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The Isle of Romance : HAWAII : A Setting for Weddings

<i> Times Travel Editor </i>

As the sun sinks slowly in the Pacific, we bring you another episode of that haunting Hawaii tear-jerker, “Hearts ‘n’ Flowers.”

Never mind that it has already played to hundreds of audiences in the eight years since our last report. The little drama never fails to stir the emotions. Indeed, it’s so downright beautiful, everyone’s in tears. Yes, even the cast. Nobody passes out programs. Only boxes of Kleenex.

It’s a soap from beginning to end.

The story line involves love and marriage. Real-life stuff. The setting is Kona Village Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii where several times each week couples from cities and towns thousands of miles from these shores exchange wedding vows in a ceremony that’s been a smash hit since the first performance in 1972.

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That’s when Barbara Campbell got the inspiration for her long-playing production. A couple was trying to figure out where their daughter should be married when Barbara suggested, “Why not here on the beach?”

After that first ceremony, Barbie handed out her card: “Love ‘n’ marriage.”

Couples have been flocking to Kona Village ever since.

Picture the setting: Precisely at sunset a bride and bridegroom gather on the beach at Kona Village, hand in hand, looking wistfully out to sea.

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She may be as young and fresh as a plumeria petal--or someone who’s taking a second chance on love. Whatever, eyes mist as Kamanaookaleookalani Beckley, a big Hawaiian with a big voice belts out a few bars of “The Hawaiian Wedding Song.”

The words roll across the surf.

“This is the moment,” he sings, “I’ve waited for. . . .”

A guitar picks up the melody. A conch shell sounds, echoing across the waves.

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By now guests lined up on the beach are reaching for a Kleenex tissue.

Barbara Campbell shrugs. Another hit. Her continuing soap opera is never a disappointment. Even though the stars of the show are replaced regularly, it never fails to stir the audience.

What Barbara Campbell and her social director, Leina’ala Keakealani, are packaging are marriages in one of the world’s most romantic settings--with the help of Auntie Eleanor Makida, “the sweetest lady in the entire island.”

Any couple with $925 can star in a production of “Hearts ‘n’ Flowers.” That’s the price for the wedding (floral leis, color photographs, the pastor, marriage license, wedding cake, a champagne reception and the voice of Kamanaookaleookalani Beckley).

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Or if the couple wishes to honeymoon at Kona Village, the entire package comes to $2,230 for five days, four nights in a thatched cottage. This includes meals, the flowers, the wedding. The whole pineapple. Everything.

Barbie and her sidekick Leina’ala figure it’s a good deal cheaper (and a lot less hectic) than one of those splashy weddings back home with the mothers-in-law directing the production.

Barbie and Leina’ala even provide witnesses. At the same time, guests at Kona Village show up as extras in this real-life drama. Even though they’ve never met the bride and groom, they turn out en masse. Comic Arte Johnson was recruited a few years ago to play best man. His own bride, Gisela, teamed up as matron of honor.

The performance never fails to produce tears.

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Generally the ceremony is held at sunset when the heavens are filled with fire and the sea is the color of faded lace. That’s when Kamanaookaleookalani Beckley gives everyone goose bumps with the haunting “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” Even Barbie Campbell and Leina’ala Keakealani sob. In such a setting, who wouldn’t. Not even Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s with its penchant for tear-jerkers ever topped these performances for sentimentality.

Besides, Kona Village is the perfect setting for romance--a little Polynesian settlement featuring thatched cottages like those in Fiji, the New Hebrides, Tonga, Tahiti, Palau, Samoa, New Caledonia and the Marquesas. Nothing else disturbs the scene. Not for miles in either direction. There’s only the village dead center of an immense lava flow and smack on the beach. The perfect setting for romance.

As for the marriages that have been performed at Kona Village, the success rate has been nothing short of spectacular.

“How could anyone ruin such a beautiful story by getting a divorce?” asks Leina’ala Keakealani.

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Occasionally, though, couples who’ve gone through a divorce are remarried at Kona Village. As far as emotional scenes are concerned, it would be hard to beat the one involving a couple that was divorced for eight years, living at opposite ends of the Mainland, but who’d kept in touch, met again recently and found that the old flame still burned strongly.

As they exchanged vows at Kona Village, even Uncle Leon shed a tear. Uncle Leon Sterling officiates at most of the weddings at Kona Village.

Uncle Leon is part-Hawaiian, and like so many Hawaiians he is a softie for a love story.

“Uncle is very emotional,” says Leina’ala. “He can’t help himself. He stands there on the beach with the bride and groom. A soft breeze is blowing and there’s the ocean and the mountains, the lava and all that peacefulness. Uncle Leon’s in tune with all this. And so he cries. Not because he’s unhappy but because the world is so beautiful and he loves people.”

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Once it got so heavy that Uncle Leon called an intermission while he reached for a Kleenex tissue.

When Uncle Leon cries, everybody cries. Everybody hugs, too. It’s a command performance. There’s not a dry eye on the beach, and to heck with age. The oldest couple ever married at Kona Village were in their 80s, the youngest in their teens.

Leina’ala Keakealani smiles through her own tears. They’re tears of happiness, of course, because she’s responsible for all the sniffles, the production head, the director of “Hearts ‘n’ Flowers” (Barbara Campbell plays a more subdued role these days.)

Repeating Vows

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Occasionally she’s called upon to stage a “renewal” ceremony, which is how she describes the rites of an older couple repeating their vows before Uncle Leon. Besides Uncle Leon, Kona Village calls on a rabbi, a priest and a judge to perform the ceremony, depending upon one’s preference.

Generally these are barefoot ceremonies. The idea is to get it on with nature. Mo bettah, says Leina’ala, than one of those formal bashes back on the Mainland.

After the cake and champagne, Leina’ala arranges for a Hawaiian fertility rite to be performed for the newlyweds. Sometimes it’s a fizzle. It was, anyway, for the first couple married at Kona Village. They remain childless.

At Kona Village there are no cars, no crowds. Instead, there’s the symphony of the sea and the voice of the wind. The village faces a black-sand beach, created of lava from the slopes of Puhualalai that’s turned sugar-fine after centuries of erosion.

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The air is fragrant with plumeria and other blossoms, and guests seek out the shade of hau and keawe trees. Remote and peaceful, Kona Village is a rare discovery. In all, 96 thatched cottages occupy the grounds. The cheapest rates for vacationers figure out to $226 a day including meals, tennis and the use of outrigger canoes, sailboats, snorkeling and surfboards.

A Lava Wasteland

When Kona Village opened in 1965 it was dead center of a lava wasteland. There were no roads. Vacationers were flown in by private plane. The idea was total divorce from the outside world. The only communication was by radio. And while the village could reach Kwajalein 2,500 miles away it couldn’t--for some atmospheric mystery--stir Kailua-Kona a few miles up the coast. So when supplies were needed someone radioed Kwajalein and the operator at Kwajalein would radio to Kailua-Kona.

In those days Kona Village was a seven-minute flight by single-engine airplane from Kailua-Kona. Each day the staff was flown in--maids, waitresses, busboys. Everybody.

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Barbara Campbell remembers how she came in with the clean laundry in the morning and left with the dirty laundry in the afternoon.

Finally after the new Kuahumanu Highway was hacked out of the lava, Kona Village cut its own road through to meet it. Now everyone arrives by car or van from Kailua-Kona.

Not for Everyone

While peaceful, Kona Village is not for everyone. Swingers beware. You’d go bonkers. This is a place for sun worshipers, snorkelers, divers, surfers--or someone content to curl up with a good novel.

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“The greatest assets we have,” says general manager Fred Duerr, “is what we don’t have"--and this includes no telephones in the rooms, no TV, no radios. Just peace.

A Hawaiian trio entertains in the evening and there’s a weekly steak fry and a Polynesian show with a luau. Still, if you’re looking for the sort of action that’s found over in Waikiki, then forget it.

On the other hand, should you come, remember one thing: Bring plenty of Kleenex.


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