Hanalei, Hawaii — You can have the Colorado, the Snake, and the Chattooga. For white-water rafting, I'll take the Pacific Ocean -- or more precisely, the dreamy but difficult coastline known as Na Pali on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.
From May to September only, a spunky outfit called Na Pali Zodiac sends outboard-powered rafts along this choice and sometimes controversial shoreline, dropping off or picking up campers at lonely beaches while providing a wilderness ride of at times white-knuckle intensity. The operation is beached during the winter when the pounding, rising surf renders all boating hazardous on Kauai's North Shore, and also keeps the tourist numbers down in the region.
Clancy Greff, 28, a San Diego surfer turned entrepreneur, is slowly expanding Na Pali Zodiac, which he runs out of a little shop in Hanalei town next to the Ching Young general store. His competition is from helicopter tour companies, of which the island has four.When I flew over to Kauai from Honolulu with Princeville Airways one princely summer day, I found some of the helicopter operations reeling slightly and the upstart Captain Zodiac, as Mr. Greff calls himself, faring rather well.
What you have to know about the Na Pali coast is that there are three ways in -- by a weaving 11-mile hiking trail, by hired helicopter, and by bouncing rubber raft. Some of the helicopter companies (though not Jack Harter's) had been reprimanded by the state for landing on off-limits points of the carefully watched coast or for not paying landing fees where they had alighted legally. Around Hanalei the consensus seemed to be that Clancy Greff and his band of young raft pilots, San Diegans mostly, were a credit to a paradaisical little town that has seen its share of mainland drifters come and go.
''We respect that man,'' a longtime Hanalei resident said of Mr. Greff. ''He's concerned about the environment. He not only hauls passengers on his rafts, he has a contract to go in and remove trash from the shoreline.''
It was drizzling, and a rainbow was arcing up from the sea to meet the coastal mountains when five passengers and five crewmen gathered at 7 o'clock the next morning at Haena beach a few miles from Hanalei. On the North Shore, Haena is better known as Bali Hai Beach for the significant part it played in the movie ''South Pacific.'' Clancy couldn't go along because he wanted to be near his wife who was about to give birth, but he left us in the cool hands of Richard Gomez, Skip Emerson, John Koon, Dave Green, and John Sargent, each 25, and each in love with the sea.
We were in two French-made Zodiac rafts, similar to those that ply the Colorado, and as we buzzed up the coast it was all we could do to hold the rope handles and gasp -- gasp at the Na Pali scene: jagged green cliffs, deserted beaches, yawning shoreline caves, silvery waterfalls. John Koon stood at the controls with Dave Green alongside providing commentary above the motors' roar. A school of dolphins popped up and raced alongside.
After 45 minutes, we pulled up in the high surf a few hundred yards from Kalalau Beach, a favorite destination of the 11-mile hikers. There were tents pitched near the shoreline and campers taking their morning strolls on the perfect desert beach.
In a landing operation that the frogmen would have been proud of, four of the five passengers were sent surging shoreward in the smaller of the two Zodiacs. I stayed aboard the larger one and watched over the swelling surf as several crewmen safely deposited the raft and the four campers on the beach, then swam back to join us, like two slightly winded dolphins.
Heading back for Bali Hai Beach, we found ourselves going against the grain. The raft fought and bounced and bucked its way through the waves, and above the racket Koon shouted: ''I kind of expected this. It was touch and go this morning -- we would have stayed back if there hadn't been the four packers to drop off. There was a small-craft warning and an 18-knot wind. It's very much like winter conditions.''
Now he tells me, I thought, clinging dearly to the rearing black steed. But I was comforted by the sight of the Zodiac boys, laughing and lazing about the raft as though they were riding an old Woody home from a day's surfing at La Jolla. Finally, as the familiar pinnacled cliffs of Haena-Hanalei came into view , we turned right and rode in on the surf, racing at 25 miles an hour on the suddenly calm and uniform waves inside the protected reef.
After that, I was strictly a landlubber in Hanalei. I drove the narrow winding road that stitches together the heavenly valleys and beaches, hiked the unpeopled shores, picked about the town of Hanalei with its end-of-the-road South Pacific languor. I admired but didn't play the Princeville links, the prettiest golfing layout in the Pacific. It is three nines back to back -- Woods , Ocean, and Lakes -- and the hole that always grabs me is Woods No. 8 with the so-called Zen trap -- three boulders of graduating sizes planted in a patch of sand in the middle of the fairway.
Princeville is the biggest resort development on the North Shore, 300 condominiums spread across an erstwhile 11,000-acre ranch, with a 300-room Marriott soon to rise above the cliffs of Hanalei Bay. That will mean a lot more customers for Captain Zodiac and the roving helicopter pilots. I hope the Na Pali coast can take it.