Catching an early flight to Honolulu that Sunday morning for my wife's incentive trip had some advantages, although when the 5:45 a.m. alarm shattered my peaceful sleep I couldn't think of any. Still, this was the beginning of an adventure and, after shaking off the drowsiness, I couldn't help but feel a little . . . excited.

Still, I told myself, a free trip is a free trip. As I rummaged around for shorts and sandals in the pre-dawn haze, I wasn't 100 percent sold. Of the three Hawaiian islands I had visited, Oahu was my least favorite. I knew that our resort, Ihilani, was on the windward side of the island, which doesn't have the lush, tropical foliage you see in those Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce photos. Its proximity to Pearl Harbor kept conjuring up photos in my mind of a converted military base.

As we took off from Los Angeles that morning, I really didn't know what to expect. . . .

Late 1998, Informix Head-quarters, Menlo Park, Calif.--Meeting planning firm Ellen Michaels Presents (Los Gatos, Calif.) set up a simple, yet highly functional, Web site for the qualifiers--a smart way to get the word out to a group of high-tech professionals. The site allowed attendees to register for the event, as well as the optional activities. It also featured a comprehensive schedule broken down by hours and days.

The travel arrangements were handled flawlessly by R.T. Peak Travel's group department (San Jose, Calif.), which consists of five full-time agents and one support person. Since the winners were announced at the company kick-off in mid-January, they really had only about 90 days to get it all together.

No two couples (out of 250 attending) had the same itinerary. Some arrived early, and others (like us) stayed a few days longer, while the real workaholics came just in time for the opening and left as soon as the program ended.

April 25, 1999, Arrival Day--Boy, was I wrong about the resort looking like a desert. While the surrounding hills were as dry and wind-beaten as I remembered them, the low, flat, seaside resort looked almost like Gilligan's Island (with some tasteful development). Ihilani is located on 640 acres of property that once were part of the estate of James Campbell, one of Hawaii's foremost 19th-century business pioneers.

With more than 800 fellow employees on hand, it wasn't surprising that Cindy began greeting friends and acquaintances as soon as we entered the lobby. That gave me a chance to look around. The lobby sits at the bottom of an atrium, which forms an angular cylinder rising 17 floors. There were tropical flowers cascading over the railings all the way from the top down.

You could hold a decent game of touch football in the lobby, although its Italian marble floor would offer a fairly unappealing playing surface. Steps led to lower terraces and footpaths, which wound down toward the pool deck and sheltered swimming lagoon.

Our reception area was set up on a lower terrace that looked out onto a koi pond, a garden, and the beach beyond. We didn't notice the registration tables against the walls until after we had helped ourselves to the sandwiches and tropical fruit punch that were carefully laid out for our arrival.

Inside our rooms, we found a clear plastic pouch with suntan lotion, lip protector, and a small spray bottle of water to help keep our body temperatures from rising above comfortable levels. There was also a handy combination backpack/cooler decorated with the Informix logo.

The Ihilani brochure claims that its guest rooms are "among the largest in Hawaii." Ours was comparable in size and comfort to the most luxurious rooms I've stayed in that weren't called suites.

The first official gathering for the group was a poolside welcome reception that night. To my surprise, this soiree wasn't a company pep rally, but rather a low-key, meet-and-greet gathering complete with fragrant leis, trays of Blue Hawaiian drinks, and lots of good food and company.

Day 2--We got up early and went our separate ways to exercise. I went to the gym, which was among the best-equipped I had ever seen in a hotel. Cindy walked by the lagoon.

Breakfast was served under a huge tent set up on an expansive lawn beside the resort. I can only imagine the organizational nightmare of feeding 800 people, but if meal service required stress and strain, it never showed itself under the big top (or anywhere else). Everything was served cheerfully and on time, and the food was all fresh.

After an early-morning business meeting, there was a teambuilding session on the beach. Each team was given different colored T-shirts and assigned various activities, such as building a raft. An announcer coaxed us into a team-spirit frenzy as we waited for a whistle, horn, or flag of some sort that would unleash our collective urge to compete. Instead, one of the top company executives, dressed in a grass skirt and coconut shell bikini top ran across the lawn with a torch--a powerful opening, although we all agreed that brown wasn't his best color.

It was interesting to observe a wide variety of personality types interacting in this way. It was almost like summer camp, without the counselors to referee. Personally, I discovered that I didn't play well with the other children.

The rest of the day was anything but hectic: After a barbecue luncheon on the lawn, we were free until we boarded buses for a dine-around in Honolulu that night. Why can't every day include a five-hour break in the afternoon?

Back in the room, we found yet another present, something I'd never seen before: beach towels with foam pillows built right in. Straps with plastic clips made them into compact rolls you could sling over your shoulder.

Our restaurant choice was David Paul's Diamond Head Grille, a hip eatery with pretty adventurous fare. So adventurous, in fact, that we had to occasionally close our eyes as we read the menu to imagine how the palate might react to dishes that combined oysters with balsamic vinegar and shallot sorbet, or beurre blanc, pickled ginger, and wasabi mashed potatoes. Ultimately, we cast our culinary conservatism aside and were rewarded with some of the most thoughtful and flavorful dishes we'd enjoyed anywhere in the world.

Day 3--After morning breakfast meetings for Cindy, we had our choice of hiking Diamond Head, kayaking on Kailua Bay, snorkeling off the American Dream, or golfing on the 18-hole Ted Robinsondesigned championship course across the street from the resort. The latter was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. The course was challenging without being too difficult, with multilevel greens and a wide variety of water features.

We learned that it takes truly dedicated golfers to complete 18 holes in the tropical heat. We surrendered after 14 and chose instead to head for the pool.

The evening's festivities consisted of a beach party, where we were treated to both men and women demonstrating traditional dance. Tiki torches lit up the night, and a band played music that was easy to dance to. Everything went off "seamlessly," as they say in the tech world.

Day 4--Although spouses hadn't been restricted from attending daily business meetings, we hadn't been invited either; that is, until today, when our presence was requested for the Awards Brunch.

Champagne was poured all around the big top as the company's president, Bob Finoccio, led a toast to Informix's future success. Speeches by Finoccio and Jean-Yves Dexmier, who would ascend to president within a month, were kept mercifully short. Every one of the 400 President's Club qualifiers came up on the podium for a smile, a handshake, and an award. The applause was thunderous, and I couldn't help but find myself getting swept away in the fervor. I was in the midst of a group of talented, enthusiastic people who were pulling together to fuel the success of an emerging global company with sales of $750 million.

I couldn't keep from wondering why this event wasn't scheduled at the very end of the program. We still had a free afternoon, a dinner event, and a morning breakfast on the schedule. In terms of drama, I thought that this should have been the climax of the event.

We rented a Jeep and drove to the North Shore. The legendary waves you see engulfing surfers on Wide World of Sports are a winter phenomenon and gone by April. We were happy just to bob gently up and down in the crystal clear water. You might call the afternoon a little of this and a little of that: a little driving, a little lunch, a little beach, and a little happy hour.

The final dinner's theme was "Jurassic Park," complete with some realistic-looking replicas of scenery from the Spielberg film. A refreshingly talented R&B band filled the night with a smooth, electric sound. Everyone posed for photos beside the 20-foot-high inflatable dinosaurs, and a good time was had by all.

Later, the resort's ballroom was opened as a disco, called the Informix Lizard Lounge. Most people danced late into the night, but for us the chariot was about to turn into a pumpkin. We had another early wake-up ahead of us and plans to fly to Maui the next day. All that remained was packing, sleeping, and a fairly short drive to the airport.

Our four days in Hawaii were just the right mix of activity and inactivity, business and fun. And something I'd like to do again, when the 2000 Informix President's Club is held in the Bahamas. I continue to send Cindy off to work early every morning and put energy bars in her lunch box in anticipation of the sound of the steel drums and waves lapping the shore next spring.

A funny feeling gripped me every once in a while during my trip to Hawaii, as I enjoyed the delicious food, exotic drinks, and expensive activities for which I had paid nothing. I guess I'd describe it as a mild case of the guilts (or perhaps, a nagging sense of obligation). Any other time, I'd be paying for this in one way or another.

Then I'd remind myself, I had paid for it. Or more accurately, I had made ample sacrifices to cover my portion of the bill. For my wife to excel at her job requires considerable time away from home. Even when she is home, she's often finishing up on some project or preparing for another. When those feelings of guilt arose, I'd just remind myself of the additional load I carried or the irreplaceable time apart, and return to the pleasures that surrounded me.

Including spouses has become the rule in incentive reward travel for these very reasons. We (spouses) contribute to the winners' (and the company's) success. In the past, when the work force was primarily male, a spouse/husband like me was a rarity. The "other halves" might have chosen from activities such as shopping, lunch, or afternoon tea. Today you're more likely to see a list that includes wine tasting, horseback riding, or golf lessons.

Informix didn't plan any activities specifically for spouses. Even better, they made sure that none of the business sessions went past 11:00, which allowed couples plenty of time together. That beats boarding a bus for a shopping trip any day.