Hands on experiences bring families closer to Islands

From its cobalt-blue waters to its jungle-sheathed mountains, Hawaii is teeming with experiences that can’t be found in the other 49 states. For families looking for a vacation that will introduce children to new cultures, traditions and tastes while drawing them into active, participatory learning opportunities, the Aloha State has a full menu.

According to the 2019 Family Travel Survey from the Family Travel Association, Hawaii is tied for sixth out of the 50 states in terms of percentage of families who say they are planning a visit in the next three years. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of respondents either “agree somewhat” or “agree strongly” that they are now more focused on selecting cultural or educational travel options than they were three years ago.

Beaches and pools can blend together, but it is hard to forget the first time you waded into a muddy marsh to harvest taro or prepared a dish from shrimp you plucked from the sea yourself that very morning. 

Here are a handful of special Hawaii programs that involve memorable, hands-on educational, cultural and environmental experiences:

• Volunteer at a loi: Kalo, or taro, is essential to the Hawaiian culture as one of the earliest cultivated crops in human history. The plant’s nutrient-packed corms were vital in helping the first Polynesian settlers reach the islands as a staple of their diet. Loi are the marshy farms where kalo is grown. Several loi around the Islands take volunteers, but the work can be hard and is not for young children.

The University of Hawaii operates two loi that welcome volunteers and have benefitted from community sweat equity since 1980. Visits typically start with a lesson on the history of the site, followed by a short hike to better illustrate the irrigation system. Participants will learn more about the plant and its cultivation as they help pick leaves for fertilizer, clear irrigation ditches and perform other tasks. The first Saturday of each month is a community workday at Ka Papa Loi o Kanewai. No reservations are required.

Hookuaaina is a 7.6-acre property in the Maunawili Valley. Community workdays held the final Saturday of each month have always been an integral part of the work of this education-based nonprofit, which also offers internships and mentoring programs. Be prepared for scorching sun or pouring rain and expect to encounter tadpoles, guppies, frogs and a variety of tropical birds in the natural wetland. 

• Land and sea immersion: New for 2020, the Alohilani Resort Waikiki
Beach is offering an eco-focused package with a
full slate of experiences. The Planet Family package includes an inside
look at the 600 endemic sea creatures housed in the property’s
280,000-gallon Oceanarium, a junior chef sustainable-cooking class, a
recycled-materials art workshop, roasting s’mores at the pool deck fire
pits and a family meal at either Momosan or Morimoto Asia Waikiki. The
family can also choose from optional excursions such as planting a tree
in the native forest at Gunstock Ranch, a day on the ocean for
snorkeling and observing marine life and a tour of an organic farm. To
top it off, the package also includes kids’ club or babysitting time
while the parents enjoy a massage in a private cabana. A minimum
five-night stay is required for the Planet Family package, which starts
at $2,650 for a family of four.

• Square off in the kitchen: For foodie families who like to test their mettle when the heat rises, Kapiolani Community College, which produces a significant amount of the restaurant talent in Hawaii, debuted the Culinarium in spring 2019. Designed as a team-building experience, the program can be adapted for families, friends and co-workers. Good for multigenerational family getaways or other large groups, participants are split into teams and thrown into a cooking competition, complete with a coach for each team and panel of judges. At the end, everyone sits together to feast on their creations. The three-course Culinarium experience starts at $3,299 for 12 to 16 people. 

• Volunteer at a fish pond: This is another one that is high on the service meter but perhaps best left for older, more mature children. Across Hawaii, organizations made up mostly of volunteers are working to restore traditional fish ponds. Rocks are arranged to form a barrier near shore. Smaller fish swim through gates in the rock walls, fatten up and are then too big to swim back out to sea and so make for an easy catch.

Paepae o Heeia on Oahu’s windward side welcomes volunteers for its restoration and rehabilitation work. The second and fourth Saturday of each month are community workdays. The work is suitable for ages 12 and up and goes from 8:30 a.m. to noon, with lunch provided. Tasks include moving rock and coral, filling buckets, hauling floating barges through the water, cutting/pulling out invasive species and trash pickup. The workdays can fill up, so reservations are recommended, especially for larger groups. Volunteers can also help staff with larger tasks on weekday mornings. 

• Help (sustainably) harvest an island’s bounty: The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai has introduced a couple of excursions that take full advantage of the picturesque, oceanside Hawaii Island property and its aquaculture facilities. The Hualalai Seafood Experience is led by a marine naturalist who provides a behind-the-scenes look at the property’s oyster farm. Next, participants tour an herb garden to learn more about the culinary team’s sourcing of ingredients and its philosophy. Finally, there is an opportunity to catch Pacific white shrimp from the aquaculture pens before the program wraps up with a five-course meal at Ulu Ocean Grill using local ingredients. For the Salt of the Earth experience participants hike to nearby salt flats with a resort cultural ambassador to learn about how the first Hawaiians harvested sea salt. Next, they are led through a cooking class focused on the use of salt in island dishes.

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