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.

•Kauai officials are debating legislation that could ban new vacation rentals outside designated tourist areas and phase out existing options, including those in scenic Hanalei and Haena on the island's north shore. This follows a Jan. 1 crackdown on unlicensed vacation rentals on Maui. Observers say the moves are prompted in part by locals' growing frustration over real estate costs on Kauai, where median condo prices jumped 40% last year to $565,000, despite a nearly 60% drop in sales.

•More than a dozen major construction projects are underway across the island — most in the sunny south shore resort area of Poipu. The price of a 2,038-square-foot, "plantation-style" cottage at Kukui'ula, a 1,000-acre luxury residential complex slated to open near Poipu Beach in 2010, starts at $2 million.

"None of us likes change, and (post-Iniki) development has been more geared to bringing people onto the island than to the people who already live here," says Kauai's mayor, Bryan Baptiste. At the same time, he notes, many enamored vacationers have decided to stay put or return year after year, with timeshares and condos making up more than 50% of island lodging.

Some repeat visitors to Kauai are as nonplussed at the rapid pace of that change as the kama'aina (longtime residents) they're joining.

"We came here (in 1983) because it was the anti-Florida," says Morristown, N.J.'s Jerry Clendenny, who spends two months a year in a Poipu condo. "Everybody wants to be the last one in, but I sure hope this isn't a case of 'pave paradise, and put up a parking lot.' "

Though a proposed moratorium on south shore projects didn't materialize, current ideas range from boosting the island's limited bus service to a ban on new subdivisions of agricultural land into so-called gentlemen's estates.

But for all Kauai's challenges, "we're still way behind the development in other places," adds Baptiste. "All you need to do is go to Oahu to see that our traffic is nothing. Finding a balance between a good economy and quality of life is where we're at."

On a rainy night at Hanalei's bamboo-thatched Tahiti Nui bar, a guitarist strums his zillionth rendition of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit Puff the Magic Dragon (inaccurately rumored to invoke the area's marijuana crops) while a handful of locals launch into a spirited debate over the pros and cons of the troubled Superferry.

A few miles up the coast, meanwhile, Mark Fredrickson and his wife, Lynne, are just happy to be trading sub-zero temperatures in the Upper Midwest for the sound of crashing surf in their low-glitz beachfront condo at the Hanalei Colony resort.

"I'm a small-town guy, and this is more my style than Maui, " says Fredrickson, of Watertown, Minn.

If any property represents Kauai's struggle to find a balance between preservation and growth, it's the Coco Palms.

Opened on the island's east coast in 1953 amid coconut palms planted by Hawaiian royalty, the hotel catapulted to fame as the setting for Blue Hawaii but was never rebuilt after Iniki. Despite a string of revival efforts — the most recent would have included 200 luxury condos and a fitness spa — it remains a crumbling eyesore along the main highway, its blown-out roof shingles gaping like missing teeth.

"This place had the aloha spirit from Day One," says sixth-generation Kauaian Larry Rivera, 77. Rivera started as a busboy and wound up as headliner, hobnobbing with the likes of Elvis and Ricardo Montalban, whose Fantasy Island series included scenes filmed on Kauai. He now croons Kauai, the Last Paradise during weekly gigs at the nearby Hilton, but still officiates about two dozen Blue Hawaii weddings a year from the same lagoon-side spot where Elvis said his celluloid vows.

A new Coco Palms plan, proposed in the Hawaii legislature late last month, would use public and private funding to transform the onetime home of the island's last reigning queen into a historic park and cultural center — including the wedding chapel that helped bring Elvis, and Kauai, so much fame.

For his part, Rivera wants to see his iconic haunt returned to its resort glory days. But he's mindful, too, of the lyrics to a song he recorded in 1999: "This is one island, many peoples, all Kauaian. … Hawaii belongs to everyone, to take care of and share."