Green acres

Taro, the source of poi, grows in Kauai's Hanalei Valley, said to be the birthplace of the rainbow. (Barbara A. Noe / For The Times)

Kauai is a romantic island, perfect for honeymooners with Bali Hai beaches, double rainbows and coconut groves. But a different side of Kauai awaited me, one not typically lauded in the glossy, gauze-lensed brochures.

I was going with my family — my parents, two sisters, Suzy and Kathy, and their husbands, Jeff and Skip, and, between them, six kids, all 6 and younger. My role would be that of accommodating, doting aunt. We were in search of fun and basic food but with a Kauai twist.

At the Lihue airport, we rented two SUVs and piled in for the short ride to the resort area of Poipu, on the southern, sunnier side of the island.

Riding with Kathy's family, I took in calming views of steepled green mountains and chili-red hibiscus flowers, the white tropical sun perched in a translucent-blue sky, the perfectly aligned row of swamp mahogany along the Tree Tunnel. The kids giggled at the moa — Hawaiian chickens — that darted among the roadside bushes, then my niece, 4-year-old Kaylee, began yelling that her older brother Justin was eating her crackers. Kathy hollered at the two to settle down.

My vacation with kids had begun.

I usually travel on my own, typically searching out cultural and historical venues or outdoor adventure, and am not at all used to being around kids. I took a deep breath as I realized how the little creatures changed the scope of travel.

My parents, who masterminded this seven-day trip to celebrate their 40th anniversary last June, chose Poipu as our base because the weather is dependably better than on the island's north shore, with less rain and gentler surf. After much research, they picked Poipu Kapili as our abode — spacious, modern condominiums with fully equipped kitchens and tropical furnishings, amid lush gardens and a lucid pool. The perfect place to sip mai tais, I thought, noticing the poolside tables.

The perfect place to let the older kids roam, my sisters said, while also keeping tabs on napping babies in the nearby condos.

Kid-friendly beaches

Beaches, of course, are hands-down winners with children. So that first day, after dropping off our luggage, we piled back into the SUVs — with strollers, diaper bags, plenty of snack food and drinks — and headed for Poipu Beach Park, elected the nation's best beach in 2001 by Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, the guru of beaches, and director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research. Leatherman compiles a list of the nation's best beaches every year.

My discerning 3-year-old niece, Janie, Suzy's middle child, also nominated it as her favorite place on Kauai. She's right: It's gorgeous, with white sands, palm trees and peacefully lapping surf. But, more important to my sisters and anyone with youngsters, it's relatively safe. One side has a secluded cove partly protected by a breakwater, making the water bathtub calm for babies; the other side features a reef with thousands of rainbow fish, fascinating to older kids.

We divided our time between Poipu Park and another popular spot: Sheraton Beach, which fronts the Sheraton Kauai Resort but is accessible because all beaches in Hawaii are public. (It's also known as Kiahuna Beach and Poipu Beach.) The surf there can be rough, but it's still kid-satisfactory. Six-year-old cousins Tommy and Justin loved riding the waves on boogie boards, giggling hysterically as they slid onto the sand. At one point, they stood up and faced the waves, little arms outstretched, yelling, "Stop!" — pretending they could stop the ocean surf before being knocked over. The girls, Janie and Kaylee, didn't like Sheraton Beach much after being tossed by waves one too many times.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of vacationing with kids, I learned, is that you are forced to slow down and examine the simple things. When we weren't poolside or at the beach, we looked for geckos in the bushes and sea turtles on the rocks, ate yummy Kauai-made ice cream at Lappert's Ice Cream & Coffee in Old Koloa, and visited Spouting Horn, a sea geyser that comes rushing through lava rock with the angry roar of a mythical dragon said to have roamed these shores.

At nearby market stalls, I bought two tiny sand-stuffed geckos for the boys and two shell bracelets for the girls. The girls tossed aside their gifts and stared at the geckos with such envious eyes that I did what any adoring aunt would — ran back and bought two more geckos.

One afternoon we wandered around the Hyatt Regency in Poipu. It might sound like an odd activity, but this hotel was fascinating to the kids and adults, with its airy lobbies, ocean views at every turn, and artificial lagoons and waterways scattered across the expansive grounds. In the center of the main building is a veritable tropical garden inhabited by two Amazon parrots. My mother had a hotel photographer take our family portrait with the garden as a backdrop, capturing a fleeting moment of tanned arms and legs, leis for everyone, a big smile on every face.

But the highlight of the trip, at least for Justin and Tommy, was their first deep-sea fishing adventure with their fathers and grandfather. They told the greatest fish tale of all.

"Grandpa was reeling in his line," Tommy related later, jumping up and down. "He had a big fish!"

"Then suddenly there was just red, lots of blood," interrupted Justin.

"It was a shark!" Tommy cut in, his eyes wide.