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

By Cathay Che, Tuesday, Apr 18, 2006, 12:21 PM

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
  •  

  • Café Marc Aurel 28 N. Market St., Wailuku, 808/244-0852, cafemarcaurel.com
  •  

  • CandleLight Café & Cinema Maui Arts and Cultural Center, 1 Cameron Way, Kahului, 808/579-9244, mauifilmfestival.com/ccc
  • Kihei

    As late as the '70s, Kihei's beaches were almost barren--miles of sugary sand. Now they're home to miles of condos, too. But the town still has a relatively youthful energy.

    Food: Jawz Tacos started as a roadside truck parked at the entry to Makena Beach Park, but by popular demand soon grew to include an air-conditioned surfer hangout serving taco salads big enough for two. Pile on the sauces at the free salsa bar, where each topping is rated from one to five, five being spiciest. For a traditional "plate lunch"--and one of the few places outside of a luau where you can try kalua pork, pork laulau (steamed in taro leaves), and lomi lomi salmon--stop by Da Kitchen. It's in a strip mall, so get your dinner to go, drive to one of the beaches across South Kihei Road (Kamaole Beach Parks I, II, or III), and eat watching the sunset. From 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, one of Hawaii's top chefs, D.K. Kodama, sells half-price sushi specials at Sansei. The catch: While you eat, people sing karaoke.

    Activities: Makena Beach Park is divided into Big Beach, popular with families, and Little Beach (up over the cliffs at the north end), a stretch with an outrageous, clothing-discouraged Sunday-sunset drumcircle that attracts more than a hundred revelers. It's a happy, mostly innocent gathering the authorities kindly ignore. The adjacent Puu Olai crater, 360 feet in elevation, is a 15-minute hike. There's usually no better whale-watching spot on the island during the November to March season. Beware: Both Big and Little beaches have dangerous currents and shore breaks. Kamaole I, II, and III are safer swimming options, as well as beach volleyball hotspots. Take advantage of free valet parking at the Four Seasons Resort, then spring for a drink inside the hotel, or stroll along the Wailea Beachwalk, a public jogging/bike path that provides an oceanfront tour of the Wailea resorts.

    Shopping: Here's a tip: You can get 10 percent off many purchases at the Foodland supermarket if you give them your condo address and sign up for a Maikai Card (locals also call it the "Kamaaina Card"). Or just say you left your card at home.

    Nightlife: Willie K--imagine a Hawaiian Lenny Kravitz plus a hundred pounds--plays Mondays at Hapa's (there's a $10 cover those nights). You never know who'll show up: Both Prince and Janet Jackson have jammed with him. Also, the large young Irish population on Maui (they work at the resorts) makes the local Irish pub, Mulligan's on the Blue, a lively watering hole.

    Lodging

     

  • Maui Lu Resort 575 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, 808/879-5881, from $119
  •  

  • Hale Hui Kai 2994 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, 808/879-1219, from $165, five-night minimum
  • Food

     

  • Jawz Tacos 1279 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, 808/874-8226, taco salad $10
  •  

  • Da Kitchen 2439 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, 808/875-7782, kalua pork $7.75
  •  

  • Sansei 1881 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, 808/879-0004, sanseihawaii.com
  • Activities

     

  • Four Seasons Resort 3900 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, 808/874-8000
  • Shopping

     

  • Foodland 1881 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, 808/879-9350
  • Nightlife

     

  • Hapa's 41 E. Lipoa St., Kihei, 808/879-9001, hapashawaii.com
  •  

  • Mulligan's on the Blue 100 Kaukahi St., Wailea, 808/874-1131
  • Haleakala and Upcountry

    Upcountry Maui surprises people: The cooler temperatures, misty green rolling hills, and small farms can fool you into thinking you've wandered into Brigadoon. It makes for a heck of a contrast with the stark beauty of Haleakala, a volcano 10,023 feet high at the summit.

    Lodging: Conveniently about halfway up, the Kula Lodge & Restaurant is pretty much the only stop on the drive to Haleakala for full meals and lodging. It's a cozy place to refuel, with a fire by which you can fight the chill.

    Food: Komoda Store & Bakery sells fresh pastries, like chocolate cream puffs sprinkled with white sugar. While dinner is a splurge, lunch at the Haliimaile General Store doesn't have to be. With some restraint, you can enjoy outstanding regional cuisine, such as a sashimi napoleon, for around $15 per person.

    Activities: The winding road to Haleakala National Park is legendary, but it's the summit's Mars-like crater that will amaze you. Dress warmly if you plan to be there for sunrise or sunset--temperatures drop into the low 30s. The high elevation means that the free tasting at Tedeschi Vineyards can go to your head; be sure to designate a driver.

    Shopping: Ching Store, founded in 1939, is one of Maui's last family-owned plantation general stores--meaning it was open when plantations were the mainstay of the economy. It has a full shelf of cans of Spam (Hawaii consumes an extraordinary amount of the pork product). Rodeo General Store is a good place to overhear gossip and pick up local produce, including strong Kula-grown coffee.

    Nightlife: Casanova, a modest Italian restaurant, morphs into Maui's most happening nightspot, jammed with sun-kissed surfers and nubile hippie chicks. Ladies' Night is the hot ticket (guys pay a $10 cover).

    Lodging

     

  • Kula Lodge 15200 Haleakala Hwy., Kula, 808/878-1535, kulalodge.com, from $115
  • Food

     

  • Komoda Store & Bakery 3674 Baldwin Ave., Makawao, 808/572-7261
  •  

  • Haliimaile General Store 900 Haliimaile Rd., Haliimaile, 808/572-2666, haliimailegeneralstore.com
  • Activities

     

  • Haleakala National Park 808/572-4400, nps.gov/hale, $10 car fee per week
  • Shopping

     

  • Ching Store 9212 Kula Hwy., Kula, 808/878-1556
  •  

  • Rodeo General Store 3661 Baldwin Ave., Makawao, 808/572-1868
  •  

  • Tedeschi Vineyards Ulupalakua Ranch, Ulupalakua, 877/878-6058, mauiwine.com
  • Nightlife

     

  • Casanova 1188 Makawao Ave., Makawao, 808/572-0220, casanovamaui.com
  • Paia and Haiku

    Since the '80s, athletes from South America and Europe have flocked to Maui's north shore, so don't be surprised if you overhear conversations in Portuguese, Spanish, and French. Both Paia and Haiku have hippie roots tempered by an influx of new money; the result is a global village with hearty, healthy restaurants and everything from tattoo parlors to boutiques selling $200 bikinis.

    Lodging: Haiku Plantation Inn is a historic home turned B&B five minutes from the best north shore beaches. It offers lomi lomi massages and other healing remedies, including a ceremony in which you drink a tea infused with kava, a mildly stimulating root Hawaiians call awa. While Mama's Fish House is famous for serving the best food on Maui in a Polynesian-style tiki mansion right on the beach (entrées start at $32), most folks don't know that Mama's also rents stylish beach cottages, including five one-bedrooms with kitchens and patios. Alas, staying there gets you no discount on dinner.

    Food: Hawaiians favor fatty, salty foods, which makes a health-food store like Mana Foods so welcome. The Paia Fish Market, a casual place to see and be seen, offers a tasty, satisfying mahi taco plate with home fries, coleslaw, or Cajun rice for $11. Colleen's is a cavernous café in the same complex as Studio Maui (see below), popular for post-yoga chat-and-chai.

    Activities: The galvanizing event of the winter, drawing hundreds of spectators into the pineapple fields to watch with binoculars, is tow-in surfing at Jaws--a 40-foot-plus wave made famous by extreme surfer Laird Hamilton and movies like Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid. Beginners and experienced surfers alike rave about feeling safe with lessons from identical twins Tide and Kiva Rivers, who own Rivers to the Sea. The waves at Hookipa Beach Park are a bit more manageable (at least from April to October), and those who simply hope to take a dip should head for Baldwin Beach Park, adjacent to Paia's skateboard park, or Baby Beach, a mellow bay. Yoga aficionados will want to pose with former Hewlett-Packard executive Jennifer Lynn at Studio Maui, a state-of-the-art yoga studio that can accommodate up to 110 participants. Locals (ahem) can buy two classes and get one free--otherwise, it's $12 a pop.

    Shopping: When Argentinean designer and Haiku resident Tamara Catz was asked if an awareness of fashion was growing on Maui, she replied, "Yes--people are starting to wear shoes." The dresses at her boutique average around $180, but there are worthwhile seasonal sales in the store and on her website.

    Nightlife: Charley's is a honky-tonk joint dedicated to patron saint and local resident Willie Nelson. On occasion, Big Willie does sing here, though it's generally only announced the day before--and tickets go in an hour.

    Lodging

     

  • Haiku Plantation Inn 555 Haiku Rd., Haiku, 808/575-7500, haikuleana.net, from $99
  •  

  • Mama's Fish House 799 Poho Pl., Paia, 800/860-4852, mamasfishhouse.com, cottage from $175, three-night minimum
  • Food

     

  • Mana Foods 49 Baldwin Ave., Paia, 808/579-8078
  •  

  • Paia Fish Market 100 Hana Hwy., Paia, 808/579-8030, taco plate $11
  •  

  • Colleen's 810 Haiku Rd., Haiku, 808/575-9211
  • Activities

     

  • Rivers to the Sea 808/280-8795, riverstothesea.com, group session from $75
  •  

  • Studio Maui 810 Haiku Rd., Haiku, 808/575-9390, thestudiomaui.com
  • Shopping

     

  • Tamara Catz 83 Hana Hwy., Paia, 808/579-9184, tamaracatz.com Nightlife
  •  

  • Charley's 142 Hana Hwy., Paia, 808/579-9453
  • Huelo and Hana

    The pretty and difficult two-hour drive that separates lush Hana from the rest of the island has protected it from rapid development. Hana is also where you'll find the largest population of blood Hawaiians outside the island of Molokai. Almost all are employed by some branch of the Hana Ranch, next door to the four-star Hotel Hana-Maui. Forty miles away, Hana's closest neighboring town, Huelo, is the new frontier for travelers who don't mind unpaved roads and a little rain.

    Lodging: On cliffs overlooking the ocean, Hale Akua Shangri-La is an intimate New Age-y retreat. Some rooms have shared baths, and the grounds (including a saltwater pool and two Jacuzzis) are clothing-optional. If you can bear that, it's quite a deal. Also worth a look is the Hana Hale Malamalama Inn, where the coolest room is the Treehouse Cottage. For romance, it's tough to top the private cliff-top yurt at the Luana Spa Retreat. Massages start at $75.

    Food: Prepare for the long drive on the road to Hana (the Hana Highway) by stopping at Maui Grown Market. Pick up a picnic lunch and you'll have the option of borrowing a sweet dog for the day. (Dogs have right of refusal.) Once in Hana, your dining options are limited. Go to Tutu's snack bar for the tasty breakfast sandwich or the taro burger, and the Hana Ranch Restaurant's take-out window for hot plates, including a filling one of shoyu chicken with macaroni salad and rice.

    Activities: Hamoa Beach has something for everyone--a wide black-sand beach for sunning, two breaks for surfing (experienced riders only), and maybe the best break for body boarding and bodysurfing on the entire island. More enriching is a visit to Kahanu Garden, site of the massive and well-preserved ancient Hawaiian temple known as Piilanihale Heiau.

    Shopping: Hasegawa General Store, one of the island's oldest plantation stores, stocks dusty, offbeat souvenirs, such as an Instant Immersion Hawaiian language CD ($10); Noni tea, a Hawaiian cure-all ($6.50); and coconut candy made in Hana ($3).

    Nightlife: There's free Hawaiian music from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays, inside the Paniolo Lounge at the Hotel Hana-Maui. Keeping it real is important. But there's nothing wrong with an occasional taste of the luxe life--or a really good mai tai.

    Lodging

     

  • Hale Akua Shangri-La Huelo Point, Huelo, 808/572-9300, from $60, two-night minimum
  •  

  • Hana Hale Malamalama Uakea Rd., Hana, 808/248-7718, hanahale.com, from $135
  •  

  • Luana Spa Retreat 5050 Uakea Rd., Hana, 888/898-2772, luanaspa.com, from $100
  • Food

     

  • Maui Grown Market 4320 Hana Hwy., Haiku, 808/572-1693
  •  

  • Tutu's Hana, 808/248-8224, taro burger $6.25
  •  

  • Hana Ranch Restaurant Hana Hwy., Hana, 808/248-8255, shoyu chicken plate $7.50
  • Activities

     

  • Piilanihale Heiau Kahanu Garden, Hana, 808/248-8912, ntbg.org/gardens/kahanu.html, $10
  • Shopping

     

  • Hasegawa General Store 5165 Hana Hwy., Hana, 808/248-8231
  • Nightlife

     

  • Hotel Hana-Maui 5031 Hana Hwy., Hana, 808/248-8211, hotelhanamaui.com