Home to an enormous range of kid-friendly fun, the Hawaiian Islands are loaded with activities developed for traveling families. Over the past few years, Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, Shane Nelson, has covered a number of them, frequently experiencing the products firsthand in hopes of writing better stories and, of course, satisfying his own inner child. A collection of some of his favorites follows. Surfing with pros
Surf lessons can be worrisome for parents, especially those who've had a chance to witness the crowded waves in Waikiki, where so many Hawaii visitors end up trying to catch their first ride.
Families looking for a much less congested alternative may want to consider booking a session with the Hawaiian Fire Surf School, an Oahu-based company whose surfing instructors are also local firefighters who teach lessons at a beach outside of town.
"Waikiki can be a battleground, especially in the summertime, when there are tons of people in town," said John Pregil, co-owner of Hawaiian Fire and a 21-year veteran of the Honolulu City Fire Department. "And it can be dangerous. I know a lot of people who got hurt in Waikiki, even local friends of mine whose kids were run over by a surfboard or worse."
Hawaii Fire lessons include transportation from Waikiki out to Barber's Point, a trip lasting about 50 minutes, where Pregil says the waves are consistent all year round and "there are no nasty coral heads sticking out of the water."
"Plus it's secluded," he continued. "We can keep a good eye on our students, and we don't have to worry about other people running our guys over with canoes or surfboards or other water toys."
Commissionable to agents, Hawaiian Fire's two-hour private lessons for children ages 5 to 10 are $139. Group lessons for those 11 to 17 are $99. Visit www.hawaiianfire.com
. Mingling with manta rays
The Hula Kai was bustling with children the night I boarded the boat for Fair Wind's Manta Snorkel & Dive Adventure, and when it was time to get into the water, not one of them seemed the slightest bit worried about swimming in the Pacific after dark.
"It's really a great experience for just about everyone, even if they're not really strong swimmers," said Marleen Mareko, sales operation manager for the Big Island-based company. "We do have flotation belts they can use, and everyone gets a [foam] noodle that they can use to help them swim out to the Manta Float."
Fair Wind's Manta Float is a flexible ladder made of Styrofoam and rope that the staff deploys behind the Hula Kai. Tour participants snorkel the short distance from the boat to the float and grab hold while manta rays, pursuing tiny plankton attracted by strategically angled lights, perform just beneath the surface.
"They're just so mesmerizing," Mareko said of the rays, noting that some of them are as large as 14 feet from wing tip to wing tip. "It's very exciting to be so close to something so huge yet so graceful."
Parents will also be pleased to know that manta rays, unlike stingrays, have no dangerous stingers.
Fair Wind's Manta Night Snorkel is $99 per person, and participants must be at least 5 years old. Visit www.fair-wind.com
. Fuzzy agriculture
Kids of all ages can enjoy Maui's Surfing Goat Dairy, a place where up-close encounters with the residents will put a smile on just about anybody's face.
"Our goats are totally friendly," said owner Eva Kafsack. "They are super sweet, and you can let a 3-year-old just run around with them."
Eva and her husband, Thomas, purchased the 42-acre, upcountry Maui property in 1999 and offer visitors a range of tour options, including everything from cheese sampling to feeding, milking and even herding the goats. However, charging people to help around the dairy wasn't part of the Kafsacks' original business model.
"People started coming around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon to see the milking, and they just lingered," Kafsack said. "And we said, 'We should make a tour out of this.' So now we have the Evening Chores tour where people spend one hour working for their money."
During winter and spring months the farm is typically home to a host of adorable baby goats, but it's an excellent place for children to enjoy hands-on fun year round and a great spot for photos.
The Surfing Goat Dairy's Evening Chores tour -- $12 for children and $15 for adults -- starts at 3:15 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Reservations are recommended. Visit www.surfinggoatdairy.com
. Tubing through the dark
Garden Isle visitors interested in afamily-friendly way to explore the destination's lush interior may want to think about joining Kauai Backcountry Adventures' mountain tubing excursion, a three-hour tour where patrons float down an irrigation ditch dug entirely by hand nearly 150 years ago.
"Most families don't have to worry about finding a babysitter," said Sean Stogner, the general manager at Backcountry Adventures. "This is something where just about everybody can come along."
Although there was a fair amount of good-natured jostling during my excursion, floating down the ditch on an inner tube was generally a leisurely trek, and even the occasional impact with one of the tunnels' rough walls spawned all sorts of laughter.
"I call it cave spelunking on an inner tube," Stogner said. "About 70% of the tour is underground."
There are a total of five tunnels on the trip, most of which were full of unexpected twists and turns.
"You can see that they had trouble meeting in the middle," Stogner said of the project's original engineers. "So all of a sudden you'll be tubing down the ditch and run into a wall because they dug a big curve. None of the longer tunnels are straight."
A terrific way to also learn about Kauai's rich sugar plantation history, Backcountry Adventures' mountain tubing excursion is $102 per person and is for participants at least 5 years old.