Wonderful and lively town of Lahaina: A highlight of any trip to Maui
LAHAINA - This might be one of the great towns of the world.
Folks ask me all the time about Maui and Hawaii, and one of the reasons I prefer West Maui and the Kaanapali/Napili area to Kihei/Wailea is the proximity to Lahaina.
It's got fabulous restaurants, a great waterfront, incredible history, several small beaches, good surfing, fun shopping and what might be the world's largest banyan tree; a 200-foot-wide, 60-foot high tree with more than a dozen trunks and hanging vines and a central spot in one of the main town squares, just inches from the Pacific. It's a great place for meeting folks or hanging out when they have their regular markets; nice and shady and cool in a city whose name in Hawaiian means "merciless sun." There are often musicians about, too.
The tree dates way back to 1873, when it was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the New England missionaries who tried (and mostly succeeded) to tame Lahaina's wild reputation as a haven for seafaring types looking for entertainment on shore leave.
Just steps away are the ruins of an old fort; always a fun place for kids to climb. Across the street and down just a bit is old Baldwin Home, a missionary family house that's a great source of history and information that dates to 1834. Also on Front St. is the Wo Hing museum, which illustrates some of the history of the area's Chinese population and also has a small Taoist shrine. There's a small shack behind the main building that shows old-time movies of Hawaii produced by none other than Thomas Edison. Now THAT's a great history lesson.
It seems to me there are a few less galleries than in the past, but there still are lots of spots to buy up some pop art or a watercolour painting of your favourite Hawaii beach. Front St. also has dozens of jewelry shops with silver and gold and pearls done up in the shape of whales, turtles, palm trees, pineapples and, probably somehow somewhere even a Don Ho likeness. I love the Honolua Surf Company's clothing line, and I can't stop from loading up whenever I go to one of the many ABC stores in Hawaii. There are two on Front St., I think, and they offer everything from Hawaiian shirt-shaped notepads to Hula girl calendars to hibiscus flower towels and sand castle gear to groceries and suntan lotion and aspirin and liquor; pretty much everything you need.
Be sure to check out the historic Pioneer Inn right next to the Banyan Tree. It can be a bit noisy but it's a fun spot and there's a lovely courtyard and it's right in the action and only a few steps from the beach. It's also maybe 20 feet from the yacht harbour, where the whale-watching and snorkeling cruise ships depart, as well as general tour boats and the ferry to the island of Lana'i, which is definitely worth a short side trip. If nothing else, the view of Lahaina, with the lovely, mist-shrouded West Maui mountains rising behind the city, is a fabulous experience (see photo above right)
The Lahaina Grill gets great reviews for dinner, but my only night in town on my recent trip was spent at Kimo's because it's right on the water and also because Kimo means James in Hawaiian and I like the tiki torches and the touristy ambience and I've going there for years. So there. They make lots of great seafood and a very good mai tai, to boot. Oh, and don't forget to have lunch at Cheeseburger in Paradise. Dynamite views of Lana'i and the ocean area known as the Lahaina roads, not to mention cold Longboard Lager from Kona, Hawaii.
There are a couple of fine beaches right in town, which is more than you can say for most cities of the world. And you can surf just a few metres from the banyan tree. It's not hard, but try to avoid low tide so you don't tumble off your board and stick your hand onto a sea urchin on the shallow reef, which I once did, forcing me to spend an hour and-a-half of my vacation at the doctor's office.
I was lucky enough once to be in Lahaina on Easter, and the service at tiny Maria Lanakila Catholic Church was one of the highlights of my life. Seriously, the music was awesome and the little kids were dolled up for Easter and the dads were wearing their finest Hawaiian shirts and the place was rocking and the smell of the tropical flowers was wafting through the windows on a hot April day. Absolutely glorious and highly recommended, even if you're not Catholic or even not remotely religious. The music and the joy are something to behold.
One last thing: If you're a fan of the band The Eagles, drive a minute or two north of town on Front St. and you'll come to a giant electric sign that says "Jesus Coming Soon." It's been there for years, and it's mentioned near the end of the Eagles song "The Last Resort," where Don Henley sings about leaving it all behind and sailing to Lahaina and the missionaries and the giant neon sign that says "Jesus is Coming."