Tuesday, September 27, 2022 Sep 27, 2022
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By Ralph H. Peck |

On the wildly green Hana coast of Maui, second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, our driver got out of the car to pick squashy yellow guavas. “Come on!” he shouted. “Guavas are good. Take all you want.” Like furtive kids raiding Dole’s pineapple plantations at night, we picked a few tart fruits to be eaten, seeds and all. We’d forgotten the Kama’aina (Hawaii-born) view that the bounty of the sea and the land belongs to all, free for the picking.

If I could visit only one Hawaiian Island, I’d choose Maui. Maui brings back my teenage tenure on better-known Oahu, before semi-rural Honolulu and Waikiki were cemented together into one huge tourist megalopolis. Only 20 minutes flight-time from Honolulu, Maui undulates and tumbles around the base of 10,023-foot Haleakala with its immense volcanic crater. Clusters of resort hotels on clean sand beaches mix with rampant rurality, where taro has been cultivated for centuries to produce poi. (We used to slide down the slick tall grass on Honolulu’s Punch Bowl Hill on sled-sized taro leaves.) In Maui’s sleepy little villages, I love the great Earth Mother women, standing six feet tall and more, weighing at least 275 pounds, shading themselves with parasols with the regal presence of Hawaiian queens and princesses.

My favorite town in the entire Hawaiian Island chain is Lahaina, which actually is much more of a salty New England whaling port in character than anything Hawaiian. Stern 19th century missionaries settled in Lahaina and immediately set out to protect bare-breasted wahinis from bawdy whalers by making them cover-up with muu’muus. The missionaries also were shocked when Hawaiian princes surfboarded buck naked just off Lahaina’s shores; the sport was invented there as a; royal diversion, which only Hawaiian nobles were priveleged to enjoy. Bronzed and sun-bleached surfers go out in Lahaina’s beginner-size ocean swells at all hours these days.

Lahaina’s royal ties are an important part of Maui’s history. Kingkamehame-ha I decreed the town as his royal capital in 1802. He conquered Maui in 1796, and Maui pleased him most of all the islands. Understandable. From Lahain, the re-vered warrior ali’i (chief) could look a-cross the harbor to Lanai and Molftkai, or south to Kahoolawe. Just beyond his view was Hawaii, his birthplace. After his death, troubles disturbed the islands until his second son took over as Kame-hameha III (his first son was narned Ka-mehameha II), and raised a cbmrjlex of thatched huts and a coral palace for him-self called Hale Piula. Kamehamah III ruled benevolently for 30 years. During his reign, missionaries , tianizing foothold.

The first Legislature met in Lahaina in 1841, and the town remained the islands’ capitol until Honolulu took the honor in 1850. When whalers began hunting off Lahaina’s shores in 1819, the seamen’s wining and womanizing touched off feuds between weathered captains and the fire-and-brimstone missionaries. That halted in 1871, when an early Arctic freeze turned the whales from their run off Maui. The post-Civil War rise of petroleum as fuel also put a dent in whaling activities. I’ve twice seen schools of whales frolicking off Maui as playful as puppies, instinctively aware that the islands are once a-gain safe havens.

Downtown Lahaina is dominated by a magnificent banyan tree that spreads over a full city block. The whole midtown area along Front Street has been designated as a Historic District, and the old battered jail where rowdy sailors slept it off, the courthouse, white clapboard missionary homes, and the dockside Pioneer Inn are among several restorations already completed. Old shops have become fashionable boutiques.

The sturdy Baldwin house was built by missionary-doctor Dwight Baldwin in 1838. Displayed in the house are the torture tools common to doctoring in those days, when the cure was usually more painful than the malady. Baldwin bled with leeches. He had skull drills to relieve “female vapors.” The pliers, head-steadying vices, scrapers, saws, and weird surgical whatnots give children a thrill. “Did he cut a hole in her brains’?” “Did she yell real loud?”

Furniture in the house was carved from koa wood. The tree is rare in Hawaii, an endangered species, and the Restoration Foundation is proud of this collection.

Another project of the foundation is the seaworthy three-masted bark, the Carthaginian, rigged as an authentic 1850 whaler and docked in the marina. It serves as a museum, and exhibits include harpoons and scrimshaw carvings. A slide presentation about a whaling voyage from New Bedford, Massachusetts to Lahaina is shown regularly. The Carthaginian was used in the film Hawaii. Literary historians might be interested to note that Herman Melville jumped a whaling ship in Lahaina, where he began his novel, Moby Dick.

While walking toward Kaanapali on the outskirts of Lahaina, I came across a lovely buddhist Temple which very few visitors to the island get to see. It’s not even mentioned in the local brochures. A 40-foot granite statue of the Buddha sits crosslegged there, staring out across the Pacific. The day I discovered it not a soul was there; no burning joss sticks sent out whiffs of incense; no priest was there to tell my fortune. As I sat alone in the courtyard admiring the statue, sugarcane fires were ignited in the hills. Cane is burned to remove leaves before harvesting, but fire also increases the sugar yield. The billowing smoke clouding the verdant hills, the great gray Buddha, the temple’s lustrous red-gilt-green lacquers, the crash and ebb of the Pacific, captured the very essence of the gentle Buddhist creed. Japanese Buddhists came to Maui as sugar plantation hands a hundred years ago, and they’ve contributed still another dimension to the island’s culture. On a moonless Friday night, I returned to the Temple where kimono-clad Japanese danced by orange paper-lantern light a-mong the graves of their ancestors. Observing this utterly foreign happening from the shadows, I was more than ever aware of the diversity of our 50th State.

The restored Pioneer Inn is a good place for grub and grog in Lahaina, where the 54 guest rooms are farmhouse plain. They’re reached by an old sagging staircase, and baths are down the hall. Rooms for two are about $18 a night. The old bar rail was shipped around the Horn. In the fenced garden, you can grill your own steaks. The delightful old hotel has a seaside lanai (porch), which is a very American invention.

The hotel faces a marina bristling with sailboat masts, and it’s hard to believe you’re in the Hawaiian Islands except for the redundant palms. Across Front Street from the Pioneer Inn, you can choose your brew romantically in a treehouse cafe. Another cafe is perched on the roof of one of the oldest buildings in Lahaina.

Because Lahaina has been stringently zoned to preserve its heritage, highrise hotels are forbidden. Luxury hotels are located five miles beyond the town at Kaanapali Beach, one of the best in the islands. The Sheraton Maui is a collage of two-story cottages in Polynesian style with double rooms pegged at about $40 a night. The large Maui Surf has double rooms from $42 to $49 a night, and the Kaanapali Beach in the lineup has doubles at $26 to $41. The former Hilton has been converted to condominium apartments. These hotels share an excellent golf course. Each has resort-style day and nightlife with good entertainment, dining, dancing, gift shops, the works, and minibuses run between the hotels and Lahaina. The Kaanapali-Lahaina Railroad, I’m told, has been reactivated. A kind of Tooner-ville Trolley, which went into a financial tailspin a couple of years ago. it courses through tall sugarcane stands on old narrow-gauge, cane-hauling tracks. The conductor in candy-striped shirt with sleeve garters and a straw boater plays the banjo and sings ballads, and passengers join in the singalongs.

Maui’s most compelling scenic lure is the dormant Haleakala volcano at Hale-akala National Park 35 miles from Lahaina. The crater measures a sensational 33 miles across. It’s a moonscape of cinder cones and bleak, black lava occasionally punctured by the stunning silversword plant, which blooms only once and dies. Rare birds including the nene goose, Hawaii’s state bird, are tenants there. Legends of the wrath of the goddess Pele and human sacrifices tossed into the fiery cauldron to appease her are related in gory detail by local storytellers.

There’s a road to Haleakala Park’s entrance at 6,740 feet, but the only way to get to the crater is on foot or horseback. I have a bone to pick with park naturalists on this score. The National Parks are meant to be enjoyed by all Americans; they’re our backyard, and I firmly believe that lookout points (at least) should be made easily accessible to everyone, not just for hikers and those able to sit a horse. Wilderness areas, yes, but the major attraction certainly should be reachable by some sort of comfortable conveyance. The crater is awesome in dimension and in its almost spiritual grandeur.

On the island’s east side, nearer to Kaanapali, is Iao Valley. I searched for and found a narrow cleft where a natural rock formation is so close to the profile of President John F. Kennedy that there was talk of designating it as a national shrine. The resemblance is uncanny.

The sun rises late at Kaanapali because it must clear the beetled cliffs and crags of the West Maui mountains, the lavish bower behind Lahaina and the great Buddha. That’s when I try to be on the beach at Kaanapali. Lanai Island appears to float seven miles offshore between the blue sky and the blue Pacific, slowly lightening in emerald hues.

The Hawaiian Islands were born at the dawn of history in volcanic fury, rising from the ocean floor, boiling the fish. But now Maui is calm.

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