We just came back from a 10 day vacation on the Big Island. (July 2009) Wasn't worth a year of savings . We went for snorkeling, waterfalls and to see lava entering the ocean.
I have been to Oahu and Kauai. Loved Kauai's northern end. where we stayed a week. I wanted to return to Kauai this summer, but my husband wanted to go to the "Big Island" to the see the Volcano. BIG MISAKE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The Big Island has two main sides The Kona/Kohala side which is dryer, but sunny, and the Hilo wet side, where beautiful green foilage abounds. Fabulous waterfalls right by Hilo. Just rain, rain and more rain.
The Kohala resorts are an oasis in a lava barren desert. The lava is just not pretty, but It is the only place with swim friendly beaches. The resort we stayed at for 2 nights was very nice (The Hilton Waikoloa). My 10 year old daughter loved touching the dolphins for 20 min. for $200, but she said it was worth it, and she had to pay for half of it. It is very beautiful in the resort. The resort is huge, and I wish we would have stayed on the Kona/Kohala side the whole trip. Only draw back about the Hilton, is no real beach there, but the resort keeps you totally entertained. and a nice beach within a 5 min. drive.
The town of Kona isn't as pretty as the Kohala resorts, but the best, most excellent snorkeling is at Kahalu'u Beach Park. It has showers, bathrooms, and a pavillion. The water is a little cloudy and cold at the entrance to the beach, but head futher out into the little bay,and there are fabulous corals with beautiful tangs, puffer fish, morish idol, butterfly fish. Honestly, hundreds of fish everywhere. Super clean, clear water. I would rate it a 10/10. The large outer rock barrier keeps it calm from the large ocean waves. No comparison to anything else. Just don't bang your leg into the coral by getting into a shallow area, or you will have coral fragments in your leg, which are hard to get out. Also, don't step on the coral (for their sake, because it will kill them, but also, the red spiked coral can pierce right through your fins like a nail) This is nice and safe for the kids if they can swim and are supervised.
The next 7 nights in Puna were a torture. Not to be rude, Puna is a beautiful tropical type rainforest. It is just out in nowhere. We stayed in the gated community of Kopoho, which is about 40 min. from a large grocery store, Walmart, and even McDonalds, which has the same prices as the mainland. Now the downside. No assessible beaches, and It rained everyday, A checker in Hilo said it usually rained about 3 times a week, but we received rain everyday by the bucketloads, It was maybe sunny for 1-2 hours for our entire 7 day stay. I picked it out Puna because the tide pools, close by, are suppose to be great for snorkeling. I read "The big island revealed" and it gave good reviews for the tide pools and chmpagne pond.
Champagne pond was terrible. It was warm, but very bad snorkeling, maybe a dozen fish in the whole pond, and you get out very dissapointed that you have to shower again just for that. It is heated from the volcano, but so what, unless you like to soak in 90 degree stinky fish water,
The tide pools weren't much better. You wind your way down to small, crowded parking lot with huge ruts. It is all volcanic rock which rips your legs apart while entering. The water is cloudy and cold in spots. The fish are sparce, if you can see them through the cloudy water. Definately not any beautiful coral. Just some icky small ponds again. People say they have bacteria, but we didn't get any infections or sick from them. Don't ever believe it is the best snorkeling on the island, not even close, just a waste of time.
Ahalanui is another dirty pond, swimming hole. Super cloudy, icky water again, not that warm, crowded, and lava rock on the bottom in spots to trip you and scrape on. we stayed for 20 min, and again very dissapointed. Then it started raining again, sometimes so hard, you can't see out the windshield.
The volcanos national park is o.k., Just a crater with some steam coming out, not that impressive, The walk to the lava coming into the ocean was a little better, It would have been great if we had high power binoculars. You walk for a half mile on more lava rock, and then wait until it gets dark, There is a big steam cloud, and then a small glow of lava. You are many miles away from actual lava. There was no surface lava. Kind of dissapointing. You need flashlights for each person to get back. There is a trail that is marked with reflecting tape and you go in a large group, so it is quite safe, even for kids.
The only close sand beach is Kahena black beach, which is absolutely beautiful. You just can't take the kids because lots of nudists (yes all nude hippie type peope) But if you don't mind that, it is gorgeous. Can't swim here though, the surf is huge and would kill most people if they even tried. The little rock trail down the cliff side was very fun to climb down and beautiful.
The next closest beach is Punalu'u black sand beach. It is also beautiful, but 1 1/2 hour drive each way. There are suppose to be lots turtles, but we didn't see any. the water is freezing, and the surf is just to strong to swim in. No nudists here. This is a family beach.
So, unless you like continual rain in a deserted rain forest (which is beautiful) and no beaches with bad snorkeling. DON'T STAY IN PUNA. or Hilo. Vist Hilo for a daytrip to the waterfalls. I wouldn't waste any precious time at the volcano either. Spend the whole trip on the Kona side if you want Sun, beaches, and fabulous snorkeling. Just think, it's fifty dollars every hour you are there for a family of four. Why waste it in the rain. Better yet, stay on a diffrerent Island.