Kauai finds itself at a bittersweet crossroads

This winter's candlelight vigils and banner-waving protesters are gone, their legal challenges exhausted. Soon, bulldozers could roll past Koloa's wooden sidewalks, clucking chickens and stop sign plastered with a "Die Developers Die" bumper sticker, ready to transform a ragtag grove of monkeypod trees into a shopping center.

But here in Hawaii's oldest sugar plantation town, little more than a coconut's throw from the burgeoning tourist resort of Poipu, the stymied effort to preserve what local shopkeeper Lee Jacobson Rowen calls "the soul of Koloa" is a symbol of a much bigger fight for Kauai's identity — and future.

Asks a recent editorial in the local paper, The Garden Island: "How does an island like Kauai, with so much to offer the world and so much that can be taken away from residents, come to terms with itself?"

The paper continues: "For those who live here, the rewards are obvious. The negatives are also evident: traffic, overrun areas that were once secret or sacred, expansions of the tourism infrastructure. And though that infrastructure benefits residents in many ways, it also fosters the 'us and them' mentality. Resentment builds (and) visitors become the target."

Targets or no, visitors are thronging to the island Elvis Presley put on the vacation map with his 1961 movie Blue Hawaii, one of more than 50 films that have used Kauai's lush, staggeringly gorgeous scenery as a stand-in for paradise.

A record 1.27 million tourists arrived in 2007, aided by a boost in non-stop flights from the mainland and almost-daily calls by cruise ships. Despite a statewide economic slowdown and slump in real estate sales, the outlook for Kauai — where at least a third of the island economy is directly related to tourism — is "more ebullient than any other part of the state," noted First Hawaiian Bank's Leroy Laney.

The oldest and northernmost of the four major Hawaiian islands, Kauai receives the full force of moisture-laden trade winds sweeping across the Pacific. Most of its razor-edged cliffs and canyons are inaccessible by road; popular helicopter rides into the mouth of the volcanic crater Mount Waialeale reveal a luxuriant tangle of ferns and waterfalls draped like tinsel that give credence to the claim "wettest place on Earth."

Only 5% of Kauai's 552 square miles are designated for urban development, and the island is known for its laid-back, rural vibe.

Despite the controversial 1987 debut of a "mega-resort" that featured such un-Kauaian accoutrements as Roman statuary and Clydesdale-driven carriages, island building guidelines bar structures higher than the tallest coconut tree. The major highway remains a two-lane coastal road, incorporating a series of one-lane bridges that serve as de facto bans on tour buses and large-scale construction west of the Princeville resort area.

But over the past few years, as tourism kicked into high gear and the island's 63,000 residents wound down from rebuilding efforts following 1992's devastating Category 4 Hurricane Iniki, frustration levels have swelled like north shore surf during a winter storm. Among the recent flashpoints:

•In late August, the Hawaii Superferry suspended its planned daily service between Honolulu and Kauai when a flotilla of protesters on surfboards and outrigger canoes blockaded the island's harbor and prevented the 349-foot vessel from docking. Among other objections, opponents say the car and passenger ferry would worsen Kauai's clogged traffic.

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