1 Rm., Arbor View

updated 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVEN AMONG THE QUIRKIER HOTELS OF the world, the Waipi'o Tree House on the Big Island of Hawaii stands out. For starters, there can't be many other hotels that sit 20 feet off the ground in the branches of a giant monkeypod tree. Also, the Tree House has only one guest room, thereby assuring it of at least a tie in the world's-smallest-hotel competition. "It's a place for people who are not afraid to be alone," says proprietor Linda Beech, 55. "And not afraid of a few bugs. The Tree House is rustic to the max."

True, all true. The comfort facilities, for instance, consist of a compost toilet and running water, clear and cold, piped in from a nearby waterfall, courtesy of gravity. If you want a hot shower, that's a two-minute walk to a bathhouse shared by the owner, who lives in another house a few more minutes away. In lieu of TV, the management provides every me-Tarzan, you-Jane book that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote.

The most economical way to get to the Waipi'o Valley is to walk, but that can amount to a two-to three-hour trek along muddy roads and across rushing streams. Better to go by four-wheel drive ($25) or mule-drawn carriage ($35). On-site, you climb 40 steps to a 20-by 10-foot "suite" ($150 a day with a two-day minimum). Management provides cooking utensils, a solar-powered fridge, an electric hot plate and lamps that draw their current from a fairly reliable water-driven generator. The nearest phone is at the owner's house.

So what does the Waipi'o Tree House offer? To begin, the screened windows and acrylic skylights give guests a clear view of what Beech calls the Show: the Papala Waterfall cascading 1,000 feet down the mountainside. Fauna abounds, and the flora is rain-forest lush, ablaze with wild orchids, impatiens and morning glories. Rainbows appear almost daily, and since only one party can be booked at a time, privacy is guaranteed. Entertainment? You can swim and hike, or fish for freshwater prawns and grill them for supper. Although guests are expected to bring their own provisions, they may, for a nominal fee, order up a picnic basket dispatched by the owner.

Beech didn't plan on becoming a hotelier. Raised in Honolulu and a graduate of the U of Hawaii, she worked as a U.S. government labor analyst in Japan. There she married an American journalist and raised two sons. After the couple divorced in 1970, she returned to Hawaii and bought three acres in the Waipi'o Valley. "I camped out in a leaking tent trying to figure out what to do with this strange piece of land," she recalls. "When I woke up, it just registered with me: Tree House."

Constructed with the help of two boat builders, the hideaway hotel opened to paying guests about a year ago. With little more than word-of-mouth advertising, it has attracted a steady clientele, including repeats. "I built it as a place for lovers," says Beech, who remembers a couple from Italy who spoke no English but kept saying, "Molti romantica! Molti romantica!" True, all true again. "The best high rise in all of Hawaii," says a tribute in the hotel's guest book. "May the peace of this valley," says another, "spread to the whole world.

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