It was more by accident than design that I hadn’t experienced Maui previously having happily holidayed several times on neighboring Oahu, Kauai and the big island of Hawaii and working in travel for two decades sent probably hundreds of travellers to the island. It was as if Maui was a person I’d had much contact with for years but had never met in person so it was with a great sense of anticipation that I took in the lush green scenery peeking through the clouds as the flight delivering me for my first visit to began its final approach into Kahului Airport.
From high up above it’s easy to see why Maui was nicknamed the “valley isle” as the foothills that rise from the ocean all the way up to the soaring mountains that make up the island’s interior dominate the landscape. Making use of this topography and prevailing trade winds dozens of wind turbines have been planted along one ridgeline.
The resort area of Kihei with its miles of golden brown sand beaches sprawls along the southern coastline.
Not long after landing I found myself on another famed Maui beach, Kaanapali Beach on the island’s west coast just outside the historic whaling town of Lahaina. Kaanapali was Hawaii’s first planned resort area in the 1960’s with a golf course and a few small hotels including my choice of accommodation, the Royal Lahaina Hotel.
The last fifty years has seen much tourism development in the Kaanapali area with taller hotel buildings built and more hotels, resorts and shopping complexes added further along the coast in neighboring areas like Kahana, Napili and Kapalua. While not as urban as Waikiki the Kaanapali area has a developed enough infrastructure to allow resort guests like myself the ability to move around within it using public transit as an alternative to the ubiquitous rental car. On another trip back I’ll explore further afield and so need a car rental but if you are happy to park at a beach resort paying to rent and park a rental isn’t necessary.
Lahaina was the capital of kingdom of Hawaii for twenty five years in the early 19th century before being moved back to Honolulu and during that time was a major refueling and supply port for Pacific whaling fleets. The rough and tumble nature of an international port often clashed with local Hawaiian customs as well as the morality of the Christian missionaries who’d established a mission at request of the King Kamehameha III. A leader of the missionary group was Rev. Dwight Baldwin and his house built in 1835 is the oldest house still standing on Maui. After restoration the historical heritage is open to the public as the Baldwin Home Museum which overlooks the bustling Front Street.
A block away and opposite the port is the circa 1900 Pioneer Inn which after much renovation operates as a Best Western hotel.
The ground floor terraces offer a restaurant and lounge which I took refuge in for a spell to escape the searing sun. The name Lahaina means ‘cruel sun’ in Hawaiian and quite aptly describes the hot and sunny climate as barely a foot of rain falls all year with the majority falls between December and February.
Adjacent to the Pioneer Inn is Banyan Tree Square so named for the enormous banyan tree that sprawls around the square block square. The tree was planted in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the missionaries to Maui and shares the square with a few small section of the former Lahaina Fort which occupied the spot in the 1830’s.
Front Street is no longer the raucous and rowdy thoroughfare lined with wild bars and saloons full of rough seamen from around the world as it was at the height of the whaling era as it now is lined with upscale galleries, shops and restaurants. Front Street is still however the focal point of Lahaina and so draws crowds day & night.
I detoured a short walk to visit the Lahaina Jodo Mission, a replica of an authentic Buddhist temple built in 1968 to mark the centennial of the arrival of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.
The 12 foot tall seated Buddha is one of the largest outside of Asia.
Whaling is actually still an important industry in Lahaina but instead of hunting and killing the massive marine mammals as in the 1800’s a small fleet of tour boats today takes visitors out whale spotting during the winter season between December and May when they inhabit Hawaiian waters.
There are many tour operators offering whale watching cruises but I chose the Pacific Whale Foundation as it’s a non-profit organization that was created thirty years ago to both research and study whales in their natural habitat while offering the tours to educate the public about the need to preserve whale populations. The best tours are in the mornings as the wind and water are generally calmer but I opted for an afternoon tour instead as it worked better into my day of sightseeing in and around in Lahaina. Before leaving home I’d confirmed a tour on a small raft boat to get the best views with a small group of no more than 28 however upon check-in was advise that departure was cancelled for low numbers and I was rebooked on a larger ship instead but mercifully there it wasn’t a full boat as it makes moving around to get the best view of the whales harder.
With a 97% success rate whale spotting and a free tour policy if none are sighted it’s a fairly sure thing you’ll spot some of the North Atlantic Humpback whales in the waters between Maui and Molokai. The views of Molokai were memorable.
It wasn’t long before the first eagle eyes spotted the first whale which we trailed for a few minutes before it went deep and didn’t reappear.
Moving on to another location the onboard naturalists soon spotted a mother and calf and staying closer to the surface we trailed the pair for what seemed an eternity but was likely only 15 minutes.
Days earlier while snorkeling off Kaanapali Beach I thought I heard whales communicating while underwater so mentioned it to the naturalist who confirmed that their noises travelled for miles underwater and dropped a hydrophone to hear the mother and calf we were trailing and while faint it could be heard. After an exciting afternoon whale watching we sailed back into Lahaina Harbour.
Still stoked from the whale watching tour I stopped at Fleetwood’s On Front St. to ask if there was any availability on the roof top for that evening and luckily found there was so made a reservation. The restaurant is owned and frequented by long-time Maui resident Mick Fleetwood, co-founder and drummer for legendary rock band Fleetwood Mac and wanted to enjoy some fine dining and see if Mick was about to perhaps snap a selfie with the music icon. Alas, Mick was not to be found on this evening but it his absence didn’t stop me from enjoying a very leisurely two-hour dining experience highlighted by a sundown blessing from a local Maui elder and keeper of traditional ways.
I had the baked Mac & cheese as an appetizer but it was a big portion and so was full when finishing the entrée of pasta & meatballs but being in no hurry enjoyed the view from the roof top lounge at Fleetwood’s which was memorable.
My last night in Maui I wanted to try something I’d avoided in past visits to Hawaii feeling it was too touristy for me, the consummate traveller: the luau. Some research found while there was a luau at my hotel the Old Lahaina Luau was consistently voted the most authentic Maui luau so made reservations at a “traditional” table which meant sitting on cushions on the ground. This dining style has the added perks of being closest to the stage offering a good view of the hula dancers.
Before sunset guests are encouraged to visit various areas of the grounds where staff demonstrate local crafts or uncover the Kalua pig which has been cooked in an imu, a traditional Hawaiian underground oven. This ceremony always draws a crowd.
The meal and a few mai tai’s consumed the floor show began with much drums and swivelling hips and having a front row seat suddenly made the time spent sitting on cushions on the ground well worth it.
The most memorable part of the luau was the massive facial sunburn I’d managed to collect while snorkeling in the afternoon as it was in painful full bloom in time for the luau. I’m sure the locals smiled at the red faced haole, a mildy deregulatory term for a non-native Hawaiian, especially a white person, but the hospitality at the Old Lahaina Luau was as universally warm and friendly as I’d encountered throughout my Maui stay so quickly forgot about it and enjoyed the moment.
I can easily see now why so many travellers I’ve encountered return to Maui as there’s just something so casual and comfortable about the atmosphere that adds to the natural beauty to make for a really enjoyable vacation destination you want to return to again and often. Mahalo is a Hawaiian word used when thanking someone so wanted to thank the people of Maui for such a relaxing holiday on this tropical isle.