Kids enjoy action of all kinds -- especially when it takes place outdoors. For that reason, Hawaii is a great cruise destination for families. While there are always plenty of Hawaiian beaches to relax on if you have infants, toddlers, or pre-schoolers, we found Hawaii best suited to grammar school children and teens who can partake in some of the unique activities ashore.
During our weeklong cruise within the Hawaiian islands aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Star, we went snorkeling, cavorted in natural thermal springs, visited an orchid farm, and explored the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," to name just a few of the shore-side activities.
I strongly suggest extending your trip in Honolulu prior to your cruise since there are many things to do with children in and around this tropical city. Since we live on the East Coast, our two days in Honolulu gave us more time to adjust to the six-hour time difference prior to the cruise. Naturally, Waikiki Beach offers plenty of surf and water sports to keep kids happy. We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, a huge, beautifully landscaped resort overlooking the shores of Waikiki with Diamond Head crater in the distance. If you are there on a Friday night, you will be treated to a complimentary Hawaiian show poolside topped off with fireworks.
You will need a rental car to properly explore Honolulu and environs. Our favorite excursion was to the Polynesian Cultural Center, a 1-1/2 hour drive to the northeastern side of Oahu. This 42-acre spot features seven different Polynesian island cultures: Hawaii, Fiji, Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, Aetearoa (New Zealand), and Tonga. Each culture has its own simulated village where there are a number of fun activities going on at any time. For example, in Samoa, my 10-year-old daughter Alexandra got a kick out of the young man who scampered up a coconut tree and then opened a coconut using only his hands and a small stone. In the village representing Aetearoa, two-year-old Ethan loved trying to whirl the poi balls, which are small balls attached to a braided rope. The highlights, however, include the 2:30 p.m. "Rainbows of Paradise" canoe pageant that showcases each culture through costumes and dance, and the "Horizons" night show with more than 100 performers.
En route to the cultural center, stop off at the Dole Pineapple Plantation, about a 40-minute drive from Waikiki. Besides learning about a working pineapple plantation, kids can blow off steam in the world's largest maze. Make sure you hold on tight to little ones' hands in the maze -- one of our nephews recently got lost when we were exploring a corn maze in the Midwest!
Grade school children can appreciate the importance of the Battleship Arizona Memorial located in Pearl Harbor. Since this is a world-renowned site, get there well before it opens in the morning to avoid long lines. You will 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 "Mighty Mo." Youngsters enjoy exploring this massive, seven-deck naval ship, which was instrumental in many wars and the site of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII.
I strongly suggest renting a car on this island since there are many attractions to visit from the port of Nawiliwili. Car rental companies provide shuttles that took us to the nearby airport to rent a car for the day, which cost only about $50. If you factor in how much shore excursions cost for a family of four, this is a real bargain. For those who prefer not to rent a car, Kalapaki Beach is only a 10-minute walk from the pier. Located by the Marriott hotel, this is a nice town beach.
Kauai's best beach life, however, 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, bicycle, 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. On the way back to return the car at the airport, we stopped at Wailua Falls.
While a number of families on our cruise rented cars for the day, one family went on a shore excursion called the Hule'ia River Kayak Adventure. This active journey featured a 45-minute kayak ride to Hule'ia National Wildlife Refuge. There, participants went ashore for a half-mile hike in the rain forest. Numerous films, including Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark, have been filmed on Kauai. Thus, the highlight of this excursion for kids is that they can swing from vines that were featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
If your children are into volcanoes, you might want to take an excursion to Haleakula Crater, the world's largest dormant volcano, offering fabulous views. You can also opt for the exciting Haleakula Skyline tour, which features high flying "ziplines" over vegetation and waterfalls. (Note: You must be at least 12 years old and 80 pounds to participate in the latter.)
An interesting twist on experiencing a volcano is the shore excursion to Molakini Crater, where you can snorkel right in the crater! Home to myriad fish and coral, this is a unique spot to witness marine life, and the waters are very gentle for beginning snorkelers.
The well-known Maui Ocean Center is perfect for families, especially those with younger children. A free shuttle bus runs between the pier and the center, which is known as the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. One of the highlights is a lucite tube where large fish swim overhead.
Another 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.
Norwegian Cruise Line offers day-long shuttle service from the port of Kahalui into atmospheric Lahaina. Tendering into Lahaina is difficult, so instead the line offers a 45 minute shuttle, which is free for those holding a shore excursion ticket but costs $20 for those without a ticket. We felt Lahaina was worth the trip. This port town harks back to its heyday in the 1800s as a vibrant whaling town. Today it is full of quaint shops and is a great spot for strolling, shopping, and enjoying some food or drink while overlooking the harbor. The town also features the Hawaii Experience Domed Theater, where you can see 45-minute films that make you feel as if you are moving along with the action. Your kids might enjoy exploring the Carthaginian II Floating Museum, housed in a 19th-century square-rigger of the same name. This spot traces Hawaii's whaling history.
My daughter and I went to the nighttime luau sold through NCL, but found it was not worth the money. The excursion is long, although it doesn't take much time to eat the buffet food and see the short dance show. We thought the Polynesian dance troupe on the ship gave an even better performance -- and it's free.
Hawaii, "The Big Island"
Since the port of Hilo is on the rainy side of the island, I suggest either renting a car or taking an excursion that will transport you away from this rather nondescript town. Alex and I 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, which cultivates these delicate plants and ships them worldwide. Then we stopped at Lava Tree State Park, where lava once flowed over a rain forest, 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. Alex and the other kids on the tour got a kick out of our last stop at Ahalanui Park, home to a natural geothermal pool.
My husband John and son Ethan went on a short excursion to lush Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. John enjoyed strolling the paths amid tropical foliage while Ethan got a kick out of the exotic birds.
If you rent a car, you can easily get to the Botanical Garden on your own, as well as the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Plantation five miles from Hilo. You can tour the Mauna Loa orchards as well as the nut processing and candy factories.
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.
I heard mixed reactions from parents who have taken their children to Volcanoes National Park. If your child is fascinated by science and nature, you may want to visit this unique park, full of active and inactive volcanoes. Some children, however, think all the hardened black lava looks alike after a while. If you do go, make sure you walk through Thurston Lava Tube for an up-close view of how lava cuts through the ground and forms a tube along the way.
Our only regret was that we didn't take any of the helicopter rides over the waterfalls, canyons and volcanoes of this tropical paradise. (Note that some age or weight restrictions may apply.) This, however, gives us all the more reason to return to Hawaii one day. With its varied, exciting natural wonders, it still offers plenty we have yet to explore together as a family.