A trip to Hawaii may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, but it is a routine commute for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii). Given the chance for a relaxing vacation, the senator, his wife, Maggie, and teen-age son, Kenny, choose Kauai. This is how Inouye describes his favorite:

The 20-minute plane ride from Honolulu allows time for a refreshing drink of pineapple juice before the Island of Kauai appears in view, glistening like an emerald in a sapphire sea. Some 106 miles from Oahu, it is the farthest removed of the major Hawaiian islands and geologically the oldest. Isolation and the ages allowed nature to work magic--amassing cloudy peaks, carving plunging canyons and shaping gentle beaches. Kauai's unspoiled natural charm and unhurried ways provide a special relaxing place for both Mainland guests and Islander "city-dwellers" from Honolulu.

Arriving in Lihue, the first-time visitor may notice that the 38,000 residents of Kauai have managed a racial balance striking even for Hawaii. The population divides in near-perfect symmetry among Caucasians, Japanese, Filipinos, native Hawaiians and other races, the mix reflecting Kauai's years of dependence on labor brought in to work on sugar plantations.

The Garden Island has always been an island apart from the rest of Hawaii, in geography and style. Distance allowed it alone to defy conquest during Kamehameha's war of unification. Kauai's king later voluntarily joined the other islands in Kamehameha's Kingdom of Hawaii.

This independent spirit has fostered a strong pride in traditions and the island's natural beauty. This attitude is rooted in purpose, not pretentions. Royal fish ponds once richly stocked with delicacies now produce aquacultural species such as prawns for an actively growing industry. Ancient shore-side salt ponds cultivated for hundreds of years continue to yield coarse salt prized as a contemporary seasoning.

My favorite swimming beach is at Poipu, where the offshore reef calms the surf and shelters schools of colorful fish. For many years my dives with a Hawaiian sling spear produced platefuls of reef fish to be pan-fried to a delicious crispness. These days tropical fish find greater hospitality in my home and office aquariums, where they leisurely loll amid driftwood collected along Kauai's north shore.

A morning swim at Poipu Beach is followed by a drive up the gradually sloping heights of central Kauai. At the island's midpoint, Mount Waialeale dominates all of Kauai with its presence. Its 5,000-foot height drains the moisture from passing tradewinds at a rate of 451 inches each year, making it the world's wettest spot. This abundant rainfall saturates Kauai like a backyard spigot trickling forever, sprouting dense forests and lush wetlands that hide more species of native birdlife than are found on any other Hawaiian island, feeding the state's only navigable rivers, and chiseling the splendid Waimea Canyon's many shades of magenta, pink and green.

The road borders this "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" as the elevation increases to more than 4,000 feet, chilling the air to a sweater-donning coolness. The atmosphere is rarefied enough at Kokee to house a radar tracking station that guides satellites and the space shuttles.

Finally the road ends at an overlook. True to its manner, Kauai is one of the only islands rugged enough to defy the construction of a round-the-island road. The overlook faces the uninhabited Eden-like Kalalau Valley, formerly the home of a thriving native Hawaiian community. On many days clouds veil the view of Kalalau Valley, adding to its mystery by permitting only a mere glimpse. When the valley appears in full on a clear day, it is bordered by towering, jade, serpentine mountains, its luxuriant jungle floor sloping seaward. In the distance, the meeting point of bright blue sea and sky is indistinguishable. There is nothing like this sight for sheer breathtaking magnificence, and a hush usually prevails as visitors try unsuccessfully to absorb the scene's bombardment of the senses.

My visits to Kauai in recent weeks were spurred by compassion rather than thoughts of vacation. On Nov. 23, the island was struck full-force by Hurricane Iwa's 100-mile-an-hour winds and 50-foot waves, a disaster expected no more than once a century. Miraculously, no resident was killed or even seriously injured, although hundreds of homes virtually disintegrated and thousands more were ruined by the gusts and surf.

On first arrival after the hurricane, I fully expected to see the physical wreckage wrought by this fury. What surprised me was the enduring ability of many of the residents to take this calamity in stride. The pounding of hammers and buzzing of saws soon filled the air. Telephone service was restored in hours, water supplies retapped in days, and electrical power steadily restored in following weeks.

Now nearly every Kauai hotel is back in business, although each suffered the loss of some rooms to storm damage. The island's scenic beauty that took 8 million years to create was unmarred by this latest force of nature. Almost all its attractions remain accessible to visitors, whose most common complaint remains "too much to see, too little time."

Once Kauai's natural allure alone warranted a visit. Now there is another marvel. The physical grandeur that appeals to the heart and mind seems to have imparted a bit of its soul to the people. It now seems perfectly fitting that the most untamed of the Hawaiian islands should spawn a people sturdily courageous enough to weather a hurricane and rebuild with determined vigor.

Remember that this is the island on which the volcano goddess Pele first swelled, where, according to legend, little people called Menehunes toil by moonlight digging ditches and ponds, and where all rainbows are born.

My only fear of visiting this contagiously inspirational place is that one day I may not come back.