Fantasy islands: Joanne Harris heads to Hawaii

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Novelist Joanne Harris had always longed to visit Hawaii – but would the reality live up to her childhood dreams?

When I was very young I had a book in French called Hina, la petite Hawaïenne. Lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photographs, it features a six-year-old Hawaiian girl and her everyday life on the island; shows her hiding in the jungle with a flower in her hair; shows her fishing; sailing; swimming with sea turtles; playing her ukelele; picking fruit; running for sheer joy along what looks like unbroken acres of gorgeous white sand. I still have my battered copy and ever since then I have dreamed of Hawaii, hoping one day to see Hina's island paradise in colour.

That being so, I wonder why it has taken me so long to make the dream come true. Perhaps the truth is I'm afraid that my idea of paradise may be very different from that of other people, and that Hina's island now only exists in fiction and memory.

It stands to reason that tourism should have taken its toll on a place so abundant in natural bounty. A friend of mine, on hearing where I was bound, said with dismay; "Oh God. Poor you," and went on to describe his experience of a plastic and concrete "paradise" as nightmarishly far from Hina's island as anyone could imagine. Still, I remain optimistic. My itinerary will take me and my daughter Anouchka to three of eight islands; Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii's Big Island. Surely, on one of these islands we must still be able to find Hina's footsteps in the sand. In any case, I mean to try.

The flight to LA from Heathrow is about 11 hours, after which we have a five-hour flight to Honolulu. It's a long journey, but armed with a quantity of books, magazines and DVDs, Anouchka and I manage rather well. We arrive at our hotel, the Halekulani, at about 6 o'clock in the evening, feeling less ravaged than I'd expected, and after a massage in the hotel's spa and a quick restorative of pink champagne and fresh papaya, we set off for an hour's exploration.

Our hotel is Waikiki's loveliest: gracious, elegant and understated. The flowers are real, the service outstanding but unobtrusive, the food simple but excellent (accompanied by Hawaiian music and hula in the evenings). Our balcony looks onto the beach; below us the water is a floodlit, perfect green. It's still a long way from Hina's island, but Waikiki has a kitsch, cheery charm of its own. The clichés are inescapable: surf shops, hula bars, Hawaiian shirts designed to induce flash burns in the unwary. But is that really so bad, in a place where the air is warm and scented with jasmine and frangipani, with palm trees swaying overhead, where stress doesn't seem to exist and where everyone says "Aloha"?

Waking next day to the sound of the surf, we set out to embrace every one of those clichés. When in Aloha, we decide, you do as the Alohans do. Anouchka takes to this idea with verve and we are soon duly attired in multicoloured shirts and rubbah slippahs (flip-flops). A couple of Hawaiian pizzas later, it's time to check out the beaches, and after watching the surfers (with some apprehension) from the edge of Waikiki Beach, I leave Anouchka (more intrepid than I) to her first surfing lesson.

I'm not much of a beach person, but this is the place for water sports. In fact, virtually anywhere on the islands you can find wonderful spots for snorkelling, boogie boarding, surfing, swimming, sailing and kayaking. If you don't know how, someone will teach you. Anouchka's first lesson leaves her able to ride a wave all the way from the reef to the shore, and it's all I can do to get her off the board for meals and sightseeing. The snorkelling is good, too; from a smaller beach near the hotel, we are taken out in a catamaran to a place where we swim with sea turtles and watch multicoloured coral fish.

But I haven't found Hina's island yet, and in spite of Waikiki's undeniable charm I am looking forward to seeing the rest of Oahu and escaping the urban jungle. Coach tours are not my favourite thing, but are a good way to get an overview. This tour goes all the way up the coast, from Hanauma Bay to the North Shore, with stops along the way at the Halona Blowhole, the Chinaman's Hat and the world-famous surfing beaches at Sunset, Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay. It's wonderful to see these places, but the constraints of the coach tour are frustrating and I long to get away and into the unspoilt countryside.

Our next stop, however, is Kauai, and I'm hoping to find my paradise there. A hop and a skip from Oahu, and far less inhabited, this is the Garden Island, covered with lush rainforest and bracketed on all sides with mostly deserted beaches. Our hotel is the Hilton, Kauai: a large, plantation-style resort facing a narrow private beach. Wild cockerels run freely across the gardens; there are hedges of sweet-scented jasmine and purple hibiscus around a beautiful swimming pool, but after Waikiki I feel the urge to get away from people.

Fortunately, this is quite easy – as long as you have a rental car. I pick mine up from the airport – and, once I have mastered the unfamiliar controls, I am pleased to find that driving on Kauai is pretty stress-free. Drivers are courteous and patient, and the speed limit is only 55 kmph. There is one main coastal road around the island, from which you can access beaches, walks and scenic viewpoints at leisure and without the restrictions of a coach tour. We spend our first day doing just that; it's nice to have no fixed plan and to linger as we choose.

Stopping to admire the dramatic Wailua Falls, we notice a sign to the Kamokila Hawaiian village, where traditional Hawaiian halles (huts) have been restored. It features handicrafts, pastimes and plants, recreating the atmosphere of a typical village.

Wandering through, picking guavas from the trees and listening to the sounds of the river, I can almost expect to see Hina here. There is a wide selection of activities on offer, too, from canoeing to walks of all difficulties. As we are avoiding people today, Anouchka and I choose an easy-looking solo walk, which consists of a 10-minute paddle downriver to the trail, after which our guide leaves us entirely alone, with a map, some water and instructions to meet him in four hours.

This is more like it, I tell myself. The forest is lush with flowers and vines. The scents are overwhelming, birds sing overhead, and although we are close to a river, there seem to be no mosquitoes at all. Instead I can see red prawns in the river, flashing between the clumps of water hyacinth.

The air is tropically warm, and the few other hikers we meet on the path are dressed in swimming trunks and shorts. We soon find out why: the easy path isn't quite as easy as it looks and we have to cross the river. The crossing-place is marked on the map, but the water is four feet deep here, muddy, and filled with slippery rocks. We manage, and though by now Anouchka is getting a little grumpy (I think she misses her surfing lessons), I am rather enjoying it. It's nice to be out of the comfort zone, if only for a little while. Muddy and wet, we follow the map. There is a waterfall ahead, it says. I have an image of us both plunging in, Tarzan-like, but we settle for a quick snack from a nearby papaya tree before heading back to the rendezvous point.

This is where we get lost. At first, neither of us really notices. But little by little the trail narrows and soon we realise that our few fellow-hikers have dwindled to no hikers at all. We push on; it's nice to be alone. We push through masses of tall reeds and re-enact scenes from jungle movies. We climb through the roots of banyan trees. And then, all of a sudden, we're lost. Absolutely, hopelessly lost. At first it's almost funny. We try several directions. All end in impenetrable thickets. Another half-hour of this and I am beginning tofeel anxious. My phone doesn't work here; nobody knows exactly where we are. We try another direction (this time I'm sure it's the right one) and after struggling though what seems like acres of reeds, we come across a scene straight out of Kingu o Solomon's Mines: a clearing in the forest that ends in a massive canopy of purple flowers cascading down a tall cliff. It's breathtaking. In spite of our predicament, we feel uniquely privileged. This is a view that belongs to us alone, a place where no tourist has ever set foot.

Despairing of ever finding the trail, we follow the river back home. It gets quite deep at certain points, but never more than shoulder-high, and we encounter no worse things than prawns along the way. Anouchka is thrilled with her adventure, and I with my glimpse of paradise.

The next day we go looking for a quiet beach. This isn't difficult on Kauai, as almost all the beaches we see are more or less deserted. We find one where the sand is white and unbroken, the shore lined with palm trees and the sea is relatively safe. We stay for hours without seeing a soul. We run and shout in sheer exuberance. No one hears us. No one sees. It's bliss.

After that we're on another tour. Not by bus this time, but by boat, along the Wailua river towards the famous Fern Grotto. It's a beautiful ride downriver and the tour guides are cheery, but by now both Anouchka and I agree that we would rather find our own way than have to travel in a group. Even the Fern Grotto, lovely and mysterious as it is, doesn't hold a candle to our secret spot with the nameless cliff and the purple flowers trailing down into the swamp.

After the boat trip, we are invited to our first luau. There are many of these pig-roast-with-music-and-dance venues on the islands. This one, at Smith's Tropical Paradise, is said to be Kauai's finest. It's cheery, crowded, and spectacularly kitsch – though not quite my idea of paradise – and the dancers in their plastic grass skirts bear little resemblance to Hina, my little Hawaiian girl, but all the same it's a great send-off (and it gives us the chance to wear our Hawaiian shirts again).

The next day we leave for the last stage of our trip: three nights on Hawaii's Big Island. The least populated – though the largest – of Hawaii's islands, this is the most dramatic of them in terms of landscape and climate. We arrive at the Kona Village resort at sunset, where we are greeted with orchid leis (garlands) and taken to the nightly luau, a charming, authentic, intimate affair as different to Smith's Tropical Paradise as the Kona Village is to a typical hotel.

It is built like a Hawaiian village, with halles of varying sizes along the beaches and paths, among sweet-scented flowers and fruit trees. There are no phones here; no TVs; not even a lock on the halle door. A coconut left on the porch serves as a "Do Not Disturb" sign. There are private beaches all around the village, where green sea turtles lie in the dark volcanic sand, and from which residents can snorkel, sail, kayak or simply do as the turtles do and bask at leisure.

Perfect peace is the principle here. It's easy to go for a whole day without encountering anyone. You can lie in your hammock, rest on the porch, swim from any of the beaches. The food is first-rate – wonderful fruit, fresh local fish – and the Kona's hot chocolate, served with scorched cinnamon, Kahlúa and fresh cream, is the best I've ever tasted.

Three days on this island aren't nearly enough to explore its many charms. But Anouchka and I cannot resist the offer of swimming with manta rays in Kailua-Kona, where after dark we are taken by boat to a place where, illuminated by spotlights, these huge but gentle creatures perform their underwater ballet, apparently oblivious to human spectators.

Nor can we resist the three-hour drive from Kona to the Volcanoes National Park, where we are led by Warren, our charming and knowledgeable Hawaiian guide, on a hike across the harshly gorgeous landscape. Hina isn't here, of course, but Pele the fire-goddess is, and it is a privilege to visit her domain. We arrive back at the Kona Village with the sense that we have crossed continents rather than just one island and, with one day left to go, and so many wonderful things left to do, Anouchka and I both agree that tomorrow we're not going to do anything.

Because now I'm beginning to understand something about these islands. For me, the magic of Hawaii comes from the stillness, the sea, the stars. And the things I like to do best here cannot be found in a brochure. To lie in a hammock watching the sky; to collect shells on the beach; to watch the sunset from the porch; to eat a coconut straight from the tree; to listen to the sound of the surf; to smell the flowers; to hear the birds; to exist in the moment and nowhere else.

Our last day was by far the best, though I couldn't tell you what we did. Doing nothing is a joy that most of us have forgotten about. It's a state of grace, like being six again – and that, not Mai Tais and grass skirts, is surely what paradise is about. Hina would have understood.

Joanne Harris's first novel, 'The Evil Seed', has just been reissued by Black Swan at £6.99. Her novel for young adults, 'Runemarks', is published by Random House Children's Books at £6.99.

Getting there

The writer travelled with Flight Centre (0870 499 0040; flightcentre.co.uk), which offers a 13-night package to Oahu, Kauai and Big Island from £2,229 per person, including return flights from Heathrow with United Airlines via LA, inter-island flights and accommodation at Halekulani, Hilton Kauai and the Kona Village.

United Airlines (08458 444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk) flies to Honolulu from Heathrow via Los Angeles or San Francisco. Inter-island flights are operated by Go! airlines (001 888 435 9462; iflygo.com).

You can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).

Getting around

Alamo (0870 400 4562; alamo.co.uk) offers a week's car hire in Hawaii from £150.

Staying there

Halekulani, Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Oahu (001 808 923 2311; halekulani.com).

Hilton Kauai Beach Resort, Lihue, Kauai (001 808 245 1955; hilton.com).

Kona Village Resort, Kailua-Kona, Big Island (001 808 325 5555; konavillage.com).

Visiting there

The Go Oahu Card (gooahucard.com) covers unlimited admission to 25 attractions for blocks of one-seven days. The Oahu Grand Circle Island Tour is offered by Polynesian Adventure Tours for $64 (£43) per person (001 808 833 3000; polyad.com).

Native Guide Hawaii offers tours of Big Island's Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from $150 (£100) per person (001 808 982 7575; nativeguidehawaii.com).

Smith's Tropical Paradise, Wailua, Kauai (001 808 821 6895; smithskauai.com). Luaus start at 5pm Mon, Weds and Fri; $67.50 (£45).

More information

Hawaii Tourism: 020-7367 0935; gohawaii.com/uk

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