by Lee Foster
Few travel destinations boast as ambitious a traditional slogan as Maui, Hawaii. The phrase, in Hawaiian, is “Maui No Ka Oi,” meaning “Maui is the best.”
The motto could be dismissed as a hollow claim, except that millions of U.S. travelers vote it accurate each year by choosing to go there. Aside from Honolulu, which is partly a port of convenience, because of all the air flights, Maui is the most popular travel destination in Hawaii.
A travel writer with the charge of examining how “Maui is the best” faces a pleasant task indeed.
First, the Beaches
There are the world-class beaches, with lovely sand, dependable sun, refreshing and famous trade-winds (the Maui breeze), year-around temperate climate, tepid waters (varying only between 75-82 degrees all year), excellent snorkeling, and beguiling sunsets. These great beaches occur primarily at two locations on the western side of the island, Wailea-Kihei and at Lahaina-Kaanapali. Maui has one of the the most abundant supplies of good beaches in Hawaii.
Wailea is the newer developed area, with such gems as its five-diamond resorts Renaissance Wailea and Hyatt, plus many more modest condos and resorts, including the old favorite, Maui Lu. This leeward side of Haleakala volcanic mountain is a very dry beach environment. Only when water was piped in from the West Maui Mountains, where the rainfall is extremely high, could development proceed in this relative desert, which receives only 10 inches of rain per year. The highly localized weather patterns of Hawaii will surprise a traveler. How can a rain forest environment flourish only ten miles from a desert? The ten thousand-foot volcanic mountain is the answer, both Haleakala on the eastern side of the island and the Maui Mountains on the west side.
Lahaina-Kaanapali is the traditional developed area on the west side of Maui. The resorts at Kaanapali have been synonymous with Maui since the first resort opened in 1958. A half-dozen major high-rise resorts stretch along this choice stretch of sand. The town of Lahaina bustles with restaurants and shops catering to travelers. Many visitors return year after year to their favorite lodging.
The five-diamond property here is the Hyatt Regency Maui, which epitomizes the resources that several of the great properties offer. A luxurious beach stretches along the property, confirming the suspicion that Maui has many of the best beaches on the Islands. Fine dining occurs at the Japengo restaurant, where the sushi is a work of art. In the evening, on the roof, you can participate in the astronomy program, watching the moon and Saturn through a telescope, learning how the bright stars guided the Polynesians as they navigated towards Hawaii. From the hotel you can snorkel or take a catamaran boat out for a sail, passing the whaling town of Lahaina,
Second, the History
Beyond the beaches, the history of Maui is appealing. The initial king of modern Hawaii, Kamehameha, found Lahaina sufficiently to his liking that he created a royal residence here. Kamehameha first consolidated his power on the Big Island, Hawaii, before subduing the Kings of Maui in a decisive battle. So bloody was this encounter, it is said, that an inland site in the Iao Valley, where the battle took place, is called Kepaniwai. The word means “damming of the waters” because so many dead soldiers choked the stream. Today Kepaniwai Park interprets the many cultures that contribute to modern Hawaii, especially the Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese. Further up the valley, the Iao Needle is a scenic finger of green land rising in the mountains.
Whaling history at Lahaina contributes to an aura of romance. Herman Melville’s cousin is buried here. In the 1840s the world’s whaling fleets congregated here in winter to trade with the natives and slaughter the pods of 15,000 humpback whales, as well as other species. Today, many of the remaining humpbacks in the North Pacific return here each winter to give birth. Whale watching from November through April is a cottage industry here, with numerous boats venturing out on the water. Travelers aim their cameras as the modern harpoon, both visibly capturing the quarry and allowing its safe release.
Formerly, in Lahaina, the re-created 19th-century square-rigged brig, Carthaginian, recalled the era when such small, fast freighters brought the first commerce to the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was first known. Within the hold of the Carthaginian you could witness a small “World of the Whale” museum, complete with a whaling boat and the song of the humpback. However, eventually the ship ended its museum service and was scuttled off Lahaina to form a natural reef. Today colorful fishes swim through the sunken hull.
At Kaanapali another whaling museum, called Whalers Village Museum, complete with a 40-foot skeleton, explains the lore of the leviathan. Anyone with an interest in comprehending Maui’s role in whaling should make a point of visiting this excellent museum. There were some 15,000 sailors chasing whales in the Pacific at the peak era, 1825-1860, which is sometimes called The Golden Era of Whaling. Whales were sought for their blubber and bone. Blubber could be rendered to make oil that lit and lubricated the world before petroleum was discovered. The strong yet flexible bone of the whale, actually the baleen from the whale’s mouth, found use in numerous products, from corsets and hoop skirts to buggy whips and carriage springs. A separate room at the museum traces the evolution of whales.
The whaler’s art of scrimshaw, carving on whale tooth and other ivory, flourishes at stores here. With the ban on imports of whale products, modern scrimshawers have turned to fossil ivory, found in Alaska.
During the entire year, an armada of sightseeing boats departs daily from Lahaina to encounter the romance of the sea.
In Lahaina the pioneer medical missionary Dwight Baldwin lived with his family, 1836-1868. Tension between the free-wheeling whalers and the New England missionaries proved to be an ongoing challenge in rowdy, lusty Lahaina. During lonely years before the mast, the pleasures of Hawaii must have been eagerly imagined by many a sailor.
A couple of glasses of grog at the historic Pioneer Hotel (circa 1901) on the Lahaina waterfront may help the traveler to recreate the world of ship chandlers, tall tales, and camaraderie that flourished here.
Lahaina has some unconventional sights to offer, from a giant buddha at the north end of town, said to be the largest buddha outside the orient, to unusual shops, such as one called Endangered Species, where images and sounds of the endangered are celebrated.
Maui also offers some creative “Hawaiian cuisine” dining, from Lahaina Grill to the Hailiimaile General Store in the upcountry near the volcano.
Agricultural history can be as absorbing as whaling dramas if you proceed inland to a site called Maui Tropical Plantation Gardens. A tram tour around this plantation gives a traveler a good understanding of the sugar cane and pineapple agriculture that dominated the Maui economy in the past. The diversity of crops grown here is also impressive, including coffee, onions, macadamia nuts, guava, papaya, passion fruit, banana, mango, and avocado. Floriculture, especially for tropical flowers and greenery, is a major industry. All of this can be seen at Maui Plantation during a tram ride through the fields and at exhibits on the grounds. One exhibit shows how taro root, the traditional Hawaiian food staple, is grown. The restaurant and gift shop at Maui plantation celebrate the spectrum of tropical fruit agriculture.
A circa-1890 Sugar Cane Train takes travelers from Lahaina to Kaanapali, offering further immersion in the romance of past agriculture. The train once brought sugar cane from distant fields to the large processing plant at Lahaina.
Third, the Volcanoes
If “Maui is the best” is to be understood, the fascination of volcanic nature must be mentioned after beaches and history.
Volcanoes are the fundamental founding fact of all the islands of Hawaii. On the Big Island you can sometimes see volcanoes in action with full technicolor effects. Hawaii volcanoes don’t explode violently, as volcanoes do in the Pacific Northwest, where Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. Hawaii volcanoes undulate, spilling molten lava that rolls gradually down the mountain sides.
The Maui Volcano of note is Haleakala, on the east side of the island, said to be one of the most massive extinct volcanoes on earth. Haleakala translates as “place of the sun.” The de rigeur mode of seeing Haleakala is to rise at 4 a.m. and drive two hours up the switchbacks to the top for a look at the sunrise over one of the world’s largest craters, 21 miles in circumference. Dress warmly because the elevation is over 10,000 feet.
The robust legend of Haleakala concerns the benevolent demi-god Maui, who performed two valuable feats. First, he roped the sun and persuaded it to pass more slowly across the sky, increasing the sunlight for warmth, the growing of crops, and the drying of kapa cloth, which Hawaiians used for clothing. Then Maui caught his fishing line onto several landmasses and dredged up the Hawaiian Islands, pulling them in close together. For such feats, travelers today pay inadvertent homage to Maui.
If you drive to Haleakala, a National Park, at any later time during the day, check ahead locally to get some idea of the weather. If the top is all socked in with clouds and visibility is zero, save yourself the torturous drive. The weather may be sunny in Wailea or Kaanapali, but totally fogged in or raining at the volcano. If the weather is clear, the drive up is an engaging series of switchbacks that reveal the broad cattle-grazing grasslands of the Maui upcountry.
At the Visitor Centers in the volcano you learn some interesting details about the local flora and fauna. The special plant here is the silversword, which has highly reflective silvery leaves, its strategy for repelling the sun. The rare bird here is the nene, a Hawaiian goose that evolved to bear its young in this volcanic environment rather than in the watery home of other geese. The nene is one of the larger of Hawaii’s many endangered birds. It is estimated that almost all of Hawaii’s natives birds are endemic, meaning found only here, having evolved in such isolation. Of 67 known species, 23 are now believed to be extinct. Of the rest, only 15 are not in apparent danger. Kauai retains more of its endemic birds than any other island. Only recently has the mongoose made its way there. The mongoose is a weasel-like animal brought in originally to control rats in the sugarcane fields, with devastating effects on the birds.
An adventuresome traveler can hike down into this semi-dormant crater (last eruption 1790). Rustic cabins within the crater can be reserved for overnight stays. The rainforest environment on the eastern edge of the park extends down to the Kipahulu coast through the freshwater Oheo pools.
A bicycling enthusiast can arrange an escorted 38-mile bike ride from the top of the mountain to the base, surely one of the great downhill rides available anywhere.
“Maui is the best?” If you choose to judge for yourself, you’ll find plenty of comrades with which to compare impressions.
Maui, Hawaii: If You Go
For further information, contact the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau at www.gohawaii.com.
The source for local information is the Maui Visitor Bureau at www.visitmaui.com.
The National Parks site for Haleakala is at http://www.nps.gov/hale/.