Shortly after passing Pearl City I left the H1 Freeway, turning north toward Haleiwa Town. Black clouds scudded across the horizon and breezes blowing through the open window of my car were cool, which was surprising, what with the overcast and an earlier forecast of high humidity.
I was well beyond Honolulu with its crowded streets and was passing flatland with only a few houses and a country store now and then, the sort of run-down plantation place where customers gather on sagging stoops, drinking beer and exchanging bits of gossip.
In the little town of Wahiawa I asked directions at a juice stand and the girl behind the counter smiled widely and said, "Just keep going straight. You can't miss Haleiwa Town." And then, wistfully, she added, "It's special." Everywhere it was green. Everywhere the sugar cane waved like a waxen carpet alongside the road, and I could smell the sweetness of pineapple hidden somewhere beyond the cane. Solitude. It was good to be away from the congestion and fast-food joints of Waikiki.
The road wound past a pineapple plantation and more clusters of shacks with rusting tin roofs and TV antennas pointing drunkenly from precarious perches. By now I was deep into sugar-cane country, only I hadn't realized that soon an era would be ending, an era that had spanned nearly a century. For shortly, only memories of the good life would remain, a simple life with simple pleasures that had rich meaning beyond the comprehension of strangers: the ancient sugar mill serving the villages would be shutting down, an old mill that had been a symbol of hope to the locals of these two towns.
Along the Way
En route to Haleiwa Town and my search for a resort called Ke Iki Hale, I passed places with names like Waipio and Kukaniloko, and others with general stores and service stations and little cemeteries so old that the names on the headstones were obliterated by years of wind and sun and rain.
Occasionally a gigantic truck loaded with cane snorted through a field and onto the highway, kicking up a billowing cloud of orange dust from the unpaved cane road and settling on trees and funny little houses that rose like caricatures in a Tennessee Williams tale of the Old South.
It was shortly after passing the cane truck that the road turned abruptly and Haleiwa Town appeared like the set in a Hollywood Western, rather than a village in Hawaii.
Frame buildings with little galleries and surf shops and cafes lined both sides of the narrow street. I stopped at a health food grocery/cafe called the Celestial whose shelves were piled with the good stuff that healthy dudes who don't blow pot and are careful about their diets eat.
Soy Burgers on Wheat Buns
There was nothing fancy about the Celestial. The grocery operates up front, the cafe out back. The specialties of the day were scrawled on a blackboard and a pretty waitress handed me a menu that listed soy burgers on whole wheat buns along with tofu in barbecue sauce and vegetarian tamales and chili.
I ordered a drink called a galaxy, which was a combination of papayas, bananas and apple juice stirred furiously in a blender. An older woman stood in the background creating sandwiches and stirring the chili. A young man with a blond beard strolled in, ordered a glass of carrot juice, dispatched it in one huge gulp and disappeared.
I asked for a bowl of the vegetarian chili, although this wasn't what I had in mind when something like saimin would have seemed more appropriate in Hawaii. Still, the chili was first-class.
A lad entered the cafe. "A Coke," he told the waitress.
The girl shrugged. "Don't serve no Coke."
He looked at the menu. "OK, pineapple juice, but be sure it's cold."
The service was fast. No waiting. I made a mental note to stop before returning to Honolulu. Before continuing my search for Ke Iki Hale resort, I decided to stroll through Haleiwa Town. I passed the Banzai Bowl, another cafe. It specializes in omelets called the Rip Curl, the Tube, the Barrel, the Pumping Surf, the Wipeout and the Winter Swell, all terms relating to surfing.
A few doors away I ran into John Costello, an artist from New York who peddles his paintings along with T-shirts at his Kaala Gallery. He was barefoot, wearing an earring and long hair, the sort of lost soul one once saw in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury when the flower children were spaced out on drugs and searching for life's elusive meaning.
Only John isn't a pothead. Rather he's dedicated to his art, which is depicted in the scenes of his travels to the South Seas, Tahiti in particular, a sort of latter-day Gauguin who dreams of returning some day to French Polynesia and painting the same figures Gauguin painted. Costello came to Hawaii as a surfer and this, he insists, is the surfing capital of the world.
A note taped to a glass case in his gallery tells the story:
Surfing is always a performance of sorts, but for a variety of audiences . . . sometimes for yourself . . . sometimes for a girl on the beach . . . and then there are those rare moments when the whole experience transcends the physical and you feel your surfing approaching a spiritual level.
Joe Green, formerly of Jacksonville, Fla., operates Haleiwa's leading surf shop in an old shed with a floor that sags like a hammock. At the Surf & Sea his boards bring anywhere from $20 for an old clunker to $320 for something brand new. Green, 33, also gives surfing lessons, which is how he met his Japanese wife, Naoko, who was on holiday from Tokyo when she got hooked by the laid-back life style of Haleiwa Town and Joe Green's boyish charm.
She took one surfing lesson, Joe popped the question and they've been riding a crest ever since. She has no plans to return to Japan, and Joe says Haleiwa Town is home until he wipes out. Period.
It's no place, though, for amateurs from the mainland. Unless a surfer can handle a 30-foot breaker, he'd better stay beached, says Dr. George Cromack, a chiropractor who treats back and neck injuries and describes the power behind North Shore waves as "like getting rear-ended by a car at 40 m.p.h."
When the surf's up the injured shuffle down the road to his office like the wounded in a war zone. One surfer bled to death after getting slashed by his own fin, and Cromack, a surfer himself, lost $400 worth of equipment in a single morning after getting caught in swells he couldn't handle. Each time a winter storm hits, his phone starts ringing like a tidal wave alarm. He recalls surfers who've been whiplashed more times than a motorist on a Los Angeles freeway.
Still, it's a blast for the beachies who watch from shore. Few accommodations are closer to the action than Alice Tracy's Ke Iki Hale resort with its own live-in artist, Gary Groty, on Pupukea Beach between Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline.
Weddings at the Twilight Hour
Although barely an hour from Honolulu, it's another world. One with a stunning beach and sunsets that set the horizon aflame. It is where Hollywood comes to film commercials and where couples are married at the twilight hour.
This isn't to say that Ke Iki Hale is another Mauna Kea or Halekulani. On the contrary, the apartments are Spartan but spotless, and the ocean is just out the door with its seashells and tide pools that lie hidden in black lava.
Guests, including Europeans, stay sometimes for as long as a month, although Mrs. Tracy, who is Chinese and Korean (you'll have to ask her how she got that name), provides no frills. Only comfortable beds and fully equipped kitchens and windows that frame live seascapes along with ironwood and palm trees.
One guest ordered Mrs. Tracy to "have the boy take my luggage to my cottage," to which Mrs. Tracy responded, "Hey, brudda, I'm the boy!" At Ke Iki Hale the vacationer will find no TV, no telephone, no room service, no restaurant, no air conditioning. Just seven dogs and four cats (they're Mrs. Tracy's pets) and loads of bliss.
The best dining on the entire North Shore is back up the road in Haleiwa Town, a place called Jameson's where hurricane lamps and fresh flowers grace tables with crisp white linens while fans spin in the ceiling. Potted palms are scattered beside rattan furniture and romantic Hawaiian melodies set the spell at sunset when surfers appear as silhouettes on the horizon.
The menu lists such delights as sashimi and fried calamary, steamed clams, fish soup, sesame chicken and a range of fish that runs to opakapaka, ulua and mahi-mahi (breaded in wheat flour and sauteed with a lemon butter sauce). I had the mahi-mahi and it was memorable.
Haleiwa Town is a joy, but into the life of its residents some rain is falling. Along with neighboring Wailua, Haleiwa depends on sugar as well as tourism and now Castle & Cook has announced that it intends to wind down operations at the colorful old sugar mill that's provided jobs for generations of islanders during the last 88 years. Management tried, but the price of sugar continued to fall.
With the disappearance of the cane fields, a precious moment on the North Shore will remain only a memory while the sea with its immense waves will continue its symphony . . . into eternity.
--Ke Iki Hale, 59-579 Ke Iki Road, Haleiwa, Hawaii 96712: beachfront rentals from $80 ($550 weekly/$1,950 monthly); apartments, $65 ($375 weekly/$1,500 monthly). Suggestion: Try for a unit on the ocean to avoid the road noise.
--The Pipeline Vacation Rental, 59-401 Ke Nui Road, Haleiwa, Hawaii 96712: one- and three-bedroom units. Modern. Rates $350/$800 a week, $1,000/$2,250 per month. One of these units has a balcony on the second floor with a stunning view of the beach and the surf.
For tips on other unusual rentals, get a copy of "The Book of Bests of Honolulu" by Jocelyn Fujii.
Note: Big surf appears on the North Shore during winter months. In summertime, waves are mostly calm.