Laughs and luaus on Maui's west coast
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.


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.