Hawaii: X marks the spot

If everyone in the world has one treasured place where they're most able to be themselves, then a beach on Maui ticks all the boxes — an enchanting Hawaiian island that's changed so much and yet so little over the years.

By Andrew McCarthy
Published 7 Nov 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 17:38 BST
Local body boarder at Kaanapali beach.

Local body boarder at Kaanapali beach.

Photograph by Susan Seubert

Is it possible that there's one single spot in the world, just a small area, perhaps only a few square feet in size, where you're most content, most relaxed — a place where you can hear yourself, and trust what you hear; a place where you're most like the person you know yourself to be, or at least most like the person you want to be?

If so, then my spot is a few square yards of sand in front of an old twisted palm tree on Keawakapu Beach in south Maui.

It doesn't hurt that the water is lapping at my ankles and the view is of the setting sun burning up the sky over the neighbouring island of Lana'i. I've known this spot for 30 years. For 10 years, my home was just back from the sand — my hammock hung from that twisted palm. For the past 20 years, I've done all I can to return to this very spot on a regular basis. Perhaps it's some kind of personal vortex or energy field or perhaps there's some other New Age type explanation I don't generally believe in, but no matter, this is it — my spot. It simply offers me something the rest of the world can't. It's ever abiding, yet constantly changing — forever being altered by the sea.

That feeling of change could apply to the rest of the island as well. Of course, Maui, like all of the Hawaiian Islands, has come of age since I first arrived in the 1980s as a very young man. That quiet island I landed on morphed into a super power destination, with all its muscled-up attractions, and then into a grandiose playground for the wealthy that went through tough times when boom turned to bust a decade ago. Recently, a welcome restraint, a casual sense of hipster aloha, has begun to emerge — particularly at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, where I station myself. And yet the old Maui I've always known is still here too. In my spot — and elsewhere.

High up on Haleakalā — the 10,000ft volcano that dominates the island — the 'upcountry' community of Kula feels forever unchanged.

"We live in our own little bubble up here," John 'Sheldon' Wallau tells me. We're leaning against the doorway of his Keokea Gallery, watching the occasional pickup truck roll past. The gallery is one of just a handful of shops on this lightly travelled part of the island. For the past 27 years, Sheldon has often been found standing in this doorway accompanied by his scruffy dog, Ipo. He's the proprietor, sole artist on display, and neighbourhood philosopher. "Not everyone is happy living at the end of a dirt road — but I am."

Far from the sea, the air is cooler up here and the land more fertile. Jacaranda trees explode in purple bloom, nene birds flit freely, horses graze lush pastures. Beside Sheldon's gallery is Grandma's Coffee House, a small, plantation-style shed, serving my favourite cup of coffee on Maui — and worth the drive just for that. Sipping my second cup out on the porch — another of my favourite spots — a red-crested cardinal hops between tables.

My mind rests, and I gaze down thousands of feet across the slope of the volcano to the sea. Intermittent clouds below me paint the water shades of blue. Owner Al Franco walks out of the shop. He's a native, and like many Hawaiians I know, he has an easy-going demeanour that masks a fierce pride in family and community. Al knows just about everyone in the place this morning — each of his conversations punctuated with laughter. He's been trying to get me to go night diving for sharks with him for years.

"Not yet," I tell him. So instead I'm invited to a pig roast he's serving up later in the day.

The sweetest mango

Back down the hill, I'm cruising the main street through Kihei, the rambling seaside town where I used to live. Adele is on the radio singing about When We Were Young. Thirty years earlier, along this same stretch, Madonna belted from my radio about feeling Like a Virgin. There were no traffic lights on this road then — today I lose count after six. From the corner of my eye, I spot a small, hand-painted sign and swing my car into an unpaved parking lot. A chicken scampers across my path, a half-dozen fuzzy offspring giving chase. Yee's Orchard, the sign says, is selling fresh, local mangos. A small lady named Lorma is slicing a coconut behind the warped, wooden countertop.

"How long has this stand been here?" I ask.

"Yee's? Oh, I don't know. Forever."

I've driven this road hundreds and hundreds of times. How had I never noticed it before? The mango is perhaps the sweetest I've ever tasted.

I'm still shaking my head in disbelief when I pass Ukumehame Beach. A group of young surfers are catching their first waves in the gentle swell, just as the generation before them did at this same beach when I first arrived, before graduating to the big breaks like Jaws on the north shore, just beyond the town of Paia. No town seems to represent the evolving Maui as much as this one-time hippie haven.

The tanned beauties and dudes with dreadlocks and guitars hanging from their shoulders, piling out of worn-out vans are still here, but so now is the artisanal ice cream shop with cones being served up by the guy with the man-bun and the girl with the full-sleeve tattoo. Posh boutiques are displacing the tie-dye. Yet Paia is wearing its transition to success loosely. It's an easy place to spend more time than you planned, but I've got a craving that can only be satisfied on the other side of the island.

Across the isthmus that connects Haleakala and the conical volcanos that created the West Maui Mountains, the road funnels inevitably toward Lahaina, the island's tourist centre. Front Street swarms, as it always has, with red-skinned visitors in floral shirts jockeying to get on whale-watching boats, or have their pictures taken with rainbow-coloured parrots on their heads. Art galleries are stocked with oversized sculptures of noble-looking sea turtles and twisting, smiling dolphins. You can buy prints by Picasso, or Chagall, or Dalí, and then step next door and have a beer at Moose McGillycuddy's pub.

But just around the corner, a few minutes' walk from the sprawling banyan tree beside the docks, a vestige of Maui's romantic past sits virtually unnoticed. In the mid-19th century, Lahaina was the epicentre of the whaling trade in the Pacific. Apparently not all the visiting sailors acquitted themselves with conduct becoming of a gentleman.

The preserved Hale Pa'ahao ('Stuck in Irons House') has a well-manicured yard shaded by mature monkeypod trees — it's an improbable haven of tranquillity in chaotic Lahaina. The old jail was built by King Kamehameha III to detain unruly sailors who refused to return to their ships by sundown. A quick look at the freely available records shows 1855 to have been a busy year — 330 convictions for 'drunkenness', 169 for 'fornication' and 89 for 'furious riding'. But apparently prison life was not all bad. Seaman William Mitchell Stetson, of the whaling bark, Arab, confided in his diary: 'Male and female all had freedom of the prison yard and mingled promiscuously, we had a very sociable time.' And if the hardships of prison life ever did become too much of a strain, then the coral restraining wall, at a little over 10ft high, was easily scaled once the sailors sobered up.

Into the wilderness

Beyond Lahaina, developments at Ka'anapali and Kapalua line the coast — and then it all stops. No more resorts, no more condos, no more shops, no more houses. Whatever success Maui is having hasn't encroached out here. The more famous road to Hāna carries you around Haleakalā on a wonderland of hairpin turns, but over on this backside of the island, the going is more remote and challenging. The West Maui Mountains shove the crumbling road around like a piece of twine. Tight switchbacks yield to long, swooping arcs that bring me deep into valleys and then propel me back out toward the coast. My radio is filled with static. My phone has no reception. I pull to the side of the road and step out. Looking over the Pacific — open sea for thousands of miles — I breathe deeply. This is the Maui I think of when I'm a long way from it.

Ahead, at the apex of a hairpin bend, a young man sits alone in a folding chair, miles from anywhere. He smiles.

"Buds. Maui buds."

He gestures — forefinger and thumb pinched together, rising to his mouth. I drive on.

A sign tells me the speed limit is 25mph — that's wildly optimistic. Then over a rise, Kahakuloa comes into view beneath me. Wedged in a small valley on a black-rock beach, it's a settlement of roughly 100 native Hawaiians. Old Maui — insular, slow.

Kahakuloa has no shops, no services, just a small green-and-yellow shed that has what I've come for. Moana Coston is the youngest of eight, and she's selling her Auntie Julia's homemade banana bread from the roadside stand.

The bread — famous throughout the island — is still warm. I sigh after the first bite. Moana laughs, and we begin to talk.

"It's nice here in the valley," she says vaguely, glancing away.

"Ever think of leaving?'

"I did. It wasn't for me. I came back." She has a wide, easy smile. "I was on Oahu for a year. Too fast."

"So that's it then?" I wonder.

"Might be nice to marry some day."

"Someone from the village?"

Moana laughs wildly. "No way. I see them every day, I know everything about them all."

"Is Julia around?"

Moana nods in the general direction of the stream cutting through the valley to the ocean. I wander down the hill; a small kid is carrying a large chicken in his arms. He points over to the one-lane bridge and I find Julia in her 'Julia mobile' — part tractor, part golf cart, sitting by the side of the road.

I've known Julia for years; she invites me back to her house on the black-rock beach where the surf crashes then chatters as it recedes over the stones. We talk and laugh about nothing much at all. The dog comes by for a pet. Her grandson, Andrew, preens — he won a local talent contest and is going to LA for his 'big break'. We laugh some more and dream big. I eat more banana bread. The Kahakuloa welcome is warm — and transitory. This is a place for locals, true locals. Eventually I ease back onto the road.

Beyond Kahakuloa, sheer mountain walls flank one side of the curved road; plummeting drop-offs with no guardrail hang from the other. Then I take a hill and the land opens and without warning I'm in grazing country: I swear I could be in Connemara, in the west of Ireland.

Eventually, the road leads me back to Wailuku, the island's historic business district, with a worn-out charm, and I find my way up into the Iao Valley in the heart of the West Maui Mountains — the way I always do when I'm on this side of the island. This is sacred Hawaiian land, home to a historic battle for control of the Hawaiian Islands between King Kamehameha the Great and Kalanikupule. Today, it's tranquil, lush rainforest. Low clouds race between jagged cliffs, waterfalls plunge. It's a soulful place. But the light slashing through the high walls tells me the day is wearing on — and I've got to get back. Back to a few square yards of sand by a crooked palm tree. Sunset is coming. My spot is waiting.


Getting there & around
Fly to Maui's Kahului Airport from Heathrow with American Airlines, United Airlines or Delta via Los Angeles daily.

You can get around Maui by shuttle, tour bus, taxi or public transportation. But to really experience Maui, consider reserving a rental car in advance from the Kahului or Kapalua Airport.

More info
Lonely Planet Hawaii. RRP: £15.99

How to do it
Western & Oriental offers seven nights at Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, Hawaii, from £2,955 per person, based on two adults sharing an Andaz Garden Room on a room-only basis. The price includes return economy class flights from Heathrow with United Airlines and private transfers.

Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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