Like Cast Away , Minus the No-Frills Part

I don’t want to give the wrong impression: My husband works

hard. But his idea of a vacation is snoozing on the sofa. His idea of travel is

walking four blocks to a coffee shop for breakfast. He’s the only person I know

who wasn’t the least bit captivated by the roughing-it ordeal of Cast Away . The idea of fending for

oneself, Boy Scout–style, is not even a fantasy for this

Queens-and-Brooklyn-bred landlubber, a couch potato whose tuber roots grow

tuber roots in winter, deep into the sofa springs and floor. So to pry him

loose for a trip to Hawaii would have been unthinkable were it not for the

once-in-a-lifetime perks of the trip: first-class transportation and five days

at a world-class beach resort with everything included (meals, massages), all

for a 40-minute talk in which we were to make like Siskel and Ebert and discuss

movies in terms of our Oscar picks.

The airplane ride was a

trip in itself-though it must be said that 14 arduous hours in the air, on

three different planes, deserves some pampering and cosseting: exceptional food

(Chef Tim’s ahi, the superior

Hawaiian tuna, was a poem), his-and-her movie screens and gizmos on the chaises

that did everything but propel you into the lavatory and scratch your back.

The tiny island of

Lanai, our destination, is the site of two world-class hotels and the town that

supports them. There’s virtually nothing else. The Lodge at Koele, the

up-mountain “hunting lodge,” is an expensively rustic hostelry featuring skeet

shooting, fowl-and-game cuisine and fires at night. It seemed to attract a

posher and more adult clientele, possibly because there are no attractions for

children, than the Manele Bay beachfront hotel, which is envelopingly balmy.

The latter suited us to pinch-me ecstasy. We thought we’d died and gone to

heaven when we were shown to our suite by three of the hotel staff and our

personal valet. In the early morning and evening, we’d sit on one of our two

terraces, looking out upon the water, the foliage and the shamelessly gaudy

butterflies. We’d listen to the endlessly twittering birds, which occasionally

stepped across the threshold to examine our Ming vases and mahogany cabinetry.

Shuttles ran between the

two hotels, stopping at the town in between, a modest constellation of

barrack-like houses, resembling an army base, surrounding a verdant town

square. The drivers called us by our first names, and the paying guests were as

mixed as the staff. The water and air were practically the same temperature, so

that we who swam and snorkeled were like amphibians, going back and forth with

no sense of a dividing line between earth, sky and sea. There were whale and

dolphin sightings, but I never seemed to catch one before the final spew, when

the animals had already gone back under. There was something feminine and

womblike about the atmosphere-the laid-back attitude, the caressing climate as

we reverted to a childlike passivity.

Such servant-master relationships as did exist relegated us

all, paying and non-paying guests alike, to the servant class: Lanai was a

pineapple plantation for nearly 70 years, operated by the Dole Company. In 1985

the island was purchased by a developer named David Murdock. He’s referred to

by all and sundry, as in “Mr. Murdock always comes for a week at Christmas,” or

“That’s Mr. Murdock’s skiff in the harbor.” He was clearly the overlord, and we

were the vassals.

On the shuttle to the little town, my husband, gazing at the

recently planted Cook Island pines, surprised me by asking, “Do you know about

the difference between a bush and a tree?” I shook my head.

“Bushes sink. So if you make a raft, you’d better make it of

tree rather than bush branches.”

This bit of information he’d no doubt gleaned from a movie,

but what my horticulturally challenged husband doesn’t realize is that on a

desert island there are no movies to tell you which green vegetation is a bush

and which a tree.

At the general store in town, we ran into a couple we’d met

at the Honolulu airport, and with whom we’d exchanged travel horror stories.

They were in search of an art exhibit, and the husband was grumbling about his

wife’s frenetic approach to holidays. There was not that much to see in

Lanai-one of its charms-but what there was, she’d found. “What my wife calls a

vacation, I call a trip,” he complained, and my husband immediately bonded with

the man. The four of us began trading Jack-Spratt-and-his-wife  stories as to whose spouse is the biggest

pain in the butt. I offered the fact that here

we were at the general store in Lanai, spending the first day of our

five-day stay buying all the things my husband had forgotten to bring:

sunglasses, a baseball hat.

My husband looked

sweltering in his long-sleeve shirt and blazer. He has to have a jacket with

pockets for all the equipment-pens and pencils, spiral notebooks, cash, subway

tokens, credit cards and money wad, rats and snails and puppy-dog tails-he

insists on carrying with him at all times. He doesn’t swim; he hardly walks.

He’s not a vacation type; I found that out on our so-called honeymoon. He’s not

going to change, and I love him anyway. I kept counting the ways as I headed

for the spa and a massage. My masseur was a Sequoia-tall émigré from Kentucky

who’s lived here for a decade and hasn’t had a migraine (an affliction we found

we share) since. He was doing a Swedish-cum-Shiatsu thing to my body and recommending

pearls of wisdom from Tuesdays with

Morrie . One of the book’s maxims, apparently, is “We know we’re going to

die, but we don’t believe it.”

As if on cue, as punishment for our blissed-out sybaritic

existence, I’d brought a videocassette of a Bergman film I had to watch as

background material for an article that was due the moment I returned. Into one

of our two VCR’s I inserted the majestic and dour Private Confessions -script by Ingmar Bergman, direction by Liv

Ullmann-and, two hours later, we didn’t need Morrie to remind us we were going

to die. Giving an all-too-convincing portrayal of an expiring minister was a

white-haired and barely breathing Max von Sydow. In the last scene, he and his

favorite niece, the unrepentantly sinning wife played by Pernilla August, talk

across a gulf. It’s a haunting demonstration of the elusiveness of human truths

and the ambiguities that neither love nor the imminence of death can resolve.

Trust Bergman to rescue the mind from the mindlessness of a

vacation and inject morbid northern nightmares into the sweet sleep of

paradise. Maybe the gloomy Swede should head to Hawaii, drink Mai Tais and

learn to play golf.