HANALEI, Hawaii — "Welcome to the Sheraton Princeville," the big guy said, opening the door to my rented Toyota.
He wore a starched white uniform with gold buttons and a pith helmet and in that outfit he looked as if he'd been passed over when the British pulled the Camel Corps out of India.
The confusion grew as I was ushered into a room with mints on the pillow and a bath loaded with imported soaps and perfumes. In the closet were slippers and a robe, and from the bed a teddy bear stared across the room.
A teddy bear in Hawaii?
The girl from the hotel's hostess service asked if I'd been to Kauai before. I told her yes, but it wasn't the Kauai I remembered. I was thinking of days when the doormen wore aloha shirts and room service placed baby orchids on the pillows in place of candy.
Don't get me wrong; it's a splendid hotel. Only once inside the lobby I had a hard time deciding whether this was Princeville or Pittsburgh. A jewelry shop displayed a $13,000 sparkler and an art gallery featured a $5,300 seascape.
Still, the setting is pure Polynesia, with the hotel wrapped in tiers around Pu'upoa Point on Kauai's north shore not far from Lumahai Beach where Hollywood filmed the legendary "South Pacific" beside a valley choked with rainbows.
Rooms face the awesome Na Pali coast and sunset cruises sail from Hanalei Bay. The view alone might seem worth the price, which figures out to $120/$175 a day for a double.
On the other hand, a fact sheet describes how Sheraton has recaptured "Hawaii's rich cultural heritage, especially the 19th-Century plantation era."
Forgive me, but I doubt seriously that old sugar planters took time off to sit around nibbling finger sandwiches and bite-size cakes during the afternoon tea ritual that Sheraton observes daily in the hotel's spacious lobby.
As hotels go, the Sheraton is impressive. It is crowded with Hawaiian quilts and Chippendale garden furniture and reproductions of period pieces brought to the Islands by New England missionaries; there are Early American antiques and Island artifacts, including a 40-foot canoe hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. Yes, and the service is without fault.
But it's unreasonable to describe 300 rooms that are anchored to a cliff as "Old Hawaii." What the Sheraton is, in fact, is a luxury hotel rising in a Pacific setting.
The grounds are lush with tropical blooms. Where there were no palm trees, Sheraton planted them. Great bursts of bougainvillea tumble from the cliff and the sunsets are absolutely shocking.
Sheraton wasn't the first to discover Hanalei, though. Centuries ago Hanalei was settled by Hawaiians who fished and farmed and filled their souls with those incredible sunsets. During ensuing centuries, though, they got lost in the shuffle and then in the '50s along came Mitzi Gaynor and the Hollywood gang to do "South Pacific" and the transformation of Hanalei began.
The 11,000-acre resort community of Princeville--it is 32 miles from Lihue--features several hundred residential homes and condominiums in addition to the new hotel and a 27-hole golf course that Golf Digest rates among the 100 finest in the nation.
Princeville was created with grace and style, which extends to Princeville Center, a shopping mall where a Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Flats turns out steaks and seafood in addition to chimichunga , burritos, tacos, tostadas and enchiladas. Sorry, no poi.
Guests of the Sheraton dine in three restaurants, including Nobles with its chandeliers and etched glass, and Cafe Hanalei, which does a Sunday brunch that features seafood, rack of lamb, omelets, pates, fresh fruit and dozens of desserts.
Besides Sheraton, Hilton has opened a hotel on Kauai at Hanamaulu Beach, only a couple of miles from the airport at Lihue. The Hilton was approved, only after a long legal battle between owners of the land and residents who opposed the development.
In the grand tradition of Hilton, the hotel opened with all the fanfare of a Hollywood film premiere. Barron Hilton flew in a Samoan chief along with movie and TV stars and the booze flowed before a background of sculpted ice. Practically the entire island crowded the resort during an all-day open house.
It is a sybarite's sand bar, except that the beach isn't much to rave about. The pool, on the other hand, is. Actually, there are three swimming pools, each fed by a waterfall. The waterfall is man-made because natural waterfalls are generally found in the wrong places and Hilton wanted his dead center of the new resort.
John Groark of Carmel did the job. Groark specializes in waterfalls. He did this one for $1.7 million. It features a man-made mountain as well as a fern grotto, and while it is a little Disney-like, it didn't turn out badly at all. Workmen dug lagoons for the swans and surrounded everything with phony lava.