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Maui’s residents and marketeers have a slogan, Maui no ka ’oi— “Maui is the best.” Having visited all five of the major Hawaiian islands, I find that very concept preposterous. Each island has a distinct but equally valid claim on “the best.”
I think the slogan might actually mean “Maui has something for everyone.” If you seek the stereotypical Hawaiian vacation at one of the expensive resorts jam-packed along a sun-baked stretch of sandy beach, you can find it on Maui. If you’re looking to fill an active agenda of snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking, hiking, and mountain biking down a volcano, you can find it on Maui. If you just want to ramble down narrow winding roads and marvel at the scenery, or have an isolated beach all to yourself, you can also find that on Maui.
The Maui Visitors Bureau seems interested in promoting the Maui brand exclusively to the “traditional” vacation market of couples and families. Their brochures tout it as a romantic getaway for weddings, anniversaries, and honeymoons that also offers many attractions for kids. But they don’t mention that the many condominiums and vacation rentals away from the overbuilt resort areas also make Maui a fine destination for non-romantic friends and groups, and even for the often-ignored solo traveler.
Maui is two islands in one. West Maui is an ancient extinct volcano (the West Maui Mountains) that millennia of rain and wind have eroded into many deep valleys. The valleys inspired government officials to dub Maui “the Valley Isle” as part of a campaign to promote tourism after World War II. You’ll still see that nickname, but Visitors Bureau marketeers recently scrapped it for one with more romantic pizzazz. Maui is now “the Magic Isle.”
East Maui is the massive Haleakala (“Ha-lay-ah-ka-lah”) volcano, active in historic times but now “dormant.” Lava from Haleakala filled in the channel between the islands, creating an isthmus that contains the twin cities of Wailuku (“Why-loo-koo,” meaning water of destruction) and Kahului (“Ka-who-loo-ee,” meaning the winning). Like the island itself, these two towns have merged into a single agglomeration; it’s where most of Maui’s non-tourist population lives and works. The ancient Hawaiians neatly summed up Maui when they named the West Maui volcano Mauna Kahalawai— Synergy Mountain.
In the early 1960s, the sugar conglomerate Amfac decided that their cane fields on the sunny West Maui beach at Kaanapali (“Ka-ah-nah-pah-lee,” meaning divided cliff) could be more profitably developed as a beachfront resort. Thus began the relentless condo-ization of Maui, as well as the ascent of Amfac as a resort and tour operator. My first trip to Hawaii (in 1982) was an Amfac package.
Although Amfac has succumbed to the ravages of mergers and bankruptcy, the development and northward expansion of Kaanapali has continued. The West Maui coast, the island’s main resort area, is now a continuous strip of generic beachfront hotels, restaurants, and timeshare complexes. It rivals Waikiki’s density, crowds, and traffic jams, but has none of Waikiki’s distinctive color or character. There’s really no reason to visit the Kaanapali strip unless you’re staying there.
Just south of Kaanapali, the former whaling town of Lahaina (“La-high-na”) is a touristy collection of shops, restaurants, and timeshare hawkers. But it preserves enough colorful history as the 19th century capital of Hawaii to be worth a visit. Lahaina means cruel sun, but a more appropriate translation might be cruel parking.
Street parking and free public lots in Lahaina are limited to three hours, and are usually packed. Private lots also are often full, despite their extortionate cost. If you venture away from the crowds of Front Street, the main tourist thoroughfare, you can find not only parking but pockets of the “real” Hawaii. The wood and corrugated steel construction of this house (with the West Maui Mountains in the background) is common throughout rural Hawaii.
Each May, Lahaina hosts the International Festival of Canoes. Artisans from all over Polynesia gather under a giant banyan tree to carve traditional canoes and other crafts, including this Hawaiian pahu drum. Tourists can watch the canoes take shape over several weeks, culminating in a ceremonial blessing and launching of the completed canoes in Lahaina Harbor.
West Maui does one form of compensation for the crowds, congestion, and traffic jams of its timeshare condos and high-rise resorts. At the end of the day it’s a great place to enjoy a sunset. Lahaina Harbor is a particularly fine setting for that, with boats in the foreground and the island of Lanai in the background across the Auau Channel (“Ow-ow,” meaning bathing).
If you’re looking for unspoiled sandy beaches you’ll have better luck in South Maui, the sunny west coast of Haleakala. Kihei (“Key-hay,” meaning cape or cloak) is Maui’s second overbuilt resort area. When Captain George Vancouver landed there in 1778, he declared it too hot and dry to be of any value. Then he sailed off to find a climate more to his liking in British Columbia. He probably would be surprised by the haphazard sprawl of condominiums and strip malls that has since sprouted in Kihei.
If you drive south from Kihei, past Wailea’s posh gated golf resorts, you’ll get to Makena (“Ma-kay-na,” meaning abundance). At least for now, Makena remains free of condominium overgrowth.
The main landmark in Makena is the historic Keawalai Congregational Church (“Kay-ah-wah-la-ee,” meaning the tranquil heaven). Built in 1855, its meter-thick walls are made of lava rock held together with coral mortar. It’s typical of many churches in Hawaii that externally resemble the New England houses of worship familiar to Hawaii’s first Congregationalist missionaries. But they’re built from materials— and often painted in colors— you’d never find in Massachusetts. Keawalai Church has a beautiful oceanfront setting next to postcard-pretty Maluaka Beach (“Ma-loo-ah-ka”).
Makena Landing was once the dock for a large ranch on the “Upcountry” slopes of Haleakala. Cowboys would drive cattle down a road for loading onto the barges that took them “to market” on Oahu. It’s now a beach park that has seen better days— a 1999 storm washed away most of the sand. Off the beaten path, it’s a pleasantly secluded place for kayaking, snorkeling, picnics, or just enjoying the scenery.
South of Makena, the road narrows and the landscape becomes strangely barren. This is the Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve, created by Haleakala’s last eruption in 1790. Two centuries just isn’t enough time for plants and erosion to turn volcanic rock into soil, so the Reserve is 827 hectares of piled black aa lava. The paved road ends at La Perouse Bay. French explorer Jean-François de Galoup, Comte de La Pérouse “discovered” Maui in 1786. This bay was where he became the first European to set foot on the island.
The Iao Valley (“Ee-yow”) is deep in a canyon in the West Maui Mountains. It’s best known for the iconic “Iao Needle.” The ancient name for the 366-meter-high erosional pillar was Kukaemoku, for which a reasonably polite translation might be broken excrement. The name perhaps offers a glimpse into the way ancient Hawaiians saw the world.
The valley is a state park, tastefully developed with nicely paved trails. It has a tranquil atmosphere— at least until several tour buses arrive and simultaneously disgorge their occupants. Iao means supreme cloud, and heavy clouds in the valley indeed often dull the verdant “needle.” I took these pictures during my fourth visit to the valley. The previous three times, the heavily overcast sky gave the needle a leaden gray background unsuitable for photography.
Peaceful Iao Valley has a gruesome history. At the end of the 18th century, Kamehameha I conquered all the Hawaiian islands into a unified kingdom. During the battle for Maui in 1790, Kamehameha’s warriors— with the help of British advisers and their cannons— routed Maui’s defenders into this valley. Those who couldn’t escape over the mountains were massacred. So many bodies clogged the stream that runs through the valley that the battle site was named Kepaniwai, meaning dammed waters.
There still is a bloodthirsty army at Kepaniwai. Swarms of aggressive mosquitoes wait by the stream, eager to attack invading tourists who might well call the place “damned waters.”
Haleakala means House of the Sun. The prosaic reason for the name is that if you’re in West Maui or the isthmus, the sun appears to rise from the mountain each morning. But there’s a more imaginative mythical explanation. The demigod Maui, after whom the island is named, was the Polynesian Hercules. During a fishing trip around the Pacific, Maui’s fishhook kept getting snagged on the bottom of the ocean. Each time he tugged to free the hook he pulled up an island, creating the Hawaiian archipelago, New Zealand, and the rest of Polynesia.
Days were shorter in Maui’s time, and his mother would often complain that there wasn’t enough daylight for her laundry to dry. Ever the dutiful son, Maui climbed up the volcano and lassoed the rising sun by its rays. (A less family-friendly version of the story says he lassoed the sun’s naughty bits.) Maui refused to let the sun go until it promised to slow down. The mountain henceforth was called Haleakala, and became a sacred place for ancient kahuna priests. More recently, New Age practitioners— whose increasing presence there may soon make Maui a Hawaiian version of Sedona— consider Haleakala a powerful energy vortex, a natural source of spiritual forces analogous to one of the Earth’s acupuncture points.
Whatever your beliefs, a trip up the world’s largest dormant volcano is an essential Maui experience. Geologists consider Haleakala “dormant” because it last erupted in 1790. In geological terms, an eruption 200 years ago is too recent to consider a volcano “extinct.” There’s still enough lava moving around inside the mountain to produce the occasional earthquake. And Haleakala has a history of rather lengthy snoozes between eruptions, so it could wake up again.
The “crater” at the top of Haleakala— it’s actually an eroded valley formed by wind and rain during a lengthy lull in volcanic activity— is 12 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide, big enough to contain a city. It could be a surrealistic version of the surface of Mars, with colors that change with the angle of the sun.
Guidebooks invariably recommend emulating the mythical Maui: Start up the mountain in the wee hours of the morning to arrive at the summit in time to catch the sun’s first rays. That’s great if you like to get up early, bundle up for some very cold weather, and negotiate a very steep, twisty, and possibly icy road in the dark. (The Haleakala Crater Road reputedly gains the most altitude in the shortest distance of any road in the world.) But later in the morning is nearly as good. You’ll encounter smaller crowds and less traffic, from cars and from tour groups who travel up the volcano in a van and ride down on rented bicycles.
The summit doesn’t have a good view of the crater. But at 3055 meters above sea level, it’s the best place to experience the sunrise. Once the sun is up, the summit offers a tremendous view of Maui and its surrounding islands (if it’s a clear day). You can get a much better view of the crater at the Visitor Center (2969 meters) and the Kalahaku Overlook (2842 meters). Check the weather forecast before heading for Haleakala. It’s a two-hour trip from the West Maui resorts, so you probably would be very disappointed if the crater were shrouded in fog.
The slopes of Haleakala are Maui’s “Upcountry.” At a thousand meters above sea level the climate is cool and temperate. It’s suitable for cattle and horse ranching, and particularly for crops that would die in the tropical heat and humidity elsewhere in Hawaii. Upcountry farms grow everything from carnations to onions; there’s even a winery that makes both grape and pineapple wine.
The Holy Ghost Church is in the Upcountry town of Kula (meaning
plain where, according to the local Chamber of Commerce, “it’s
cooler”). Completed in 1895, it originally served Portuguese Catholic
immigrants who worked as contract laborers in the sugar cane fields and
later became Upcountry farmers. The only octagonal church in Hawaii, its
design resembles that of chapels in Portugal.
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