The rain is coming down in sheets over this lush valley on the lava-veined flank of the Mauna Loa volcano. I am sitting on a screened-in porch, listening to it pelt against the tin roof of the Buddhist retreat center where I am staying. Eucalyptus trees do the hula in the wind, a mosquito circles my foot but doesn't land, and every so often one of the peacocks up at the temple shrieks like a tormented soul in hell. Meanwhile, I have a good book and a cup of tea, and am about as close to heaven on earth as I'm likely to get.
Admittedly, this is not the sort of heaven pictured in brochures for Hawaiian resorts, where the skies are invariably sunny, the beach is at your doorstep, the rooms are luxurious and there's always something to do. Here at Wood Valley, there's no para-sailing, no shopping malls, sightseeing cruises, golf courses or swim-up bars. In fact, there's no stimulation whatsoever--unless you find it stimulating to get so far away from it all that you may as well be in another world.
That's what I set out looking for when I went to Hawaii a few weeks ago: otherworldly places to stay that are way off the beaten track, with a beach in striking distance, quiet nights, blooming ginger and a few creature comforts, such as running water and clean sheets.
The trip was a success because I found three that appealed: an exquisite (but expensive) cottage on the north shore of Kauai; an inexpensive treehouse in a kukui nut tree on Maui's Hana coast (where I had watermelon for dinner because I couldn't get the propane stove to work); and, on the Big Island, the magical--and very cheap--retreat in Wood Valley (where the rain almost never lets up). With no night life and few restaurants nearby, these spots aren't for everyone, and each one had its drawbacks. But all three had at least some features that made them a little bit of heaven to me.
Chic Kauai Cottage
I spent just one night at Hideaway II, about a 30-minute drive north of the airport on Kauai beneath the Kilauea Lighthouse, partly because it costs $325 a night (generally with a four-night minimum stay required, and a $100 cleaning fee to boot). So I rented snorkeling gear and bought groceries along the way, planning to stay put once I arrived, eking every last moment of pleasure I could out of the place.
It is the newest of three cottages (the other two are Hideaway I and the Owner's Cottage, but the latter isn't generally rented out) situated on 11 acres overlooking the northeast coast of Kauai. They were built by Michele Hughes, a professional developer and designer who owns vast tracts on the island and has created award-winning vacation homes for millionaires in Aspen. The cottage is about 10 miles east of Princeville, in an area known as Kauapea, where Sylvester Stallone and other celebrities have getaway places amid pastures and sea cliffs, yielding to one of the island's most stunning, unspoiled sandy coasts.
Secret Beach, as it's known, is not only long but wide, fringed with ironwood trees and abutted by cliffs that ooze fresh water in little rivulets and falls. Most of the land contiguous to it is privately owned, which makes getting to the beach somewhat hard (by law, all Hawaiian beaches are public, but access isn't always easy).
Outsiders who venture down a path from Kalihiwai Road have in the past tended to be nude bathers (an illegal recreation in Hawaii, and homeowners nearby have hired a guard to enforce the law). Hideaway II guests have four different beach accesses, including a path that follows the base of a carefully manicured gorge, and another that takes the high ground atop the ridge, with a rope strung between stanchions to help you make it down. So Hideaway II isn't for the infirm, but Secret Beach is an unmitigated joy, with a soft sand floor and dollops of lava rock way out in the surf, powerful waves, dolphins swimming by and the proud beacon to the east on Kilauea Point.
When I arrived, Michele Hughes was just putting the final landscaping touches on Hideaway II and laying flagstones around the hot tub. Made of local coral and stone, the cottage sits on the crown of a hill, its gently sloping tiled roof suggesting a teahouse in an Oriental garden. There is a patio on three sides, providing views of the ocean and the fabled cliffs of Na Pali from a chaise longue.
Inside, the floors and cabinets are all beautifully carpentered maple, with teak moldings around the sliding glass windows and doors. At no more than 500 square feet, the cottage is small, with a kitchen/living room area, bath and bedroom. Beyond that, no expense has been spared, making Hideaway II--like the luxury Aman hotels of Asia, or Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn--perfect to the last detail. There are marble-topped counters, an espresso machine, a tap dispensing water heated to 190 degrees and a fancy Thermador range in the kitchen; a television, CD player, fax machine and washer/dryer combo are hidden behind a sliding maple door in the bedroom; and though the bath lacks a tub, it does have a double shower walled in glass on two sides. Hughes has decorated the cottage in the East-meets-West style of a chic sushi bar. Japanese teapots, chopsticks and rice bowls, books and potted orchids are artfully arranged on shelves; calligraphy scrolls and Oriental landscapes deck the walls; and the blades of the ceiling fans look like graceful Thai fans.
I went straight down to the beach when I arrived, then chatted with the owner on the patio of her cottage below Hideaway II. I grilled fish for dinner, which went nicely with corn on the cob and a glass of Chardonnay. There was time the next morning for a jog to the Kilauea Light, built at the northernmost point in the Hawaiian Islands in 1913 and now surrounded by a wildlife refuge, where red-footed boobies nest and great frigate birds soar. The village of Kilauea nearby, which was once the headquarters of a sugar cane plantation, has a pretty old lava-stone church and an excellent bakery/cafe in the Kong Lung shopping center. But then it was on to Maui, where there was a very different kind of paradise to explore.
Treehouse on Maui
As habitues of Maui know, the island has two sides, the sunny (and heavily developed) west, and the rainy, rural east, which the little town of Hana epitomizes. Hana is reached by the famous Hana road, with, by one count, 56 bridges and 617 curves. Once I landed at Kahului Airport, I rented (for $45 a day) a funky old Jeep with 181,000 miles on the odometer because David Greenberg, the owner of Hana Lani Treehouses, told me I'd need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach my perch in the kukui nut tree. Then I bought groceries at Mana Foods in the town of Paia, and headed east to Hana (about a two-hour drive away).
Greenberg's directions to his treehouse development (there are four, housing between two and eight people, for $45 to $85 per night) were excellent, and he was dead right about the Jeep. When you get to the fruit stand that marks the entrance to his 20-acre spread about five miles west of Hana town, you're faced with a gashed and rocky dirt road, pitched straight up a steep hill. I held my breath and floored it, reaching the trail head of the path that leads to Tree Pavilion, Greenberg's newest treehouse, where I stayed the first night. And then I got stuck. So I left the Jeep where it was and walked about 200 feet back into the jungle, where I found the Tree Pavilion, which is not actually supported by trees but built among them, with a splendid view of the Hana coast.
Made of two-by-fours, plywood and corrugated plastic roofing material, it has just one wall. The other sides of the structure are open to the jungle, with no screens and, as Greenberg describes it, "a wallpaper pattern that never repeats." There are two beds, swaddled in mosquito netting, with mismatched pillowcases and sheets; a plastic table and chairs; cubbyholes for clothes; and a wood counter bearing dishes and a propane stove.
The refrigerator is an ice chest (ice not provided), and the bath shack is in the undergrowth nearby, with a real toilet and an outdoor cold-water shower. A little hot would have made me happy, as would details like mats on the floor and a mirror. But I couldn't really complain about the decor because Greenberg had draped heliconia and ginger blossoms everywhere. And when the sun went down, there were torches and citronella candles to light, and lovely night sounds, even if, after failing to figure out how to get the propane stove to work, all I had for dinner was watermelon.
By about 9 p.m. the only thing I could think of to do was douse myself with insect repellent and get ready for bed. There, I read by flashlight and fell into a deep sleep, waking once or twice when it rained or I needed to stumble out to the bathroom.
The next morning, the assistant manager, who lives in a house at the end of the dirt road, helped me dislodge my Jeep from the mud rut, and I drove into town for breakfast at the Hana Ranch Restaurant. There I learned that a downed power line had cut off electricity to the whole Hana coast, which didn't seem to faze anyone. Hana is like that, laid-back and humming along to its own lilting tune. I'd been there several times before, which is how I knew about the gorgeous red sand beach tucked behind the elementary school. The path to it is treacherous, but this pocket of sand wedged in an eroding cinder cone is one of my favorite beaches in the world. It is sheltered from the surf by a curving lava-rock arm and favored by nudists (who seem to know all the islands' best places to snorkel, swim and sunbathe).
Later that day, Greenberg, who has a mad-scientist mop of curly dark hair and is currently building more treehouses in a tourist park on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, showed me his other treehouses (two of which have hot running water), and introduced me to fellow guests ensconced on their decks or in lawn chairs scavenged from the Hana dump. They were all happy campers. And I do mean campers, because staying in a Hana Lani Treehouse is about as close to camping as you can get without actually pitching a tent.
Greenberg also took me to new quarters for my second night (the Tree Pavilion had been previously booked). This treehouse, near the top of the road, doesn't have a name but is actually partly supported by a tree. It was the first treehouse Greenberg built, for about $500, of scavenged wood, with a clear plastic roof and a screened-in loft bed. It has been recently renovated, and I liked it much better than Tree Pavilion, except for the fact that it shares a toilet and outdoor shower with the assistant manager's house a hundred paces above.
Big Island Buddhist Retreat
I knew to expect shared baths at the Wood Valley retreat center on the Big Island of Hawaii because I'd stayed there briefly three years ago and never forgot it. It is located five miles north of Pahala, a dying sugar plantation town about a two-hour drive from the Kona airport. I love driving the road south from Kona around Mauna Loa; the road passes South Point, sweetly moldering towns like Waiohinu and Naalehu, and the black sand beach at Punaluu before swinging north to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The region is known as the Ka'u Desert due to the lava flows that have poured out of Mauna Loa and the currently active Kilauea crater to the north. But Wood Valley sits in the vast shadow of 13,677-foot Mauna Loa, which creates an area of stark contrasts, with black fingers of hardened lava licking between verdant pasturelands and macadamia nut groves. In 1868 an earthquake, followed by a tsunami and massive mudslides, erased the whole valley from the map. But it came back, so that Nechung Rinpoche, the grand lama of the Nechung Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, and Dharamsala, India, could establish a temple here in 1973.
It occupies a graceful yellow, orange and green building with lotuses and elephants carved on the lintel, originally built as a Japanese mission serving immigrant field workers. Since the closing of the local sugar cane plant several years ago, the fields have all gone to seed. But in 1980 and 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Wood Valley, where peacocks parade and prayer flags flutter in the breeze.
The retreat center (with room for about 25 in quads, doubles and singles with bunk beds, priced from $25 to $50) is just below the temple. It has a communal kitchen, a meditation room often used for classes and workshops, and that wonderful wraparound porch. All the rooms are simply furnished but immaculately clean, with Indian wall hangings and thick comforters on the beds.
A Buddhist monk holds services in the mornings and evenings, but the retreat center is nonsectarian. One couple staying there at the time of my visit had come to the island just for bird-watching.
The green sand beach at South Point is about a 30-minute drive away, as smashing as the one in Hana but harder to reach (you have to walk three miles from the parking lot if you don't have a vehicle that can manage the dirt road). I also hiked on national park trails in the Ka'u Desert and picnicked on the path leading to the summit of Mauna Loa. But most of all, I sat still in Wood Valley.
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Three Little Island Secrets
Getting there: The greatest number of nonstop flights to Hawaii go to Honolulu; American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Northwest and United airlines offer round-trip service beginning at $492.20. Two major inter-island airlines, Hawaiian and Aloha, fly from Honolulu to Kauai, Maui and the Big Island. Island Air, telephone (800) 323-3345, has two flights daily from Honolulu to Hana.
There is also nonstop service to Kauai (on United), Maui (American, American Trans Air, Delta, Hawaii, United) and the Big Island (United), beginning at $602.20.
Getting around: Most of the major car rental companies have offices at major Hawaii airports. My cut-rate Jeep on Maui came from Adventure Jeeps, tel. (800) 701-JEEP, near Kahului Airport.
Where to stay: On Kauai, Secret Beach Hideaway II, 2908B Kauapea Road, Kilauea, can be booked through Celebrity Getaways International, P.O. Box 1596, Kapaa, HI 96746, tel. (808) 823-8667, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or through other Hawaii rental agencies; $325 per night, with a four-night minimum and $100 cleaning fee.
On Maui, Hana Lani Treehouses, P.O. Box 389, Hana, HI 96713, tel. (808) 248-7241, fax (808) 248-7066; Internet http:// www.maui.net/~hanalani; e- mail email@example.com; $45 to $85 per night for two to eight people.
On the Big Island, Wood Valley retreat center, P.O. Box 250, Pahala, HI 96777, tel. (808) 928-8539, fax (808) 928-6271; Internet http://www.planet-hawaii.com/nechung; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; $40 single, $50 double, dorm $25.
For information: Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 180 Montgomery St., Suite 2360, San Francisco, CA 94104; tel. (800) 353-5846, fax (415) 248-3808, Internet http://www.gohawaii.com.