Thirty years ago, I had just been fired from my first job, as a Sacramento politician’s press secretary. I unexpectedly had time and money to take my first solo vacation. I called up Western Airlines (yes, it was that long ago) and booked a flight to Maui.
It was beautiful, exotic and — best of all — the new home of J.D., a high school buddy who would let me crash on his couch in Makawao, on the slopes of Haleakala. J.D. worked as a beachboy at the old Intercontinental hotel in south Maui. He snuck me hotel snorkels, fins, lounge chairs and towels.
When not sunning and swimming, I would drive J.D.’s ancient, rusting Volkswagen van. I’d go from Kihei to Kula, Wailuku to Wailea and everywhere in between. We’d party at night.
On Saturday, J.D. and I drove up to Haleakala to see the sunset. Yes, sunset — I’m not getting up at 5 a.m. on my vacation to freeze my behind off. On Sunday, we drove out to Hana to go skinny-dipping with locals at Red Sand Beach.
When I left after a week, I was in love with Maui. Though my allegiance has shifted to Kauai over the years, Maui was my first love — and you never forget your first love. I’ve been back two dozen times since.
I was hardly alone in my admiration for Maui. Tourism has boomed over the past three decades. There are fewer than 150,000 residents on Maui, but more than 2.2 million visitors wing in each year. The island’s landscape has been warped by mainlanders’ needs, from the manicured swaths of golf courses to the Krispy Kreme and Walmart next to the airport entrance.
But the Maui I fell in love with still exists. Drive less than a half-hour out of the airport, and you can be high up on the green flank of Haleakala, strolling a deserted North Coast beach or hiking around the wind-carved volcanic peaks of Iao Valley.
To mark 30 years, I’m rolling out my list of the overrated and underrated on the island.
Overrated: Lahaina. The former royal retreat, missionary center, whaling harbor and early Hawaiian capital seems to have turned into one big T-shirt-selling, timeshare-hawking, whale-watching, video-playing, luau-touting tourist trap. The banyan trees are amazing, the museums are interesting and the Pioneer Inn is tied for the oldest hotel in Hawaii, built in 1901, the same year as the Moana-Surfrider in Waikiki. But every time I drop into Lahaina, my mental meter is running the numbers on how many minutes until I can get out of town.
Underrated: Wailuku. In the past, I would have said Paia. But that once-scruffy North Coast counterculture outpost has become a trendy address in recent years. So I will go with Wailuku. A dud at first impressions, the county seat is dotted with ugly government office buildings and is far from the nearest beach. But the back streets are full of plantation-era shops and tiny Japanese stores and clubs. The Bailey House museum, dedicated to the early missionaries, leaves me shaking my head at how sour and dour these men of God could be. Janice Fairbanks runs the lovely Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, a bed and breakfast where guests on my most recent visit included Dutch tourists and a Honolulu businessman. The Wailuku Coffee Co. serves the best caffeinated brew on Maui. Best of all: only a trickle of tourists. On Hawaii’s slickest tourist island, you can find a town the tour buses have passed by.
Overrated: Kapalua. This is no skanky Baldwin Beach. It’s still a Maui beauty, but its popularity has brought in ever bigger crowds. The once-open space behind the ring of palm trees has been developed into a resort area, giving it a less natural feeling.
Underrated: Hamoa. The best beach on Maui that you’ve probably never heard of (unless you listen to the English indie rock band Gomez). It is past Hasegawa’s General Store on the Hana Highway, a long way from the sunscreen-slathered hordes on the resort-area beaches. Twice when I’ve visited, I’ve had the whole beach to myself. The crescent-shaped shoreline was once the lip of a small volcano.
Overrated: Zip-lining. Like an invasive plant that can’t be rooted out, wires strung around natural places for people to hurtle down while bellowing at the top of their lungs has become one of the mainstays of overdeveloped resort areas around the world. Maui is no different. Adrenaline junkies love it. You or your kids might love it. But for me, it’s the kind of hyperactivity I come to Hawaii to escape.
Underrated: Bodysurfing. With some of the best beaches in the world and well-shaped waves much of the year, learning how to get into the hollow of a wave and use your lead hand to scoot along the face of the short wall of water is a simple pleasure I can indulge all day. My favorite beach is D.T. Fleming State Beach, though in churning winter water, you can end up with a face plant and a swimsuit full of sand if you pick the wrong wave.
Overrated: Oprah Winfrey. The great land baroness of Maui, she has 63 acres outside of Hana and a big, white, two-story, Hawaii plantation-style mansion on the old Thompson Ranch, near the flank of Haleakala. Every “property for sale” sign sets off speculation that Oprah might add to her holdings. Whether she is visiting Maui or doing something on the mainland or elsewhere in the world, you will hear about it in the local newspapers and on television.
Underrated: Charles Lindbergh. Yes, I know he has been dead since 1974. At least you can see his grave. Everyone else is hard to pin down. Clint Eastwood has a home in South Maui, while the counterculture lifestyle around Paia has attracted actor Owen Wilson, singer Willie Nelson, actor Woody Harrelson and Aerosmith frontman and “American Idol” judge Steven Tyler. The late George Harrison, “the quiet Beatle,” owned more than 150 acres around Nihiku, near Hana. Lindbergh, the great aviator, is buried in Kipahulu, just beyond Hana. You have to go behind the old Palapala Hoomau Church to find his pretty, lava rock-rimmed grave. Lindbergh was a pioneer in coming to Maui for celebrity privacy, and even in death he attempts to hide.
Overrated: Any luau. I’ve been to at least a half-dozen commercial luaus around the islands and didn’t enjoy any of them. The modern luau industrial complex has taken a traditional feast and turned it into a Vegas-style overeaters buffet of middling quality food, lots of expensive booze and then a floor show. It’s a mainstay of group package tours and timeshare hawkers (“free luau if you come see our property”).
Underrated: Ranch-grilled burgers. At the Honolua General Store near the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and especially at Ulupalakua Ranch Store & Grill in the upcountry, you can have a great hamburger grilled to perfection and served at benches beside old ranch- and plantation-style buildings. Laid-back and delicious.
Overrated: Pools. Every resort hotel in West and South Maui has an amazing pool, with the ones at the Grand Wailea, Fairmont Kea Lani, Hyatt Regency Maui and Westin Maui among the best in the world. But to see people sitting at a pool with their backs to the ocean and a sparsely crowded, world-class beach just a few feet away is a crime against nature. I know why they do it — as my daughter said when she was younger about her preference for the pool, “There’s stuff in the ocean.” Well, darling, with all those people standing around with beers in hand, I can assure you there is “stuff” in the pool, too.
Underrated: Pacific Ocean. No island has more great beaches than Maui. Kapalua, D.T. Fleming, Napili, Kaanapali, Wailea and Hamoa just begin to cover the options. Even the airport has a good beach. Being slightly sunburned and having a lingering saltwater taste in your mouth is the feeling of being on vacation. If the pool is all you want, save your money and go to Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Overrated: Whaler’s Village. Most of the same California-based surfwear stores and overpriced jewelry shops you’ll find in Waikiki are packed into a two-story mall. The parking garage is striped for cars from the 1970s, so make sure you have your collision damage waiver on your rental Mustang before trying to squeeze it between two SUVs. I didn’t and paid the price.
Underrated: Paia. The haven for hippies-turned-shop-owners on the north end of the island is a great stop on your way to Haleakala, the airport or the island’s best fish restaurant, Mama’s Fish House. In between the patchouli oil and crystals, you’ll find plantation-era stores turned into funky boutiques selling secondhand aloha wear, artisan jewelry and interesting bathing suit designs. Maui Girls bikinis were featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
Overrated: Summer. So you like bleeding out of your wallet? Hawaii sits just north of the equator, meaning there isn’t a big difference between the seasons. Yes, it is marginally warmer and drier in summer. But the biggest difference is in prices, with summer costing twice as much as other times of year. Airfare from Los Angeles in early August: $1,000 round trip. Airfare in late September: $490.
Underrated: Fall. The summer crowds have gone home, and the snowbirds have yet to arrive. There are no spring vacation hordes and Japanese “Golden Week” tourists clogging up a big chunk of April and May and driving up prices. With most vacationers having already spent their money on a trip to Hawaii, airlines and hotels have to drop prices steeply to get people to come. Many visitors won’t go because of a fear of rainfall from a tropical storm or even a churning hurricane. But it’s a long shot, and the savings are enough to offset any apprehension. My favorite time is right after Thanksgiving, when fares are low and the tropical-style Christmas season is in full swing.
Overrated: “Margaritaville,” by Jimmy Buffett. Like the feeling after downing a pitcher of too sweet frozen margaritas, I am ready to hurl after hearing yet another Maui beach lounge act singing about “searching for my lost shaker of salt.” The whole Florida-Mexico collection of songs beloved by Buffett’s “Parrothead” fans has been transplanted to Maui. There’s even that Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant in Lahaina that takes its name from another Buffett song.
Underrated: “The Last Resort,” by the Eagles. “You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.” Almost 40 years ago, the Eagles were singing about overdevelopment and greed changing places. The last part of the song is set in Lahaina and even references the famous neon “JESUS IS COMING” sign at the north end of town.