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Giving Peace a Chance on the Island of Hawaii

May 05, 1991|JUDITH MORGAN

There is water everywhere at the resort called Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii. The slow-down, cool-down immersion begins the moment you step into the atrium lobby and hear the splash of waterfalls and the gurgle of saltwater pools that are bright with coral-reef fish.

It goes on with the boom of the sea, which, from a beach or a balcony, plays a constant Pacific overture: part angry brass, mostly soothing woodwinds. The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel sprawls along white sands on the Kohala Coast, a short drive north of Keahole Airport. From the looks of the harsh volcanic rubble that lines the approach, I had serious doubts that I would ever see green again.

But the miracle of irrigation is just that: Golf courses ride to the sea next to an old lava flow, lush gardens ring the hotel and its cottages and bougainvillea and fat-leaved vines flaunt gravity as they climb up walls toward the sun.

As I stretched out on the balcony of Room 641 and breathed the perfume of pikake blossoms, relaxation threatened. I knew that the easy warmth of Hawaii was taking hold. This enveloping sense of peace does not grab me in cold climates nor in world capitals, much as I love them both.

There is exhilaration in tough travel, but not the kind of peace that is like floating in a clear, safe pool. This blissful concept of holiday is reason enough to go to the Big Island, which happens to be my favorite among the Hawaiian contenders.

Still, the chance for adventure abounds. I took a four-wheel-drive trip to the oxygen-thin summit of Mauna Kea. I bounced over the sea in a rubber boat to go snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, where a monument honors the explorer Capt. James Cook, who was killed there. I drove around the island to see the gash of lava erupting from the hissing volcano called Kilauea. I declined helicopters and horseback.

But after each exploration, as I settled back into the breezy comfort of the Mauna Lani, I wondered why I had left at all. I would ponder this madness for minutes before falling asleep with a smile.

The crescent of land and sea that is the Mauna Lani is rich in Hawaiian history. King Kamehameha the Great had his royal fish ponds along these shores when the place was called Kalahuipuaa. Shaded by palm groves and home to flashing mullet and milkfish, the ponds remain at the heart of the area's watery charm.

I wandered among them one morning, admiring the ingenious maze of rocks and wooden gates that link spring-fed ponds and sea. The ponds cover 15 acres, a remnant of what was said to have been one enormous 600-acre fishpond. A pebbly trail leads from the resort's swimming pools and gardens to the hushed and ancient sites.

It is not a walk for a tenderfoot to make when wearing thong sandals. Lava shards are sharp. I was grateful for canvas espadrilles.

It was not far from there at sundown that I watched a Hawaiian woman in a sarong of tapa cloth walk to the top of a dune. Her hair was long and lustrous. She wore a lei of ti leaves. As the sun slipped into the sea she chanted an old farewell. And then she disappeared. That night I dined at the Canoe House restaurant, where spicy and original recipes rely on local fish, and vegetables and salad greens come from the Waipio Valley.

I have zesty memories of Alapoki soup with chicken, avocado and taro chips, and of hors d'oeuvres, or pupus , such as wok-fried lilikoi shrimp, ono kokoda with cucumber and lime, and crisp fern shoots. I skipped the sushi on general principles--I prefer that my fish be poached, grilled, barbecued or, in some fashion, cooked. But I did drink the wine. And I did drink the water.

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