Kaua'i, Hawaiian Islands: The land where giants walked

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Kaua'i, Hawaiian Islands: The land where giants walked

The beach bungalow where the King once stayed, just a short stroll from the white sand shore, is a sad and sorry sight today. The roof has caved in, the windows are blown out and the walls look perilously close to collapsing. It looks even worse in the wider context of this beautiful Pacific playground.

Over there at the lagoon where he was married in a ceremony witnessed by hundreds of happy Hawaiians, the waters are now brackish, the pathways littered with fallen palm leaves and the place has the sad sense of abandonment.

The large hotel building -- which once hosted the fabulously wealthy, the famous and sophisticated jet-setters -- is even worse: you walk around the ruins and look at the decay and destruction with melancholy thoughts of all the gaiety that was once here, now gone forever.

This is Coco Palms Resort on “the garden island” of Kaua’i in the Hawaiian group and the King of Rock‘n’Roll, Elvis Presley, stayed here when he filmed Blue Hawaii in 1961, the first of three films -- Girls! Girls! Girls! the following year and Paradise, Hawaiian Style in 65 being the others -- which brought him to these beautiful islands.IMGP1787

It was in that battered bungalow where he stayed during filming and in which they shot many of the interior sequences, and on that neglected lagoon where he married his co-star Joan Blackman and floated down the lagoon on a platform between two outrigger canoes to sound of ukuleles and a choir.

Not many people get to look around this relic of the once-stylish Coco Palms, destroyed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Perhaps that’s a good thing because it is ineffably sad when you think of how the cast and crew of South Pacific stayed here during the glorious Technicolor days, and how Hawaii was then an exotic destination where seaplanes would disgorge their cargo of pleasure seekers aiming for hula entertainment and tropical nights with fruit-filled cocktails.

Of course Hawaii is still a magnet for tourists, and a place where presidents and prime ministers holiday: there is already a tour on Oahu which takes in places Barack Obama enjoyed when he was a man with fewer worries, although as yet no one has put together a John Key tour pointing out his holiday home.

But one of the most interesting tours available is that of movie locations on the island of Kaua’i, just a 40 minute flight from Honolulu.

The Hawaiian islands with their fair climate, exotic locations and bio-diversity have been a magnet for film makers: screen stars John “The Duke” Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Jessica Parker, Charlton Heston, Jessica Lange and hundreds of others have all made movies on Kaua’i. Directors as diverse as John Ford, Steven Spielberg and B-grade master Roger Corman have all felt the pull of this exotically beautiful place.IMGP1825

And various parts of Kaua’i -- smaller than Stewart Island and geologically the oldest in the Hawaiian chain -- have stood in for Vietnam and Laos (Uncommon Valour), tropical Australia (The Thorn Birds), Indonesia (the 75 remake of King Kong), New Guinea (The Seven Women From Hell), Tahiti (Pagan Love Song), plague-ridden Africa (Outbreak) and Peter Pan’s Never-Never Land (Hook).

The pilot for Gilligan’s Island and the opening sequence of Fantasy Island were filmed on Kaua‘i, and a rough drive up an unsealed, pothole-punctuated track takes you to the gates of Jurassic Park. In these mountains raptors and T Rex terrorised Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. Or at least they did in the Spielberg movie filmed in the Wailua Rainforest.

A useful self-drive guide to these places so familiar from the big and small screen is The Kaua’i Movie Book by Chris Cook, widely available on the island, but an even better way to see these locations (some of which like Coco Palms are off-limits to the casual tourist) is to hook up with 4X4 Hawaii Movie Tours which takes small groups in comfortable four-wheel drive vans to some of the most famous, and most remote, locations.

With relevant snippets from the movies showing on a screen inside the van, the movie locations have a then-and-now quality, and you can see how through the magic of editing or a camera tilted to exclude a power pole these places have been such effective substitutes for so many places and times.IMGP1950

Of course some locations such as the astonishing Na Pali coast -- inaccessible by road -- mean that you have to take a helicopter flight (just as Elvis did in Paradise, Hawaiian Style) to fully appreciate the monumental grandeur of this sculpted coastline, or to look down on Waimea Canyon which Mark Twain rightly considered “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

There’s something amusing and interesting in hearing how certain scenes from The Amazing Race filmed at Wailua Falls were faked for the camera and the home audience, and seeing Hule’ia Stream which doubles as the river where Harrison Ford memorably escaped the South American headhunters at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

You can be where giants walked (T.Rex or John Wayne), stand in a bar where Sinatra drank or take in the vast sweep of breathtaking Hanalei Bay where South Pacific was filmed. You can even get married where the King did.

After Blue Hawaii the Coco Palms Resort hosted over 700 weddings a year and even now, despite its parlous state, it still hosts five a month (for US$1200).

Almost 300 television commercials a year are filmed on Kaua’i and you can see why this has been such a popular location since the 50s. There is an ancient beauty and grandeur to the land, a climate that is most often kind, and at the end of the day those fruit-filled cocktails and the sound of Hawaiian guitars.

And anyway, if it’s good enough for the head of the Rat Pack, the Duke and the King . . .

Kaua’i: a fantasy island indeed.


For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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