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Exploring The Shady Side of Oahu

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

We think of it as the Easy Bake Index, a sliding scale of sunburn, salt crust and prune fingers that tells us when it's time to peel the kids off the Hawaiian beach for a few hours. (For us parents, the Baked Scale has more to do with pages of trash fiction read and number of mai tais consumed, but the glazed look is pretty much the same.)

It's just sooooo easy to cast a morning towel at Waikiki or Waimea and assume tropical stupor for the day. Hey, that's why parents endure that 12-hour trans-Pacific school bus flight to get here in the first place. But when our 8-year-old achieves a color that causes passing social workers to reach for their cellphones or we find her toddler brother building sand castles on his tongue, we know it's time to rally for a little break from the breakers.

Fortunately, there is UV-free fun to be had on Oahu. Thanks to a family connection in Honolulu, we've made the trip a half-dozen times in the past 10 years. And to keep each one from turning into a melanoma recruitment fair, we've come up with a week's worth of off-beach diversions that stroke their little attention spans without insulting ours.

DIVERSION: The Science Adventure Center at the Bishop Museum

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 50

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 2 hours

The Bishop Museum is Hawaii's personal little Smithsonian, a much-respected repository of island archives and artifacts. But it has long suffered a dowager's air, a bit dusty, a trifle hidebound in its campus of stocky Victorian-era buildings. Now the Bishop is in the process of updating itself and has achieved a true triumph with the science center, which opened in late 2005.

The shiny new annex makes full use of modern interactive wizardry to explain Hawaii's ecology, geography and, especially, bizarro geology (complete with in-house volcano and 2,500-degree lava furnace). Our planned drop-by turned into a relaxed two hours: My 10-year-old took particular pleasure in wreaking destruction in the tsunami exhibit, but I was the one who kept a crowd of third-graders waiting for half an hour at the pilot-your-own-submersible tank.

INFO: Admission to the Bishop compound, including the science center, planetarium and general exhibits, is $15.95 for adults, $12.95 for kids 4 to 12 and free for kids 3 or younger. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, 808-847-3511, http://www.bishopmuseum.org.

DIVERSION: The Pineapple Maze at Dole Plantation Gardens

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 10 (wear a hat)

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 3 hours

For a place with so many tourists, Oahu doesn't have many tourist traps. Plenty of tacky souvenir shops, but not many roadside attractions of the big-ball-of-string variety. Maybe that's what draws us to the big old Stuckey's-looking place surrounded by pineapple fields on the road to the North Shore. Hard to resist "Hawaii's most complete pineapple experience."

An open-air train "steams" (smelling strongly of diesel) through the fields and history of James D. Dole, the Henry Ford of pineapples. (He once turned nearly the entire island of Lanai into a pineapple plantation.) The gardens are sizable and spectacular, and the gift shop is a shopping mall of pineapple hot pads and some beautiful Hawaiian quilts. But we spend most our time in the vast walk-in maze ("World's Largest," per Guinness Book, 2001), a two-acre labyrinth of native plants in the shape of a -- surprise! -- pineapple.

INFO: Admission is separate for each part of the plantation (free for kids 3 or younger): The maze is $5 for adults, $3 for kids 4 to 12; the gardens are $4 for adults, $3.25 for kids; the train is $7.75 for adults, $5.75 for kids. 64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy., Wahiawa, 808-621-8408, http://www.dole-plantation.com.

DIVERSION: Matsumoto's Shave Ice

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 50 (unless you eat it outside)

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 3 hours

You can get serious shave ice anywhere in Hawaii. (And the island version of the snow cone is always shave ice, never shaved. Like Southern ice tea.) But it's worth a day trip to Oahu's North Shore to line up for one at Matsumoto's in old Haleiwa. This dusty beach town is the center of Hawaii's (and, therefore, the world's) most serious surfing scene. It's a fine place to pick up a hand-waxed short board, an excellent mahi-mahi burger and a killer conch-shell wind chime.

Go ahead and get all that out of your system and then head to Matsumoto ready to give the Dom Perignon of shave ice the attention it deserves. Join the queue of Japanese tourists and then ponder your choices: With ice cream or without? Azuki beans or no? Lilikoe syrup? Coconut? Lihing mui? Lychee? (On our fourth visit -- in two days -- my 8-year-old turned me on to the pleasures of simple lime. Fabulous.) It's all handmade and it takes snow cones to gourmet levels. The Matsumotos opened their general store by the highway in 1951, but over the years surfers and beach pilgrims have made it a one-product shop (not counting the T-shirts).

INFO: A basic large shave ice (they sell a small, but honestly . . .) is $1.75 with up to three kinds of syrup; add a scoop of ice cream for 50 cents. Depending on how hot it is and how many tourists are town, the line can be up to 20 minutes long. Don't be deterred. 66-087 Kamehameha Hwy., Haleiwa, 808-637-4827, http://www.matsumotoshaveice.com.

DIVERSION: The Sea Turtles of Laniakea Beach, North Shore

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 0 (It's a beach!)

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 3 hours

Okay, so visiting a beach isn't much of a break from the beach. But for kiddie tourists, the appeal of Laniakea isn't the surf, it's the green sea turtles often found basking on the sand. (The hard-core surfers who ride the premium break here would beg to differ if they bothered to pay any attention to you at all.) We had noticed crowds at this roadside beach near Haleiwa several times before we stopped to investigate and found three of the massive reptiles languidly flipping sand and gazing about with their wizened old parrot faces.

They've been coming ashore here since 1999, apparently drawn by the particularly mouthwatering algae to be found in this cove. Ever since, they've been a reliable stop on our North Shore visits. No one had to tell us to keep our hands off the wildlife, but apparently enough people find sea turtles so irresistibly touchable (and climbable!) that the feds have started a volunteer staffing program to ensure some distance between this endangered species and the tourists who love them.

INFO: Laniakea Beach is about two miles east of Haleiwa town on the Kamehameha Highway, heading toward Waimea Bay. Look for lots of cars parked along the right shoulder; be careful crossing the road and look for the turtles on the far right side of the beach.

DIVERSION: Honolulu's Chinatown

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 50

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 2 hours

One of our spawn is a Chinese food fiend; the others can take kung pao or leave it. But they all get into the rowdy pageantry of a good dim sum restaurant, and Honolulu has a couple of really topping ones in its Chinatown neighborhood. The pork buns just about fly between the tables at Legends Seafood, a place so crowded with Chinese families on a Saturday afternoon it could be a Beijing food court.

We order wantonly (won-ton-ly?) from nearly every steam cart that trundles by: shrimp dumplings, crispy noodles, sesame-coated bean cakes. Wash it all down with two pots of green tea and we're ready to, erp, walk out into the surrounding blocks of herbalists, jade dealers, fish markets and curio shops. Nobody does gimcracks like a Chinese importer, and the kids burn through a week's spending money in 20 minutes. Between filling their quota of tiny porcelain bridges and lacquered boxes and silk fans, we wander and wonder over the signature oddities of the 15-block enclave: the dry lizards and sea horses at Fook Sau Tong medicine shop; the magnificent vintage Wo Fat Chop House sign at the corner of Hotel and Muanakea streets; and deliciously grotesque catfish and frogs staring balefully from their tanks. There are as many signs in Vietnamese and Cambodian as in Mandarin these days, as the neighborhood provides a commercial foothold for the next generation of newcomers.

INFO: Chinatown sits on Honolulu Harbor roughly between River and Bethel streets. Legend Seafood Restaurant is at 100 N. Beretania St. in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, 808-532-1868. Our dim sum brunch for six ran about $60.

DIVERSION: Happy Trails Stables, North Shore

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 30 (40 if you wear a cowboy hat)

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 4 hours

My 10-year-old, who has tasted the joys of horseback riding in Central America, a pre-litigation society where they care not if you gallop over a cliff (as long as someone pays for the horse), now disdains the nose-to-tail plodding of the modern American trail ride. Well, you'll never confuse one of Happy Trails' outings with a steeplechase, but they do let children as young as 6 ride their very own well-mannered horse (under the close eye of the trail master). That's prize enough for the younger kids, and for the adults the payoff comes when you emerge from under a canopy of koa and ironwood trees onto a forever view of the Waimea Valley. This is as dramatic an interior slice of Polynesia as you're ever likely to see, and getting it from the back of a horse on a thread of ridge that's being petted by the lovely trade winds is a thrill that only a jaded 10-year-old could deny.

INFO: Happy Trails offers four rides a day during the spring and summer, two at 90 minutes for $55 per rider, two at two hours for $75. The stable is on a winding road not far from Sunset Beach, the famous surfing venue. Best to call or check the Web site for directions, but essentially you take Pupukea Road at the Foodland and drive up a mile. 59-231 Pupukea Rd., North Shore Oahu, 808-638-7433, http://www.happytrailshawaii.com.

DIVERSION: The USS Bowfin Submarine Tour

SUN PROTECTION FACTOR: 100 (sunburn is the one hazard you don't face on a submarine)

TIME OFF THE TOWEL: 2 hours

The kids don't get a lot of the gravity that infuses Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, even when we tie the story to their Navy vet grandfather. But there's nothing elusive about the drama of going aboard a genuine World War II submarine. The USS Bowfin, which is part of the harbor's memorial complex, is the real thing, one of the few surviving subs from that era, and it's been completely restored. Step down from the teak deck and the press of the lower compartments is overwhelming.

As a machine, it's a fascinating nexus of old navy (the glistening brasswork) and modern warfare (the muscular torpedo tubes, the ballast plumbing). But it's the, the, the immense smallness of the space that is most affecting. Squeezing past a crew bunk room that allows a coffin's worth of space for each sailor, you wonder what was worse, the terror of battle or the confinement of daily life. These guys endured both, and even kids get that.

INFO: The Bowfin is berthed next to the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center at Pearl Harbor. It's open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for kids 4 to 12. (Children younger than 4 are not allowed on board, but they can visit the adjacent museum.) 11 Arizona Memorial Dr., 808-423-1341, http://www.bowfin.org.

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