The main street of Hanapepe is wide and somnolent. it has a luxurious kind of Sunday yawn about it that makes a person want to settle into its small-town goodness. The first time I veered off Kaumualii Highway and drove into Hanapepe, back in the 1960s, it was like entering a time warp. I felt that if I didn't brake, my car would stop magically by itself. There, dozing beneath a mountainside of blazing bougainvillea, was this little Hawaiian town that could have passed for Dodge City: weathered storefronts, a feed and grain depot, a general store with a flapping screen door. I had to honk some sleeping dogs out of the road. It was high noon, and the dogs slouched into the shade. As I recall, there was only one art gallery, painted sunshine-yellow with rainbows and lace curtains in the windows -- very peaceable-world hippie.
But the past is prologue. Hanapepe today has many art galleries, new rave restaurants and offbeat boutiques strung like a lei along Hanapepe Road, a loop embracing the town in the southwest corner of Kauai. The restored vintage buildings have become Hollywood darlings. But in the midst of the art, architectural rehab and celluloid fame, I found old Hawaiian ways still prevailing.
This time I'd come for a party. Every Friday the galleries host Art Night beginning at 6 p.m. I picked up a walking-tour map at Joanna Carolan's Banana Patch Studio, in one corner of which the ceramics artist maintains a little museum displaying old photographs of Kauai. Joanna's studio is in the restored circa-1926 Chang Building, which was once a bakery, then a pool hall. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places. Fourteen of Hanapepe's historic sites are marked by plaques, including the swinging footbridge across the Hana- pepe River as well as the site of a 1924 labor strike that left 20 people dead.
Joanna said of the '20s, "The good old days weren't always so good. But, you could buy a pie for a dime at Chang's. So I always do desserts for the art walk." She offered me guava shortbread cookies while I admired her ceramic sea turtles. "My celadon honu (sea turtle) was featured in Archit-ectural Digest," she told me.
I wandered about Hanapepe from gallery to gallery. At one, I met Melinda Morey, who has painted murals for Hyatt hotels. Her gallery, Vintage Aloha, reflects her love of '30s- and '40s-era art. Of a round dining table she said, "This is a reproduction of Hawaii art deco furniture. The chairs are upholstered in bark cloth." Even the jewelry Melinda carries has a Marlene Dietrich elegance. I tried on a lavaliere on a fine silver chain. "And look at these cool purses from vintage muumuu fabrics," said Melinda, pointing them out.
Fabrics are the focal point of the Art of Marbling gallery, co-owned by artist Becky Wold and wood turner Rob Bader. Becky's scarves and sarongs hang from bamboo poles. They are a perfect foil for Rob's translucent bowls and platters crafted from Hawaiian woods. I couldn't resist one of Becky's silk scarves, marbled in the palest pinks and greens.
I was glad that even with all its success, Hanapepe still has an aloha vibe. Under a starry sky, strolling musicians played Hawaiian music in the streets. There must have been a hundred people gallery-hopping.
I encountered more music at the Hanapepe Cafe in the old Igawa Drug Store building where slack-key virtuoso Cindy Combs was playing "Hiilawe."
The cafe, with its '50s soda fountain, was transformed into a fine-dining venue with candles and white linen on the tables. Andrea Pisciotta was a waitress at the cafe before she bought it. "Friday is the only night I'm open for dinner. I do six entrees, usually catch of the day, maybe stuffed artichokes. We bake the baguettes, and my mom bakes the apple pie. She also makes the best lemon bars." I feasted on Mom Helen's pecan rum tart.
The next day, Janet Kahalekomo drove me to Salt Pond Beach Park just west of Hanapepe near where she and her family gather sea salt in the old Hawaiian way, mixing it with alaea, an iron-oxide-enriched clay. The red salt is used ritually in purifications and medicines. Priests use it at house blessings, I gargle with it the minute I feel a sore throat coming on, and it will be offered at any luau worth its salt.
As I looked across the plain and back to the green mountains, the palms and rampant tropical foliage hid the town and almost everything new. It was as if I had walked back in time. Just up the coast from where we stood, Hawaii felt the first jolt of change when the ships of Captain James Cook dropped anchor off Waimea. Janet's ancestors may have looked up from their work, seen the alien ships on the horizon and gathered their children closer to them. The men may have launched their outrigger canoes to go assess the strange-looking ships and even stranger-looking men.
The day may have been hot, as it was the August morning we stood there. Janet said, "I learned to gather salt from my grandmother. She told me that salt is a gift, and we always treat it that way. We never enter the salt area without pule (prayer)."
The traditional Hawaiian customs -- taking joy in what you do, welcoming the stranger, acting as family regardless of blood ties -- still permeate life in Hanapepe. It's those things -- more than the setting, even more than the salt that melts on the tongue -- that give Hanapepe its special flavor.
I was reminded of this later when I stopped at the little green Taro Ko shop, opened the screen door and bought crisp, warm, salted taro chips fresh from the wok. Artist Becky Wold was there, too. After finishing half my bag of chips, she rushed off explaining, "I've got to go home and build a pigpen. I rescued these two baby pigs -- they were just crossing the street -- and I've been bottle-feeding them."
Hanapepe may have become a smart art mart, but you've still got to honk the critters off the road.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Small Town, Big Soul
Thriving Artists Art Night happens every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. Stroll in and out of the 16 participating galleries, sampling pupus and meeting the artists. 808-335-5944
A Historic Rest Authentic plantation-era cottages have been restored at the oceanfront site of Waimea Plantation Cottages. Rates start at $150 astonhotels.com