‘Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville, lookin’ for my lost shaker of salt. Some people say there’s a woman to blame… but I know it must be my fault’.
Aah, Jimmy Buffet. In my house on the island of Kaua’i twenty years ago it was our Hawaiian anthem. Played it from the minute we kicked off our shoes. Walked in the door. And settled in for a few wonderful, unmatchable, weeks of island living.
‘…. There’s booze in the blender… and soon it will render…’
Those were the party days when, as soon as my current affairs TV show went into summer recess, we’d head ‘straight to Hawaii’ (as the Beach Boys used to sing).
I kept a Hawaiian cowboy ‘uniform’ in a closet ‘on island’. A faded Hawaiian shirt, faded jeans and boots. Didn’t take any luggage and, on arrival, when the Immigration guy asked me how long I was staying and I’d say ‘eight weeks’ he’d look at me in my black Zegna TV suit and figure I was either a drug runner or a Mormon missionary. I’d park the city clothes at the dry cleaner’s the day I arrived and pick them up the day before we left.
On arrival we wouldn’t even pause for a night at the Pink Palace – the Royal Hawaiian-- on tourist-packed Waikiki. We’d grab a connecting flight on Hawaiian or Aloha Airlines for a 30-minute hop to Lihue on the northernmost jewel in the Hawaii necklace.
Kaua’i. The greenest, wettest island in the group. From the airport we’d hire a car and drive for an hour up the coast –with the soaring Na Pali mountain range to the left and the Pacific Ocean on the right. And reach Hanalei, the northernmost little town on the top tip of the northernmost island. And we were home.
(Hanalei is where Peter, Paul and Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon ‘frolicked in the autumn mist in a town called Hanalei’. There’s even a deep, rock-roofed cave at Hanalei Bay and we tell people it’s ‘Puff’s Cave’.)
There are only 60,000 people on Kaua’i and there are narrow bridges on winding roads so big tourist buses can’t get there. I loved the fact that for all that time on vacation I was anonymous. Treated almost like a local because I owned property there and had completed the arduous 11-mile hike with a backpack and guide deep into the Na Pali mountain range. Deep into the thick tropical jungle where hippies, and especially draft dodgers, hid out in the 1960s. There are still remnants of the Taylor Camp miles into the interior. A pot-growing hideaway named after Elizabeth Taylor’s brother.
I was also known as a mildly eccentric bearded Australian author who would sit for hours with a bottle of wine and a notebook scribbling away in ramshackle places like the Shell House and the Oar House. That worked well until a mini-bus of Aussie tourist stumbled into the Shell House for a burger and, with cameras flashing, my cover was blown.
More than my cover was blown in 1992 when the northern tip of Kaua’i took the full brunt of Hurricane Iniki. The resort town of Princeville was flattened. Including the sumptuously restored Sheraton Mirage Hotel, newly-owned by Christopher Skase.
My house on Namekeha Loop was one of the few that survived. When I bought it the owner boasted how it was hurricane proof. How it had been built to withstand anything with rock solid supports and roll down hurricane-proof steel blinds. I thought it was just a sales pitch to squeeze a few thousand more greenbacks out of a gullible Aussie. He was right.
For five hours that house was a blacked-out fortress as the Hurricane hit with such intensity and such noise that it sounded like a 747 was sitting on the roof.
Neighbours sheltered with me as their houses were torn apart by winds so strong they blew the top off the wind gauge at the nearby Defence Base.
I found out later that, where we huddled, the previous house had been destroyed in Hurricane Eva ten years earlier.
I also owned an apartment on the third floor of a condo block that sat on a cliff four storeys above the Pacific Ocean at Pu’u Poa. The hurricane and a resulting tsunami had no trouble reaching that height and shredding it.
Treading gingerly through the wreckage I couldn’t work out where a small ball of mangled white metal strips had come from. It was the remnants of the venetian blinds.
Things, understandably, weren’t the same after Iniki. To use a Jacki Weaver non sequitur: the bloom had gone off the gingerbread.
Went back a couple of times but then the bank manager decided he needed my Hawaiian retreats more than I did (along with my farm and vineyard) and Hawaii became memories of muu muus and margaritas.
But it never lost its allure. The siren song may have muted but it didn’t totally fade. Recently I went back, 17 years after that hurricane, and took with me my old buddy Bob Rogers who had lived through the Iniki nightmare with me.
We had in fact arrived on the island at Lihue Airport only an hour before the storm struck. Wind warnings were about and the airport was clogged with vacationers trying to flee –but these intrepid Aussie travellers dismissed them as wimps, blithely hired a brand new rental Cadillac and headed north. Right into the eye of the storm.
The Caddy, with about 40 miles on the clock, wasn’t new for long. Flying debris shattered the windscreen.
In 2009 Hawaii was weathering another sort of storm –a financial one. Like the rest of the U.S., and most of the world, Kaua’i was hit by the Global Financial Crisis. Hawaii depends on tourists and they stopped coming from Japan and especially mainland USA where people decided to stay home –if they still had a home.
The good news for tourists who did head there were deals you could make on hotel rooms, condos, airline tickets and rental cars.
For between $US 1000 and $US 1200 a week you can get a beautiful, well-furnished, two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific in the Princeville estate. We did at Alii Kai, through KauaiVacationRentals.com. And from Alamo Rental Cars at Lihue Airport I rented a brand new Chevrolet compact with heaps of boot space for luggage. With seven miles on the clock it cost me $US250 for a week.
The healthy fish and fruit you can live on gets a mention in my Hungry Hinch review of the Hanalei Dolphin on this website.
To make this Hawaiian reverie go full circle we decided to spend the last night in Honolulu to make the connecting Qantas flight to Sydney next morning.
Bob had an old American radio mate to look up. An indefatigable Hawaiian legend named Tom Moffatt. They met, back in the days of steam radio I guess, when they were both DJs and both tops in their field. Moffatt was the MC for Elvis’s famous Hawaiian concerts. Now the John Wayne lookalike is an entrepreneur who was working on a Black Eyed Peas tour when we met him.
So where did he want to meet? At a new joint he was promoting at The Beachcomber Hotel on Waikiki. The name of the place? Jimmy Buffett’s.
An amazing food and booze complex that makes Planet Hollywood look like a corner café.
In the old days, in a place like that, in company like that, I’d have been wasted away again in Margaritaville.