LIHUE, Hawaii — It's like a postcard: surfers and tourists swimming in the crystal-blue waters off Kealia Beach, a stretch of white sand along Kauai's east shoreline.
But 40 yards away, four junked cars sprawl on the sand, rusting and rotting beneath the 85-degree sun.
Abandoned cars on a white-sand beach? On an island considered by many the most spectacular in Hawaii?
Many people on this so-called "Garden Island" are dumping their vehicles on the beach or on the roadside--leading some to dub it the "Garbage Island."
That may be hyperbole, but it accurately sums up the frustration and anger of Kauai residents, who for more than three years have had no place to legally dump their unwanted vehicles.
"It's pathetic," said a Kealia surfer who calls himself Jimmy Dread. He said friends who visit joke that the junks bring a certain "Third World charm" to the island.
That charm is getting noticed, but local officials say it's being blown out of proportion. But they fear any negative publicity will stunt the effort to return tourism--Kauai's No. 1 industry--to levels seen before Hurricane Iniki devastated the island in 1992.
Iniki left thousands of vehicles inoperable, and their disposal was complicated by a 1994 law prohibiting the dumping of cars at the county landfill.
The complication became a crisis when the company that removed junk cars was shut down in 1996 for not paying its state lease.
That created a proliferation of roadside clunkers.
"It's become somewhat of a tradition," said a recent editorial in The Garden Island newspaper, which publishes a weekly chart listing how many junks were collected and how many new ones were spotted.
"Dump the heap somewhere, let the scavengers forage for parts, watch as the stripped vehicle is filled with garbage and more junks pile up around it," the newspaper wrote. "Then wait for the county to clean up the mess."
Abandoned cars also are found on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii, but it's become a major issue on Kauai, where hundreds of vehicles remain abandoned.
The county has been removing the junks in recent months--and claims to have cleared the largest and most notorious dump sites--but pockets of junkers remain, sometimes a dozen or more together.
Interspersed with old appliances and household trash, the junks get entwined with the lush greenery that has made the island a favorite movie setting--including "South Pacific" and "Jurassic Park"--since the 1940s.
"I don't think it's a problem that's unique to Hawaii," said John Brown, an eight-time visitor from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, where there's a similar problem.
The county maintains no junked cars can be seen from the main roads circling this 552-square-mile island, but another dozen line the road leading to the National Tropical Botanical Gardens.
The vehicles there and at Kealia Beach are on private property and can't be removed by the county, said Mayor Maryanne Kusaka, who pledged after her 1994 election to remove the junks.
"We can't take those out," Kusaka said. "We have made every effort to address this matter with all the resources available to us, and within the confines of applicable regulations."
Kauai still is a "paradise without compare," she said.
Because the fine is just $150, police typically were unenthusiastic about citing junkers. Now the county may raise the fines or publish the names of those cited.
Meanwhile, a towing company has a $500,000 contract to remove the cars.
Some 1,500 vehicles were shipped off the island in 1996, a total increasing to 1,700 last year. An additional 1,400 are expected to leave under the current contract.
Junked cars are stored at the Puhi Meadows Recycling Center, which will open later this year as a one-stop collection and processing center.
Right now, a mound of about 500 cars piles three stories high and a football field long at the center. Those twisted scraps of metal are juxtaposed against the majestic Haupia Ridge.
No big deal, said Gary Baldwin of the Kauai Economic Development Board.
"I have not had a single visitor tell me that junk cars are a detriment to his or her vacation," he said.