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A Return to Maui

By Andrew McCarthy

The hanging moon is a day past full. It shimmers across the water off my right shoulder, slow to drop into the Pacific. To my left the sky is beginning to soften behind Mt. Haleakala. I’m paddling a kayak into a gentle swell several hundred yards off shore and for a few minutes the sea has a lavender cast. Three white egrets dart across my bow, glowing in the predawn. There’s the trace of a breeze on my back. I keep telling myself I’m back on Maui for vacation—but I know better.

For nearly ten years I kept a home here, then eventually I was drawn away. I was glad to move on, to experience the wider world—yet Maui has stayed with me. Something about The Valley Isle has lived on in my mind, the way no other place has. But memory is untrustworthy. It distorts and embellishes—it lies. And so I’ve returned. I need to see if my recollection of all those sunsets is just some kind of euphoric recall, or if there is really is a place for me here on Maui.

Most everyone coming to the center of the Pacific is lured by an idea of “paradise”— swaying palms and golden beaches yielding to warm blue waters. Yet it’s also a fairly standard lament that the Hawaiian Islands are a victim of their own success—and Maui has changed since I was here in the mid-80’s and early 90’s. Of course traffic is worse, and much of the once wild coastline is strung with multi-million dollar homes; but the island I always loved was never the one more obviously responsible for its popularity.

After an initial re-baptism in the gentle surf at my favorite beach—Keawakapu, in Kihei—I head “upcountry.” The slopes of Haleakala, the ten thousand foot volcano that dominates the island, is a different Maui to the one just a few thousand feet below. Purple flowering jacaranda tress replace coconut heavy palms. The earth is lush and fertile; the weather often wet. The smell of lavender perfumes the air.  A few miles out of the cowboy town of Makawao, I find what I’m searching for.

Beverly and Joe Gannon opened The Hali’imaile General Store restaurant in 1988—and I haven’t seen them in almost that long. Settling into a plate of their signature macadamia nut crusted Mahi Mahi with purple sweet potatoes, we wax on about the past.

“I remember thinking you were crazy opening a restaurant up here, so far away from the beach,” I confess, looking out over the sunny and packed front room of the converted pineapple plantation store.

“Not just you, everyone thought we were nuts,” Bev laughs, a broad smile playing out across her handsome face. “We were.” The Gannon’s now run three of Maui’s most successful restaurants.

Bev and Joe first came to Maui from Dallas in 1980. At the end of their week’s vacation, they rented a house for six months—and never looked back. “If you’re supposed to be here on Maui… you’re here,” she smiles at me.

Bev’s words linger in my ear as I head a few miles east and turn up a winding drive, past Cook Island pines and palm and ironwood trees, to the oldest wooden structure on Maui. Once a convalescence retreat for pineapple plantation workers, then a college dorm, the Craftsman structure has been given a loving reinvention.

Xorin Balbes, a trim, open faced man with a direct gaze, spent 35 years in Los Angeles as an interior designer and had a dream to retire on Maui. When he saw an ad online for the property what would become Lumeria, retirement went out the window. He bought the derelict, six-acre property, completely redesigned it with Japanese, English, French and Tibetan touches, and opened a discrete, high-end, twenty-four room escape in early 2012.

“The first thing you have to realize opening a hotel on Maui,” Xorin tells me, “is that you’re not buying a property, you entering a community. You need to invite them in. Our yoga classes are always filled with locals. They come to sit in meditation with our guests.”

Lumeria is a reaction away from the sprawling, all-inclusive resorts that lay claim to the coastline. “It’s a different experience here. People come to unplug. I see them leave transformed back into themselves. They want the yoga, and adventure activities; windsurfing, Jaws (Maui’s famous surf break) is right there,” he points down over pineapple fields down to the north shore. Lumeria offers horticulture classes and aromatherapy, and the restaurant serves up food from the organic garden. “We’re looking to create an experience of home.”

It is a difficult place to leave. And if I didn’t know about Hamoa beach way out in Hana, I might not.

In equal measure famous and infamous, the Hana Highway slinks its way east along the lush coast—the road is never as long and as treacherous as I think it’s going to be. My almost giddy reaction to passing through forests of swirling bamboo, alongside rainbow eucalyptus, and past scores of crashing waterfalls that litter the view from the more than fifty one lane bridges, proves I’m not a cynical as I’m often accused of being. And an hour of body surfing and getting tossed in the crashing waves beside the local kids at the secluded, crescent shaped Hamoa beach completes my restoration.

One of the things that engenders the feeling of belonging, are the rituals we create. And coming back from Hana, I always used to end up stopping at Mama’s Fish House, just outside the Hawaiian hipster town of Paia. Down by a lava cove with crashing surf, tiki torches lighting the way, my memory was that Mama’s served the best fish on Maui. The Onaga cirviche and Ahi grilled in a ti leaf with coconut rice and mango salsa, confirm my recollections.

Across the isthmus that connects Haleakala and the conical volcano’s that created the West Maui Mountains, the road funnels inevitably into Lahaina, the island’s capital. Front Street swarms—as it always has—with red-skinned tourists in flowering shirts jockeying to get on whale watching boats, or have their pictures taken with rainbow colored parrots propped atop their heads. The bars are filled with folks trying not to poke their eyes out with lavender umbrellas protruding from potent cocktails, and art galleries are stocked with oversized sculptures of noble looking sea turtles and twisting, smiling dolphins. But just around the corner, a few minutes walk from the famous—and massive—banyan tree beside the docks, a vestige of Maui’s romantic past sits virtually unnoticed.

In the mid 19th Century, Lahaina was the epicenter of the whaling trade in the Pacific. Apparently not all the visiting sailors acquitted themselves with conduct becoming a gentleman. The beautifully preserved Hale Pa’ahao (“stuck in irons house”) has a well-manicured yard shaded by mature monkey-pod trees—it’s an improbable haven of tranquility 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 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, the wooden cells were barely secure and the coral restraining wall, at just over ten feet high, was easily scaled once the sailors sobered up.

Farther on, past the developments at Ka’anapali and Kapalua, the coast road narrows, then narrows some more. It twists and clings to the cliffs, getting pushed around by the West Maui Mountains. I’m headed to Kahakuloa, a local Hawaiian settlement of a hundred or so. Outsiders are generally welcome to keep right on driving, but there’s a roadside stand here that sells the best banana bread on the planet—Julia’s. It’s why I’ve driven two hours out of my way.

There is only one other place I need to go to complete the mental checklist I created back home to test my Maui dreams. I’ve been reluctant to get back out on the water for my predawn kayak paddles. For years they have stored my most potent, intoxicating memories of Maui. But leaning hard into my stroke, my efforts relax me in a way I’ve been waiting to relax. My breathing settles deep and rhythmic, and suddenly, without deciding, I stop paddling. I’m bobbing in the Pacific. The sky is still soft. The outline of neighbor-island Lanai comes visible. A whale spouts near the horizon. Then directly in front of me a sea turtle pops its head out of the sea—and I’m laughing.

What am I waiting for?

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