Hansen: Olympic battle between Laguna and Lahaina

Whenever you visit Santa Barbara or Carmel or Lahaina, it's hard not to compare them to Laguna Beach. All are filled with beach-loving, art-minded tourists clamoring for something special.

Which is better? How do they compare? Who wins the gold medal? Well, it depends.

Today we will score the battle of Laguna versus Lahaina, the comparatively sized city on the west side of Maui. If you've never been, it has about 11,000 residents but its population swells to more than 40,000 because of vacationers. Like Laguna, it also boasts about 3 million tourists annually.

So there are many things about Lahaina that remind you of Laguna, but there are differences as well.

One obvious similarity is Lahaina has art — sort of. On paper, it has all the trappings of the wine and cheese set, including that fancy pocket guide listing galleries and various exhibits.

For example, it has a Wyland gallery, courtesy of the prolific artist with strong Laguna roots. It's always strange, by the way, seeing a Wyland in other beach towns because it's sort of like going to Disneyland in Paris. Does context matter?

In this case, a Wyland actually works better in Lahaina. He probably does good business there. The colors and vivacity of his fish and ocean somehow seem more 3-D and less treacly.

But the art in Lahaina is not on par with Laguna. There's some interesting work, but overall, it's not particularly compelling. Gold medal: Laguna.

The next heat is schlock. Because both towns cater to tourists, both have lots of inane trinkets. And boy oh boy does Lahaina excel here, with T-shirt shops on nearly every corner. As much as Laguna residents may sometimes grouse about the city's strict business codes, there is something to be said for limiting T-shirt shops and chain restaurants.

So for downtown business originality, the gold goes to Laguna.

Having said that, Lahaina knows its tourists. The city is clearly a well-oiled machine and tourism dominates the job market. Almost everything is tied to tourists in some way.

Lahaina knows better than to bite the hand that feeds them (at least publicly). They think through the tourist amenities, crowd control and assorted pleasantries. Laguna may try hard here, but Lahaina has mastered tourist management. Lahaina gets the gold.

But who wins the coveted traffic award? This one is difficult. Both towns have geographic constraints, tight budgets, bureaucracies and stubborn locals.

Laguna complains that it only has three roads in and out of town. Lahaina has basically one main route. And that one road is mostly two lanes.

Compounding Lahaina's traffic woes are its drivers. For some unknown reason, the word slow becomes part of the DNA in Hawaii. And it can be really, really annoying.

Despite all that, I still think Lahaina wins the traffic battle. Lahaina manages its traffic a little better and the city seems more realistic and forward looking about its master planning. Gold to Lahaina.

In the broad category called "weird," both are endearing. Laguna's weirdness is legendary, but Lahaina is growing into its own. If you make your way outside of the downtown tourist sector, there is a very livable community in Lahaina, which means you have "real people."

And in the woods of Maui, there are some very real people.

They drive beat-up trucks with cages in the back. Those cages, we learned, are for the pig hunting pit bulls. Yes, pig hunting with ferocious dogs is a thriving sport and food source on Maui.

We have the dark shadows of Laguna Canyon but they have the real thing.

They also have freaky geckos that materialize in your room out of nowhere.

They have dragon fruit, which I'm fairly certain is eaten on "Game of Thrones" by the lovely dragon woman, Daenerys Targaryen.

There are a lot of weird and interesting things in both Lahaina and Laguna. Our city's list could fill this whole newspaper. So even with the pig hunting, I think Laguna wins the weird gold.

In the beauty category, at first blush, you might think this would be an unfair fight: a tropical island versus a subdivision of Orange County?

But here's the thing: Maui is vulnerable. Many of its reefs are clearly overwhelmed — brown and trampled, the fish long gone. The turtles seem more rare than a few years ago; when they do poke up their heads out of the water, they seem to say, "Go away!"

The boat ride to the nearby crescent-shaped Molokini islet, allegedly one of the area's most pristine snorkel habitats, is a trash-filled eddy. Literally. When I went, there was a sickening amount of debris that filled its moon, sloshing around with nowhere to go.

Maui needs to immediately limit the number of cruise-like ships that go there.

The good news is Maui is still Maui. Nature still rules, so by the end of the day, there has been enough wind or rain to wash away most of our sins.

In Laguna, the environment is more measured and manicured. By contrast, we seem quaint — nice and attractive, but not particularly muscular.

With some concern, the gold goes to Lahaina, but there will be testing done later for steroids.

Make no mistake, both towns are beautiful and world-class destinations. The people are happy and helpful and you can always recognize the locals because they are not sunburned.

If you live in either town, count yourself lucky.

And if you were counting, both cities took three gold medals, but it was never much of a contest.

Laguna is better.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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