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Kauai: Hawaii's own garden of Eden

FOR years, one vision of tropical paradise has been Kauai's north shore. Just consider some of the movies shot here: Rita Hayworth's ``Sadie Thompson,'' the Bali Hai scenes of ``South Pacific,'' and the jungle scenes in ``King Kong 2.'' What makes this part of Kauai so extraordinary? It's one gorgeous scene after another: hillsides covered with wild orchids and red bougainvillea, crescent-shaped beaches with hardly a footprint to be seen, the pungent smell of wild ginger in the soft, humid air, and the sound of waterfalls tumbling into crystal-clear lagoons.

Better yet, Kauai's north shore can easily be enjoyed by all visitors, whatever their age, physical abilities, or budget, because many of these sights are along the well-maintained two-lane Kuhio Highway between Hanalei and Haena, a distance of only nine miles.

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Start your drive where the highway crosses the Hanalei River and enters the Hanalei Valley, which is surrounded by steep jungle-covered mountains on three sides and the ocean on the other. For the next few miles, the road passes taro fields and rice paddies, grazing cattle and horses, flower-draped cottages, and modest 19th-century wooden churches.

Off the Kuhio Highway, unpaved one-lane roads head into the fields or lead down to unseen beaches. The highway also crosses half a dozen bridges, usually wooden and just one lane wide. From the bridges you can watch ducks, fish, even crayfish and shrimp in the water below. Feel adventurous? Jump off the bridge into the water -- check the depth first -- and swim downstream to the nearby turquoise-colored ocean.

After passing through Hanalei Valley, the Kuhio Highway runs along the coastline. On the left are several-hundred-foot-high hillsides, covered with vegetation that absorbs moisture with dangling several-foot-long ``air roots.'' On the right lies one perfect white sand beach after another, such as palm-lined Haena Beach, which was Bali Hai in ``South Pacific.''

Just beyond Haena Beach, look for the well-marked Maniniholo Dry Cave in the hillside to the left. Named for a legendary fisherman, this cave is actually a mile-long lava tube, which was formed when the outside of a lava flow cooled down and the still-hot core exploded outward. Farther ahead are the Waikapalae and Waikanaloa Wet Caves, filled with water.

Within a mile, Kuhio Highway ends at Haena Point and splendid Kee Beach, but this is not the last of Kauai's north shore charms. Ahead lies the Na Pali coastline -- a succession of needlelike mountains and steep, rocky cliffs where waterfalls drop hundreds of feet into the roiling ocean surf.

Although the Na Pali coast is too rugged for any road, agile visitors can follow an ancient Hawaiian trail that alternately passes through jungle-filled ravines and runs along the knife-edged cliffs high above the ocean. Wild apples, guavas, bananas, nuts, and orchids grow along the narrow path.

Only experienced hikers should consider following this trail for any length. The pathway is treacherous, and the water in some streams and waterfalls contains a nasty parasite. But these practical constraints don't prevent visitors from experiencing the majestic Na Pali coast.

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A good alternative is to take one of Captain Zodiac's several-hour cruises up the coast in a 20-foot long inflatable rubber raft. Passengers sit on the edge, and the captain maneuvers the twin-engine raft into three coastal caves. One cave roof is open to the sky. Another has a waterfall. In the third, the raft sails into pitch darkness, then makes a sharp turn and leaves by another entrance to everyone's oohs and aahs.

Farther up the Na Pali coast, the raft lands on the beach at the once-inhabited Nualolo Valley. Here passengers can sun bathe, explore the verdant landscape, or snorkel in clear offshore waters. Captain Zodiac provides all the snorkel gear and a light lunch. Call 808-826-9371 for information.

Travelers who don't want to feel every bump and bounce of the ocean waves on the exhilarating Zodiac raft rides should consider boarding the Lady Ann Cruises 36-foot custom-built boat, which also sails up the Na Pali coast and stops at the beach near Kalalau Valley for snorkeling. Take a roll from the shipboard lunch, rip it into tiny morsels, and throw the pieces on the surface of the water. Within seconds, hundreds of fish will chase the bread or jump out of the water in a feeding frenzy. Call 808-245-8538 for Lady Ann Cruises information.

For a totally different view of the Na Pali coast, take one of the half dozen helicopter tours. Zipping in and out of the clouds, you come face to face with cascading waterfalls, spot wild goats along the rocky paths below, or see the valleys that stretch several miles from the coast to the inland mountains.

These tropical valleys were the home of native Hawaiian tribes for centuries. Indeed, Kalalau was so remote that it was inhabited by them until the 1920s.

``In Kalalau, several hundred Hawaiians lived much like their ancestors -- worshipping their gods, catching the brightly colored fish from the ocean, eating the fruits and vegetables that grew wild, and raising taro in terraced fields in the floor of the valley,'' says helicopter pilot Will Squyres. ``When I spot the remains of the taro terraces from the air and see the taro that now grows wild along the streams, I realize that there really was a Garden of Eden after all.'' Airline information

``Air fares to Kauai have rarely been so low,'' declares Willy Heinz of Number One Travel in West Los Angeles. American, Continental, Pan Am, United, and Western offer no-restrictions $258 round-trip fares from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Honolulu, as long as travel begins before March 22. From Honolulu, you can catch a commuter flight to Kauai. At present, Hawaiian Air offers the best deal: $298 round trip from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Honolulu on its L1011s, with a change of planes to Kauai. This fare is good until June 6, with some Easter vacation blackouts.

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