Hawaii: East Side Sights with Kids

A while ago I published a post about visiting the amazing sights on the west side of Hawaii with kids. In it I referenced the post I was planning to publish on the east side of the island. Well, that was almost two months ago. Oops. I guess with travel I’m a bit like the dog Dug from the movie “Up”. My travel attention span only lasts as long as it takes me to focus on the next shiny, exciting trip and before you can say, “squirrel!” I’m off focusing on something else. But for the sake of continuity, I will finally wrap up my posts from our Spring Break Hawaiian Adventure by covering my favourite sights on the east side of the Big Island with kids.

The east side of Hawaii has a very different feel than the west side. The west side is where all the tourists flock while the east side still feels like the locals outnumber the visitors. The climate is completely different on the two sides of the island as well. Waikoloa, where we stayed on the west side, averages 43 mm of rainfall every year. Hilo, the main city on the east side averages 398mm per year, almost ten times as much! While the east side is green, steaming and tropical, the west coast is sunny, stark and dry. We found both beautiful, but as someone who’s lived all her life on the rainy west coast of Canada, I have to admit I was drawn to the lush, vibrant beauty of the east side.

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Until recently, it took up a good part of a day to travel from one coast to the other on the congested ring road since the saddle road going over the crest of the island was winding, rough, and off limits to most rental cars. This forced most tourists to chose one side and stay there, or move home bases in order to explore both sides of the island. In recent years, however, the saddle road has been upgraded significantly and it is now smooth and fast, allowing a coast to coast drive of only one and half hours or so. However, if you do get the chance to drive the ring road, it is a beautiful drive, tucked between the coast and the mountains and full of scenic vistas and interesting small towns.

We drove this road on our trip to one of our favourite east side sights, Akaka Falls State Park. To get to the falls you drive inland from the highway, passing through an interesting valley with farm stands and orchards lining the roads. The path to the falls is a steep 1 km loop that my preschoolers were able to manage easily. It’s a popular sight so you’ll have to share your viewpoint with a lot of other tourists, but it’s extremely impressive. My kids were more impressed with the signs that told about the species of fish that is able to climb up the rocks behind the falls in order to get upstream to spawn. Looking at the picture of the falls, I still can’t figure out how they do it.

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On the way back from Akaka Falls we stopped for a treat at an amazing little country store. They sold huge cones of shave ice made right in front of you on an ancient looking machine and slathered in syrup and had shelves filled with tropical fruit jams and jellies. My husband explored down the small row of shops lining the road as I sat with the kids and came back to tell me there was an entire store filled with various empty glass jars for sale. I picked up a few hand made souvenirs at the shop and made a note to come back there if we were ever in Hawaii again.

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There are plenty of more polished sights on the east side of Hawaii as well, of course. There seems to be a competition in the “tropical botanical gardens” category right now with older, more established sights competing with new upstarts offering zipline courses and even Segway tours. We drove past a few sights but didn’t stop in since my kids don’t really appreciate gardens and are too young for ziplining. But if that’s your thing, there are plenty to chose from near Hilo. The prices are quite steep, but I would imagine that the government oversight is a little stricter in the United States than in many other tropical destinations, so if you ever wanted to try a rain forest zipline course and safety was a concern these Hawaiian sights would be a good option.

Hilo itself is quite a large, spread out town and feels much more like a working town than Kailua-Kona on the west coast. We went out to the waterfront and explored the Japanese gardens a bit, walking over cute stone bridges and playing hide and seek around the massive trunks of the banyan trees. The setting is quite lovely, but it’s a bit run down and has definitely seen better days. It was neat to spot the plaques from various politicians and dignitaries who planted trees on Banyan Drive in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but we felt a bit sad that it looked like no one was maintaining the area.

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We spent one full day at Volcano National Park earlier on our trip but on our second trip to the east coast we retraced our route about 20 minutes out of Hilo to visit the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo. This place doesn’t get much mention in most guide books, but it was one of our favourite stops. I wasn’t expecting much, but we were impressed with the zoo’s rather eclectic collection of animals, reptiles and birds. Their main attraction, the Bengal Tiger, had recently passed away and a large chunk of the zoo was being overhauled where the tiger exhibit had been, but there were still aviaries with screeching macaws, ridiculous looking anteaters, chattering monkeys and plenty of other animals to entertain the kids. The grounds are beautiful and many of the plants are labelled for those interested in tropical gardens. And another great find was a huge playground that was shaded and filled with local kids to play with. Playgrounds were a little hard to find for us in Hawaii, so this was a welcome opportunity to let the kids run around and get rid of some energy. But the best thing about the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo? It was completely free! I’d recommend it to anyone travelling to Hawaii, especially with young kids.

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And that’s about all we were able to see in two days on the east side of Hawaii. I felt like we had a good chance to see most of the things I wanted to see in that amount of time, but maybe another day would have been nice to see a bit more of Hilo. There are also a few more waterfalls and hikes to explore such as Rainbow Falls an the Boiling Pots, but they’ll have to wait for another trip. I am very glad that we were able to make the drive and see more than just the sunny coast of Hawaii since the Hilo side is so beautiful and has so much to offer. I think if we go back we may try to make our home base in the centre of the island in order to see a little bit more of both coasts. But for now I’ll just have to look at the pictures and dream of coming back some day.

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