The gentrification of Hanalei

Puff, the magic dragon

Lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist

In a land called Honah Lee

I sang this1960’s song verse mythologizing Hanalei as I drove along the unworldly blue coastline of Kauai, heading for that fabled town. I knew nothing about Hanalei, other than the marijuana (or coke, as one local hippie corrected me) theories shrouding Puff the magic dragon. Naturally, I expected to find a pristine paradise where unshaven hippies lounged on sand, their profound gazes turned toward the undulating waves.

Not knowing what Hanalei was like before, I can still safely say that it is now “gentrified”, perhaps in the way that Brooklyn or the outer rings of Beijing city have been glossed over with outsider wealth.

Like the rest of Kauai, Hanalei is astounding in its natural beauty. (With colors this vivid, drug-induced visions seem entirely…unnecessary). But quite unlike other parts of the island – indeed unlike all the Hawaiian islands – Hanalei breathes an unexpected glamour.

A few steps into my afternoon stroll down the beach at Hanalei Bay, I felt grossly underdressed. Not that people around me were wearing a lot, but while I was expecting to meet with pale-skinned and slightly obese vacationers, in reality, I was the misshapen sallow duckling in a sea of lithe tanned bodies. I was sure that everyone languorously soaking up the sun or jauntily shaking their taut derrieres as they paddled on surfboards had just disembarked a private jet from Ibiza.

Out on the waves I spotted not only more beauty, but also athletic prowess. Some very fit surfers – probably the next Kelly Slater, or perhaps even the pro himself – expertly rode the waves as a cameraman onshore operated a very serious looking camera. On another afternoon, my husband would cross waves with Bethany Hamilton, the one-armed surf girl legend.

Away from the beach, the glitz and glamour continues along a few miles of road that hug the ocean. Mansions set on country club-sized acres and pretend-modest vacation bungalows house Hollywood A-listers. I learned that I was sharing the misty sea breeze with the likes of Pierce Brosnan (readying his pad for a New Year’s Even bash), one Beastie Boy (living on the very property that a friend house-sits), and Nash of Crosby & Nash. As I peddled my bike down the two-lane road, it was like spotting stars along Hollywood Walk. Here’s Michael Crichton’s house, that’s where Julia Roberts is building hers, and over there is where so-and-so stayed last year.

After my mini expedition, I came home to the internet to see just what today’s “Honah Lee” is made of — apparently quite different stuff than in other Hawaiian locales. While Caucasians make up only 27% of Hawaii’s overall population, here in Hanalei they are 57%. Looks like a money-fueled migration into the Pacific to me. A real estate search confirmed my suspicion. For a cool $12 million, I could pick up one of those beachside properties.

Despite its probable demographic and income changes, Hanalei remains, in some part, a quaint small town. Shops in town center bear historic hand-painted signs. Patrons of local eateries are happy to forego interior decoration for the unchanging pleasure of eating al fresco on wooden benches, or even standing by a taqueria truck. Newcomers and old alike look forward to weekly farmer’s market and some long-time residents still leave their homes unlocked when they’re out.

As day turned to dusk, I was drawn to the promise of a healthy meal at an unpretentious-looking café. But when I arrived in Postcards Café wearing a skirt and flip flops, a gorgeous hostess told me, with regret, that they were fully booked. As she helpfully suggested “calling ahead of time tomorrow” to me, her colleague ushered in a stiffly-coiffed, argyle and pearls wearing, Birkin bag toting middle-aged Connecticut (my guess) couple to their reserved table. Oh, Puffy, where would he frolic in the Hanalei of today?

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One thought on “The gentrification of Hanalei

  1. The Hanalei you expected was very accurate in the early 1970s. The bridge to Hanalei is a major factor in keeping the community status quo because it is old and weak and the people who live there refuse to allow a newer and stronger one. Every time we build a house there we must take the materials across in small truck loads.

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