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Destination: Hawaii : Maui Matters

POSTCARDS FROM PARADISE. The Paget family explores Hawaii on a budget. Their reports appear weekly.

July 03, 1994|DALE PAGET and SUSAN PAGET

KIHEI, Maui — It's the basics that matter as we open the door of our beachfront cottage in Maui after two solid weeks of camping, cold showers and canned food.

"A kitchen!" 5-year-old Matilda exclaims. "A bedroom," yelps Henri, 7. "Arrgh ooooh," gargles 1-year-old Presley, spying herself in a full-length mirror. Four walls and a solid roof never looked so good.

This week we've swum with turtles on the Big Island, flown to Maui, been to Gilligan's Island and watched the sun set off Lahaina, on Maui's west coast. But they all take a momentary back seat to the marvel of returning to civilization.

Our dusty road to the Nona Lani Cottages in Kihei begins back on the Big Island a week ago with a gray gooey mash called poi.

There's no food more authentically Hawaiian than poi. Made from pounded taro root and water, poi is an island staple. Some eat it with sugar, others tell us it's a must with pork. Hawaiian moms feed it to their babies with cream.

Poi is essential for camping, according to Kimo Kahele and his family, who are our neighbors at Spencer Campground on the Kohala coast.

Every meal is "poi-time," says Kimo, who attributes his solid build to the power of poi. The unenlightened say it tastes like wallpaper paste. It's a dish that most mala'hinis (visitors) pass over at luaus, with some of the resorts even doctoring the taste.

Kimo wants us to try poi the way he likes it, with sardines, opa'e (dried shrimp) and a dip of soy sauce, vinegar and onions.

He puts the opa'e into the sauce, pops it in his mouth, adds a spoonful of poi from a bucket and chews.

"This is the only way to eat poi," mumbles Kimo, his mouth churning with delight.

We follow Kimo's instructions, first with opa'e , then sardines. The bland mashed root blends with the strong fish and sauce flavors. Dip and chew. Dip and chew. In 15 minutes flat, the platter of poi and fish is history.

Kimo and his family decide that the poi ceremony should end with a shot of firey chili pepper water--chilies, soy sauce, garlic and spices mixed in an old Evian water bottle. We sip from the cap and A-L-O-H-A! It's a combustible brew that sets our stomachs on fire and makes the Kahele family burst out laughing.

"You're not a mala'hini anymore," Kimo shouts. "You're a kama'aina (a local)."

We're made to feel like kama'ainas by several families at Spencer Campground. The county park has one of the few sandy beaches on the Big Island and is a favorite of the locals who come with their snorkels to swim with the green sea turtles. The easygoing creatures munch seaweed close to shore, not paying much attention to the masked spectators gawking at them.

Before we leave, a 3-year-old girl with whom Henri and Matilda have made friends, presents them both with yellow plumeria leis she has strung onto fishing line.

"Give them a hone, hone (kiss)," says the girl's mother. They give each other kisses and say aloha.

With the third plane trip in as many weeks, the kids are becoming junior jet-setters.

"I love this," Henri says as the island hopper dips down and prepares to land at Kahului, on the isthmus that separates Maui's two dormant volcanoes. Our 20-minute flight ends in a modern airport.

Piled into a rental car, we head straight for the town's Safeway supermarket to stock up on supplies.

Doing the islands on the cheap with our three kids has taken some serious creativity. Excluding air fares, after three weeks we are spending an average of $480 per week for the five of us--which includes everything from car rental to new sandals and sun block.

Budget hotels hover around $50 a night. Knowing how to camp has been a definite advantage in cutting costs. The most expensive island campgrounds charge $5 per person, but many are free.

Feeding our brood is what really eats up our cash. Our grocery bills seem to be about double what we pay on the mainland. Spotting tourists at the check-out is easy--we're the ones hyperventilating.

With a couple bags of groceries in the trunk, we head northwest to Camp Pecusa, a beachside campground across from a sugar cane field off Hawaii 30. The camp sits beneath the foothills of the West Maui mountains, south of Lahaina and fronts onto a rich coral bay with views of Kahoolawe and Molokini islands.

"If it weren't for the dust from the fields you would think you had woken up in paradise," says amateur marine biologist, Norman Nelson, who has built the camp out of "a mishmash" of odds and ends over the past 12 years.

There are benches made out of old doors and pieces of driftwood. Wooden plank seats are built into the forks of trees for shady ocean viewing. The tent sites are carpeted and there's a washroom fitted with a mirror from an old car.

All that's missing are Ginger and Mary Ann.

"Some people have jokingly called this Gilligan's Island," Nelson says as he tosses a coconut for his golden retriever, Jennie, to chase. "This place appeals to whimsy."

Something changed for us during the last few days of camping. The street hawkers, who try to sell sailing and skin diving trips to meandering tourists, are letting us walk by, unchallenged.

Could it be the dirt under our fingernails or that our clothes haven't been ironed in weeks? Have we crossed that fine line from being island travelers to looking like homeless kama'ainas ?

It's definitely time to find a decent room and get our act together.

The Nona Lani Cottages on Kihei Road in Kihei are a find at $65 a night. Set in a garden of flowers with clear beach views, the cabins give us a hot bath, a comfy bed and the chance to make a real home-cooked meal. "Can we stay here forever?" Matilda asks.

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