WHEN TOURS GO BAD….

Destination: sweet, verdant, diminutive, demilitarized Costa Rica. I hadn’t been for more than 30 years, when being an 500px-Congo11independent traveller meant a toughened bum from endless bumps on jarring, ramshackle buses. But the sight of a storied DC-3 drifting over the hills and swooping down on the tiny, deserted runway of Quepos to carry us back to San José was worth every ache and pain. I felt like Errol Flynn in one of those jungle movies. That was then.

There were no DC-3’s or local buses on this trip. Since some friends were coming along, we opted for a package tour, organized by a British adventure tour company. It was far from luxury, but it exacted a good chunk of change, nevertheless, and promised access to top sites, exotic birds, and beach. Not everything went well. I like a good whine when I know about. (Rest assured i loved the trip, just having fun with the stuff that went wrong. Not to be taken too seriously.…)

  1. Black Top cab to the airport didn’t arrive for 25 minutes. When unapologetic driver finally showed up, he refused to take us to the airport! “It’s the end of my shift,” he said. Unbelievable. We called another taxi and still made our flight. But never again, Black Top.
  1. We were booked into the Tournon Hotel, on the fringes of a dodgy area of San José. I soon thought of it as the Tournoff Hotel. Cheerless. Sad, intermittent shower. Far worse was the din after dark. Just outside our room, cars and motorcycles roared by all night. Sleep, perchance to toss and turn.
  2. On night number two, the wee small hours were even noisier. Traffic streaming by. Then the sound of an accident. Bang! Angry voices. Arguments. Shouting. Not long afterwards: “Pow!” Gunshot? Blown tire? We didn’t check. More yelling. The overnight symphony was capped by earsplitting music from someone’s “ghetto blaster” at 4 a.m. At least we had something to talk about over our pretty-awful breakfast of ice-cold camembert served with broken crackers.
  3. As we gathered to board our mini-bus for the outlying charms of Costa Rica, we discovered the tour company couldn’t count. There weren’t the 12 voyagers on the company’s list, but 16 of us. Head-scratching by the tour guide, delays, repacking of luggage on the roof instead of inside the mini-bus. Full-up seating. Oh well, they were only out by 33 per cent. Math is hard.
  4. By the time we left, it was raining. Hard. Off we went to Poas Volcano, still active and featuring one of the largest craters in the world, plus a pristine crater lake. This is what we saw.

P1100351Here’s our happy group, actually chilled, besides being wet and miserable. The tropics, you say? P1100349 6. Overnight at La Fortuna. Because of the numbers snafu, our room was at the back of the rather nice motel, our only view one of whitewashed walls. Because chairs were put outside all those rooms facing the lush, tropical vegetation fronting the motel, we had chairs, too, for a delightful view of the wall, 10 feet away. 7. Next day we hiked a trail for a view of the spectacular, coned Arenal Volcano, which erupted in 1968 after hundreds of years of dormancy, destroying three villages and killing 87 people. One of Costa Rica’s most iconic images was enshrouded in thick clouds. This was as much of it as we saw.

  1. P11004608. After a long, afternoon drive over some devilish, “oh my god” roads, we crawled into the marvellous rainforest area of Monteverde. The rain stopped. There was even a rainbow. Our reward? Demotion from the two-star lodgings listed on our agenda into the rustic, one star, Jardines Hotel. No explanation. The sign was not encouraging.
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Ours was fine, but rooms for some others in our group were so bad – windowless, containing bunk beds and not much else –alternative accommodation had to be found for them in town. Forceful, overnight winds rattled the more rickety rooms, blowing one person’s medical bag, complete with her diabetes kit, off the sink counter into the toilet bowl.

  1. Still tired, still grumpy, we travelled to our morning destination, the justly-celebrated Monteverde Rainforest. The tour company’s local agents failed to forward our pre-paid entrance fees, forcing us to fork out $17 from our own pockets. We did get the money back – the morning of our departure.
  2. Foregoing the adventuresome Zip Line, we opted for the more sedate Cloud Walk featuring hanging bridges through the tops of the rain forest. By the end, we were drenched by the driving, persistent rain. “Well, they do call it a rain forest,” a sodden somebody said. (Disclosure: despite the downpour, we loved every moment of it. Really a marvellous part of the world.)
  3. 11081094_10155325325155137_7716737726139166047_nDespite all the ballyhoo and those hundreds of postcards of colourful amphibians,  we saw no frogs. Not one.

Oh, all right. Even I can’t winge forever about a trip to a place as beautiful as Costa Rica. We saw many, truly wonderful birds, lots of wild monkeys, a three-toed sloth, an anteater, iguanas, crocodiles and a zillion vultures. The beaches, which we hit after the rainforest, were fabulous, and the living was easy. It’s always nice to be in a country with a national public health system and no army. “Pura Vida.” But next time, no tour company. Our way home was eased by the magical appearance of the world’s first rock video: Bob Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues  (with Allan Ginsberg in the background), amid the humdrum dining atmosphere of the LA International Airport. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” P1100970

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I SEE BY THE PAPERS….

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The late, great David Carr, media reporter for the New York Times, continued to value newspapers, even as he covered the rapidly-changing online media world that is threatening their existence with free, easily-accessible, short-attention span hits. Carr read two or three papers every morning before heading into work, and whenever he was in a new city, he relished reading the local newspaper. He said it gave him a sense of the buzz and mood of the place that no travel guide or web site provided.

I, too, always buy the local paper when I’m travelling. There is never a dearth of stories offering a glimpse of life outside one’s own navel-gazing metropolis (vote ‘Yes’).

So it was recently, as I passed through LA’s International Airport and the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. At both terminals, I seemed to be the only person reading a newspaper. The LA Times, a slimmed-down sylph of its former bulky self, cost a buck. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution set me back two American greenbacks, dollars, but I got to read a lot about the Hawks and Braves.

In compliance with the journalism-killing spirit of providing free information, herewith the top ten things I found interesting from the Atlanta and LA papers. As WAC Bennett used to say: “Nothing is freer than free, my friend.”

1. Besides the drought, guess what else Los Angeles is all in knots about? Yep, the ruination of longstanding 2286361143_52184e9eb3_zneighbourhoods. More and more good homes are being torn down and replaced with much bigger residences on the same lot. Gee, that sounds familiar. In LA, they call this ‘mansionization’, and they’re actually poised to do something about it. City councillors want temporary restrictions on such teardowns, while city officials work at tightening the rules against ‘mansionization’. In some historic areas, teardowns would be banned completely. In other districts, rebuilds would be limited to a 20 per cent increase in size. Strangely, developers are fighting the plan to curb their right to make as much money as possible.

2. So you think Vancouver has a problem with low voter turnout? In LA’s municipal elections earlier this month, a measly 10 per cent of eligible voters managed to make it to the polls.

3. The State of Georgia has a big problem with crumbling transportation infrastructure. While we winge about a miniscule one half of one percent increase in the sales tax to pay for both road and transit improvements (vote ‘yes’), state legislators in Georgia have voted to help pay for $1 billion in transportation upgrades with a gas tax of 24 cents a gallon (that’s not per litre, that’s per gallon!). Other levies include a $5 tax on car rentals, $200 user fees for electric vehicles, and giving cities and counties the power to apply a sales tax on gasoline. Seems Vancouver isn’t the only place where elected representatives are struggling to cope with the fact that money to fund better services doesn’t grow on trees.

4. In the 8th fattest country in the world, it’s not easy getting people to move their ample butts. A fitness column in the Journal-Constitution advises some of the saddest excuses for physical activity I’ve ever seen. “Expert tips” include such strenuous huff-and-puffing as: drinking a glass of water as soon as you wake up; hand delivering a note to a colleague instead of emailing it; walking while making a phone call; and, my particular favourite, varying your sitting position. So that’s how those 60-year old Swedes do it….It ain’t easy being lean.

(Reminds me of an excessively portly friend, who was also an inveterate chain-smoker. I once asked him why he didn’t just buy a carton of cigarettes, rather than going to the store across the street every few hours or so for a new pack of cigs. “I need the exercise,” he replied.)

5. Worst Sound of Music lede of the century: “The hills are live with the sound of a big lucrative anniversary.”

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6. The drought in California. “Dry enough for you?” It’s been breaking bad for more than three years now, and getting worse. Consider. March 16 was the fourth straight day in downtown LA with temperatures over 90 degrees (F). That hadn’t happened in March since record-keeping began in 1877.

Under new drought rules, restaurants are ordered to serve water only on request, hotels must offer guests the option of not having their towels and linens washed, and landscape irrigation is banned for 48 hours after any rainfall, however miniscule.

Meanwhile, as well owners pull up water from ever deeper levels, parts of the San Joaquin Valley “are deflating like a tire with a slow leak,” the Times reported. Irrigation canals are cracking, roads are buckling and storage space in the valley’s vast aquifer is being permanently depleted. Attempts by water officials to curb irrigation are being resisted. “Telling people they have to stop irrigating is a huge economic thing,” said one worried official. “Guys are going to get their guns out.”

Biggest immediate worry is the state’s mountain snowpack, currently a frightful 12 per cent of its normal level at this time of year. Yet Californians continue to fall short of water conservation targets. During the driest January on record, daily water use, while down slightly from the previous year, was 6 million gallons per person higher than December totals.

7. I love this LA Times correction: “In the March 17 Calendar section, a news brief about the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” referred to the character of Mrs. Potts as a teacup. She is a teapot.” Short and stout, presumably….

8. Throwing caution to the winds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a feature called “The Vent”, which allows people like me to be cranky in print. This was the angriest vent on March 18: “I am continually appalled at the number of men I see who leave the restroom without washing their hands. How disgusting and ignorant.” Thus, does civilization crumble…

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9. Teachers are in court in Atlanta, too. Only not on something as picayune as classroom working and learning conditions, as in B.C. A dozen local teachers are accused of correcting answers on student tests to ensure higher scores, making them eligible for bonuses and raises. But their trial has entered the realm of Alice in Wonderland. Zealous prosecutors have charged the teachers with, of all things, racketeering, a crime normally associated with the mob and organized crime. “Teachers? Racketeers? Really?” thundered defense attorney Akil Secret. The result has been the longest and largest criminal trial in the history of Georgia. Several other teachers, who cut a deal and testified for the prosecution, were derided by the defense as “nothing but a menagerie of misfits and malcontents”. Not much “teachin’ the Golden Rule” on either side, it seems. (UPDATE: After three days deliberation, the jury has yet to reach a verdict.)

10. And finally, there was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s very merry “news quiz”. Question one: “A man reported as acting erratically and running naked through the neighbourhood was shot and killed by police in what county?” Question two: “After a customer was shot and killed in the parking lot, the Kroger on Ponce de Leon has offered an award for how much to find his killer? Perfect for classroom discusson. To say nothing of question three: “A sanitation worker in what local city was jailed for collective trash too early?” What a country. I’ll stick with Quinn’s Quiz, thanks.

WHEN THE WALL CAME TUMBLING DOWN

A-gap-in-the-Berlin-Wall--001 Twenty-five years ago. How time flies.

As it happened, I was in the neighbourhood the day the Cold War’s most enduring symbol disappeared in a frenzy of exuberant East Berliners and belching Trabants streaming past the downed concrete. Alas, however, I was not with the cheering masses, but stuck on a train from hell headed to Warsaw, idling in the East Berlin Bahnhof for a passport check, or some such thing. Gazing at the stolid, uniformed East German soldiers and railway attendants, I remember thinking: “The only country and system you have ever known is about to collapse. What can possibly be going through your minds?” Yet the cliché of stern, unsmiling, uniformed East German guards remained frozen in time. My “papers” were scrutinized with the same thoroughness that had been inflicted for years on Westerners travelling through their communist bastion.

Of course, I should have hopped off the train and witnessed history in the making. But, just as I chose to miss Dylan and the Band at Massey Hall in 1965, I let this opportunity slip by, too. Sigh.

Image 9Still, being in Warsaw while East Germany teetered also had its fascination. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was no longer prepared to intervene in its so-called satellite states, Poland was the first of the East Bloc countries to embrace democracy, Recent elections had been won overwhelmingly by Solidarność. Many of their marvellous campaign posters featuring Gary Cooper in High Noon remained on walls and storefronts.

Poland was in transition, its rigid state economy crumbling. As I worked on a freelance radio documentary for Sunday Morning with the theme: ‘Can Poles make it through the winter?’, I visited crowded soup kitchens and poorly-stocked grocery stores. I vividly remember an old woman in tears over her small purchase of potatoes. “It’s all I can afford,” she wept, her meagre pension eroded by inflation. Shaken, my translator, a Solidarity activist imbued with the bright future of a non-communist Poland, quietly slipped her some money.

It was the dawn of the free market in Poland. An entrepreneur had set up the country’s first fledgling stock market on the second floor of the city’s ramshackle, old Fisherman’s Hall. A cab driver told me that now, for the first time, he could buy bananas. The independent, pro-Solidarity newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had just been launched. I visited its offices in a former kindergarten in a leafy, residential area of Warsaw. The paper’s star columnist was ensconced in a cubby hole that was once a washroom. Almost everyone else worked on desks scattered about the ex-school’s large open area. It felt like a student newspaper. Today, the Gazeta Wyborcza is the second largest newspaper in Poland.

But I most remember my first night in Warsaw, when I walked into the darkened main square of its beautifully-restored Old Town. A couple of guys, clearly from the country, were selling cheese by candlelight from the back of an old van. There was such simplicity to the scene as money and cheese changed hands, only the low hum of their voices breaking the silence of the vast, empty square. I thought to myself: “Thus, capitalism begins in Poland.”

There was still something about being on the ground floor of a revolution, even without the immediacy of East Berlin.

Poles, meanwhile, were transfixed by the joyous scenes in that long-divided city. At the press centre, the lone television was tuned to CNN. Employees watched non-stop. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Hardline East Germany, with the Stasi, the shoot-to-kill border guards and everything else, succumbing to the people? It didn’t seem possible. But in this case, the over-used, simplistic phrase was right. The tearing down of the hated Berlin Wall really did mark the end of the Cold War.Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution cranked up to take Havel to the Castle. Over Christmas, the odious Ceausescu’s were shot in Romania. Hungary consolidated its democratic advances. In no time, the once-mighty Warsaw Pact was history.

To think, when I headed to Europe in the fall of 1989 for a year’s stay in Paris, the big story was going to be the growing consolidation and unity of the EU. (That’s going well…..) When my train passed through East Berlin on the way back from Warsaw, the guards were gone. A single station attendant checked my ticket and passport with all the attentiveness of a skytrain guy.

A while later, I struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow from Oslo. He had boarded the train at East Berlin, and couldn’t stop talking about what it was like being among the hundreds of thousands of giddy Wall revelers. He told me that the moment he saw pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down, he booked off work, gathered up his two teenaged sons, and headed for East Berlin. “It is important for them to see history,” he said. “They will remember this for the rest of their life.”

A quarter of a century later, I would wager his prediction still holds.

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THE ZEN OF LONG-DISTANCE WALKING

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Last month, I walked 335 kilometers in 16 days, covering a good chunk of the historic, pilgrims’ trail that winds through France and eventually all the way to Santiago de Compestella in Spain. Our party of four was booked into small hotels along the way. The deal also provided breakfast and dinner at these hotels, and transportation of our main luggage to the next day’s destination. Amazingly, I survived the marathon trek without blisters or serious aches and pains, beyond immense fatigue and extremely tired feet at the end of the day. Basically, I loved it. This coot is made for walking. For those thinking they might want to try something similar, I offer the following, aka “The Zen of Long-Distance Walking”:

  1. No gain without pain. No pain without gain.
  1. Always useful to remember: each step, no matter how painful, brings you one step closer to your destination, however distant. And a wonderful, hot shower.
  1. The ability of a wracked, tired body to heal overnight is a daily miracle.
  1. Make tracks in the fresh, glorious morning air, absolutely the best time to walk.
  1. Life on the road goes like this: 9 am to 1 pm, divine; 1 pm to 3 pm, tired but happy; 3 pm to 5 pm, who’s idea was this?
  1. The last few kilometres of any day’s walk are always toughest. Will we never get there?
  1. A path that goes down must eventually go up.
  1. Walking poles are recommended. They are certainly better than speeding Serbians.
  1. Bad jokes are not recommended.

10. Surface is everything. Pavement, rocks bad. Dirt, soft gravel good.

11. Short steps are better than long strides.

12. Whining, groaning, cursing availeth ye nought.

13. On a hot day, under a relentless sun, shade is priceless.

14. If the forest seems a little dark, it may mean you forgot to take off your sunglasses.

15. When going down a steep, treacherous slope, don’t look up.

16. Any glimpse of the charming, beautiful blue tit (chickadee) cheers the soul.

17. Walking reduces daily existence to its basics: rising at dawn, simple breakfast, walk, simple lunch, walk, shower, hot dinner, deep, blissful sleep.

18. Nunnery food is best avoided.

19. On the open road, being one with nature, one with the world, yields few deep thoughts. But small pleasures are myriad: the smell of a forest, the vivid greens of the rolling countryside, towering white clouds in a vast sky, sun-lit patches of moss covering ancient stone walls, the million-euro taste of local bread and cheese, and on and on.

20. When the walking is good, there’s no life like it. One is reminded of Scrooge on Christmas morning: “I don’t deserve to be so happy.”

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BARACK OBAMA: JUST ANOTHER TOURIST ATTRACTION

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If you hadn’t been paying attention during those early days of Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the U.S. presidency, you could have been excused for thinking: this is one tough, black American, forged in the racial cauldron of Chicago. Indeed, the Windy City is where he did cut his teeth as a social organizer in low-income, black neighbourhoods and the metropolis where he established his political base. So no doubt it came as a surprise to many when they first learned that, except for a few years in Indonesia, Obama was actually born and raised in, of all places, Honolulu, as far from Chicago’s hardscrabble grit as can be imagined.

His Honolulu upbringing is a fascinating tale, well told in Obama’s own absorbing memoir, Dreams From My Father. I got a brief taste of it in February, 2008, when the Globe and Mail sent me on a quickie assignment to flesh out Obama’s “roots” in Hawaii. I didn’t get that much on such short notice, but I did talk to a few of his former classmates, stroll the lush campus of the private Punahou School that Obama attended on scholarship from Grade 5 through high school, and best of all, I exchanged a few words with his grandmother, the strait-laced Kansas native and ex-bank executive, Madelyn Dunham.

During high school, Obama lived with his white Dunham grandparents in their modest apartment not far from Punahou, while his mother went off to Indonesia. Madelyn Dunham had made it plain to reporters from the start that she would not talk about her increasingly prominent grandson. But I thought, what the heck. She was listed in the phone book (Daddy, what’s a phone book?), so I called her up. She answered right away, and explained, very politely, that she didn’t grant interviews. I said I understood. Just before hanging up, I observed: “You must be very proud of your grandson.” She replied, softly: “He’s done very well, hasn’t he?” It was a lovely moment. And I got a quote!

Later, I sought out the apartment building, a classic, mundane high-rise from the mid-60’s at 1617 S. Beretania Street, in the heart of the unadorned enclave of Makiki. I looked at the ordinary elevator and thought: “Just think, that’s the same one “Barry” Obama used every day.” (I’m nothing, if not deep…). I had a nice long chat with the building manager, who told me of reporters trying all sorts of stunts to gain access to Madelyn’s 10th floor apartment (a code or security card was necessary to get above the first floor.) One was caught shinnying up a drain pipe. Another claimed to be “a very good friend” of the family. The manager said Obama dutifully visited his grandmother every Christmas, usually bringing a Christmas tree with him. “A very nice guy. Very easy to talk to.” Sadly, Madelyn Dunham died two days before her grandson was elected president.

Back in Honolulu recently, I decided to revisit Obama’s old ‘hood. I was reminded once more how totally unremarkable it was, including the now-well known apartment building. To think a president of the United States emerged from this environment….

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A few things had changed. There was now a security fence around the front of the building, and signs reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing”, intended, no doubt, to deter souvenir seekers and lobby “selfies”. There was also an “Apartment for Rent” notice.

I was struck, too, by the many diverse churches and other religious gathering places close by. Across the street is the massive Central Union Church. Next door sits the funky Japanese Shinshu Kyokai Buddhist Temple. Around the corner is a Korean gospel church and within a block or two are churches for the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Baptists and Episcopalians. My personal favourite is tucked away directly behind the Dunhams’ apartment building: The True Jesus Mission Church of the Latter Rain. Who knew? It’s hard not to conclude that such diversity, plus the “rainbow” ethnic mix of Honolulu, itself, must have played a part in Obama’s own tolerance and approach to life.

I then did an “Obama stroll” along the five blocks he would have walked every day to and from Punahou School. Beautiful old trees lining the street. Shriners Hospital and Maryknoll High School on the left. Rundown apartments on the right, but also the Kapiolani Medical Centre for Women and Children, where the future president was born on the day my boyhood hero Harmon Killebrew smashed a 3-run homer against the evil Yankees. I embraced history in my own way, posing briefly as a patient in the hospital’s emergency waiting room so I could use the washroom.

It was raining by the time I reached the campus of Punahou School. A scheduled ball game was on hold, and the outdoor basketball courts, much loved by the future president, were deserted. It’s a beautiful acreage, with immaculate vegetation, tall, stately trees and many nice old stone buildings. It radiates ‘privilege’. The parking lots and narrow roads were full of parents in cars, waiting to drive their kids back to their posh homes. “Barry” Obama must have been one of the few students to actually walk to school.

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Okay, I think this has gone on long enough. However, if you ever have a spare afternoon in Honolulu, I recommend poking around Makiki, particularly 1617 S. Beretania Street. Against all odds, this epitome of ordinary produced a president. It’s a funny old world.

IN WHICH I SEARCH FOR TRACES OF GEORGE CLOONEY IN PARADISE

I’m a big fan of The Descendants, the Alexander Payne, Hawaii-based movie with George Clooney in the pivotal role. While The Descendants received reasonable critical acclaim and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, I still feel the movie is a bit under-rated. Even at the time, you didn’t hear much buzz about it. Maybe that’s because the film is more heartfelt than whiz-bang. Clooney plays Matt King, an affluent Hawaiian from a pioneer family who is suddenly faced with a domestic crisis that forces him to try and re-connect with two good-hearted  but troubled daughters.

Beyond the affecting characters and storyline, I also admired the fact that Hawaii, rather than serving as merely a scenic backdrop (hello there, Elvis), was itself a major player. The movie gave me a sense of what it’s like living in a seeming paradise, while still having to deal with the travails of life. Who can forget the scene when Matt frantically runs down the road in his flip-flops?

I was also captivated by the traditional Hawaiian music featured in The Descendants. None of that Don Ho “Tiny Bubbles” dreck. This was the real deal, full of lovely, haunting melodies, sung mostly in Hawaiian and featuring the slack key guitar that defines music authenticity on the Islands. After months of searching, I managed to find the soundtrack CD in a downtown Toronto record store, and have yet to tire of it.

So, on a recent, first-time visit to the enchanting island of Kauai, where a good chunk of The Descendants takes place, instead of surfing, snorkeling and sunbathing, I searched out key locations from the movie. (I must do the same for Blowup one of these days. Where was that ghostly, lusciously-green park, anyway?)

The best was having a happy hour pint at the legendary Tahiti Nui pub, the intimate local establishment in Hanalei, where George Clooney and Beau Bridges chat away, sitting on a couple of the dozen or so vinyl-covered, old rickety bar stools.

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The bar remains pretty much untouched by any fame from the movie, with only a small picture of George and Beau on the wall, amid many others from the bar’s 50-year history and its long-ago founder, “Auntie” Louise Marston. There was a slack key guitar guy on the bandstand and Julia Whitford, who’s in the movie, was trying out a new mai tai. “I’m bored,” she explained, “and you gotta keep trying new stuff to keep the customers coming back.”

Earlier, we had walked along majestic Hanalei Beach, looking for the vacation cottage that housed the family of the faithless Brian Speers, with whom Matt King’s wife was having an affair. There’s a funny scene involving George of the Jungle spying on the scoundrel by peeking over a hedge. We soon found the infamous abode, now peppered with signs reminding people like me that it was on private property.

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Location groupie-ism, however, has its limits. We didn’t bother checking out the pricey St. Regis Princeville Resort, where Matt King registers with his kids and asks the desk clerk if Brian Speers is staying there. Nor did we pay the bucks for a tour of the beautiful, privately-owned ranch that stands in for the vast acreage owned by the King family, most of whom want to develop into resorts and shopping centres.

We watched the movie one more time before heading out on our location quest, and it was all good fun. Most locals have stories about the movie shoot. “My mother had lunch with George Clooney,” says the guy showing us around the old Hanalei mission house. (You wanna get away from the tourists? Tour the mission house. P.S. It’s great.)

The whole island, of course, is terrific, with a lot of history still standing, apart from the stunning scenery and lustrous beaches. At the lookout by the Kilauea Point lighthouse , we saw a humpback whale rise out of the ocean and splash down six times, while frigate birds, albatrosses, tropicbirds and, yes, red-footed boobies soared above the surrounding cliffs on one unforgettable morning.

So far, huge waves of tourism have given Kauai a pass. It retains a laid-back character, particularly in the small towns along the shores which have resisted development. And we never had a bad meal. As an added bonus, you can drop in at the most western independent bookstore in the US of A. It has a wonderful selection of book (always helpful for a bookstore…hehe). Business, the owner says,  is good, and we were able to buy even more Hawaiian music, there.

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The Descendants, the movie’s marvellous soundtrack, and Kauai, itself – all highly recommended. Mahalo.