Hawaii--Paradise Without Customs

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Hawaii--Paradise Without Customs

Sure, those lei-drapers are pesky--but at least they don't make you wait in line. A quick jaunt to the wild, actively volcanic U.S. of A.
By Curt Sandburn

The great thing about Hawaii is how fast you lose your preconceived ideas about the place once you see it for yourself. True, you're greeted by the "plastic aloha"--the hula-girl key rings, the his-'n'-her polyester floral wear, those perennial I GOT LEI-ED IN HAWAII T-shirts. But for all the much-lamented commercialism, you can still experience that strange, indigenous power Hawaiians call mana--it's there in Maui's Haleakala crater, a vast volcanic valley resembling the surface of the moon; in the lava-laced plains of the Big Island that hide ancient burial caves and altars; in the foliage-choked forests of Kauai where every rock, plant, and tree is imbued with an animistic spirit. Use this guide to ditch the kitsch and get into the wilder side of paradise.

The Big Island
First-time visitors to the Big Island usually experience shock upon landing at Kona's Keahole Airport. Instead of the dense foliage, swaying palms, and all things tropical they've come to expect, they're met with a vast moonscape of hardened lava flows that stretch for miles along the leeward coast. This is their first clue that the Big Island is, indeed, different.

Covering 4,083 square miles, it's obviously the largest in the Hawaiian chain, but it's also the most diverse, encompassing tropical rainforest, snow-capped mountains, black-sand beaches, rolling ranch land, even a desert. Geologically speaking it's the youngest, a work-in-progress whose still-active volcanoes continue to reshape its contours. Above all, it's the most "Hawaiian," with a brooding spirituality that sets it apart from its more hedonistic sister islands.

For hikes in an otherworldly volcanic landscape, head into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, overlooking the island's western flank. There are three especially good trails here: the half-mile Devastation Trail, a paved path through the charred detritus of a 1959 eruption; the 1.5-mile Napau Crater Trail to Puu Huluhulu with a panoramic overlook of Mauna Ulu; and the dramatic, four-mile Kilauea Iki Trail into Kilauea Iki Crater, where hot steam wafting from volcanic vents bathes the rocky landscape in a spooky mist--if a dinosaur lumbered past, it wouldn't seem out of place. The park's "eruption hotline" (808-967-7977) tells you where current lava-viewing is possible.

The most extreme hike within the 230,000-acre park is the ascent to the icy heights of 13,677-foot Mauna Loa, an active volcano and the second-highest mountain on the island. Of the two frigid summit trails, the 18-mile Mauna Loa Trail (the trailhead is 13 miles up the Mauna Loa Strip Road) is longer and more arduous, requiring two or three days on the mountain (there are two free cabins en route; register the day prior at the Visitors Center; 808-967-7184). The steep, four-mile Observatory Trail to the Mokuaweoweo Caldera (which last erupted in 1984) and the summit cabin is accessible from the mountain's north flank; take the Saddle Road to an unmarked mountain road that terminates at the National Weather Service Observatory at 11,150 feet. From the top you'll see a vista of volcanoes including Haleakala across the channel.

The island's wide-open northwestern slope is ranch country, with rolling hills and upcountry vegetation that could be Montana or Wyoming if it weren't for the vast Pacific lurking on the horizon and the tropical vegetation a few thousand feet below. Take a two-hour trail ride with Waipio Na'alapa ($65 per person; 808-775-0419) through taro patches and waterfalls with magnificent ocean views; trail guides explain the history, vegetation, and local legends.

On the western coasts of Kona and Kohala, frequent winter surf from the northwest agitates the reefs, coves, and beaches. For bodysurfers, this is a good thing, particularly at Hapuna Beach State Park in the Kohala district, one of the island's few white-sand beaches (most others are rocky, with black volcanic sand). Here the sandbar makes for some of the cleanest and most ridable waves on this relatively surfless island, but unless you're familiar with powerful Hawaiian surf, stay out of the water when it's particularly gnarly (the surf breaks in extremely shallow water).

At Kona, one of the world's capitals of deep-sea game fishing, Honokohau Harbor shelters a fleet of more than 100 charter fishing boats. Deep waters close to shore attract black, Pacific blue, and striped marlin, yellow-fin tuna (ahi), dolphin fish (mahimahi), wahoo (ono), spearfish, amberjacks, and mako sharks. Shared half-day charters start at $103 per person; for reservations, contact Jean Bowman at the Kona Activities Center (800-367-5288).

The best snorkeling spots are all south of town. Kealakekua Bay, 12 miles away, is a marine sanctuary--no fishing allowed. Shore access at Napoopoo Beach Park requires a one-mile swim to the shallow reef in the bay's north side, where visibility ranges from 100 to 200 feet. About three miles farther south, at Honaunau Bay and the adjacent Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, are prime snorkeling grounds surrounding the lava point and its ancient stone temples; just south is a palm-shaded picnic area. Enter the deep-blue, rock-edged water here and swim north, accompanying schools of pale mullet and pairs of garish Moorish Idols around the point and into the protected bay.

What little nightlife there is on the Big Island can be found in or near Kailua-Kona. Drop by Huggo's for a mai-tai and eavesdrop on fish stories. The Palm Cafe, also in Kailua-Kona, is known for its fresh grilled fish. For a more get-down experience, head north to the town of Honokaa, where the Tex Drive-In serves fresh malasadas (Portuguese holeless doughnuts), teriyaki, and Hawaiian barbecue.

The resorts of the Kohala District are some of the finest--and priciest--in the world. If your budget won't tolerate $300-plus per night, there are, fortunately, some great alternatives. The Manago Hotel (doubles, $38-$41; 808-323-2642) in the upland town of Captain Cook, 1,200 feet above the Pacific and 12 miles from the action in Kailua-Kona, is an institution among akamai (savvy) locals.

Surrounded by gardens, the Kamuela Inn (doubles, $54; suites $83-$165; 808-885-4243) is in the upscale ranching center of Waimea (aka Kamuela), a crossroads between the beaches and resorts of South Kohala and the farms and ranches of North Kohala and Hamakua. Reservations should be made well in advance. Hawaii's Best Bed & Breakfasts (800-262-9912) is a reliable booking service for about 100 small hostelries, with an excellent selection on the Big Island. Double rooms range from $75 to $215.

Of all the islands, Maui is probably the most fun, its playful spirit a legacy of the impish demigod Maui. It's unsurpassed as a playground, with more miles of swimming beach than any other island, two perpetually sunny coasts, stunning mountain terrain, and calm, leeward seaways ringed with a fleet of lesser islands.

Of the major resort areas, Kaanapali on the western shore is like a Polynesian version of southern California, and Wailea to the south is Maui's Palm Springs. Despite 30 years of hell-bent development, the island does still have a few untouched regions--but you have to drive to the end of the road, or hike, or kayak, to find them.

Winter is whale season, and hearing a whale sing is unforgettable. Pick a placid spot of water anywhere along the coast from Makena in the south to Kapalua in the northwest, and swim out till the water's at least ten feet deep. Sink a foot or two beneath the surface, hold still, and you'll hear them: high-pitched cries, low moans, and clicking sounds. Or rent a kayak from South Pacific Kayaks & Outfitters in the southcoast town of Kihei ($20-$45 per day, including car rack, paddles, and life vests; 800-776-2326) and just paddle out to find them.

Expert kayaker Ron Bass runs guided half-day trips from Makena Landing to a sandy snorkeling cove in the Ahihi- Kinau Natural Area Reserve near La Perouse Bay or across the bay to the protected caves of Puu Olai, where you'll see sea turtles, dolphins, and the occasional monk seal (Maui Sea Kayaking, $65 per person; 800-529-2510).

Maui is known for the best snorkeling in Hawaii because of its diverse marine life, its abundant small bays, and its shoreline of coral. Avoid the boatloads of tourists crowding the offshore islet of Molokini and head for the lesser-known spots along the south shore, like the rocky coast just north of Makena Little Beach, where you can spot butterfly fish and green turtles. It's also the island's unofficial nude beach, so a mask, snorkel, and fins are really all you'll need. For guided tours of South Maui and other snorkeling sites, call Snorkel Maui (half-day tours, $50 per person; 808-572-8437).

Winter is the season for big-wave and speed boardsailing: For near-perfect conditions, both beginners and experts head to Kanaha Beach Park bordering the airport. Windy Maalaea Bay south of Kaanapali is best for speed runs--experts only. Hookipa Beach Park, in the funky surfer town of Paia on the north coast, is the world capital of big-wave boardsailing, with great vantage points along the highway for watching the pros do aerial flips off ten-foot winter surf or carve up the face of a 15-foot monster. Pick up beginner and high-performance equipment at Hawaiian Island Surf & Sport in Kahului, Maui's biggest boardsailing rental and instruction center (rentals, about $50 per day including car rack; three-hour introductory lessons, $59; private 75-minute lessons, $49; 800-231-6958).

Any hiking should begin at Haleakala, the 10,023-foot dormant volcano whose massive summit and slopes dominate all of East Maui. Upon entering Haleakala National Park ($4 per car, 808-572-9306) near the summit, proceed to the Haleakala Visitor Center perched above the maw of Haleakala Wilderness Area, where a heart-stopping panorama of cindery slopes and multicolored volcanic cones floats above the clouds. When it's clear, six islands are visible in the blue expanse below.

You can take one of the short hikes along the rim or, with more time, descend into the volcano itself. There are 36 miles of wilderness trails, which can be undertaken solo or on guided hikes and horseback trips with Crater Bound ($80-$110 per person, including transportation, equipment, and lunch; three-day, all-inclusive pack trips, $500 per person; 808-878-1743). Bring a warm jacket; temperatures at this altitude (7,000 to 10,000 feet) can plunge to 30 degrees at night, a cool 60 in the daytime. For day-trippers, there are two basic round-trip routes: the Sliding Sands Trail from the Visitor Center, which descends 2,500 feet in four miles, and the Halemauu Trail at the parking lot off the summit road. Hike Maui (808-879-5270) offers interpretive treks to the best of Maui's hidden mountain and coastal regions (half-day hikes, $70 per person; full-day hikes, $110).

To the north is the tiny bayside town of Hana, reached only via a convoluted 52-mile road from Kahului. En route, stop in Waianapanapa State Park to hike the six-mile round-trip Old King's Highway, which wraps around the coast past black-sand beaches and an ancient heiau.

The vast, arid southern flank of Haleakala sweeps from the summit crater's two-mile-high south ridge down to a rugged, inhospitably rocky shore. This region was home to thousands of Hawaiians before the arrival of the first Europeans, and the stony evidence of their habitation--fishing shrines, temple platforms, house foundations--is everywhere. The rough and narrow Piilani Highway accesses this coast via Ulupalakua Ranch and upper Haleakala through ocean-view ranch lands and fields of flowers. Better still, see it from a mountain bike. Chris' Adventures runs a 46-mile guided excursion ($110, bike rental and lunch included; 808-871-2453) that begins at Haleakala's summit and winds down to Nuu Bay.

Solo riders can rent standard mountain bikes from West Maui Cycle in Lahaina ($19-$25 per day; car racks, $5; 808-661-9005). Among the most scenic unescorted bike routes are the 20 miles of unimproved coastal road (rental cars are not allowed) north of Kapalua that continues 25 to 30 miles around the north end of West Maui to Wailuku; the Skyline Trail in the cloud forests of Polipoli State Park in Upcountry Maui; and, for something really different, a bike tour of the neighboring island of Lanai, where a trip up the Munro Trail takes you to the small island's highest point, 3,400-foot Lanaihale, for spectacular views of Molokai and Maui. Get to Lanai on the Expedition, the ferry from Lahaina (round-trip, $50; 808-661-3756).

Lahaina, the old whaling village five minutes south of Kaanapali Beach, is the place to party, since it has the only real nightlife outside of the resort communities. Try the Pioneer Inn for a boozy, brawly good time, or the Old Lahaina Cafe for casual beachfront dining.

Hotel and condominium rates tend to be higher in winter. You can find cheap but adequate condos in the sprawling, slightly tacky (but convenient) beachfront town of Kihei, near the island's best south-shore beaches and 20 minutes from the north shore's boardsailing areas. Condominium Rentals Hawaii manages six condos in Kihei ($70-$195; 800-367-5242). Hawaiian Island Vacations (800-231-6958) offers week-long house-rental packages including car and boardsailing rentals ($483-$650), with lodging ranging from rural cottages to waterfront condos to luxurious beach houses.

Kauai is the sensual island. With more rainfall than the others, it has a sultry humidity that silkens the skin, flowers that perfume the air like tropical incense, and mind-boggling vistas: pinnacles and plunging ridges that look like they're melting, 3,000-foot-deep canyons that expose millions of years of multihued geology, streams that incise valley walls with countless waterfalls.

To truly know Kauai, you have to hike the Na Pali wilderness on the island's untamed north side, where winter rains and surf can be relentless. The spectacle called the Kalalau Trail is an ancient, 11-mile path that zigzags up and down the Na Pali coast's radical cliffs and gorges en route to the Kalalau Valley. The strenuous full-day (or two-day) hike requires planning, provisions, and day-use or overnight camping permits from the Division of State Parks (808-241-3444).

To get a taste of Na Pali without a full-day commitment, try the first segment of the trail, the one-hour, two-mile hike from the trailhead at the northern end of Highway 56 at Kee Beach to Hanakapiai Valley and Beach (no permit needed). Or hike on one of the 15 well-marked trails in Kokee State Park that wind around the "roof" of Kauai, 4,000 feet up, offering sublime views of cloud-wrapped ohia and koa forests, cliffs, and valleys. The moderately strenuous 6.5-mile Awaawapuhi Trail is a rollercoaster hike to a vertigo-inducing seaward lookout above the perpendicular cliffs of the Awaawapuhi and Nualolo valleys. The four-mile round-trip Canyon Trail takes you above two-tiered Waipoo Falls, where the rain-fed Waimea Stream begins its plunge into Waimea Canyon. Check in with the Kokee Natural History Museum (808-335-9975) for trail information and maps.

In winter, surfing is a spectator sport for everyone but the pros, and the north shore of Kauai is a secret sanctuary for some of the biggest waves on earth. At Hanalei Bay, long lines of waves up to 25 feet sweep into the crescent-shaped bay, hit the reef, and peel to the right in long, steady tubes 500 yards beyond the bay's pier at Black Pot Beach. In Hanalei, one and a half blocks from the beach, rent a board for $15 a day or $65 a week from the Hanalei Surf Company (808-826-9000). Call 808-335-3611 for recorded surf conditions. The same winter waves that create great surf on the north shore make for risky conditions for almost every other water activity, so the sunny beaches of Poipu on the leeward side are the place to be. Along its ten-mile stretch, Poipu has everything from the Fantasy-Island glamour of Lawai Beach Resort to the mana of Mahaulepu, an as-yet undeveloped stretch of shallow bays, pocket beaches, dunes, and sun-baked sea bluffs.

Snorkeling is great anywhere along Poipu, especially off the numerous rocky points between white-sand beaches with 100-foot palms. At the far eastern end of Poipu Road, past the handsome, green-tile-roofed Hyatt Regency Kauai, a private dirt road continues east through sugarcane and coffee plantations into the coastal district of Mahaulepu. You can take in the best of the southern shore, including Poipu and Mahaulepu, with Outfitters Kauai: On an all-day "Bike, Hike & Snorkel" trip ($65 per person; 808-742-9667), guides entertain you with the natural and cultural history of the area. Outfitters Kauai also rents kayaks, car racks, and mountain bikes.

Kauai's restaurants are widely scattered around the island, so expect to do a bit of driving. Head to Brennecke's in Poipu for fresh seafood and ocean views, and for a splurge that's well worth it, try A Pacific Cafe in the shopping center at Kapaa on the east side, which serves Pacific Rim cuisine you'll never forget. Authentic luaus in an ultra-Polynesian atmosphere can be found at Tahiti Nui Bar and Restaurant, a local institution on the road to Hanalei.

Kauai has a number of reasonably priced resort-style hotels along its east side at Kapaa, Waipouli, and historic Wailua. Try Aston Kauai Beach Villas (doubles, $150-$180; 800-922-7866), on 13 acres by a lagoon. West Kauai has no major resorts, but one property worth noting is Waimea Plantation Cottages ($125-$150; 800-992-4632), a collection of 48 restored plantation houses shaded by a coconut grove.

Hikers can hang out in Kauai's central mountain mass at Kokee State Park, the verdant, campuslike setting for 12 simple cabins outfitted with wood-burning stoves ($35 and $45 per night for two to six people, maximum rental five days; 808-335-6061). Reservations and pre-payment at least six months in advance are essential.

Referred to since ancient times as "the gathering place," Oahu has been convention central ever since Hawaiian chiefs from the other islands first started holding summit meetings at Waikiki more than 200 years ago. Oahu now counts 874,000 residents--80 percent of Hawaii's million-plus population--as well as about 79,000 visitors at any one time.

Don't dismiss Waikiki as a waste of time. In the right frame of mind, you'll laugh at its odd juxtapositions: high-rise office buildings a stone's throw from the beach, populated by businessmen wearing shorts and flip-flops and businesswomen in muumuus; Gucci and Cacharel boutiques rubbing elbows with T-shirt emporiums and fast-food joints; bronze-skinned beach boys sharing the sand and surf with sunburned snowbirds from Iowa.

With relatively benign waves, surfing's historic home, Waikiki, is the best spot in the Islands to learn the sport. For surfboard rentals and lessons, contact Planet Surf (short boards, $17 per day, $65 per week; 808-926-2060), next to Waikiki's International Market Place. East of Honolulu are three first-rate bodysurfing beaches: Sandy, Makapuu, and Waimanalo. Sandy Beach and Makapuu are generally experts-only since waves break close to shore in shallow water. Verify conditions with a lifeguard before entering the water at either beach, as the waves and currents can kill. Waimanalo Beach is a wide swath of golden sand that stretches for five miles; its gentle waves, breaking over a sandy bottom, are great for beginners.

On the windward side of the island, Kailua and Lanikai beaches, fronting electric-blue water, are the favored boardsailing bays. Naish Hawaii near Kailua Beach rents beginner and high-performance equipment (three-hour introductory group lessons, $35 per person; private 90-minute lessons with four-hour board rental, $55 per person; 808-262-6068).

On the North Shore is some of the best big-wave surfing (and surf-watching) in the world. Within a three-mile stretch of the coast, beginning at Sunset Beach, the lineup of legendary surf breaks is awesome: Velzyland, Sunset Point, Rocky Point, Pupukea, Ehukai, the Banzai Pipeline, Backdoors, Rockpiles, and Waimea. On a big day, the world's best surfers are out in force, followed closely by the world's best surf photographers and the world's briefest bikinis. To check wave conditions anywhere on the island, call the National Weather Service's surf report (808-836-1952) for a rather dry update, then check the Surf News Network (808-848-7873). If either report says waves are over six feet on the North Shore, drop whatever you're doing and head out there. Plan to stay for sunset, a slice of pizza at D'Amico's on Sunset Beach, and beers at the funky Sugar Bar in nearby Waialua.

Most of Oahu's premier dive sites are off the Waianae coast on the leeward side, where light winds, minimal rainfall, and limited development keep the water calm and clear. Don't miss the swim-through wreck of the Mahi, an old Navy minesweeper sunk in 90 feet of water. Nearby at 70 feet is the fuselage of a Beechcraft cargo plane, called simply "the plane." Contact Dan's Dive Shop (two-tank dive, $75; 808-536-6181), a few blocks from Waikiki Beach.

Hiking trails are hidden in the deep valleys behind Honolulu, providing instant relief from the concrete and crowds. Anyone can point you toward the short, well-known Manoa Falls and Tantalus Trails. In east Honolulu, you can follow the seaward ridges up to the main Koolau spine for views of Pearl Harbor. On the windward side, the newly opened Maunawili Trail runs along the sheer cliffs of the Waimanalo Pali, 600 feet above the sea. For details on these and other hikes, check out Robert Smith's Hawaii's Best Hiking Trails (Hawaii Outdoor Adventures) and Craig Chisholm's Hawaiian Hiking Trails (Fernglen Press).

The Sierra Club ($3 donation per hike; 808-538-6616) arranges a number of hikes, trail-clearing expeditions, and related events on Oahu. The most popular (there's a waiting list) is the trip up to the pristine native forests on Mount Kaala, the highest point on the island. The Mauna Wili Trail, a ten-mile hike on the windward side, runs a close second. Call for a recorded list of upcoming hikes.

Waikiki can be an excellent base for exploring Oahu. Despite its sometimes garish excesses, the broad range of hotels, motels, condos, restaurants, and shops make it convenient and fun, if not exactly restful. Good deals in Waikiki are the 22 hotels owned and operated by Outrigger Hotels and Resorts (doubles, $70-$190; 800-688-7444). Funky, little-known alternatives to the big Waikiki hotels are three small inns: The Hawaiiana (doubles, $85-$165; 800-367-5122) and The Breakers (doubles, $95; 800-426-0494) are low-rise, motel-style properties in the heart of Waikiki, with lush gardens and a heavy dose of 1950s Polynesian kitsch; the Royal Grove Hotel (doubles, $55-$85; 808-923-7691) is probably the best bargain in Waikiki if you can handle bad color schemes and noisy air conditioners. If you want to stay oceanfront on the North Shore (the roar will lull you to sleep), Ke Iki Hale (condos, $85-$175; 800-377-4030) sits right on legendary Sunset Beach and includes 13 units spread out on 1.5 manicured acres.

With few beaches, minimal resort development, and a distinct ambivalence toward mass tourism, Molokai remains happily out of the mainstream. More than half of the 7,000 residents are Hawaiian or part Hawaiian, and traditions of hospitality--of aloha--run deep.

The long, thin island, about 40 miles from east to west and about ten miles wide, is composed of a high, wet, and rugged east end and a dry, low-lying west end. The only resort (and the only good beaches) are located at the far west end, at Kaluakoi. Kaunakakai, the only significant town, fronts the harbor on the south-central coast.

A virtually inaccessible 12-mile stretch of the northeast coast has some of the highest sea cliffs in the world (3,000 feet straight up from the crashing surf), dissected by Edenic valleys. Adjoining the cliffs is the isolated peninsula and settlement of Kalaupapa, which functioned until the 1960s as a lifelong quarantine for lepers. With the disease long since cured, the community has shrunk to a few dozen residents. The entire peninsula is now a national historic park, accessible only by private plane, boat, or a tortuous three-mile foot-and-mule path that zigzags down a 1,600-foot cliff. To visit the colony and peninsula, arrangements must be made with Damien Tours (four-hour tour, $30; 808-567-6171); no unescorted visitors are allowed.

The 53,000-acre Molokai Ranch commands the island's entire west end, from deserted beaches to forested highlands. The Outfitter Center (800-254-8871) encompasses a 350-acre wildlife conservation park with all kinds of African game roaming around a savannah setting (two-hour tours, $35 per person). An equestrian trail takes in the highlands and the lower north-shore sea cliffs (hour-and-a-half rides, $35). The ranch also arranges fishing, kayaking, diving, sailing, snorkeling, and camping trips.

For spearfishing lessons or a hike to some of the island's least-known historic sites, call Walter Naki, a renowned spear diver who runs the grassroots operation Ma'a Hawaii-Molokai Action Adventures (rates vary; 808-558-8184). He'll customize an adventure to your specifications.

To experience Molokai's low-key beach culture, drive east along the coast highway between Kaunakakai and Halawa Valley, stopping wherever you see an attractive stretch of coast. Grab a six-pack and wear your sneakers or reef-walkers (available at the discount store in Kaunakakai), and just walk the beachfront. The placid but silty water isn't great for swimming, but at low tide you can walk right out on the reef.

For guided kayak and snorkeling tours of the south coast or west end, contact Fun Hogs at Kaluakoi Resort (half-day tours, $40 per person; 808-552-2555, ext. 7570). Both kayaks and 21-speed mountain bikes are also available for rent (half-day kayak rental, $25-$40; full-day, $40-$55; mountain bikes, $6 per hour, $25 per day).

Accommodations aren't plentiful on Molokai, but you'll find what you need. The Kaluakoi Resort is as unpretentious as such a development can be; there's a hotel plus villas and condominiums (doubles, $50-$195; 800-225-7978 or 800-777-1700). For real local-style accommodations, try the Pau Hana Inn on the harbor at Kaunakakai (doubles, $45-$90; 808-553-5342) or the casual Hotel Molokai (doubles, $59-$110; 800-423-6656), also on the waterfront. The whole island shuts down around sunset, but Saturday nights at the Pau Hana Inn's bar can be rowdy and fun when local bands are playing. Eat chicken breaded with macadamia nuts at the Kaluakoi Resort (get there before 9:00 P.M. or you're out of luck; reservations recommended), the island's only bona fide restaurant.

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