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Camping at Molokai Ranch in Hawaii

MOLOKAI, Hawaii -- ``Go, girl!''

Eight-year-old Melanie, securely harnessed and carefully watched by the climbing expert, looked nervous. She wasn't sure she could really make it to the top of the 20-foot climbing wall. She wasn't sure she wanted to try.

Buoyed by the encouraging calls from parents, kids and grandparents -- all strangers -- watching from below, she carefully inched her way up to the top.

Everyone applauded and cheered. She shot me that triumphant I-really-did-it-myself grin a mother loves to see. If only she could always count on that kind of support from strangers to meet challenges, I thought.

Before the day was out, we were helping other parents and kids meet challenges of their own, too -- at an archery contest, on the ropes course and in kayaks along the coast, learning about the ancient Hawaiians as we went. We grown-ups were paddling, climbing the wall and shooting arrows alongside the kids.

``I love that I'm not just watching my kid, that I'm doing it, too, even if she's laughing at me,'' said Delene Wolf, who is from San Francisco. The moms gloated when we won the archery contest.

A few hours later, we were dusty, hot and not strangers any more. ``The camaraderie is what makes this place special. At a big resort, you might only talk to people around the pool for a few minutes and never see them again,'' observed Sally Overstreet, a mom of three from Los Angeles and a veteran of many island vacations. ``This certainly is a different kind of Hawaii.''

That's an understatement. For one thing, we were on the sleepy island of Molokai, more famous for its historic leper colony than for tourism. Only 7,000 people live on the entire island -- Maui has more than 10 times as many.

Instead of bedding down in a big hotel or condo, we slept at the Molokai Ranch in 8-by-10-foot canvas-sided cabins a bus ride away from the nearest phone, television or washing machine. We heard the rain drumming on the roof during the night. We awoke to birds chirping, not the air conditioner's hum. There was no bustling megapool with swim-up bar service, either.

We plopped down on simple wooden chairs under umbrellas that dotted the almost-deserted beach. We grabbed our snorkels and boogie boards from the pile (no waiting on line for rentals here) and chased the waves. It was achingly beautiful -- swaying palms, black rocks, crashing surf.

The century-old Molokai Ranch -- at 50,000 acres one of the largest in Hawaii -- has been refashioned to meet the needs of new-style adventure travelers who yearn to get back to nature with the kids, for a few days anyway, without the work that usually requires. That's why we paid considerably more than we would to pitch our own tent someplace, but less than at a traditional resort. Families we met there, though, didn't necessarily pick this place to save money.

The service could have been better, the food and wine list more imaginative. We were not disappointed because that's not why we chose to come.

``I stay at hotels all the time on business. I wanted something different for vacation,'' explained Steve Sombrero, who had hopped over from Honolulu with his wife and two kids for a few days.

``We came for this experience,'' agreed Delene Wolf, who was headed afterward to an ultra-luxe Hawaiian resort with her husband and daughter.

But we were not exactly roughing it, either. Our ``tent-a-lows'' had queen-sized beds, screened windows, solar-powered lights, hot pull showers (which the kids loved) and self-composting flush toilets.

There are three separate camps within the ranch, each with about 40 units. They're a 20-minute bumpy bus ride apart -- one drawback to the place: The Paniolo Camp is where cowboy wannabes (once they're 10) can help round up cattle and head out on trail rides; the remote Kolo Cliffs Camp, with sweeping views, and the newest, Kaupoa Beach Camp, where we were staying. Every unit has two tent cabins connected by a deck, swaying hammocks in front, just perfect for families.

We parents loved that we didn't have to pitch our tents, cook or fetch ice. All of our meals were served buffet-style on the outdoor pavilion. No shoes required. The kids ran off to play as soon as they were done eating. Anyone who has ever tried to corral a young child in a restaurant every night on vacation knows what that freedom means.

An added plus: we got a guilt-free break when the kids signed on for the first-rate Kamali'i Ed-ventures program, where they explored tidepools, searched for petroglyphs and helped feed the stable animals, all under careful supervision.

Grown-ups and teens were busy at the same time off-track mountain biking, guided hiking and kayaking, outrigger canoeing, not to mention snorkeling or just lazing on the beach. There was plenty to do outside the ranch, too -- hike to a waterfall, ride mules (if you're over 16) along the sea cliffs down 1,700 feet to the to Kalaupapa, where the leper colony had been located. Or visit a rain forest.

Grandparents like Sue Overstreet liked the options the ranch afforded to be with her grand kids -- and get away from them, too. Single parents like Jay Pitman, a doctor from Kentucky with two young sons in tow, found it easier to relax than at a megaresort teeming with people. ``It's safe for the kids to run around because everyone is looking out for everyone else's kids,'' he explained.

Even after dinner. The stars were the brightest we'd ever seen, but the kids were too busy to notice -- turning cartwheels in the sand.

IF YOU GO:

Rates including meals start at $128 per person per night at the Paniolo Camp; $148 at the Kaupoa Beach Camp. Until mid-December, stay five days and pay for four and one child 5-12 is free with a paying adult, after that $50 per day. Activities are extra -- children's camp costs $20 per half-day, for example. Call 877-726-4656 or www.molokai-ranch.com and ask about other upcoming special family packages.

Island-hopping families might want the seven-day Island Pass good for unlimited travel on Aloha Air and its sister commuter carrier, Island Air, that will get you to Molokai as well as the other islands. The cost is $321 per person. Call Aloha at 800-367-5250 or www.alohaair.com.

Those looking for a similar back-to-nature experience closer to the East Coast would find it at 114-unit Maho Bay Camps in the Virgin Islands National Park, on the island of St. John, or the 22-cottage Refuge at Ocklawaha in Ocala, Fla., 72 miles from Orlando, both overseen by eco-tourism guru Stanley Selengut.

On St. John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, guests stay in screened tent-cottages built on platforms in the trees with electric lights, propane stove and a short walk from communal bathhouses with toilets and hot showers. The kids will love hearing frogs at night and hunting lizards and crabs during the day. The beach has a full roster of water sports, and while there's no formal kids' program, there are great snorkeling, family-oriented hikes, local music at night. Kids are welcome everywhere. Rates start at $70 for two until Dec. 15, $10 per child per night 16 and under. In winter, it's $105 for two, $15 additional for each child.

At the Refuge, affiliated with the Florida Audubon Society, guests stay in air-conditioned heated cottages with private baths. There also are many family-oriented ways to spend your day at the sprawling 52-acre wetlands compound -- biking, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking and some of the best birding in Florida. The kids are likely to spot an alligator. Rates start at $125 for two, including continental breakfast. Kids' rates are $10 per night: An extra bedroom using parents' bathroom is $50 for the gang. Call 800-392-9004 or www.maho.org.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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