Let's face it: most of us hit the sand on our tropical vacations and never budge. By the time we've packed up everything, flown God knows how far, unpacked everything, and organized the family for a week of fun and relaxation, we deserve to dig our heels into the beach and sit awhile. But should the urge to explore strike your crew, there are fantastic kid-friendly outings all over the Hawaiian Islands: secret waterfalls, hidden petroglyphs, the world's greatest water slides. Here's a life-saving list of locals' picks for the best things to do with kids on each of Hawaii's most visited islands. Tuck it into your beach bag—and relax.
Communing with Dolphins
Since the 1960's, the Kahala Mandarin Oriental has been famous for its dolphin lagoon, but until recently guests had to content themselves with watching the sleek creatures from the water's edge. Now you can meet the dolphins up close in the resort's new Dolphin Interaction program. This is no ordinary "swimming with dolphins" activity; instead, kids get to work alongside the trainer—learning to signal a bottle-nosed dolphin to leap on cue, give a tail-wave, or dance the hula. After the dolphins perform, kids hand out the rewards: a rubdown, a toy, or the ultimate treat, a slimy herring. The hotel's Family Package lets visitors book an adjoining room at 50 percent off regular rates. 800/367-2525 or 808/739-8888; three 45-minute dolphin sessions daily; $90 for adults, $50 for kids 5-12, $120 for an adult and a child.
Leagues Beneath the Sea
Eager to see what lurks under the surface?You can submerge your whole family aboard Atlantis Submarines' Sea Quest Adventure and descend to 120 feet without getting a single toe wet. Nab a window seat and glide by undersea reefs teeming with angelfish, parrot fish, stingrays, even sharks. Children must be at least three feet tall to ride. 808/973-9800; $99 for adults, $39 for kids 12 and under.
New Life for Old Hawaii
Waimea Falls Park, an 1,800-acre outdoor museum where you can watch native Hawaiians act out daily chores from the 1700's (weaving, thatching, carving dugout canoes), has just added a slew of modern attractions and renamed itself the Waimea Valley Adventure Park. Waltz through the new Butterfly Encounter, where hundreds of indigenous butterflies swirl about your head; spend the night at Camp Waimea (tents, sleeping bags, toiletries, and barbecue fixings provided); or swing through Jungle Trek, an adventure play area where you can hang out in a giant tree house or romp in a toddler playground. 808/638-8511; $25 for adults, $12.50 for kids 4-12, free for children three and under.
Hang 10 at Waikiki
What better place for kids to learn to surf than amid the gentle breakers off one of the world's most famous stretches of sand, with a Waikiki beach boy to teach them?At the historic Sheraton Moana Surfrider, you can sign up for lessons from Aloha Beach Services—a family-run business that has been teaching folks to ride the Waikiki waves for three decades. Aloha instructors claim that any kid who can swim will be standing up on a board in an hour. Mornings are the best times to get started. 800/325-3535 or 808/922-3111, extension 2341; long-board rental and lesson, $25 an hour.
Home on the Range
The 54,000-acre Molokai Ranch is for people who like serenity and space, and lots of it. Two of the three campgrounds are equipped with "tentalows"—waterproof canvas platform tents with zippered windows, doors that lock, ceiling fans, decks with private showers, and daily maid service. The tents sleep five, or families can set up house in two adjacent ones. Ranch activities range from horseback riding and mountain biking to snorkeling and kayaking. For the four-and-older set, there are keiki (child) activities such as bug hunts and watercolor walks. 877/726-4656; all-inclusive rates are $185-$245 daily per adult, $75 for kids 4-12.
Take the Molokai Wagon Ride through one of the world's largest mango groves, planted by the Hawaiian Sugar Co. in 1926. You'll ride up to Iliiliopae Heiau, the site of an ancient temple, then roll back down to the beach, where guides demonstrate old island ways—how to catch fish in a net, husk coconuts, and dance the hula. Throughout the hour-long trip, the guides regale you with local legends and songs. 808/558-8380; $35 for adults, $17.50 for kids 2-11.
Harness the Wind
At the Big Wind Kite Factory, owners Jonathan and Daphne Socher will show you how kites are made and give free lessons in flying them. In addition to their own line of handmade kites and wind socks ($16 and up), the Sochers carry a huge collection from Indonesia and Malaysia. 808/552-2364.
Stop in at the new Maui Ocean Center, open since March, for an extraordinary glimpse of the marine life surrounding the islands. Coral reef displays show off Hawaii's colorful tropical fish, and in the 750,000-gallon open-ocean tank, jacks and sharks glide by while visitors stroll through the watery realm inside a thick acrylic tube. Computer types can settle into an arcade of oceanography learning stations surrounded by life-size models of spinner dolphins and humpback whales. When appetites strike, there's a delightful outdoor restaurant above Maalaea Harbor. 808/270-7000; $17.50 for adults, $12 for kids 3-12.
The Hyatt Regency Maui has been compared to Disneyland, with its 40 oceanside acres, 154-foot enclosed water slide, 11/2-acre swimming pool, swinging rope bridge, and exotic flamingos and peacocks strutting about the grounds. At the other end of the island, the Grand Wailea Resort offers 41 acres of gardens and a $15 million water playground with caves, waterfalls, rapids, and rope swings. Both parks are open to hotel guests only. Hyatt Regency Maui, 800/233-1234 or 808/661-1234; doubles from $275. Grand Wailea Resort, 800/888-6100 or 808/875-1234; doubles from $380.
For Nature Lovers
One of the best kids' museums ever, the year-old Hawaii Nature Center makes for a cool stop on your way through the Iao Valley. Explore more than 30 hands-on exhibits: measure how far Hawaii is from your home, listen to birdsong from the Hawaiian rain forest, learn about indigenous spiders, and check out the touch pools of native stream life. Time your visit so you can take a guided Iao Valley hike (at 1 p.m. daily); it includes admission to the museum arcade and a petroglyph T-shirt. 808/244-6500; $24.95 for adults, $22.95 for kids.
If you're willing to drag your crew out of bed at four in the morning, go see the sunrise from the top of Haleakala, considered the most spectacular sight in all Maui. Best place to catch the view?Puu Ulaula observatory, at the top of the mountain. You can let the kids sleep in the car on the drive to the top and sightsee on the way down. Be sure to bring warm clothes. For a range of guided hikes in the area, contact Hike Maui, run by naturalist Ken Schmitt. On the 21/2-mile, half-day rain-forest walk, easy trails lead to a gentle waterfall with a rope swing and pool. Bottled water, organic fruit, lunch, backpacks, rain gear, and water shoes for the pool are provided. Hike Maui, 808/879-5270; $75 for adults, $55 for kids 6-15.
Grand Canyon of the Pacific
A mile wide and 14 miles long, the amazing Waimea Canyon is a must on any Kauai itinerary. From Waimea State Park, drive up the winding mountain road and make your first stop at Waimea Canyon Lookout, with its spine-tingling view of the canyon. Families with older kids should consider biking down from the top with Outfitters Kauai. Its new Bicycle Downhill Canyon-to-Coast Tour offers 13 miles of cruising from Waimea Canyon to Kauai's western beaches. All you do is ride; it provides the bikes, helmets, drinks, guides, and great commentary on native history and canyon geology. Outfitters Kauai, 808/742-9667; $65 for adults, $55 for kids 10-14.
Cruise the Na Pali Coast
Speed alongside the cliffs of the legendary Na Pali Coast in the Na Pali Explorer, a 32-seat Zodiac-type craft. Day cruises stop for snorkeling, and, in season, whale-watching. The trip lasts a little more than five hours and includes breakfast, lunch, and beverages. 808/335-9909; $122 for adults, $65 for kids 5-11.
Take a Walk on the Wet Side
The difficult, 11-mile hike along the Na Pali Coast is definitely not recommended for families. But the first 21/2 miles are fine for kids eight and up who like to get muddy. It's not flat by any means, but the views are out of this world, and your goal, secluded Hanakapiai Beach, is lovely. If your gang is geared up to cross the beach at Hanakapiai, a trail at the opposite end leads to a gorgeous waterfall a half-mile farther on.
Don't miss the chance to explore Kilauea, the most active volcano on our planet, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Cruise around Crater Rim Drive and watch lava spit, ooze, and blast from deep inside the earth. If you're game for a hike, a good place to start is Devastation Trail, a paved path that's perfect for kids. It leads half a mile through a forest of stark trunks and leafless branches in a charred, spooky landscape. You can delve deeper into lava at the Thurston Lava Tube, an incredible 450-foot-long lava cave. Be sure to bring a flashlight! Eruption updates: 808/985-6000.
Talk to the Animals
Find out if you see eye to eye with the tigers at the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo. The residents here are provided with the space they need—you'll probably feel as if you're the one being fenced in. Other creatures to look for are monkeys, anteaters, hippos, mongooses, and several endangered indigenous birds, including a Hawaiian coot and Laysan ducks. Learning stations help your brood identify who's who. 808/959-7224; open daily 9-4.
For prime snorkeling, head to Kealakekua Bay, where your kids can float and peer their way through natural underwater playgrounds. The best access to the bay is via Napoopoo Beach Park, which has rest rooms and picnic tables. You can rent snorkels and fins at Snorkel Bob's (808/329-0770), next to the Royal Kona Resort in Kona, and keep them for the duration of your stay.
If you're guests at the Lodge at Koele, consider a civilized afternoon of croquet or lawn bowling. Then, if you're still on your best behavior, take tea beside the garden at the Terrace café. 808/565-7300 or 800/321-4666; doubles from $325.
A Day of Beachcombing
It's a gorgeous drive to Shipwreck Beach. Named for the grounded World War II ship that sits offshore, the beach has expansive views of Molokai and Maui—but once you've taken in the view, start poking around for treasures in the sand. The coast here is relatively untouched, and you never know what may wash ashore. Most prized finds?Glass floats that have drifted thousands of miles over the open ocean from Japanese fishing nets.
Hunting for Petroglyphs
Some of the best-preserved rock carvings in all the islands are on southern Lanai. Finding them, however, requires perseverance and four-wheel drive. Head south on Manele Road and turn left onto Hoike, a gravel road. Turn left again at the second irrigation ditch, keeping the ditch on your right. After a while, you'll see a No Trespassing sign, where you should park. (Since this is private property, be respectful of your surroundings.) Take the trail that leads off to the left up the hill; you'll spot most of the petroglyphs on the south faces of the large brown boulders there. Tell the kids to look for images of gliding canoes, snarling dogs, and galloping horses—all drawn on these rock faces more than 100 years ago.
KIMBERLY BROWN, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons.