Reel fun on the Garden Isle

By Shane Nelson
Wailua FallsIt's tough to argue with folks who insist Kauai's Wailua Falls is one of the loveliest photo ops in the state.

You don't stay long, of course, because the viewing area is often teeming with camera-wielding first-timers and on some days can mean a fair amount of rental car dodging, but the vista is always a showstopper.

I'm sure I'd been told before that the location was used in the opening scenes of the popular TV program "Fantasy Island," but it wasn't until I recently watched the footage, onboard a Roberts Hawaii minibus, that the truth really sunk in: The stunning waterfall from a show I absolutely adored as a child in the 1980s had been right there on Kauai this entire time.

"What I love about the Roberts movie tour is people actually get to see what was in the film or TV show, and then they head to many of those actual locations," said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. "It's a great way to take people back in time right before they get off the bus."

Hearing the "Fantasy Island" theme music certainly transported me back a few decades, and as those lush Kauai landscapes and the familiar waterfall flashed across the tour bus screen, I was a primary-school kid again on the mainland, spellbound in front of the family TV.

Inspiration strikes

It turns out the Kauai movie tour product was actually conceived at Wailua Falls. Bob Jasper came up with the idea while selling visitors a chance to pose for pictures with parrots in front of the Kauai landmark nearly 20 years ago.

"People would always walk up to me and ask about 'Fantasy Island,'" he said. "Then they'd start asking about other films, [and] I said to my wife later, 'Wouldn't it be cool to put together a tour to different movie locations on the island in a bus with a TV, so you could show people clips?'"

A couple years of research and planning followed, and the duo launched an early version of the tour in 1996: Jasper manned the TV and handled tour guide duties while his wife drove.

Coco Palms"It was the first of its kind in the country," Jasper told me, noting that more than 100 films and TV shows have been shot on Kauai since the island's first movie production, "White Heat," in 1933. "Nobody had done a tour like that before, and it just really took off. We even trademarked the term 'movie tours' because nobody had ever used that before."

That first year proved more difficult, however, than the couple imagined.

"We focused too much on 'Jurassic Park,'" Jasper said. "And we found we were really limiting ourselves in terms of demographics. We barely made enough to make the van fee the first year, so we switched the whole thing around and started including a lot of older movies shot on Kauai and many newer ones, as well."

Increasing the tour's focus on classic movies, especially "South Pacific," helped to attract older travelers, and including a stop at the Coco Palms resort, where Elvis starred in "Blue Hawaii," bolstered business. But Jasper said adding films such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Six Days Seven Nights," "Tropic Thunder" and later even "Avatar" has helped draw in younger visitors.

New operator

Fast-forward a little over 10 years, and business dropped off dramatically, due in part to the global economic downturn along with the loss of some large cruise ship contracts.

Hanalei PierIn May 2010, Jasper stopped operating the tours altogether, but that year was an unusually productive one for the film industry on Kauai, with movies like "Soul Surfer," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Just Go With It" and "The Descendants" all shooting on the island.

Roberts Hawaii, one of the state's largest transportation and activity companies, purchased the tour's licensing rights from Jasper last summer (hiring a number of former staff and retaining Jasper as a consultant) in the hopes of cashing in on some of Kauai's more recent film-related publicity.

Movie buffs will still enjoy an introduction to Kauai's classic and newer films and TV shows on the tour today, along with stops at locations such as Hanamaulu Bay, Kauai Sands Beach, Hanalei Pier and lunch at Hanalei's Tahiti Nui restaurant, site of the bar scene with George Clooney and Beau Bridges in "The Descendents."

"What's great about 'The Descendants' is Kauai is Kauai in the film," explained Kanoho, who believes the 2011 movie's success has sparked increased interest in the Garden Isle. "I think the impact of that story, plus the Hawaiian music soundtrack, really touched a lot of people on the mainland."

The Roberts tour now takes in some of the Hanalei Bay vistas used in the scenes where Clooney jogs along the shoreline.

But the tour still features the hugely popular stop at the iconic Coco Palms resort, which has been closed since Hurricane Iniki damaged the property in 1992.

"It was wonderful," said Linda Dancer, a North Carolina-based travel consultant who joined the Roberts tour for the first time earlier this month. "Uncle Larry, who's been the Coco Palms music director for years, sang and played his ukulele for us and told us about the time he spent with Elvis, taking us around the lagoon where they filmed the wedding in 'Blue Hawaii' ... I'm excited to sell it."

Commissionable to agents, the six-hour Roberts Hawaii Movie Tour on Kauai is $105 for adults, $52.50 for kids 4 to 11, and includes the cost of lunch and a hotel pickup. Visit www.robertshawaii.com.
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