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Hanalei's Calming Effect

DESTINATION: HAWAII

Sun, sand and the simple life are the secrets to the allure of this town on Kauai

November 21, 1999|TERRI BARBER | Terri Barber is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Heading north from Hanalei, a right turn on any street will take you to Weke (Hawaiian for "fish") Road, the beach road that runs along Hanalei Bay. Sheltered from the heavier seas that bash the rest of the North Shore, the placid waters are perfect for swimming and sunning any time of year. It's two miles of wide, palm-fringed platinum sand, so it's easy to find your own spot to float on your back and watch the Hawaiian sun swing toward the sea.

It was the beaches, in fact, that provided much of the soul soothing we found in Hanalei. Each is different in character, a small treasure of sculpted shoreline.

Some of them may look familiar. An odd sense of deja vu settled over me until I learned that Hanalei and the surrounding area have starred in more than 20 motion pictures.

At Lumahai Beach, for instance, Mitzi Gaynor of "South Pacific" fame threatened to wash that man right out of her hair. Unlike Hollywood, these stretches of sand lack complexity and pretense. For instance, to reach the trail head to Lumahai, at the far end of Hanalei Bay, you cross another one-lane bridge and drive past a meadow where a lone white horse grazes. The trail head, unmarked except for the presence of half a dozen cars, appears to lead straight into the jungle, but after just a couple of minutes' jaunt, the dense undergrowth ends and you stumble onto the beach. Obsidian-colored volcanic rocks protect this small, sandy cove from the sea.

Glorious by day, Lumahai is even better by moonlight. The path to the beach is navigable in the dark, even if you're carrying a bottle of champagne, which we were. We spread out a blanket on the sand, which glowed like platinum in the moonlight. Except for the wild chickens, or moa, rustling softly in the undergrowth, we were alone.

T unnels Beach was our next find. Named for the shape of the waves as they break along the reef, Tunnels is known for snorkeling. About five miles beyond Hanalei, a sign advertising lemonade and leis marked the five-car parking lot for the beach. Sheltered enough for swimming, it has a stunning view of famed Bali Hai, the jagged mountains shaped like the squiggles on an EKG, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of friendly, colorful fish.

Beyond Tunnels, the road narrows and winds as you drive slowly past the stilted million-dollar beach houses crouched behind hibiscus hedges. At one point you plunge, car and all, into a stream. The road ends in a large clearing beneath the banyan trees at the edge of mango-colored sand. Beyond the leaves, the Pacific glitters like a blue promise. This is Kee Beach.

At Kee, a reef-rimmed lagoon for snorkeling lies directly beneath chunks of mountain that stick up out of the sea, glimmering like giant, uncut emeralds. Out on the point are ancient rock terraces, heralded as the birthplace of hula. The large terraces and altars, called heiaus, scattered around Kauai were built by ancient Hawaiians who passed the stones, hand to hand, up the steep hills. Take the narrow, rock-lined path up to the ancient heiau above the sea, and look carefully at the volcanic cliff. There, modern-day hula dancers wedge leis and hula artifacts into the crevices of the rock in honor of Hiiaka, who taught the art of hula to ancient Hawaiians.

No matter how small, every town has one place where you simply must eat. A twinkle at dusk behind a constellation of tiny white lights, Postcards, in a little green shack that was once the Hanalei Museum, serves fish and pasta with a tropical Thai panache.

From our corner table on the lanai, the view of Mt. Waialeale was so stunning that we could hardly tear our eyes away to make a menu selection. Our waitress had to list the dinner specials twice. The ahi, she insisted, "hopped out of the water and into the boat this afternoon."

"Hopped?" I asked.

"Well, we like to think they volunteer," she offered. The volunteer became the appetizer, followed by ono (a white, halibut-like fish) slathered with macadamia nut butter and nested in garlic mashed potatoes. Under the narcotic influence of plumeria and the warm breeze, Steve broke rule No. 2 and offered to share his pineapple upside-down cake with me. He may have been sorry; it was so good he probably got no more than three bites.

With little to do but eat, explore beaches and snorkel, we found the days slipping away too quickly. On our last night, we were again on Lumahai beach in the moonlight. Until this trip I had never understood how mariners navigated by the stars. In Hanalei, set against the backdrop of a clear night sky, the North Star was so bright that we mistook it for a low-flying airplane and were dumbstruck when it remained just where it was.

We wish the same for Hanalei.

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Heavenly Hanalei

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