Maui High, Maui Low
The "Valley Isle" has plenty of peaks: Secluded beaches, folksy villages, teeming rain forests, and a 10,023-foot-high volcano
Legend says that the demigod Maui loved to fish. One sunny day his fishing line caught, and when he pulled, each of the Hawaiian Islands broke the surface of the sea. As if that weren't enough, he stood on the edge of Haleakala, Maui's monster volcano, and snared the sun. With this feat came the promise that Hawaii would receive more daylight hours to fish.
All that daylight makes for great road trips, too. From the sky, Maui looks like two islands. One end is dominated by the West Maui Mountains, the other by 10,023-foot Haleakala. The two ranges meet at a sea-level isthmus. Most visitors plant themselves at one of the beach resorts near Lahaina, but they're missing out. There are funky old villages with coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants; cool-weather "upcountry" homes and rain forests on Haleakala's slopes; and lush shores in the northwest and northeast that few tourists ever see.
Day 1: Kahului to Kuau
"Hey, brah," I say to a weathered Hawaiian construction worker, "we're looking for Jaws, the big-wave surf spot."
My wife, Nancy, and I are in our rental car, waiting while a crew fills potholes on Maui's Kahekili Highway in Waihee. This is the first day of a four-day trip, and we're determined to explore places we've never been despite dozens of visits to the island. Jaws was made famous in the opening credits of the latest James Bond film.
The worker leans into the window. "Bruddah, you long way from Jaws," he says, pointing across distant Kahului Bay. "It's ovah there."
A surfer of four decades, I'm certain from the pictures I've seen that it's near Waihee. "I don't know where your Jaws is," the man says, grinning, "but mine is that way."
A fruitless search for Jaws eats up a couple of hours after our 8 a.m. arrival. (Turns out I should've followed the construction worker's directions instead of acting like a know-it-all.) We're heading to Paia, but I miss a turn and end up at the 76-year-old Iao Theater. With its multiple arches, red-tile roof, and faded pink-stucco facade with turquoise trim, it definitely has some Spanish-southern California influences. The Iao has undergone numerous changes in the island's recent history, from a kung fu movie palace to hippie foreign-film haven to the current home for a local theater group, though there are no productions during our visit. Across the street is the Open Market, where Nancy buys a softball-size mango, a papaya, and an extra-sweet pineapple.
Built around a now-defunct sugar mill, Paia was the original territorial capital of Hawaii. In the '30s, the town was bustling with hospitals, schools, and movie theaters for plantation workers. Today it's mostly boutiques, restaurants, and specialty coffee shops on Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenu, like Anthony's Coffee Company and Mana Natural Foods.
Our priority is breakfast, and we spot Charley's Restaurant near the town's only stoplight. We opt for the Seafood Benny -- really, eggs Benedict with fresh fish and ono (meaning "the best" in Hawaiian) rice. Like at many restaurants on Maui, the portions here are so large that Nancy and I split the meal. At the next table, country-music legend and part-time Maui resident Willie Nelson is eating a pancake that's as wide as a hubcap.
A mile south of town at the craftsman-style Kuau Inn, our upstairs bedroom comes with a view of the dark-green West Maui Mountains and a peek of turquoise Kahului Bay, where we later spot a few humpback whales breaching a half mile offshore. Nancy and I make the five-minute walk to Kuau Cove, where we discover no other people and a few tide pools large enough to swim and snorkel in when the tide's high. After some mango slices, we nap under a coconut palm.
Back at the inn we rinse off in the screened outdoor shower, let the trade winds dry us, then drive back to Paia, which is humming with locals and tourists. The Grass Shack overflows with kitschy Hawaiiana, and I can't resist buying a wiggling dashboard hula doll. We've been told by inn owner Lisa Starr that Jacques Northshore Restaurant & Bar -- look for the big, vertical mahimahi out front -- has the best margaritas in town. My sunburn is stinging, so I tell myself a frosty drink will dull the pain. The concoction comes in a glass so tall that Nancy and I share it at our outdoor table while watching the passing parade.
As night falls, the restaurants glow like Christmas trees -- Paia is in a permanently festive mood -- with red, blue, orange, white, and green lights. We explore, finding the '50s-era diner Moana Bakery & Café, where a jazz trio is playing, there's no cover charge, and the dessert special is an especially tempting mango crème brûlée. We order one, but after the first bite I'm addicted and have to have my own. Enough with the sharing.