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Hawaii: Why take your kids to Waikiki?

It's been a long time since the word "Waikiki" has elicited mental images of coconut-laden palm trees; of chilled, orchid-topped chi-chi's; of Don Ho crooning "Tiny Bubbles" with a lone ukulele and four grass-skirted hula dancers.

More likely, you hear "Waikiki" and think fast food, puka shell necklaces, matching aloha shirts and masses of tourists competing for a tiny slice of overused beach. You visualize cheesy hotel lobbies adorned with ceramic porpoise sculptures and you figure Don Ho's long gone (you'd be wrong; at 76, he's still holding court at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel).

Many families left -- no, make that escaped -- the kitsch of Oahu's Waikiki and its main boulevard, Kalakaua Avenue, decades ago for the more sophisticated and less inhabited islands of Maui, Kauai, Lanai, and Hawaii.

Our family joined that exodus after spending many Christmas and New Year's holidays on Oahu. We resettled on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, the "Big Island." We found it beautiful, luscious, and sparsely populated. Aloha shirts were fashioned by Ralph Lauren, and there wasn't a puka shell in sight.

Yet last December we headed for Waikiki Beach -- right back where we started from. And we enjoyed -- even relished -- every moment of our vacation.

We left the Big Island because of our granddaughters, ages 4 1/2 and almost 2. The very qualities that first attracted us to it ultimately drove us away. The Big Island is wonderfully serene and secluded. But secluded often means you have to climb into a mini-van -- with car seats, strollers, Barbie Dolls and sippy cups -- to find restaurants, markets, drugstores or a strawberry shaved ice.

And while there was always plenty for the kids to do in the Big Island's sand, surf and swimming pools, we liked the activities Oahu had to offer -- and the fact that many of those activities were walking distance from our hotel, the Royal Hawaiian.

The new Waikiki

Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue has changed. It's not your mother's Kalakaua anymore. It's your rich aunt's Kalakaua; she's the one person who might be able afford the prices at such boutiques as Chanel, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Most of the little shacks where they made those matching mumus and shirts are gone, replaced by upscale shops that attract a wealthy international crowd.

Luckily for our group, many of the kid-friendly spots remain, including the open-air International Market Place with its carts of local wares and souvenirs.

Not far from the Market, there's a California Pizza Kitchen and down the block, a McDonald's. These are the kinds of places we tried to leave behind when we headed for more glorious and less commercial surroundings. Turns out when your kids are hungry and need food Right Now, those burgers and fries work real well.

Waikiki's streets look and feel better these days, thanks to a multi-million dollar upgrade to the sidewalks and beach paths. The spacious, tree-lined walkway makes strolling the little ones a delight. We walked those paths every day -- all four generations of us -- examining the banyan trees, seashells and fresh plumerias along the way.

We'd usually end up at the DFS Galleria so the kids could see the tropical fish and magnificent manta rays in The Tube, a 65,000-gallon two-story, walk-through saltwater aquarium.

Then we'd amble back to the hotel through the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center -- currently undergoing a massive renovation -- and go down to the beach. We would find our sliver of sand amid the vacationers and the locals, and settle in to build sandcastles and dance in the surf.


Honolulu Zoo

Visitors will find a tropical forest, an African aviary and a children's zoo, along with lions and tigers and a red-footed tortoise. The zoo is located between Diamond Head and Waikiki at the corner of Kapahulu Ave. and Kalakaua Blvd. www.honoluluzoo.org

Sea Life Park

The park is a world-class marine attraction featuring dolphins, sea lions and penguins, seals and more. Located 15 miles from Waikiki at Makapuu Point. www.sealifeparkhawaii.com

Waikiki Aquarium

The aquarium hosts an array of marine life from the tropical Pacific and Hawaii. Visitors get up-close looks at reef sharks, living corals, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, sea jellies and colorful reef fish. It's located on the east end of Waikiki Beach. www.waquarium.org

Hanauma Bay

This is one of Hawaii's top snorkeling spots. Swimmers often encounter a rainbow of reef inhabitants, including tangs, parrotfish, butterfly fish, surgeonfish and more. Located on the southeast coast of Oahu, about 10 miles east of Waikiki.

Hawaii Children's Discovery Center

The Center offers an interactive learning environment designed to engage kids in learning and discovery experiences. It is located across from the Kakaako Waterfront Park in downtown Honolulu. www.discoverycenterhawaii.org

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