YES, VIRGINIA, there really is a Santa Claus, and he wears an Aloha shirt and flip-flops. At least he does on Maui, where he’s scheduled to touch down later this month.
Christmas in paradise. Surely that must be a contradiction in terms. Can yuletide be properly celebrated in 80-degree tropical trade winds with tall, cool pina coladas and pupu platters? Where’s the egg nog or holly? And where, for St. Nick’s sake, is Dancer, Prancer or Vixen?
It’s likely that the only vixens you’ll find on the Valley Isle at Christmastime are the ones prancing and splashing on the beach, snorkeling around the reefs and soaking up the sun. And you can bet Santa isn’t the only one spending a part of Christmas on a chaise longue sipping a cool one; the hotels and condominiums on Maui are more than 80 percent booked throughout the holidays, Apparently, the lure of the tropics sends tradition packing. Each year, thousands choose pit-roasted imu over basted butterballs, sashimi over cornbread dressing and mai tais over hot toddies.
BUT JUST WHAT is the mystique that draws more than 1.5 million people (including us) to this island each year? There’s no rapid transit, no 7-Elevens, no Tom Selleck. For the most part, we’re left on our own to explore the sun and surf. For us, that’s what distinguishes a vacation from a vacation destination. And in that distinction lies the answer: Maui, we’ve discovered, is an island that breeds independence. Although the best of both worlds (entertainment and seclusion) can be found here, it’s up to us to choose-or have both. Resorts all over the world recognize this virtue and strive to emulate it.
But just 25 years ago, the Valley Isle was in its infancy as a tourist destination. A century before, it was the bawdy, bustling whaling capital of the Pacific, but as the world moved into the 20th century and the whale trade died out, Maui-or, more accurately, the village of Lahaina- settled into the shadow of its up-and-coming sister island to the west. Once the playground of Hawaiian royalty, Maui relunctantly relinquished her reign to Oahu and resumed a modest place in the Hawaiian court. To Maui fell the industries of sugar cane and pineapple, and the islanders looked on while the rest of the world discovered Waikiki.
Over die years, however, rising labor costs and unemployment took their toll on sugar cane production, and Maui’s leading company (the Pioneer Mill Co., now Amfac Inc.) found itself eyeing a new industry that had blossomed on Oahu: tourism. The company owned a large chunk of land with a three-mile stretch of white sand beach on the northwest coast that was unusable for sugar cane growion. After much deliberation, company officials-in a move to boost Maui’s sagging economy-took the plunge and announced a radical concept: the world’s first planned resort destination. It was 1956, and statehood wouldn’t be granted to Hawaii for another three years, but the sugar company officials remained undaunted about their vision. And as the commercial jet age zoomed into Hawaii in 1959, the first ground was broken for the proposed 1,200-acre Kaanapali Beach Resort.
Today, 25 years later, the results are impressive. On 500 developed acres we found more than 4,000 hotel rooms between six hotels (Royal Lahaina, Sheraton Maui, Kaanapali Beach, Maui Surf, Maui Marriott and the Hyatt Regency Maui) and 1.300 condominium units filling seven complexes. There are two championship golf courses (one of which was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.), 36 tennis courts, 24 swimming pools, more than three dozen restaurants, a shopping center and an airstrip.
One look at Kaanapali, and we understood the “plannel resort” concept. The spread of hotels and condominiums has followed an exacting strategy, giving each property its own individuality, yet the overall effect is one of harmony (New zoning laws require that many buildings can be no taller than a palm tree.) Among the stars of Kaanapali that we surveyed is the Hyatt Regency Maui-the most elaborate (and ex pensive) Hyatt in the world. Walking into this hotel is a little like walking into Disney world: The open-air atrium is filled with banyan trees, dense foliage and exotic birds of every description; in the Swan Court restaurant, black and white swans glide idly by on a lagoon; and a swinging bridge crosses numerous inlets that lead into an underground pool, serviced by a grot! bar. The Maui Marriott (the Marriott Corp first Hawaiian venture) is another premie property. It presents the same open-atrium design of the Hyatt, but in a more refined, subdued fashion. One of the strongest dm ing cards of this hotel is the fact that 90 per cent of the rooms have an ocean vie (That’s important, since Maui is the only island in the Hawaiian chain that has a clear view of both Molokai and Lanai.)
Trying to figure out the Maui condominium industry is complex, to say the least, but renting a condominium can be a bargain. we gave up trying to remember who owns what when, or to figure out how many management companies are involved. Our advice: Just book the condo (at least six months in advance, longer for the holidays), grab your beach towel, and find a place in the sun. (If a condominium doesn’t front a beach, just head for the nearest white sand. According to the decree of King Kamehamea I, the beaches belong to all.) The fastest growing of the condominium-management companies is the Honolulu-based Hawaiiana, which manages the Kaanapali Villas, a complex that sports one of Kaanapali’s finest beaches.
In the hotels and condos of Kaanapali, we found an array of tours (both air and sea) to Molokai and Lanai; we flew Kenai Helicopters (next to Kaanapali airport) to Molokai, where we rounded ominous cliffs and soared into the jungle valleys of one of Hawaii’s most isolated islands. The hour trip featured narration on the present and past (Father Damien et. al.) of Molokai. Other Kenai tours, in addition to the Molokai trip, included a Lanai beach drop.
FOUR MILES SOUTH, we drove into the port of Lahaina, the once-bustling whal-ing center, which is crowded with the color-ful sails of hundreds of sailboats and catamarans that earn their keep on whale-watching expeditions. The main street of Lahaina is filled with curio shops, restaurants, street vendors, corner prophets and tourists. At night, the waterfront resumes the bawdiness of its former whaling days, with young prep-pie types taking the place of restless 19th-century sailors, and strains of disco and jazz (instead of player pianos) flowing out of the aging saloons (although we found a lone piano player on a second-floor bistro overlooking the bay, behind the Pioneer Inn, circa 1901). Many of the town’s restaurants specialize in seafood; we couldn’t decide which we liked best, but for dessert, we did have a unanimous choice: The dessert cart at Longhi’s. Afterwards, we braved the crowd in the restaurant’s upstairs bar and listened to its popular jazz-pop band. Also worth a visit for the music: The Bluemax on Front Street. Lahaina is a cross between Austin’s Sixth Street and the Champs-Elysées set to a tropical theme. The con-glomeration of shops and restaurants, bars and sailboats is a playground for the young and the young at heart.
BUT WE DISCOVERED Maui to be not just the diversity of Kaanapali or the food and drink of Lahaina: each section of the island has created its own resort attractions.
Driving north, we passed Napili, a condominium area that is not as attentive to aesthetics as Kaanapali. but it’s not as expensive, either. The Napili Kai Beach Club here, has the best beach along the strip. But just up the road is, perhaps, the most luxurious of all of the Maui properties we saw: Kapalua Bay. Located on the northwest tip of Maui, this complex of rolling hills and world-class golf courses was the brainchild of Colin Cameron, a descendant of Hawaii missionaries and president of the family-owned Maui Land & Pineapple Co. In the mid-Seventies, he decreed that he would turn 750 acres into a consummate resort for travel connoisseurs. We can’t deny that he accomplished that goal. Secluded among the pineapple company’s 23,000 acres are the Kapalua Bay Hotel and Villas, several residential communities, two championship golf courses (both designed by Arnold Palmer), gourmet restaurants and shops. From Pineapple Hill, we looked out across clear blue water to the island of Lanai owned by the Dole Pineapple Co. and the secluded wilderness of Molokai. In Hawaiian, Kapalua means “arms embracing the sea,” so named for the dramatic lava promontories that jut out and create a secluded bay. (We found that one of the most attractive features of Kapalua is golfing on one of the courses that stretches from the mountaintop pineapple fields to the tip of a giant lava finger that slips into the sea; another is attending the Kapalua Wine Festival, which draws experts from all over die world.) At the crest of Pineapple Hill, there’s a restaurant with the same name, which is regarded by many to have the best sunset view of Lanai. (Personally, we liked the sunset from the deck of a sailboat, mai tai in hand.) Continuing up that hill, we found Papillon Helicopters. Although it was expensive, Papillon’s Odyssey tour was a ride we’ll never forget: a champagne stop on the Ulupalakua ranch and a breathtaking ascent up and descent into Haleakala, Maui’s largest volcano. (The lunarlike crater is an eerie mélange of reds and browns.) Of Kapalua’s several residential developments, we were told, one-the Ironwoods-is the most prestigious address on the island.
HOTEL HANA MAUI on the Southeast side, is a storybook resort that has remained frozen in time since its inception in the Forties (recently, the property was acquired by Rosewood Corp., the same people who own the Mansion). The road to Hana is full of winding curves, dangerous precipices and intriguing legend. Only the hardy (not us) venture to Hana over 70 arduous miles on the Hana Highway. Most succeed, but the telltale signs of those who don’t dot the crumbling highway. The leftover shells of cars who were beaten by adversity are like road signs: They all point to Hana. Most travelers (like us) fly Hana on Royal Hawaiian Air from either Kaanapali or Kahului airports. The Hotel Hana Maui will pick up guests in a jitney and take them on a winding trip through dense foliage to the most secluded resort on the island. Privacy is the calling card of this estate (it’s a perfect refuge for honeymooners who really want to be alone). Most of the spacious bungalows overlook the rugged bluffs of the Hana coastline. The community of Hana, like the resort, is a refuge unto itself. Explore. Rent a sturdy car and brave the rocks and sheer cliffs (without a doubt, one of the most-rugged roads we’ve ever driven). But the unsurpassed beauty of the Seven Pools is worth the trip. There, you can play on the black sand beach and run from the crashing waves.
ON THE SOUTHWEST end of the island, past the condominiums of Kihei, we found the rolling hills of Wailea, a planned residential/resort community on 1,500 beachfront acres. With the 10,000-foot crest of Haleakala (Maui’s largest volcano) in the background, Wailea enjoys a protected harbor and the finest leeward weather on the island. Approximately an hour from La-haina, the property encompasses the Stouffer Wailea Beach Resort, Maui-InterConti-nental and Vacation Resorts/Wailea (garden condominiums). Here, we toured five white sand beaches, three golf courses and Maui’s largest tennis facility (a 14-court tennis complex with a 1.000-seat tournament court, often called Wimbeldon West). Wailea is the perfect vantage point for treks up Haleakala (sunrise is the best time to make the hike, but take warm clothes since it’s quite chilly up there) or Upcountry tours that wind through acres of national forest and cattle ranching country. Tedeschi Winery (home of Maui’s pineapple wine) and Thompson Ranch Riding Stables are located here. (Since we weren’t up to hiking and frolicking in the wilderness, we opted to see the view from the air in a Maui Helicopter; the helipad is next to Stouffer’s.) In many ways, Wailea embodies the independent spirit of Maui in its mix of entertainment and seclusion.
The premier property is Stouffer’s Wailea Beach, where we found Maui’s only five-time Travel/Holiday award-winning restaurant, Raffles, a namesake of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. (This is the kind of place where the matchbook covers are embossed with your name.) The Raffles brunch was one of the most exotic we’ve had anywhere. (A word of caution: Don’t take a helicopter ride too soon afterward.)
Even Walt Disney would have trouble creating a jungle labyrinth to match the 15 acres of hotel grounds at Stouffer’s. Each year, more than $400,000 is spent to maintain the lush, tropical forest that surrounds the 350-room hote
THE 25-YEAR-OLD vision of the sugar cane company and other developers to put Maui on the map of world-class resorts is, indeed, a reality. Their success has nurtured a healthy tourist industry, rescued the local communities from economic depression and preserved and promoted a rich heritage. From Wailea to Hana, locals told us, “Mauni No Ka Oi.” It means that Maui is the best. And we believe it.
GETTING THERE FROM HERE:
Because of increasing travel to Maui, the state of Hawaii has approved plans for the expansion of the Kahului airport terminal. Joining the ranks of nonstops to Maui, Dallas-based American Airlines will, on December 1, 1984, commence daily direct, nonstop service on DC-10s to Kahului.
Inter-island connections to Kahului can be made on Hawaiian Air (full-size jets); Aloha Airlines (full-size jets); Mid Pacific (60-passenger prop-jets).
Connections to Kaanapali and Hana can be made on Royal Hawaiian Air Service, a commuter line that accommodates only a few passengers at a time; the pilots, however, are among the friendliest and often give passengers a narration of the trip.