. When waves are churning—usually mid-November through March—families can grab a patch of sand and watch as professional surfers hang ten. When the water’s calmer, parents and kids can stroll the shoreline and scan the surf for slumbering green sea turtles or Hawaiian monk seals. At snack time, hit Ted’s Bakery across Kamehameha Highway for a slice of chocolate cream pie.
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Oahu: Top Performance

Luaus are great introductions to Hawaiian culture, and the best spot on Oahu to experience this pageantry of song and dance is the Polynesian Cultural Center in La'ie. In addition to a classic luau that includes dinner (and tasty purple taro rolls), the 42-acre attraction offers a musical revue with more than 100 performers, as well as replicas of six different Polynesian villages with actors who provide immersions into each of the cultures the villages represent.
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Oahu: Must-See Museum

Learning is fun at Honolulu’s circa-1889 Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, the largest museum of history and culture in the state. Visiting families can marvel at the feather- and bead-work of native Hawaiian textiles, ogle at replicas of voyaging canoes, and marvel at detailed explanations of elaborate creation myths. The Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium offers colorful interpretations of stars in the Hawaiian sky, while the Nā Ulu Kaiwi‘ula Native Hawaiian Garden teaches about plants important to Hawaiian culture.
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Maui: Kid-Friendly Beach

Without question, the best stretch of beach on the island of Maui is at Ka’anapali Resort, west of Lahaina. Sand here is smooth and soft, and waves are relatively gentle, making it a particularly good beach for babies. Between January and April, you can spot humpback whales splashing and diving in the ocean right from shore. There’s also epic shopping at upscale Whaler’s Village, and stellar snorkeling around Black Rock near the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.
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Maui: Wild West

The “upcountry” town of Makawao brings a bit of the Old West to Maui. The area has a long history of ranching, and the town still hosts a rodeo every July. It’s also a great spot for horseback riding; Piiholo Ranch offers a number of different trail rides, and a zipline course for families who need more of an adrenaline rush. Start your morning in Makawao with donut-like malasadas from the T. Komoda General Store (808/572-7261); just be sure to arrive before 9 a.m. as they almost always sell out.
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Maui: Marine Life

Snorkeling is great way for older kids to get up close and personal with tropical fish. For younger kiddos, the Maui Ocean Center is a fantastic alternative. This aquarium spotlights marine flora and fauna unique to the South Pacific, teaching families about some of the very same creatures they’d see in the sea. The Turtle Lagoon has up to six green sea turtles on exhibit at all times. Another favorite: the Open Ocean exhibit, which boasts 750,000 gallons of sea water and a 240-degree view acrylic tunnel.
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Big Island: Wildlife up Close

Wildlife watching takes on a whole new meaning at Keauhou Bay, a tiny section of the Kona Coast where giant manta rays frequently feed on plankton. A handful of outfitters run trips to see these winged creatures and snorkel with them; many of the trips are family-friendly. If your kids are old enough to stay up late, night trips are worth the extra scratch, as boat captains shine lights into the ocean and the rays glide by like ghosts. One outfitter we like: Sea Paradise.
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Kauai: Mellow Mood

If your kids know the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” they already have a connection to Kauai’s North Shore. The Peter, Paul, & Mary song references Hanalei, the bohemian town that is the center of life in this remote part of the island. West of town, the Kuhio Highway winds past the Limahuli Garden & Preserve, a cultivated museum of native plants, and dead-ends at Ke’e Beach, a great spot for tidepooling at low tide. The trailhead for the Kalaulau Trail, which spans the Na Pali Coast, starts nearby.

Please note that the Limahuli Garden & Preserve closed in the spring of 2018 due to flood damage and did not set a reopening date. Please check the garden’s website before your trip to determine if the garden will be open during your visit.

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Lanai: Fun with Felines

Cat-lovers, take note: The Lanai Cat Sanctuary, near the tiny airport on the island of Lanai, is a dream come true. The open-air, 25,000-square-foot facility actually is a shelter for more than 500 cats, and it’s open to the public seven days a week. This means kids (and their parents, of course) can come and spend hours petting, feeding, and playing with the resident felines. Most of the cats also are available for adoption, so long as you’re willing to foot the bill to take them home. Consider yourselves warned.
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Big Island: Active Volcanoes

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, in the southeast corner of the Big Island, is one of the only places in the world where you can safely view volcanic activity happening before your eyes. Two not-to-miss highlights in the park are Thurston Lava Tube and Kīlauea Volcano’s erupting summit, which you can see from the Jaggar Museum Overlook. Go before sunrise; even when lava levels are low, visitors can spot what rangers call the “glow show” in the early-morning darkness. Check the park’s website for details--and to make sure the park is open. (It closed in the spring of 2018 because of dangerous levels of seismic activity.)
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