I should admit that based on my meanderings through town, I didn't expect a lot from the luau. I knew the food, music and hula have been drawing crowds for years, so I signed on. Good thing.
Granted, the luau is no place for the kitschophobic. And the only beer served was Budweiser. I confess that as the songs and dances advanced, I lost track of the Hawaiian history they were designed to track. But it worked for me. Three hours after tentatively tiptoeing in, I lumbered out feeling well-fed and well-entertained. I'm pretty sure the honeymooners and anniversary celebrants felt even better.
My suggestion for anyone headed to this corner of the island is to give Lahaina a day or two, especially if you love history or the kind of art galleries that museum people don't.
But most travelers, I suspect, will want to reserve more time for the three miles of beaches, lodgings, restaurants and shops at the Kaanapali Beach Resort, about 10 miles north of town. It's semi-historic (48 years old in a state that's only 51), but above all, it's fun and easy.
It opened in 1962, just three years after Hawaii won statehood and went into the industrial-strength tourism business, and was the first master-planned resort area on the island — in other words, the first time a bunch of big hotels worked together to share a prime location and make a collective, semi-sequestered haven. These days it includes five hotels (Hyatt Regency Maui, Kaanapali Beach Hotel, Royal Lahaina, Sheraton Maui and Westin Maui), six condo complexes, 36 holes of golf and the upscale Whalers Village mall, all surrounded by perfect lawns and shaded by palms, most of the lodgings and restaurants connected by a pedestrian path along the beach's edge.
Other big resorts have arisen since then, including the pricey precincts of Wailea (about 35 miles south of Kaanapali) and even pricier Kapalua (about six miles north, where the Ritz-Carlton is). But the makers of Kaanapali grabbed three great miles of white-sand beach.
It's a treat to walk the beachfront path late in the day, checking out the fancy pools, the hammocks, the oversized checkerboard with the coconut checkers at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, the entertainers working the patio at the Hula Grill in Whalers Village. If a sudden downpour surprises you — or if it doesn't — you can creep upstairs to the Whale Center of the Pacific, a well-appointed little whaling museum, full of arcane tools and impossibly detailed scrimshaw etchings from the peak whaling years of 1825-1860.
But don't spend too long indoors. If you time your Kaanapali exploration right, you can wind up just before sunset at Black Rock, a stony outcropping (and popular snorkeling spot) by the Sheraton. That's when the hotel sends a heroic-looking young man to light several tiki torches. Then he dives into the sea from high on the rocks.
Like the Lahaina luau, this might not be an optimum activity for kitschophobes or purists. But really, if you're a kitschophobe or a purist, what are you doing on the west coast of Maui?