Maui: Friendly, Quirky, and Full of Soul

A market where you can borrow a dog for the day. The clothing-discouraged drum circle every Sunday at sunset. A honky-tonk bar that's dedicated to Willie Nelson. Yes, we're talking about Maui

Frolickers at the Sunday-night party on Little Beach

(Michael Weschler)

Growing up in Hawaii in the mid-'80s, my only visit to a resort was the night of my senior prom. Even though my family had a history with the resorts--my grandfather used to play there in the 1930s, when he was a member of the Royal Hawaiian Band--the areas felt somehow kapu, or forbidden, and the other kids and I avoided them. I couldn't afford to hang out there anyway; my allowance was $12.50 a week.

Twenty years later I was living in New York City, working for magazines. After I switched my focus to travel writing, I got to go all over--23 countries and counting--and my work has enabled me to return to Hawaii four times a year. I finally explored the gilded hotels and restaurants I barely knew existed in my youth.

I'd be a liar if I said I didn't enjoy them. But I do believe that if you want a taste of authentic Hawaii, you're better off being on a budget. That's especially true on Maui. Though A-list celebs are constantly shown in tabloids romping on the island, Maui isn't just for millionaires. It may have a reputation as the least Hawaiian and the most expensive of the islands, but Maui still has soul. First, however, you have to leave the tourist areas of Wailea, Lahaina, and Kaanapali. And here's where you should go instead . . . .

Kahului and Wailuku

Kahului is the commercial center of Maui, home to the main airport, fast-food chains, hospitals, and so on. In other words, unless you have errands to run, you'll probably be happier elsewhere. Neighboring Wailuku, in contrast, is a sleepy local town, where eclectic businesses are popping up because it's the last area with affordable commercial rents.

Lodging: The Old Wailuku Inn is a B&B inside a 1920s plantation-style home built by Charles Lufkin, former president of the Bank of Maui, which later merged into the still-prominent Bank of Hawaii. There's a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries, and a lending library of travel and gardening books. Each room is unique: Some are a little over-the-top, so be sure to check them out online.

Food: Tricky to find but worth the hunt, A Saigon Cafe serves authentic Vietnamese food on generous plates meant for sharing. The Goi Ga chicken salad, with cabbage and peanuts, is low-carb but satisfying.

Activities: Kanaha Beach Park, behind the rental-car lots at the airport, is a lovely white-sand beach for swimming, sunning, windsurfing, and surfing. (You have to paddle out about 100 yards, however, to get to the surf break; for gentler waves, head over to Waiehu Beach Park.) HST Windsurfing & Kitesurfing School teaches wind- and kite-surfing to beginners.

Shopping: At Saturday's Maui Swap Meet in Kahului, more than 100 vendors sell souvenirs at a fraction of what they'd cost in hotel gift shops. If you've fallen in love with island fabrics, buy Hawaiian prints at the Fabric Mart for as little as $5 per yard.

Nightlife: Wailuku's new lefty bookstore, Maui Booksellers, attracts counterculture types as well as academics looking for rare Hawaiiana. The $5 Friday movie nights feature controversial documentaries, preaching to the converted who sit on uncomfortable plastic chairs for the opportunity to debate after the screening. Down the street, Café Marc Aurel hosts wine-tasting evenings with live musicians--from cute surfer girls playing bubblegum pop to salty dogs on acoustic guitar. Throughout the year, the Maui Film Festival hosts a weekly indie $10 movie series, CandleLight Café & Cinema, at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Hipsters gather beforehand for veggie stir-fries and wine in the courtyard. It's also where, in December, the Maui Film Festival hosts Oscar-contender screenings that are open to the public.

Lodging

 

  • Old Wailuku Inn 2199 Kahookele St., Wailuku, 800/305-4899, oldwailukuinn.com, from $140
  • Food

     

  • A Saigon Cafe 1792 Main St., Wailuku, 808/243-9560, Goi Ga salad $7.50
  • Activities

     

  • HST Windsurfing School 425 Koloa St., Kahului, 800/968-5423, hstwindsurfing.com, from $79
  • Shopping

     

  • Maui Swap Meet S. Puunene Ave., Kahului, 808/877-3100
  •  

  • Fabric Mart 55 E. Kaahumanu Ave., Kahului, 808/871-5770
  • Nightlife

     

  • Maui Booksellers 105 N. Market St., Wailuku, 808/244-9091, mauibooksellers.com
  •  

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