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A Hawaii Family Vacation, Local Style

Hawaii is a chain of volcanic islands far off the west coast of the United States. It is the first choice destination for many American vacationers when they are in need of sun, sand, and more than a few pineapples. It makes sense why this island state is on the short list for many family vacations, it is safe, close enough to the US that toddlers do not need to survive an overnight flight, and offers everything a family on holiday could want: almost unrivaled snorkeling, endless beaches for the kids, and local rum for the adults.

However, there is far more to Hawaii than a family resort vacation on Oahu or Maui, something I did not quite know about until I was lucky enough to visit last month for my mom’s birthday. You see I had been to Hawaii once before, as kid, and we went to Maui. We stayed in a resort and it was nice, but it was a very manicured version of Hawaii. We went to a luau, ate pineapples, snorkeled close to shore, saw sea turtles, and were happy kids, but that’s just it, we were kids. Looking back on my memories from that trip I don’t think the current 20 something version of myself would have enjoyed a lot of aspects of that trip; the reef that was bleached, the luau that seemed like a strange performance of culture for the very people who had invaded and occupied it, and the general tourist bubble we existed in. That bubble was great for kids, we were safe, happy, and entertained, but we have grown out of the bubble and I was not sure what Hawaii would have left for us. Luckily, I was wrong.

My dad and I enjoying fresh coconuts after a day exploring the waterfalls.

This time around we spent a week on the Big Island based out of a rental house in Hilo. Step one to burst the bubble, check. Hilo is on the rainy side of the Big Island and is closer to volcanoes and waterfalls than it is to pristine swimming beaches. Because of this, most tourists opt to stay across the island in Kona, the dry side of the island with far more beaches and less sea cliffs. This leaves Hilo for the locals, allowing it to keep its affordable restaurants, friendly people, and unassuming feel.

I know we were tourists, the very people I am deriding, but, personally, I love staying in a place that feels like it hasn’t sold its soul to tourism just yet. However, let the record show that I do not think tourism is bad in every iteration, in fact I contribute quite a lot of money and time to tourism around the world. My problem with tourism comes when it drives out locals and local establishments. I love visiting a town that exists for its people, not for its visitors. Hilo excels at this and we had an amazing time cooking family dinners in our beautiful kitchen overlooking the sheer sea cliffs, wine and conversation flowing freely.

Swimming in a river near a waterfall in Hilo with my mom.

While I loved our relaxed home base, we did make good use of our rental car. Staying in Hilo means that most things are a bit of a drive away. There is no white sand beach to walk to on this side of the island so instead we made many day trips to different spots around the Big Island. One of my favorite trips we took was to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, or in English, Place of Refuge. Here we snorkeled from the shore, swimming with hundreds of colorful fish just meters from where we plunked our stuff down on the lava rocks. The brilliance of this snorkeling spot is that you don’t need to pay big money to go out on a boat to get to the reef, all you have to do is walk across the lava rocks, put your snorkel gear on, and slide into the water.

The reef here is beautiful, one of the best I have seen, but still a bit bleached due to an El Nino (weather pattern in the Western Hemisphere) a couple of years prior. However, as a researcher from the University of Hawaii told me while she was kayaking in the bay for a reef survey, is that this reef still has a chance to come back. The fish haven’t left yet, so as long as they stay the reef will be able to rebuild. Hawaii is good about protecting its reef so hopefully the fish with remain and the reef will return to its former glory. In the meantime, if you are lucky enough to swim here (or any reef for that matter) try to use reef safe sunscreen, a rash guard, or at least let your sunscreen soak fully in before entering the water. There is a chemical present in most commercial sunscreens that kills the reef, so do Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau a favor and don’t make the rebuilding process any harder than it already is.

Snorkeling with Kane.

Aside from one paid excursion with SeaQuest Hawaii (there will be a post about this wonderful experience soon), we mostly did our own snorkeling, hiked in the volcanoes in the national park, and explored our lush surroundings in Hilo. It was the perfect family vacation. My family got to meet my boyfriend for the first time, which I think went quite well, and we got to feel out what family vacations from here on out will look like. There will likely be less trips with the entire extended family due to us growing up and life getting in the way, but the group we had in Hawaii, my parents, my sister and her boyfriend, and Kane and I, was perfect. We complement each other, the boys de-stress my sister and I, and everyone is happier for it. Maybe it was just the slowed down, stress free island way of life that got into our blood, but I also think we work well as a group. Anyway, here’s to a successful trip and many more to come. Oh and a very happy birthday to the amazing woman who made this all possible, who gave me my sense of adventure, and who holds our family together, my mom.

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