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The Magic of Hawaii

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When you're traveling with your child, even a return to your hometown can take on a wonderful newness. Such was the case for my husband, Stewart, and me on our most recent trip to Hawaii. Seven generations of my family have grown up there, and it's easy to take even this paradise for granted. But seen through the eyes of our 5-month-old daughter, Isabella, everything seemed novel and unexplored. "It's so beautiful here. So foreign," said Stewart, a native of Alabama, delighted anew to be visiting my home state. "You almost feel you're not in the United States."

And he's right. Hawaii is different. In fact, it wasn't until I left the islands at 18 that I discovered it was unusual to go to school barefoot, eat sushi for school lunch, and speak a language laced with words like pau (finished) and moi moi (sleep). Most American kids do not compete on the varsity outrigger-canoe-paddling team or have birthday parties at the foot of a rainforest waterfall. These were the exoticisms of my childhood -- and these plus a million others attract families to the Aloha State every year. Each of the eight main islands (actually, you can really visit only six of them) has its own personality and allure, and for every visiting family there is a perfect island match.

Friends thought we were brave to attempt a transcontinental and transpacific journey with an infant. But between the in-flight bulkhead bassinet and our own stroller, checked at the gate, Bella basically slept her way from New Orleans to Honolulu. Once there, we greedily took in three islands: Oahu, for families who crave equal measures of bustle and beach; Maui, for those who need creature comforts but also fancy roughing it in volcano craters; and the Big Island of Hawaii, with its green, black, and white sand beaches, barren lava flats, and feathery ranch land.

I grew up on Oahu, so I love it unconditionally. But each year, many visitors are startled (read disappointed) to find that Oahu is really a booming metropolis replete with traffic jams, a busy downtown, and beaches packed cheek-by-jowl with salmon-colored tourists. People expecting a virginal tropical paradise on Oahu are 40 years too late.

Of course, all the guidebook activities -- such as visiting the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, catching a dolphin show at Sea Life Park, and learning about our royal Hawaiian past at Queen Emma Summer Palace -- are recommended for a reason: They are fantastic family experiences. As a kid, I made yearly school field trips to all three.

To those who grew up here, Oahu is like those oysters they sell to tourists at the International Marketplace: With the right tools you can crack it open and find a pearl. For instance, the island is home to nearly 600 named surfing spots and 80 hiking trails. And with very little effort you can take up either activity as if you'd been born to it.

For surfing, get the family down to Waikiki Beach, just behind the giant bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, where you'll find two different surf stands offering lessons and rentals. The beach boys who teach there are an institution, and for about $35 they basically guarantee to have you surfing within an hour. While Bella was far too young, fairly small children can enjoy the waves, provided they can swim. Just ask the beach boys about a tandem lesson, in which the child shares a board with the instructor. My uncle taught me to surf this way in these very waters when I was only 3 years old.

Our recently renovated hipster hotel, the Waikiki Marc (to be renamed Bamboo in December), is one block from surf and sea. The two-minute walk to the beach saved us a significant amount of money and caused no inconvenience. The hotel is decked out with a cool, retro-look pool and offers plenty of rooms and suites with kid-convenient kitchenettes.

Inland, two mountain ranges, the Waianaes and the Ko'olaus, make up the framework of Oahu, with houses built right into the valleys. One day, we followed a fertile streambed in a residential valley choked with strawberry guava trees, passion fruit vines, and ginger varietals to three swimmable pools. The hike was no more difficult than a walk, and after about half an hour, the malls of Oahu seemed remote. The Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club and Sierra Club can point you to trails suitable for families; both groups lead hikes regularly.

On one of my earliest visits to Maui, I was 12 years old and racing in the outrigger canoe state championships. Back then, the island was just budding with the first of the glitzy hotels that now line most of the western coast. Stewart proclaims Maui his favorite because of its yin and yang of civilization and uncorrupted wilderness.

We stayed at the Four Seasons Wailea, near the end of a long row of luxury hotels and probably the best of the bunch. Three restaurants and a large pool and beach area made it hard to leave this beautifully landscaped property. But we headed off to Maui's far reaches knowing that we could look forward to being pampered at the end of the day.

There are two things on Maui that every first-timer should do: take a road trip to Hana and visit Haleakala. The drive to Hana features 54 bridges and something like 600 hairpin turns. But while it's a charming little town, Hana itself does not warrant the three hours it can take to get there. Rather, in the ultimate zen clich?, the joy is in the journey: gurgling waterfalls and resplendent taro patches on one side and the deep blue sea on the other. Think of the trip as a photo op on wheels. If it still seems too long, turn around at K?anae, which is about halfway. There, you can pull up to a snack stand that features the best banana bread in the state.

Maui pilgrims are also drawn to the summit of Haleakala ("House of the sun," literally), a long-dormant volcano that is considered a sort of spiritual epicenter. After driving about 10,000 feet to the top, drop into the visitor center; you might also join one of several hikes led by hearty rangers each day. But if you and the little ones are early risers, the best thing by far is to catch sunrise on the summit, when the mana (spiritual power) is said to be at its peak. Or maybe it's just your bleary eyes combined with the trippy blues, oranges, purples, and pinks that streak the sky. Families with older kids may opt to descend the volcano road on bicycle or tour the inside of the crater on horseback, but neither journey is for the faint of heart.

Of course, there's plenty of mana in the sea, too, and I spent one day flying around in a giant Zodiac, plowing into sea caves, snorkeling with turtles, and ogling humpback whales. Whale-watching season runs from October through April, and that day we saw mamas and calves breaching, blowing, and diving. Our captain knew an inordinate amount about volcanology, sea life, ancient Hawaiians, and geography. As a pack of dolphins splashed nearby, one 10-year-old boy in my boat said it best: "This is the funnest thing I've ever done in my whole life!"

My earliest memories of the Big Island are of playing in tide pools on a black sand beach that was later lost to an eruption of the volcano Kilauea. Back then, the island was considered the middle of nowhere in a state that's in the middle of nowhere. Now, though the towns of Kona and Hilo have spread out, Hawaii remains open and unspoiled.

Again we stayed at the Four Seasons, this one called Hualalai, which boasts a cultural center, where you can take free ukulele lessons, and a salt-water swimming pool filled with 3,000 fish. At night, as we sat under a sky lit by more stars than we'd ever seen, we thought we were in heaven.

The beauty of the Big Island is in its diversity. Here, on a single trip, you could ski the snow-covered slopes of a volcano, ride horses through one of the biggest working ranches in the world, explore a cloud forest, golf a championship course, and fish for fat silver-blue sailfish.

My first choice, though, was to spend a day in the "ditch." Actually a sort of irrigation canal left over from the island's plantation past, its rushing waters wind their way into caves, under waterfalls, and through rainforests so dense, you get an idea of what the color green would smell like. Years ago, you'd have to sneak onto private property to go fluming. But now you can pay a sum, jump in a kayak, and spend a day in the flumes in legal comfort and safety, a perfect activity for anyone over the age of 5.

A world away is the eerie, sunbaked City of Refuge. Composed of three bone-filled burial mounds and countless glowering tikis, it gives a stark and gripping glimpse into the island's past. Back in ancient Hawaii, criminals and disgraced warriors had two choices: make it to the City of Refuge, where one could gain absolution, or die. The choice would seem obvious except for the fact that the only way to get to the city was to swim across a shark-infested bay. Its real name is a mouthful -- Pu'uhonua o Honaunau -- but forget about pronouncing it and just go.

For the ultimate sightseeing splurge, there's nothing like an aerial tour. Despite my fear of flying, I left Stewart and Bella and hopped a copter because I knew that it would allow me to see one of my islands more clearly and intimately than I ever had before. I was not disappointed. For two hours, our craft gingerly dropped into a roiling crater, raced over the grasslands of Paniolo (cowboy) country, and flitted into the backs of valleys on the Hamakua Coast, where humans may never have trod and waterfalls rained down on pools hundreds of feet below.

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Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the November 2001 issue of Child magazine.