For moviegoers who actually take note of a film's scenery -- or fans of Elvis, Indiana Jones, Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, bikini babes, dinosaurs or all of the above -- Kauai might look oddly familiar.
Indeed, check the TV monitor hanging behind the driver's head on the Hawaii Movie Tours bus, a company whose half-day tours offer an insider's peek of Polywood, then look outside, and you can easily make the screen-to-scene connection.
Kauai, which sits at the top of the Hawaiian Islands chain, has been the shooting locale for 75-odd films and TV shows over the past 70 years (the first was "White Heat," the most recent, "Hilary Duff's Island Birthday Bash"). It has stepped in for Zaire ("Outbreak"), 1930s South America ("Raiders of the Lost Ark"), the South Pacific ("South Pacific"), even a deserted island populated by a mismatched band of castaways ("Gilligan's Island" pilot). And it has played a supporting role to stars big (the King, King Kong, John Wayne), B-list (Anne Heche, Herve Villechaize, T-Rex) and embarrassing ("The Bachelor" contestants).
Many Kauai tourist maps highlight these movie locations, so you can visit them on your own. But without the backstory, they are just pretty tropical spots with thin significance -- the bay where Lee Marvin paddled an outrigger in "Donovan's Reef," the swath of sand where Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right outta her hair in "South Pacific," the waterfalls in the opening sequence of "Fantasy Island."
Hawaii Movie Tours, though, gives these sights context and Technicolor with in-van clips, tabloid-quality gossip, bloopers and tour-guide patter a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000." (Warning: Spoilers to follow.)
"They ran two miles through sugar cane fields and weren't even out of breath. And that was a nice little climb out of an aqueduct. They had a crane and lowered the basket for them. So much for the big race," said guide Bill Alexander, pointing out the fields and adjacent 80-foot Wailua Falls that "Amazing Race" competitors allegedly scaled. "If I've ruined reality shows for you, I'm sorry."
No worries, Bill, at least we know Elvis is still a stud, what with his game of hide-and-seek girlfriends at the Coco Palms Resort, off Kuhio Highway in Wailua, during the "Blue Hawaii" shoot. And that Harrison Ford is human, after an accidental face plant during a rope-swinging scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
The company, started in 1996 by the former owners of a local exotic bird store who had bit roles in Hollywood flicks, has grown to three kinds of excursions and a small fleet of vans (maximum 10 to 14 passengers). The vans are outfitted with small screens, so you can swivel your head from the monitor to the picture outside your window.
The 4x4 tour I took hopped around a small but dense parcel on the island's east side, with drive-bys or stopovers at the Lihue Airport, Nawiliwili Harbor, Lydgate Park (the setting for a "Fantasy Island" episode -- the wedding reception of Mr. Roarke and a dying woman -- as well as our picnic lunch place), two sets of waterfalls and more. Those sites are open to the public, yet two others are for tourgoers' eyes only: the private Rice Ranch, whose eccentric owner is prone to ride around his ATV dressed only in underwear and an automatic, and the once-grand Coco Palms, closed for 11 years. The movies seen and discussed ranged from classics like "Donovan's Reef" to bombs like "She Gods of Shark Reef," and all the popcorn flicks in between ("Jurassic Park," "Seven Days Six Nights," etc.). And though the tour caters to movie buffs, it doesn't ignore those who prefer their panoramas unedited.
"We came for the scenery, not the movies. We wanted to see the private property, go off-road," said a Californian visiting for the fourth time with her husband. "When I'm not interested in the movie, I just look out the window."
Or maybe swing from a rope like Indiana Jones?
The famous "Raiders" scene of I.J. fleeing down a hill being chased by a band of warriors (really Hawaiians, whose bare behinds had to be darkened to erase tan lines), then jumping on a rope toward freedom, was filmed at the Rice Ranch. The rope is still there (or at least a version of it), dangling from the tree like a long monkey's tail. Ford didn't have much luck when he swung on it, and a stunt double had to step in.
However, when my turn came, I pounced on it like a real-life action hero, riding high in the sky, looking for crocs in the river and snakes in the trees, and wondering if even after all these years, I could see an imprint of Indiana Jones's face in the Hawaiian dirt.
-- Andrea Sachs
Hawaii Movie Tours offers three different half-day tours, with daily departures from its Kapaa office (4-885 Kuhio Hwy.) or pickups at various resorts. Cost: coastal land ($105.21), 4x4 off-road ($117.71) and the ultimate tour (4x4/helicopter, $267.71 or land/helicopter, $248.96). Price includes lunch. Info: 800-628-8432, www.hawaiimovietour.com.