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Mother and son surf, swim and bond in Hawaii.

Mother and son surf, swim and bond in Hawaii.

The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa

OahuMotivated entirely by the gentle insistence of the surf instructor and the triple-dog-dare of my nine year old, I find myself riding a surfboard along a gentle Hawaiian wave, taking my first surf lesson ever. Much as I planned to watch my son's lesson from the soft white sand of Waikiki, I have been persuaded to give it a go myself, and, despite initial misgivings and not actually managing to make it to my feet on the board, I am having a blast. Maybe one of the best times of my life. And it's because of two things: I get to have a week-long vacation with my child, and I get to have it in Hawaii, possibly the most magical vacation spot on the planet. And yes, my child can kick my butt on a board.

There may be nothing new to say about the paradise that is the Hawaiian Islands, but seen for the first time through the eyes of your child, it seems like unchartered, magical territory. I was taking the trip for a much needed vacation but my son was there to, well, party, which in nine-year-old terms means the three S's: surfing, swimming and swimming. And swimming. What is it about Hawaii that makes swimming -- whether in a pool or in the pristine waters of the Pacific -- seem like such a unique endeavor, when as residents of coastal Orange County, we have access to more pools and ocean than we can visit in a summer? Maybe it was the 200-foot water slide into the pool at The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa that had my son refusing meals in order to stay in the water a bit longer. Maybe it was the incredible gentleness of the waves at the practice spot where we took our surfing lessons that got me, normally not exactly an adventurer, to give it a try. Certainly the combination of the less-than-daunting waves of Waikiki and the joy of my son had me out on the water the day after our arrival. Who says a week away can't be transforming?

The wonderful surfing teachers at Hans Hedemann Surf School gave us two of the most enjoyable hours we've had, guiding us all the way through, from on-land board technique demonstrations, to the occasionally helping hand when we (okay, I) got tired of paddling out on the water. True to form, my son was up on the board and riding the curls as if he'd been doing it for years, and, true to form, I never quite made it up to a standing position, but I defy you to say which of us had more fun.
Our whole trip was like that. Staying at the Sheraton Waikiki and later at The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa on the Big Island was the perfect choice for traveling with a child, as the hotels are designed to show both age groups a great time. While I thought I might have to forgo a spa treatment for more rugged pursuits while traveling with my son, I soon learned that he could have an amazing day at the Keiki Aloha splash attack, part of Sheraton's Kieiki (children's) Aloha program, a day camp on site for children ages five to 12. While my son shot water pistols at a bunch of other kids and dove for treasure at the children's pool, I indulged in a lomi lomi massage at the Abhasa Waikiki Spa in the venerable Royal Hawaiian Hotel next door to the Sheraton.

The Abhasa Waikiki is everything you'd expect from a Hawaiian spa: 7,000 square feet with a lush tropical garden area, in which I had a private outdoor cabana for my wonderfully relaxing treatment. The Lomi Lomi massage is a rhythmic Hawaiian-inspired treatment that invigorates and refreshes. I was so mellow upon my return that I was unfazed by my son's desire to spend another day at the Keiki Aloha, as they were off for kite flying and boogie boarding the next day. I reminded him that this was a togetherness vacation, and besides, we'd be back at the kiddie pool that night for the "Dive-in Movie" to see Lilo and Stitch in front of a screen set up at one end of the pool so that anyone who wanted could watch in the water. Indeed, my son spent the whole movie in the pool, only coming out for some of the fresh-popped popcorn Keiki Aloha employees were passing out.

The next day offered another once-in-a-lifetime experience when we departed for the Sea Life Park marine center for the Sheraton Dolphin Connection. In an exclusive arrangement with the Sheraton Waikiki, Sea Life Park allows guests to get up close and personal with our aquatic friends. We donned life jackets and jumped into the tank with a dolphin who suffered us to pet him (dolphins feel like a very taut wet suit), kiss him and be kissed by him -- and who performed a few tricks at our command. Of course, we also learned to feed him. Recognizing a kindred spirit, he seemed to bond immediately with my son, who snuck in a few extra kisses before we moved on to watch the sea lion show and then to feed them as well. Sea Life Park offers other Sea-World-like activities, though it is much smaller, and takes its mission of marine education and conservation awareness very seriously.

For our last night in Oahu we dined at Sand Bar, the hotel's casual poolside restaurant, to enjoy (as we had every night from our balcony) live traditional music and hula dancing. In a farewell gesture, my son finally got up the courage to take a crack at the

hula himself (and no, I drew the line on my shaking my own hips here). And while he may never win a competition, he was unabashed and enthusiastic, and I have embarrassing pictures I can show his girlfriend some day.

The Big IslandFun as Oahu is, it is no match for the stark beauty of the Big Island. Hawaii's youngest island, the Big Island is home to three still-active volcanoes, and some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. Volcanic cliffs rise out of the pristine water, and black sand beaches abound. The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa has one of the prime locations on the island, with a view of a lush tropical bay, verdant hills of Kona coffee, and the ocean beyond. The Crystal Blue Lounge in the Sheraton Keauhou has a wall of windows that give you a panoramic view of the incredible sunset, to be enjoyed with one of their traditional or inventive tropical cocktails. The Keiki Club here is outfitted better than my son's pre-school was, with everything from a fully-stocked art room to every video game known to man. However, when we weren't adventuring on the island, my son was going down the hotel's Manta Ray Superslide, often with me at his heels, both of us screeching in delight.

The next day we departed early for another first: an actual submarine ride. Luckily, I don't suffer from claustrophobia, but I do not do well on above-water boats, and the one we took to ride out to where the Atlantis Tours sub awaited moved like a Mini Cooper going over speed bumps. But when you're with your child you must never show weakness. (My son, a typical nine old, smelled blood and wickedly whispered in my ear, "We're going uuuuup and dooown, uuuuup and dooown," until I almost turned green.) Once inside the submarine however (yes, a genuine submarine; think Disney's old submarine ride, minus the sea serpent and fake fish) I was quite comfortable with the enclosed space, and was truly awe-inspired by the tour of the aquatic life off Hawaii's shore that included fish, coral turtles and even a couple of shipwrecks. My son sat in one place for an hour, which is evidence enough of how enthralled he was, though he was hoping for a sea serpent sighting.

However, I don't think I really earned street cred with my son until I agreed to go on a Nature Adventure, whose very name set my heart beating faster. Once again, I ended up the happiest tourist on the block. Nature Adventures and Outfitters offers a variety of off-road and hiking outings; we opted for the Hawaii Forest and Trail Hualalai PinzTrek, a guided tour to some of the most spectacular places on the Big Island. We bounced in -- I mean rode in -- on a Pinzgauer (a German-made jeep that makes you feel as if you're in a WWII movie) high above the town of Kailua-Kona up Hualalai Mountain, site of the eponymous volcano.

The tamed landscape of the bottom of the mountain quickly gives way to the tropical environs of the higher elevations;

luxurious estates -- many second homes to the Hollywood elite -- hide behind lush foliage. Higher still, around 6,000 feet, the stark landscape of the volcano reveals itself. Our guide explained the geologic forces that created the Hawaiian islands as we gazed down into the heart of Huyalalai's 1801 eruption, Ka'upelehu Crater, a surreal sight that looks exactly like what it is: the earth cracked open. We even hiked through a lava tube, a cave-like tunnel created by the flow of lava through the mountain. Yes, I -- city born and bred, whose idea of roughing it is using plastic silverware -- hiked. And liked it. My son was astonished. I was triumphant. Before our trip back, our wonderful guide fed us cakes, fruit and drink, and with the rugged jeep, the intimidating vistas and the sweat on our brows, I felt like one of those turn-of-the-century adventuresses who defies convention by lighting off for new territory -- but not without their servants.

There's certainly nothing treacherous about a luau, but I have to say I was wary anyway, picturing a homogenized version of something out of an old Elvis Presley movie. But I figured we should have the quintessential Hawaii experience, and so we went to Kamaha'o, the Sheraton Keauhou's luau. Bad weather (it rained a little every day we were on the Big Island, not unusual for the time of year, and always refreshing, the air clearing to that velvety thickness that is so magical) forced the entertainment inside, but the luau was nonetheless a revelation. Not at all hokey or not-quite-authentic, the Kamaha'o focuses on the creation legends of the native Hawaiians, with stories of the gods and creatures of ancient legend acted out in dances and chants. This was more than just a few hulas; this was recreated history. My son, a meat man, couldn't get enough of the kalua pork and prime rib that were served, and sampled the other delicacies as well, including huli chicken, steamed fish and sushi. The pièce de resistance was the traditional death-defying fire/knife dance (yes, we did move outside for this one) -- an absolutely thrilling, if heart-stopping, experience to watch.

Which, come to think of it, is a perfect way to describe our entire trip. Taking your family to Hawaii is a no-brainer, but really experiencing Hawaii with them takes a lot of planning, a lot of flexibility, and just a little bit of moxie.

More information:
Sheraton Waikiki, (808) 922-4422, www.sheraton-waikiki.com
Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, (808) 930-4900, www.sheratonkeauhou.com
Hans Hedemann Surf School, (808) 924-7778, www.hhsurf.com
Sea Life Park, (866) 393-5158, www.sealifeparkhawaii.com
Atlantis Submarine Adventures, (800) 548-6262, www.atlantisadventures.com
Nature Adventures and Outfitters, (800) 464-1993, www.pinztrekhawaii.com
Ka'ike Productions, (808) 930-4828, www.KaikeHawaii.com

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