By Anne Cyr

Author Anne Cyr at Ha‘ena Beach Park. Contributed photo

It was during her third week on Kaua‘i that Arlene’s transformation was complete. Every day on that lush, verdant, waterfall-covered island had been positively dreamy; every morning she and Al pinched themselves to see if it was for real. They were so happy there, so enamored by the aloha spirit, that if possible they would have moved there in a heartbeat.

However, in another week they would be boarding the plane back to Maine, where several feet of snow had fallen, and neighbors and family members had been plowing and shoveling for them. It was time to get serious about shopping for thank-you gifts, and they knew just the place to get it done; Kapa‘a.

Kapa‘a is a bustling town on the island’s Eastside; it is where the majority of the locals live and is thus the most congested part of the coast. The goes right through the middle of town, creating what is known as the “Kapa‘a Crawl.” They had learned to anticipate this traffic slow-down, and just cranked up the Hawaiian tunes and enjoyed getting a good look at all the enticing shops and cafes as they idled by.

On the big shopping day, they pulled over and parked at the far end of Kapa‘a downtown and determinedly started their search. Storefront signs advertised an interesting array of wares for sale: red dirt shirts, koa wood carvings, ukuleles, fish hook pendants, shell leis, mu‘umu‘us. Mu‘umu‘us? An iconic image of longhaired women dressed in flowing, flowery garments filled Arlene’s head. Out of all the “must have” souvenirs, surely a mu‘umu‘u would be in the collection!

One of the first shops they came to was called “Tropical Tantrum,” and Arlene was instantly captivated. Manikins bedecked with gorgeous Hawaiian shirts, dresses, and shawls were on the sidewalk fronting the store. They were practically calling out to her. “Perhaps this is where I’ll find a mu‘umu‘u,” she thought, though Arlene still wasn’t entirely sure what one was. She walked in and without so much as an “aloha” asked, “What exactly is a mu‘umu‘u, anyway?”

The woman behind the counter laughed in response to her query and replied, “You’re such a tiny thing! What do you want with a mu‘umu‘u?”

Although Arlene was tall and on the thin side, “tiny” was not a word she would have chosen to describe herself. The saleswoman — who looked to be about Arlene’s age — was wearing a lovely long dress with a shawl fastened around her shoulders. She was attractively made up, and her jewelry and sandals were simple yet elegant. Arlene instantly decided that she wanted to look like that, rather than looking like she’d just stepped out of the pages of an LL Bean catalog as she had for the last two decades, going for comfort rather than fashion.

Before she knew it, the saleslady had taken her to into the middle of the shop where she started pulling one beautiful dress after another from a rack, all sleeveless with a fitted bodice, flaring at the hips, and cascading to the floor. She explained that no two items were alike; the shop owner designed them and then the fabric was batiked and sewn into these luscious creations in Bali.

Arlene generally preferred her clothes to be about two sizes too big, for the aforementioned reason, and was gravitating towards the “medium” section. The saleswoman insisted, however, that she stay in the “smalls,” and Arlene soon agreed to try on two of the dresses. Her husband, in the meantime, was delighted. He’d always been after her to wear clothes that fit, for Pete’s sake, and so he was behind the clerk 100 percent. It was two against one.

Into the dressing room she went and stripped out of her T-shirt, baggy capris, and well-worn Tevas. Arlene slipped the first dress over her head and zipped it up (even the zippers were gorgeous, the tab of the zipper a hand-beaded heart). Alas, it was too tight through the shoulders — she knew a small wouldn’t do! But she tried on the second one anyway, just in case. She pulled up the zipper, and was delighted to find that it fit. Perfectly. The bodice even gave her a little extra definition in the chest area. The fabric flowed over her hips – outlined them – and yet it wasn’t snug at all. The batik print was multi-hued: shades of blue, turquoise, and purple, with what looked like bamboo leaves cascading throughout.

“How’s it going in there?” the saleswoman asked.

“Yeah, come on out and show us,” Al said.

“I don’t know,” Arlene replied, looking at her hips again in the mirror, “I think I need a medium.”

When she finally stepped out, Arlene was greeted with great enthusiasm. When she mentioned the bit with the hips, the saleslady demonstrated how the fabric was cut on the bias, making her shapely and yet allowing plenty of room to move. There were modest slits up the sides, giving her even more freedom of movement.

The saleslady kept saying things like, “You have a beautiful body, you should wear clothes that flatter you.”

And Al joined in saying, “I’ve been trying to tell her that for years!” to which the clerk replied, “Well, there you go — you have your wife back.”

And before Arlene could even think of a response to all this flattery, the saleslady had found a long, rectangular scarf of a similar print, with beaded fringe on the ends, and was draping it about Arlene’s shoulders, saying, “For when there’s air conditioning, you know.” No, she didn’t know, living near the coast of Maine as she did, but acquiesced quickly nonetheless.

Next, a type of scarf fastener known locally as a “no-knot” was magically produced, and after gathering two edges of the shawl together so that Arlene was enclosed within, the saleswoman wove the gathers through the two holes in the small abalone disc so that it was secure. She demonstrated multiple ways of draping the scarf; Arlene especially liked how regal it looked when the no-knot rested above her left shoulder, with the shawl parting on either side of her arm…

At this point, Arlene was glowing and Al was grinning, but the saleslady wasn’t finished. Before Arlene knew it, she was slipping into a pair of purple sandals with kitten heels and two stunning beaded bands that miraculously bypassed her bunions. When Arlene mentioned this to the clerk, she laughed again and explained that was because the designer herself had bunions! It was like art for her feet. She felt like Cinderella.

While Arlene was swirling in front of the mirror, Al asked about a shirt for him that would go with his wife’s outfit. She soon found the perfect shirt — the colors were the same, but instead of bamboo leaves there were sea turtles, the endangered green turtles they had seen on their snorkeling ventures. Sold!

Al handed over the credit card, and she carefully wrapped everything up in tissue paper. They had the saleswoman and the shop to themselves until the last moment, when another customer came in and claimed her attention. It was as if it was meant to be.

As Arlene and Al put their treasures in the car, they agreed that the saleswomen is very good at what she does — indeed an expert — and they had gone along for the ride full bore, and the outlay of funds was more than they would have ever considered spending back in Maine. But how often does something so spontaneous and euphoric and memory making like that occur?

They still had to do the souvenir shopping, but buoyed by their spree at “Tropical Tantrum,” their gift purchases were quickly made. They ended the morning with a cup of Kona coffee at a small cafe, enjoying the local art on the walls and idly commenting on the people flowing in and out of the busy restaurant. With the rest of the day spread before them, they opted for a picnic at their new favorite beach on the North Shore.

Hours later, sated by food and sunshine, sandy and waterlogged from body surfing, with the turquoise sea spread before them and dramatic cliffs rising on either side, they pinched themselves yet again. Is this us? Are we here? Is this for real? And it was true — all of it, and it would be for another whole week. As the shade started to creep over the sand, they sat wrapped in their towels for a few more minutes, savoring the feeling of utter contentment, and waited until there was an actual chill in the air before calling it a day.

  • Anne Cyr is a Maine resident who comes to Kaua‘i regularly with her husband, Conrad. She can be reached at