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Laughs and luaus on Maui's west coast

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The sunsets are good, as you might expect on the west coast of Maui. But is Lahaina really where you go to hear echoes of the old whaling days and the early missionaries? Or is it a cheesy tourist town?

The answer is yes to both.

On an island full of natural wonders, most of downtown Lahaina (population: about 9,100) is neither natural nor wonderful. But Front Street, its main drag, has an undeniable vitality. Running right along the waterfront, it seethes with T-shirt shops, boutiques, snack shops and a batch of galleries sporting the psychedelia of Peter Max, the saturated photographic panoramas of Peter Lik and the whales of Wyland.

"Fifteen, 16 … 17,000 crabs are on these walls!" reports a redheaded boy at water's edge, scanning the sea life below.

"Good evening," says a courtly vagrant, accosting me in the park. "Who needs some good herb?"

In the 1916 Lahaina Store building on Front Street, somebody is selling vintage European posters. In the 1903 Kishi building, the Diamond Head art gallery has set up shop. The 1919 Ichiki building now holds the Paradise Lahaina T-shirt and souvenir shop.


Planning your trip

The Lahaina-Kaanapali area is full of hotels and condos. I dodged the priciest, most luxurious properties (including the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua and the Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali) and wasn't impressed by a few of the low-end properties (including Lahaina's Best Western Pioneer Inn and the Aston Kaanapali Shores condos). Between those extremes, here are four hotels I checked out and liked.

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I was in and around the Lahaina and Kaanapali resort area (about three miles north) for four days in October. Tucked between misty mountains and the seas at Maui's northwestern corner, Lahaina is about 25 miles (a 45-minute drive) from Maui's Kahului Airport, about 60 miles (two hours' drive) from the lip of the dormant volcano and active national park known as Haleakala.

I wondered whether the island's tourist trade was recovering well from the recession, and the answer seemed to be yes. The last batch of statistics showed August arrivals — about 205,000 travelers — up 10% from last year, though still behind the pre-crisis heights of 2007. But it was another number that caught my eye: The visitors of August spent nearly 30% more than their counterparts in the dismal August 2009.

In other words, Front Street is hanging on. That's where the Hard Rock Café stands, and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant, which has the best location in town — its open-air bar and dining room offering live music and broad second-story views. Just around the corner, there's the more dignified Lahaina Grill (less Jimmy Buffett, more Tommy Bahama), where I had a pricey but terrific opakapaka (pink snapper) dinner beneath big floral paintings and slowly circling ceiling fans.

It's easy to forget, elbowing your way through all the foot traffic on a balmy night, that some of Hawaii's most important 19th century figures used to walk these blocks.

In the early part of that century, King Kamehameha and heirs ruled the islands from here (presiding over a wetlands compound known as Mokuula, which after decades of neglect and controversy is now part-vacant lot, part-archaeological dig site). Around the same time, Europeans and Americans began running whaling expeditions from here. South Seas missionaries, including the Rev. Dwight Baldwin, a doctor whose 1834 stone-and-coral home is now a modest museum downtown, made this an early headquarters.

In an 1873 gesture to mark the 50th anniversary of missionary efforts on the island, somebody planted a banyan tree from India near the courthouse. Now it fills a city block, its limbs cradled by metal supports, its canopy often filled with the cacophony of several hundred chattering mynah birds.

So I wasn't completely surprised to learn that the Lahaina Historic Trail (whose markers are easy to spot as you traipse around town) includes 62 stops. The surprise was how little time the trail took on foot, because many landmarks have so little inside.

The Wo Hing Temple Museum, which has stood on Front Street since 1912, once hosted weddings, funerals and moon festivals for the Chinese community. The Lahaina Jodo Mission, an active Buddhist temple complete with Japanese pagoda tower, also includes a 12-foot-tall Buddha statue (installed in 1968) that gazes seaward past a quiet little beach that's well-suited to families.

The 1859 courthouse stands stalwart, the inside given over to a few old photos, a gallery space and a souvenir shop. The Pioneer Inn, founded in 1901, is still in business (now affiliated with the Best Western brand), still facing the harbor from Wharf Street. But it's tired. I'm not usually one to beg for price hikes, but one day, I hope, somebody will spend some money, raise the rates and dress up that droopy place.

I did, however, learn some valuable history on these wanderings. In 1833, Maui's Princess Nahienaena banned women from going to Lahaina's marketplace "for the purpose of sightseeing" and set a fine of $1. Eleven years later, seamen calling at Lahaina faced levies of $5 for fornication or racing horses in the street, $6 for drunkenness or striking somebody in a quarrel.

And now? I'm still checking into that other stuff, but it's $10 to park after 5 p.m. and $92 to join in the Old Lahaina Luau.

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.

The grassy, palm-shaded beachfront grounds were handsome and spacious, which was important, since there were about 500 guests for dinner. The setting sun dipped behind a cloud just in time to send photogenic rays in every direction. The drinks were free (well, like parking, dessert and entertainment, they were built into the dinner price). The buffet was massive and tasty. The music was as lilting as could be, especially those sounds coaxed by the dancing fingers of the slide guitarist.

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?

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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