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Disasters in rearview, 2019 ideal for Hawaii Island visit

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is bringing trails and services back online as it rebounds from its closure.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is bringing trails and services back online as it rebounds from its closure. Photo Credit: Janice Wei/National Park Service

Hawaii Island had a tough 2018, due to a series of natural disasters.

Because of thousands of earthquakes and powerful eruptions from Kilauea, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed for several months over the summer. Compounding the closure, in August, Hurricane Lane lashed the island with 100 mph winds and torrential downpours. By the time the park partially reopened in September, tourism had fallen off its previous record pace, and the island welcomed 50,000 fewer visitors in 2018 than in 2017, ending several years of growth; meanwhile, Oahu, Kauai and Maui all saw increases in total visitors. 

The dip in visitation, along with other factors, has made 2019 an ideal time to rediscover the Big Island or visit for the first time. This is especially true for families, who will find an array of activities appropriate for all ages and plenty of accommodations suitable for groups. Occupancy at Hawaii Island hotels was down roughly 3% in 2018 compared with the previous year and had not recovered by the close of the year, with December occupancy down 8%. Additionally, air seat capacity into the island's Kona Airport increased 30% in 2018, with expanded or new service from several cities on the West Coast.

The island is fully open for visitors after last year's events, and the vog, volcanic air pollution that includes sulfur dioxide and other gases, is greatly diminished since the eruptions ebbed in August. 

It all adds to up to perfect time to visit Hawaii Island for families, who can take advantage of the diminished crowds to find ample choices for accommodations and less demand for tour bookings and other activities.

Here's a look at family-focused activities and the latest hotel news on Hawaii Island.

Things to do

Snorkeling and diving with manta rays is a memorable Hawaii Island experience.
Snorkeling and diving with manta rays is a memorable Hawaii Island experience. Photo Credit: Kawika Singson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the Big Island's most popular tourist attraction, and staff has been incrementally reopening sections of the 505-square-mile park, which was hit with some 60,000 earthquakes that damaged roads, buildings and infrastructure. 

Most recently, a 7.3-mile section of the Kau Desert Trail that connects to the Kaaha Trail and a 4.8-mile stretch to the Hilina Pali Overlook have both reopened. The park also repaired and reopened a portion of the Halemaumau Trail that starts at the rainforest summit of Kilauea near Volcano House and descends to the steaming caldera floor. Additionally, the road that leads to the Mauna Loa Lookout is now open to vehicles. 

There are no longer active lava flows in the park, but it still provides plenty of outdoor adventure. Many of the island's tour providers have adapted their offerings to the new landscape. KapohoKine Adventures has introduced a Hike 'n' Flow tour exploring the 2018 lava flow. The tour starts at a 40-foot-tall, upland wall of lava that covered a highway. Guests explore cracks and sinkholes in the park and visit the MacKenzie State Recreation Area and Pohoiki coastline to observe how lava flows encircled both areas.

When lava swept through the Puna area over the summer, it started creating land formations as it arrived at the ocean and cooled. 

At least 800 acres were added to the island during the eruptions, and at Isaac Hale Beach Park, visitors will find a new black sand beach that opened to the public in December. 

The majority of the island was not impacted by last year's natural disasters, and life in areas outside of the southeast and the national park was largely unaffected. Families can head to Kealakekua Bay for picturesque snorkeling and other water activities at the site of Capt. James Cook's demise. Experienced swimmers and divers can join nighttime manta ray excursions. 

For families that have aspiring astronomers in tow, Hawaii Island, which has ordinances that limit the amount of light pollution, offers some of the best stargazing available in the country from Mauna Kea, where there are more than a dozen research telescopes. 

The 56th annual Merrie Monarch Festival will be held in Hilo from April 21 to 27. Top halau hula (hula schools) from Hawaii and the mainland U.S. come for the often sold-out competitions, and there are also free public events like the kickoff celebration, arts fair and closing parade. The festival is an unmatched opportunity to see world-class hula and experience the revival of authentic Hawaiian culture. 

Places to stay

The newly reflagged Westin Hapuna Beach Resort debuted a $46 million revamp last summer. All of the resort's rooms were redone, and additions include a Mediterranean-inspired signature restaurant, CrossFit-equipped fitness center and adults-only pool to accompany the existing all-ages pool. Rates start at $341. 

The Four Seasons Hualalai has innovative programming and hands-on experiences that will both thrill and educate kids. A recently launched marine biologist experience for guests includes a tour of the alkaline ponds found throughout the resort; an in-depth look into King's Pond, home to more than 4,000 tropical fish; and a visit to the resort's oyster pond to see how the bivalves are grown and harvested. Room rates start at $950.

After some repairs and cleanup, the Volcano House inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park started welcoming guests again in October. It boasts one of the best views available of the Halemaumau crater, which dramatically changed during the 2018 eruptions, tripling in depth and doubling in diameter. Rates start at $159 per night.

On the Hilo side of the island, the 320-room, bayfront Grand Naniloa Resort underwent a $30 million renovation in 2016 after being taken over by Hilton and added to its DoubleTree brand. The property has since introduced a signature restaurant, Hula Hula's, that offers live entertainment and dishes made with local meats and produce. Room rates start at $209.

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