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Maui's Upcountry: Laid-back vibe, cool breezes and farm-to-table food

Upcountry Maui may be less busy than the beaches, but it's jammed with celebrities

Some people call Maui the world's best island. Yes, it has great beaches, but to me, it also has too many people and too much traffic. And Wailea, Kaanapali and Kapalua? Beautiful but bland.

I admit I enjoy visiting those resorts as much as you do. But when gridlocked traffic and $42 breakfast buffets begin to close in on me, I turn my rental car toward the high mountains and visit Upcountry Maui, a laid-back region that's the hot new star of the Valley Isle.

Could Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson be wrong? All have bought homes in the area.

You may have driven quickly through Upcountry on the way to Haleakala National Park and Maui's highest peak, then rushed back to a sandy beach to play in the waves and swim with colorful fish. But there's more to Maui than sand and surf.

High above the beach, Upcountry Maui offers a different pace: It's a calmer, saner destination where the fertile volcanic slopes of Haleakala are home to ranches, farms and soaring views.

Two-lane highways snake through rolling green hills. You'll see farmers and Hawaiian paniolos, or cowboys, as you pass, along with pastures, grazing horses, eucalyptus trees and a misty California redwood grove. The air is cool, with a pleasant breeze on most days, a welcome change from the heat at sea level.

Chefs say some of the finest produce in the world grows here. The blossoming farm-to-table movement has taken root and offers Maui's visitors a chance to flee resort life for a day or more in the country. You can tour a lavender farm, pick your own lunch and dine in an arbor or take the kids to Surfing Goat farm to get acquainted with Billy Goat Gruff.

Hawaiians have farmed this fruitful soil since early times, but only recently has production stepped up and the region become known for its high-quality produce.

Maui's many chefs helped the evolution take place.

"There was a need for better products," said Tylun Pang, executive chef at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea. "We couldn't keep flying everything in for our restaurants. So we encouraged local growers to diversify their crops." The Fairmont now uses 90% locally sourced produce.

If you're a culinary dropout, you might enjoy Upcountry's other assets too. Its towns, for instance, are as real as the tourist developments along the beach are make-believe.

You'll want to visit Paia, on the north shore, a former sugar plantation town caught in a time warp; Makawao, an old cowboy town turned new-age village; and Kula, where flower farms and lettuce patches on Haleakala's flanks have multimillion-dollar views of the Pacific 4,500 feet below.

I think of Paia as an unpolished jewel with a granola vibe. Mom-and-pop stores left over from the plantation era stand side by side with new boutiques and galleries. Tourists often rub elbows with celebrities. During my recent visit, I ran into KISS rockers Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, who had just opened a Paia branch of their Rock & Brews restaurants, a small chain with a location at Los Angeles International Airport, among other spots.

"It would have been easy to open this on Front Street," Simmons said of the popular area in Lahaina on West Maui. "But we thought the charm and intimacy of Paia is more in keeping with what we want to do."

Nearby is Charley's Restaurant & Saloon, where Willie Nelson holds court regularly.

Down the street I poked my head into the Maui Crafts Guild, where artist Rick Strini was holding the fort. I bragged about my brush with greatness. He was pretty ho-hum about it. "We see them all the time. Owen Wilson, Mick Fleetwood, Willie Nelson. Nobody in Paia is impressed anymore."

Laid-back. That's Upcountry Maui.

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Hotels add value with high-end room, pool and spa renovations

The platinum-card set will discover new high-end hotel rooms this fall and winter when they visit Maui.

The biggest renovation is at the Grand Wailea (www.grandwailea.com), which plans to complete a $30-million upgrade early next year, including new guest room interiors as well as changes in the hotel's famous pools and meeting rooms. The 23-year-old hotel will add 55-inch flat-screen TVs, among other changes.

In the same area, the Hotel Wailea (www.hotelwailea.com) has undergone a $15-million renovation with updated rooms and a newly completed pool. The hotel, which sits 300 feet above sea level, has 72 one-bedroom suites. It is known for its Zen-inspired grounds, tropical gardens and waterfalls.

In West Maui, the Montage Kapalua Bay (www.montagehotels.com/kapaluabay) opened its doors earlier this year after a $15-million renovation of the 24-acre complex formerly known as the Residences at Kapalua Bay. Changes include new restaurants, room designs and the 30,000-square-foot Spa Montage.

Another large-scale update took place this year at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa at Kaanapali Beach (Maui.Hyatt.com), which completed more than $12 million in updates. Renovation highlights include upgrades to 28 ocean suites and the addition of island-inspired contemporary furniture throughout all suites.

Among other changes on the island: spa renovations. At the Fairmont Kea Lani (www.fairmont.com/kealani), the 9,000-square-foot Willow Stream spa opened, and at Lumeria Maui (lumeriamaui.com), the Crystal Spa debuted, featuring crystals for inspiration and healing.

One of the island's newest hotels, Andaz Maui (maui.andaz.hyatt.com), was named to Condé Nast Traveler's 2014 Hot List as one of the best new hotels of the year.

For those who like wet and wild activities, Skyline Eco-Adventures (www.zipline.com) launched a Zip 'n' Dip Tour at its Kaanapali location. Participants can zip into the cool water of a natural pool.

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Farm tours in Upcountry Maui

Some people go to Maui to learn how to surf. I went to learn about lavender aromatherapy.

Here's a sampling of farm tours you can take in Upcountry Maui:

Alii Kula Lavender: Did you know lavender repels mosquitoes and other insects and that it is said to ease tension and help people relax? Thirty-minute walking tours around this fragrant 8 1/2-acre hillside garden are informative and give participants spectacular mountaintop views of Maui. $12 ($10 with advance reservations). 1100 Waipoli Road, Kula; (808) 878-3004, www.aklmaui.com.

Surfing Goat Dairy: Milk a goat, tour pastures and learn about the cheese-making process at this 42-acre dairy farm in lower Kula. Tours from 20 minutes to 2 1/2 hours; $8-$28 per person. 3651 Omaopio Road, Kula; (808) 878-2870, surfinggoatdairy.com.

Oo Gourmet Lunch and Farm Tour: Harvest your lunch and then dine in an arbor at this 8 1/2-acre farm that provides produce for the Pacific'O Restaurant in Lahaina. $58 per person; reservations required. 651 Waipoli Road, Kula; (808) 667-4341, www.oofarm.com.

Kula Botanical Garden: Get back to nature at this lush 8-acre garden full of proteas, orchids and bromeliads. Landscaping includes unusual rock formations, waterfalls, ponds, a bird sanctuary and a panoramic view of the valley. $10 adults, $3 children 6-12. 638 Kekaulike Ave., Kula; (808) 878-1715, www.kulabotanicalgarden.com.

Ocean Vodka Organic Farm & Distillery: This fertile region doesn't just produce lettuce and Maui onions; it's also home to the ultra-premium Ocean vodka distillery, which offers tastings modeled after wine country tours. Produced organically using sugar cane and ocean water. The vodka sells for $33 for a fifth. Tours are $10, including samples. 4051 Omaopio Road, Kula; (808) 877-0009 or (866) 776-2326, oceanvodka.com/our-farm/our-farm-tours

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO MAUI

From LAX, United, Hawaiian, American and Delta offer nonstop service to Kahului, Maui, and United, Hawaiian, Alaska, US Airways and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $635, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

Lumeria Maui, 1813 Baldwin Ave., Makawao; (808) 579-8877, lumeriamaui.com. This well-designed hotel was once a plantation for retired sugar workers. It has been transformed into a tranquil lodge offering classes, meditation and beautiful grounds. Doubles from $299.

Fairmont Kea Lani, 4100 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea; (800) 798-4552, www.fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui. The all-suite hotel, with a Moorish design, has large rooms, oversized baths and large lanais. Doubles from $365.

Paia Inn, 93 Hana Highway, Paia; (800) 721-4000, paiainn.com. This funky boutique hotel is in a series of vintage buildings next to Hana Highway. Doubles from $189.

WHERE TO EAT

Kula Bistro, 4566 Lower Kula Road, Kula; (808) 871-2960, kulabistro.com. Trattoria offers pizza, salad, burgers, pasta. Entrees from $8.95.

Rock & Brews, 120 Hana Highway, Paia; (808) 579-9011, www.rockandbrews.com/paiaKISS entrepreneurs Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons brought their successful restaurant chain to Maui earlier this year. Burgers, salads, sandwiches and 52 types of beer. Entrees from $13.95.

Mama's Fish House, 799 Poho Place, Paia; (808) 579-8488, http://mamasfishhouse.com. Maui's best known restaurant is pricey, but well worth a splurge. Entrees from $40.

TO LEARN MORE

Go Hawaii/Maui; (800) 525-6284, www.gohawaii.com/maui

 


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