The Valley Isle

Two years (and a couple of weeks) ago, my husband and I were married on the island of Kauai. The only attendee was our best man, ring bearer, and man of honor: my son. It was a perfect vacation, marked by lazy beach days and the obligatory helicopter tour.

We had decided upon our return that we’d save up and return to Hawaii in two years, and would go to Maui: I had been as a teenager with my parents but neither my son nor husband had been; all I remembered was that my brother and I had made a large pain in the ass about going to Lahaina all of the time. I think I was seventeen at the time.

Maui is an island composite of two volcanoes, effectively splitting the island into a “north” and “south” with a valley betwixt. We were staying in Kihei which meant that from Kahului (OGG – the major airport on the island, and on the eastside) you cross through the valley to the west side of the island, and drive down a bit (down the North, then South Kihei road along the Piilani highway). We rented a condo (pro tip: if you’re going to Hawaii with kids it is far cheaper to get a two bedroom condo with a kitchenette than it is to get a two bedroom hotel room; and the bonus is you can eat in for breakfast) and if you’re interested I recommend VRBO for that — check out the pictures and review the amenities. NB: groceries on Hawaii are more expensive than at home. Just accept it. It’s slightly less expensive if you buy local products.

As part of this trip I decided I’d reread James Michener’s Hawaii, for the bulk of the middle text takes place in Lahaina, and I knew we would be visiting there this trip. I had to reassure my dad — who good-naturedly teased me about this trip and asked if we’d go to Lahaina — that yes, we would be going, but no we would not be staying. Lahaina is a beautiful, historic town, but it’s also where you’d go if you *need* to be surrounded by shops and lots of people and that is frankly not me (or us). In Michener’s Hawaii it covers the missionary settlement in Lahaina and its formative years, along with the importation of Chinese and Japanese labor, the impact of the missionary settlement (and imported labor) on the Hawaiians, etc. At something like a thousand pages a Michener book should come on a kindle but it goes surprisingly fast, especially when your afternoon is beachside, listening to the rolling waves and watching your teenager boogieboard. I finished on day two.

In our trips to Lahaina, we first visited the Baldwin Home. This is not the missionary that Michener based his central character on (Abner Hale) although by reading his bio and reviewing his living quarters I’d bet money it’s who he based his missionary/doctor character on (Dr. Whipple). Entrance to the Baldwin home is a mere $5 for adults, kids are free; it’s a quick review but a beautiful home. Head a bit south and west from there and you will come upon the Lahaina courthouse, which has in its confines a lovely art gallery (Maui is big on art galleries and if I had had a spare $1500 I would have purchased a particular map of the island) and a museum showing (very briefly by museum standards) the history of the area: you can see an original sperm whale tooth (declaring the power of the Alii Nui — basically the Royal person gets to wear it) hung by 80 strands of braided human hair (no joke); you get to see original fabric created by the Hawaiians (and how it’s essentially paper-based and involves a lot of different beating implements to get it into shape), as well as several currencies used on the island (until Hawaii came to the US as a territory and then a state it used Mexican, American, Spanish, Portuguese, Netherlands, etc. currency). There’s a bit of stamp collecting and a history of the last kings of Hawaii, as well as the timeline of the “center” of Hawaii — the capital of which did not move to Honolulu until just before the Civil War.

Just outside the courthouse is a beautiful Banyan tree, with at least seven roots (this tree has one main center and then has tendrils out to at least six other root systems, so basically it looks like seven trees that are all interconnected) and to the right (south) of the tree is a corner of what was the old fort — hewn from coral block. Up the street (eastward, about 3 blocks) is the old Lahaina prison, where you can see the prisoner’s quarters, read the costs and relative frequencies associated with various crimes (they have 3 year snapshots so you can see the impact on adultery that is, I believe, inverse from public drunkenness — if I remember correctly; I should have taken a picture). Lahaina is not all preserved history, though, and if you want a truly amazing collection of souvenir, ice cream, eatery, jewelry, and skin-care shops you’d be hard pressed to find a larger set on the island.

Lahaina though is not the be-all and end-all of Maui and it would be a shame to ignore other areas. Here’s a brief review if you’re thinking about going; for us we consider the Maui box “checked”:

Kihei/Wailea – beautiful beaches. At Kamaole beach park (I or II) you can snorkel with sea turtles (we did). There’s a rough selection of shops and even a health food store (Hawaiian Moons, which also has ready-to-eat food). The best dinners we had were at a place called the Monkeypod kitchen (we went twice) in Wailua, which is just south of where we stayed in Kihei. For runners, a good run is from north to south Kihei and then up the Wailua hill– it’s a solid one mile of uphill but the downhill is a patient grade and you will very much enjoy it. A good deli is the 808 deli on south Kihei, just across from the second Kamaole beach park.

Paia (pronounced Pah-EE-ah) has a couple of blocks of shops and it’s on the Road to Hana (a southward road along the east side of the island which is more about the journey tha the destination). Best pizza ever is at a place called the Flabread Company, where you get a pulled pork, pineapple, goat cheese and maui onion pizza. Don’t argue. Just get it.

Kanapali – also a good beach, specifically the DT Fleming beach just north of the Ritz. Not pretty — there’s bits of wood everywhere — but the boogieboarding is top-notch (per the teenager). Unless you value a burger at $25 get your food before you arrive there; there’s picnic tables and the restrooms are NICE!

Ha’Iku – make sure to visit the North Shore Zipline Company (which is ironic since they’re actually on the south of the island but whatever). Seven zip lines and for those of us on the trip that were afraid of heights (hi) it was transformative. The crew there is patient, kind, and will not let you chicken out of things. They are also witty intelligent guys. The pictures they take are well worth it — you don’t see the photographer all that often but he does take some amazing pictures.

Wailuku – Maui Ocean Center & Aquarium. Hands down one of the best aquariums I’ve ever been to (it was built in ’98 so I couldn’t nag my parents to take me to it), they have actual sharks (juveniles — as they mature they’re released back into the wild) and they’re staffed by local University marine biologists. Sea turtles, hammerhead and reef sharks, informative exhibits and a nice, non-confrontational gift shop (e.g. you don’t have to exit through it).

Molokini Crater – you get here via snorkeling tour and there’s tours and tours. We went a little higher-end and from a volume-of-people-on-the-boat perspective it was worth it; the Alii Nui tours are staffed by professional, gracious people who know what they’re about. You wanna dive? You can dive. You wanna Snuba/Hooka dive? Yep. You wanna snorkel? rock on. You wanna snorkel but you’ve never done it before? Yep, they can help you with that. Full breakfast and lunch plus snacks, they provide towels and sunscreen, and it’s five hours of sheer fun. Plus they sail back for a bit, so if you are a sailor at heart — or like to pretend you are — I highly recommend.

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