Accidental Family Traditions — And the Big Island of Hawaii

Accidental Family Traditions — And the Big Island of Hawaii featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

Accidental Family Traditions — And the Big Island of Hawaii featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

Do you have any accidental family traditions at your house? The kind of thing you did once, not necessarily intending to repeat it, and then one day realized it was like a major tradition in your family? A tradition that no one would even think of skipping?

I would say most of our family traditions are intentional — like breakfast in bed on birthdays, or acting out the Nativity story on Christmas Eve. But if I thought about it for a minute, I’m sure I could come up with lots of accidental family traditions. The one on my mind today is our 12th birthday tradition.


For our 12 year old birthday celebrations, instead of doing a party, we’ve ended up taking a little trip, with just a parent and the birthday kid. For Ralph’s 12th, we took a little trip to San Francisco (this was before we ever thought of moving to the Bay Area, and he had never been before). For Maude’s 12th, we had just moved to France, so Maude and I took a ferry to England and saw Wicked in London. For Olive’s 12th, we had just moved to Oakland from France, and couldn’t handle a big trip, so she chose a Taylor Swift concert in L.A.. Ben Blair drove her down and she had an amazing time. It was her first big concert. When Oscar turned 12, we happened to find a really good deal on tickets to Iceland, so Ben and Oscar bundled up and had a great time exploring.

Though it started accidentally, it’s turned out to be a really terrific family tradition. The chance for each kid to get a one-on-one trip with either Ben or me is pretty darn great — for the kids and for us as parents. And our kids look forward to their 12th birthday trips for years.

Now it’s Betty’s turn. Her 12th birthday is in one week, and we’re headed to Hawaii! Just like with Oscar’s trip, the destination for Betty was determined by the best ticket prices we could find. Happily, a couple months ago there was a super sale to Hawaii on Alaska, so we grabbed 2 tickets and surprised Betty.

We’re headed to the Big Island of Hawaii (which is also called Hawaii). I’ve never been there. I went to Oahu twice when I was in middle school with my dance team (the Super Steppers!) but I’ve never been back to Hawaii since, and I’ve never been to the Big Island. We head out early on Sunday morning and we’re both really excited.

We haven’t had much time to plan an itinerary, but we have done a couple of searches and our shortlist of things we want to do is:

– Visit the Volcano National Park and see running lava.
– Go on a night swim with Manta Rays.
– Take a surfing lesson.
– Go to a Luau.
– Go snorkeling.
– Hang out on the beach and order fancy drinks served in coconuts.

Have you ever been to the Big Island? Do you have any tips for us? Our hotel is on the west side of the island, right on the beach. We’re wondering if we need to rent a car to get to the volcano area, or if we can just get an uber. We’ll find out! If you’ve got advice, we’re all ears.

How about you? Do you have any accidental family traditions? And do you ever get mixed feelings about traditions?

Mostly, I love how they give meaning and structure to our family life, but every once in awhile I find traditions limiting, and feel a little trapped. Know what I mean? I’d love to hear your own family traditions — especially the unplanned ones that have turned out to be wonderful. And I’m also curious if you have any traditions that you’ve said goodbye to because they no longer made sense for your family.

68 thoughts on “Accidental Family Traditions — And the Big Island of Hawaii”

  1. I recommend a car rental for the trip to Volcanoes (convertibles are abundant and weirdly fun and scream “vacation”) first because the park is big and some things are really only accessible by car but also it gives you more flexibility to see the lava glow at night!! Many people miss this, but if you have time, I think it is absolutely spectacular.

    I also strongly, strongly recommend the night ‘snorkel’ (it’s more of a relaxed float) with the manta rays. It’s unbelievable! Pictures and videos don’t come close to capturing the experience.

    Oh and shave ice. Eat all the shave ice.

    1. Omg missing the shave ice in Hawaii (No D in shave!). And get it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at the bottom. The best.

      Also eat the ripe, ripe pineapple. It’s insanely sweet. Like candy. It’s hard to find it that ripe on the mainland because it has to be picked unripe to survive the transportation. Ripe pineapple is dark yellow and kind of translucent and looks like it going to go bad. But don’t let the looks fool ya.

      Gosh I’m dying now.

    2. I’ve never been a “must go to Hawaii” person, but after reading only Caro and Jeannie’s comments, I NEED to go! You had me shave ice. *drool*

  2. Our accidental tradition is birthday cake for breakfast the next morning. The tradition started because my mom used to make huge, gorgeous, character-filled birthday cakes for the kids (2-tier Dora and Diego with a waterfall, Hagrid’s Hut, the Matterhorn and Disney Monorail). She had to make them big to fit all of the decorations, and there was a lot of cake left over. The kids didn’t want to throw it away, and I didn’t want it lingering for the next week. So, I said, we’ll eat the cake for breakfast the next morning, and whatever is left will be tossed. We’ve been doing it for 12+ years, and though the kids are older now and don’t have huge character cakes, we always make sure we have enough cake so that we’ll have leftovers for breakfast.

  3. I read “happily” and wondered if it was a translation of “heureusement.” Ever since I learned French, that’s how I translate it back into English instead of “fortunately.” Just me? Ok!

  4. Two Hawaii recommendations:

    Hapuna Beach State Park has the best beach I’ve ever seen- we went early in the morning (weird jet lag) and actually got to swim with sea turtles!

    The Ahalanui Hot Ponds are also awesome- it’s like a giant hot tub right on the ocean. And the drive down to Ahalanui is amazing.

  5. Oooh, your timing is perfect! I can’t wait to read the suggestions from others and hear what you end up doing. I’d like to go to Hawaii later this year to celebrate my husband’s and my 50th birthdays, and I thought the Big Island looked perfect.

    1. 50th birthday at the 50th state! we’ve thought of doing that in the future too. happy century party you two ;-)

  6. My honeymoon was on the Big Island! It was AMAZEBALLS. I approve of everything on your list already, but a few additional ideas:
    * Visit Mauna Kea — at least the visitor’s station; you’ll need a 4WD vehicle if you want to go to the very top. Being above the clouds surrounded by Martianesque rocks and soil is trippy as heck.
    * Visit South Point (it’s a short jaunt off of the route between the west coast and Volcanoes National Park). There’s horses, you can hike around, and it’s the southernmost point in the US! Best of all is the cliff jump into the ocean there. You can see local folks swim under the cliff and climb back up through a hole (though I recommend using the ladder instead, for safety).

    You definitely want to rent a car. Volcanoes National Park is pretty darn far from the west side beaches for Ubering, even if there were availability (and I’m not sure there is).

  7. Go every year to visit my best buddies. Volcano park is a plus. If money isn’t tight, stay at the hotek. Also Rainbow falls, and Richardson beach and the UofH planetarium and the Zoo are faves. You definitely need a car for traversing the Island, which isn’t as small as you think. If you’re staying in Kona, take the saddle road to get to the Volcano Park. That will cut off about a good half hour of continuous driving. The Big Island is known for having varied climate depending on are and topography. Take advantage if all. Free travelers guides abound;

  8. I’m the oldest of my cousins and when I turned 8 my aunt (who is a travel agent) took me on my first plane trip, to Chicago to go the the American Doll Store. Since then, each of my younger cousins has gotten to take their first big trip at 8 as well! Anywhere in the US is up for grabs. She repeated this again when we each turned 15. It was the most wonderful tradition and the first of our cousins just had a baby and my aunt passed the tradition down to me! I’ve got 7.5 years to get ready to take my baby niece somewhere special!

  9. I was just on the big island last month. You will definitely need to rent a car. We stayed in Puako (about 30 minutes north of Kona) and getting to and from Volcanoes was about 5 1/2 hours of driving round trip. Worth it, but plan to leave early that day and get in late.
    I second the Hapuna beach recommendation, but get there in the morning or after about 4pm when it’s less crowded and parking isn’t full.
    There’s lava rock everywhere on the west side of the island and it is SHARP so bring at least one pair of athletic shoes or light hiking boots so you don’t shred your feet.

  10. The tradition that immediately popped into my head is Stouffer’s lasagne for Christmas Eve dinner. It started randomly back when I was working two jobs and didn’t have enough time to make a big dinner for that night. But now, 8 years later, it’s like this treat to myself. Taking the pressure off that meal is such a welcome break during the holiday season. I usually spend the extra time watching a holiday movie with my family.

    1. Melanie Gehman

      I think this is amazing. We put so much pressure on ourselves and others during the holidays. Good for you.

      1. Yes! So many traditions involve a lot of work for the mom. I have been trying to figure out how to keep holidays, especially Christmas, special, without stressing myself out trying to make everything happen. Now that my oldest kids are a little bigger, they are stepping up to help (like making special foods, baking birthday cakes for their siblings – there are seven of them) which has been huge for allowing all of us to enjoy those occasions more. They enjoy helping, and I enjoy not having to do everything.

  11. Mercy. You are in for a treat!
    My best advice is to stay on CA time, get up with the sun and out before any of the other tourists wake up – you’ll have the beach, snorkeling, or roads to yourself!

    We stayed at the Hapuna Prince and the beach was crazy clear for snorkeling- there are public beaches right next door that are fantastic as well. Pack water shoes or sandals and wear them in the water – they aren’t kidding about sharp rocks or coral and if you get a cut, you’ll have to check on it often for infection. Obvious Guy Says: use the sunscreen! And to be honest, you can buy snorkel gear for about the same price as renting stuff others have used, or better yet, grab one of these ( full face masks – they are SO MUCH EASIER to use! Overnight it to your hotel and have it there when you arrive.

    I would grab a car and circle the island if you have the time, I love the small towns in the north where you can see the other islands off the coast! Kohala Ranch area is gorgeous, and one of my favourite lookouts/picnic spots was at Laupahoehoe Beach Park, the most AMAZING blue water you’ll ever see, deep turquoise! –there is SO much to see away from the tourist towns. We found smaller hiking trails without a soul on them full of waterfalls and fruited trees, pathways and tiny bridges that went right over streams… just by pulling over and reading a sign or asking a local.

    –>And a ‘heads up!’ about Volcano’s National -currently Pele is waking up and the observation area and some of the highways are closed, check with locals before heading that direction.

    Lastly, if you have the time, and the roads allow, take the l o n g trip down to the “Southern Most Town in the United States” Kalae- just for bragging rights. Super tiny town, but sending a coconut home can be fun!

  12. Just back from the Big Island a couple of weeks ago. Have been at least six times with kids.

    Where you are staying (north of Kona near Waikoloa? Kona proper?) will help determine what you do.

    First, on this trip, due to the construction on the main highway between Kona and just north of the airport, traffic really impacted how long it took us to get places. Plan extra time to get through that stretch of road. I’d recommend having a car for the entire trip.

    Hapuna is a beautiful beach, and one of the most traditional “white, sandy beaches” you will find on the Big Island. It can get busy, and if the weather is windy, its a little like being sandblasted. My kids love it for body surfing and boogie boarding.

    An easy and excellent beach for snorkeling is Kahalu’u Beach Park. Not much beach, but as soon as you are in the water, fish everywhere!

    Ho’okena beach is a gray sand beach about 30 minutes south of Kona that we went to for the first time on this trip. It was an excellent beach, perfect for hanging out and (surprisingly to us) had some of the best snorkeling we experienced. When the waves broke on the rocks near shore, we could see the fish through the waves!

    Second the notion that the drive to the volcano and back takes the whole day. And if you are staying north of kona, take the saddle road. Also, to see “flowing lava” can be a hike, so you might have to look into that further. Or consider a helicopter ride tour of the island, which can give you an amazing perspective (and many tours will give you a dvd of the ride after its over!)

    Depending on how long you are there, seeing everything will be difficult to pack in. One thing I love about the big island is the feeling that it is less “touristy” than other islands. Things really can slow down and be relaxed.

    For my 12 year olds, activities which have been fun were the manta ray dive, tubing the flume, zip lining, snorkeling, boogie boarding, visiting the little markets in Kona and Hilo. Jumping from the historic south point boat launches.

    Feel free to reach out via email if you’d like more info from me.

  13. I don’t have any tips for your lovely Hawaii trip, although reading through the comments here have me craving a visit there myself.

    Most of our traditions are planned, like yours (i.e. homemade pasta every Christmas, various treats made from family recipes, etc.). However something that did come to mind as totally unplanned are our weekend morning routines. Not the same as traditions, I suppose, but fun and comforting all the same. Every Saturday, after my husband makes the kids a breakfast of eggs and toast, we all pile into the car and stop for donuts on the way to Target. We each get one and eat them in the car on the way to our weekly errand(s). We started doing it this way when my oldest was a baby, and we discovered very few donut places open on Sunday in the town we’d just moved to–as a kid I was used to eating donuts after church on Sunday and so this was odd to me. So instead we started grabbing donuts on Saturday, and it was most convenient to do so on our way out to run errands. Now it’s such a habit that ‘donuts and Target’ are the assumed Saturday morning activity.

  14. When I was five years old, my dad took me on a Christmas shopping trip because he knew that I felt bad because my birthday is on Christmas day. We went to Wendy’s for dinner (my request) and spent an afternoon shopping for presents for my mom and siblings. I don’t think he necessarily meant for the tradition to continue, but it did until I joined the Peace Corps and left the country. I kind of hope we’ll start it up again when I get home- it’s a tradition I have really, really loved over the years (and I generally hate shopping, but it was so nice to spend extra one-on-one time with my dad).

  15. Volcanoes National Park is nice enough but what surely was the highlight of our trip was recommended by a local. Drive to Kaimu and rent bikes (cheap and there are ton) and bike to the lava ocean entry point at Kalapana. It was AMAZING to bike and explore lava fields and view the ocean entry of lava. There are also little tiny houses built along the lava fields too which is fun and quirky. You need to time the bike right so that you are there at the entry point at sunset. It was so much fun. There are boats tours that go right to ocean entry that look super fun but pricey.

  16. North of Kona is a ward that has their services in Hawaiin. Crazy! Totally fun.
    Always, take the road continuing straight north of there, as if you’d run into the ocean, and you’ll find black sand beaches.
    And, don’t swim in the ocean at dusk. My daughter got bit by an eel.

  17. We went to Maui last year and my brother-in-law hired a surfing instructor for all of us. I would probably not have done it on my own, but it was truly a bucket list experience to surf in Hawaii. I highly recommend it. Also, hawaiian shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk is amazing.

  18. I love your tradition! If you had to do it over again, would you still choose 12 as the traveling age? Or would you make them older or younger? I have two kids, ages 4 and almost 7 and would love to start something like this.

  19. Definitely rent a car. The Big Island is BIG! Haha. A car gives you more flexibility. And, although it’s a splurge, I would recommend the helicopter tour over the volcano. So very cool! (Unless one of you deals with motion sickness, then I wouldn’t recommend it!)

  20. Buy “hawaii, revealed” book, it’s amazing– guidebook by a local! Car would be better for volcano- it’s a big national park, lots to see. Take your Costco membership card if you have one and stop by to stock up on essentials when you arrive, snacks, etc. Will save you lots of money! Have fun!

  21. loco moco at the iHop in Hilo, malasadas at Tex drive in, hiking in Volcanos NP, good thai food in the town of Volcano…

  22. Love this idea and have thought about it for my kids who are now 4 and 7 when they reach the double digits. Curious about your thoughts on the traveling age like a previous comment, if you would lower or raise it after some trips. Also, how do you choose which parent goes? I think my husband and I would have a hard time deciding. Does your child decide?

  23. Oh I’m so jealous! My parents moved from St. George to the Big Island a few years ago so we’ve been fortunate enough to have visited a few times. Volcano NP is amazing. Waipi’o Valley is one of my favorite places to visit on the island. You can book a tour for it as I think you have to have 4WD to get down to it. But very fascinating history!

    The whole island is so diverse and beautiful – try to explore as much as you can! And eat all the local food, like others have suggested. Have fun!

  24. I’m from the Big Island and will tell you that you definitely need to rent a car. Hapuna is a good suggestion, however go early, stay to the north end of the beach because it’s less crowded and be aware of the undertow. Umeke’s in Kona for a great meal, plan an all day adventure if you’re going to the volcano and leave early, and lastly, we do the luau at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel…rated #1 multiple times. Oh…most important..DO NOT take home any lava rocks. Wishing you a wonderful vacation.

  25. If you are planning to watch the lava flow at night, bring a flashlight (or headlamp). Depending on where the road cuts off, you will be walking over lava rock for a while in the dark. They’ll also come in handy if you plan to visit the lava tubes.

    Have fun!

  26. That’s sounds amazing!! I love that tradition. I am also dying to know how do you find the cheap tickets? Any hacks? I am so excited for you all!

  27. Even if you don’t drink coffee, visiting a coffee farm is interesting. I can’t remember which farm I visited but I was there 15+ years ago with a tour group.

  28. Not sure if you have enough time to go to the other side of the island, but our kids LOVED the botanical garden over there, and I found Hilo to be a funny throwback to the heyday of 50’s Hawaii. And while it’s a bit of a trek, I found the Kapoho tide pools to be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime snorkelling experience. We had only an hour there, but could have stayed all day. It doesn’t have change rooms, bathrooms or any amenities at all, so go wearing bathing suits, and bring plenty of water and snacks.

    My daughter also loved the free hula lessons at the Kaloko-Honokohau park, and it’s a great beach for spotting turtles.

    And you MUST go to the farmer’s markets and buy a bunch of exotic fruit. The strawberry papayas are to die for.

    Have fun, it’s a great vacation!

    1. Kirsten Pudas

      Well, maybe not Kapoho right now, that’s an area expected to be affected by the eruptions!

  29. Definitely rent a car. Think “big island” I would include a visit to the black sand beach and a snorkeling trip to Captain Cook’s Monument.

  30. I was a pretty young mother, and the first couple of years were hard, realizing that if any traditions were going to be established, I was going to have to create them. I didn’t have the money to pull together things like my mom did for us, and thus began the Christmas tree top. We hit a city tree lot on Christmas Eve and ask for a small top that someone has lopped of a tree that wouldn’t fit in their home. We set it up in a mixing bowl and put rocks and blankets in the bottom since it doesn’t have to live for long. Then we decorate it with candies and paper ornaments. The first year I thought it was a tragic shadow of Christmas, but my 3 year old didn’t care. The next year it turns out that’s what she was expecting. <3

  31. The Big Island is my favorite! Lots of great suggestions here. If you’re up early anyway, spend the early morning at Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook) in Kona and watch the spinner dolphins come in. They live up to their name, particularly at dawn and dusk, and it is a magical experience to watch them settle down for a rest after a long night feeding offshore.

    I also second the eating lots of exotic fruit straight from the market (avoid the grocery store pineapples that are often grow in Mexico). Fresh papaya with lime tastes amazing on the beach!

  32. Went to the Big Island 10 years ago and we’ve been dying to go back! One thing I’d say would be to thoroughly vet the luau you pick. My then-bf-now-husband and I splurged on whatever one was best rated by Trip Advisor at the time and were thoroughly disappointed, directly with the food. And it was a lot of money ($90/pp) to be disappointed.

    But other than that, Hawaii is amazing!! Enjoy yourselves :)

  33. Ooh We are thinking of a Hawaiian holiday but have no idea which is the best island to visit.
    I have heard you need at least a week on whichever island you choose – at first I thought we’d do all of them :)
    Anyone have ideas on the best Hawaiian island for two adults and three kids age 17, 14, 12? We like a mix of activities and off-the-tourist-grid down time. And is December a crazy busy time to visit?

  34. Love this tradition!

    I plan to create a similar one for my kids: when they turn ten, I will take a trip with the birthday boy/girl to any (reasonable) destination of their choosing. My eldest will celebrate his 10th birthday this year and already since last summer he has been contemplating where to go – the only viable options in his view being Italy (because of the food) or Spain (because of the great football teams) ;-). I’m really looking forward to travelling with him and having some time alone with my firstborn.

    (Both Spain and Italy are reachable by train for us, thus I consider them as reasonable destinations.)

  35. Summer Lewis

    My favorite accidental tradition is Christmas sushi lunch. When we moved to Japan 8 years ago I basically forgot to get a good gift in time (shipping to us can take a while) for my husband. But we love 100 yen sushi-go-rounds so I made him an “official looking coupon,” for sushi lunch. Now it’s one of our family’s favorite Christmas traditions. It makes the whole morning and afternoon relaxed because we don’t worry about food. And because Christmas isn’t really celebrated in Japan, we never have to worry about places being closed or extra crowded.

  36. I absolutely love the 12 year old trip idea!

    Six years ago my father in law was in the ICU over Easter. We skipped the traditional Easter meal and instead cooked shrimp on the BBQ, which was one of his favorite meals. Sadly, he didn’t survive his illness and now every Easter dinner we have grilled shrimp. It makes us all happy and allows us to reflect on him. I hope we never lose this delicious tradition.

  37. I visited the big island about a decade ago and it was so memorable! My boyfriend and I hiked to the lava flow as the sun set, visited a black sand and a green sand beach (totally mind blowing!), drove the whole way around the island and almost made it up on a helicopter tour (cancelled at the last minute due to weather). It’s an adventure no matter what you do there. Enjoy!!

  38. Go snorkeling at “Two Step”. Seriously unreal! And go get yourself a shave ice at “one aloha” in Kona. And an acai bowl and pork burrito at “loco wraps” also in Kona. My mouth is watering.
    And enjoy the cute little outdoor Kona airport!

  39. Research your Volcanos park visit – as others have mentioned a car is necessary, plan a day, check where the lava is flowing (the hike may or may not be worth it), dress for multiple weather changes

    The Volcano Art Center is wonderful – we happened upon one of their Aloha Fridays (Randy Lee was awesome!!)

    Anelakai Adventures was excellent for the night snorkel – short paddle in a traditional canoe, protected viewing between the hulls, and viewing from the canoe if you don’t get in the water.

    As was mentioned, note the road construction around/north of the airport – I wouldn’t have known, fortunately my folks were there before us and so we knew to factor that in.

    Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay) – we enjoyed just hanging out, one day was great watching the boogie boarders/waves
    Hapuna Beach State Park – broad, flat, easy access, lifeguards

    Don’t forget to enjoy some poké!

  40. So exciting! I would HIGHLY recommend renting a car and driving around the island. You’ll get to stop anywhere along the way — eat at some shrimp shacks and the like, stop at a “deserted” stretch of beach — and it’s such a wonderful beautiful drive. Zero stress, especially as a Californian!

  41. At the Mauna Lani shopping center there is a free outdoor Hawaiian dance show every Monday and Thursday at 7 pm. It is spectacular!!! It is a highlight of our vacation so I am begging you to go. Do not miss it, it is about 30 min only and the girls teach the dance moves after the show.
    We usually eat dinner there and come early to grab a seat.
    We are going in October again, if you decided to stay longer we will see you there;)

  42. Definitely need a rental car on the big island, it’s called that for a reason! Ha. I did the mantra ray night swim in Jan 2017 and it was amazing to be in the dark water at night though only saw 1 manta ray very briefly (so many boats in the area, so it’s completely luck if you get to see one). Totally worth it in the chance you get to see one/some. However, I would caution against it if you get motion sickness. The water is quite choppy at night and bobbing in the water for an hour made me very sick :(
    The absolute BEST experience is the boat ride to the captain cook monument and snorkel. Get a fast raft boat, my 5 year old and 7 year old LOVED it!

  43. Hope this trip goes well for you! Just saw that there are earthquakes happening in Hawaii and perhaps are indicators that a volcanic eruption is imminent.

  44. We have a very similar tradition except I take my kids in a trip for their 8th birthday and it also started accidentally. When my son was 6 I promised him I would take him to Boston before his 8th birthday (I lived there for five years and he wanted to see this place I always talked about). He remembered the promise and as his 8th birthday approached he kept reminding me. We were moving to RI three months after his birthday and I told him we would go then but he was insistent that it be before his 8th birthday as promised and just him. So we went and had a great time. It had been such a long time since I spent time with him one on one that it was so nice to get reacquainted with him.

    For my daughter’s 8th birthday we went to Prince Edward Island and again it was so nice to just be with her without other children/life getting between us. My third child turns 8 in September and I’m not sure where I am taking him yet. We are moving to Seattle in June so I’m waiting to see what deals I can get on airline tickets or if he would want to go up to Vancouver. (As a family we just took some trips to Montreal and Quebec City and had so much fun that we are looking forward to more Canadian adventures).

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