What to do in Lahaina, Maui
I was raised in Honolulu, but Maui has always held a special place in my heart. As a kid my family vacationed in Maui. When my husband and I were young we couldn't afford both a hotel room and a rental car so we would rent a Holoholo camper and travel the island. Holoholo was the name of the camper rental agency, aptly named for the Hawaiian word Holoholo, which means to take a leisurely journey, without a clear destination. We had a wonderful time traveling all over the island in the camper. You haven't lived until you take the 65 mile long windy road to Hana in a camper with pots and pans banging and clanging away! Those were simple times.
Recently my husband and I were guests at a friend's home in West Maui in the outskirts of Lahaina. It is such a magical corner of the world. We were there in February when the humpback whales migrate from Alaska to the islands to birth their babies. Every day these aerial whales can be seen breaching and fluking as they cruise through the waters between the islands of Kahoolawe, Maui, Lanai and Molokai. You can take a charter out to see them, but they put on a pretty good show from the shore. In fact, one day we were on stand up paddle boards off Lahaina and got pretty darn close to the whales. The adventurer part of me said "Go check it out" and the chicken part of me said "Head for shore." For better or for worse, the chicken won.
Lahaina has a long and tumultuous history beginning in about 450 A.D. when the first Polynesians settled in Lahaina. Twenty generations of independent monarchs ruled Maui until the 1600's when King Pi'ilani consolidated his rule over the island. In the early 1800's Lahaina became the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, under the rule of King Kamehameha.
Between 1820 and 1860, Lahaina emerged as the whaling capital of the world driven by international demand for whale oil which was used for heating, lamps and to lubricate industrial machines. Whaling brought hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors to this tiny town, decimating the humpback whale population and wrecking havoc with the Hawaiian and missionary societies. Gambling, debauchery and drinking were countered with forts, prisons, kapus and missionary schools. In 1824, 736 whaling ships made the journey to the islands to hunt whales. Although still endangered, the humpback population is back on the rise with approximately 10,000 whales migrating to the islands every year.
What to do in Lahaina, Maui
Here are my favorite things to do in Lahaina:
Stand up paddling
When the surf is small, the wind is negligible and the water is glassy, there may not be a more gorgeous place to stand up paddle. The West Maui mountains loom up over the ocean. If there is rain in the mountains you may be treated to a spectacular rainbow, or if you are very lucky, a double rainbow.
The ocean is teeming with wildlife. You will see coral heads, an array of fish and majestic old barnacled turtles or Hono. Turtles are a protected species, so keep your distance and never try to touch them. The turtles were here before we were and deserve our respect.
Walk through old Lahaina town
Lahaina is a small walkable town. Historic Front Street, the main drag in Lahaina, is a conglomeration of tourist shops, art galleries, historic buildings and restaurants. Every Friday from 7 to 10 p.m. the Lahaina art walk takes place all along Front Street, showcasing an array of local artists. The Lahaina historic trail is a walkable tour that is divided into three separate walks from 30 minutes to one hour in length that cover 600 years of Lahaina history.
The Big Banyan tree
Any visit to Lahaina must include a stop at the Big Banyan tree. This 100+ year old banyan takes up most of a block in the center of town across from the wharf. When I was a kid you were allowed to climb the tree and swing on the many hanging roots. Now this regal centurion is protected from climbing humans, but is home to a small city of birds. At sunset hundreds, maybe thousands of birds gather in the tree for what I call Mynah Bird Happy Hour. The racket is transfixing. On Sundays an art show is held under the banyan that showcases the work of local artists.
Best restaurants in Lahaina
The Pioneer Inn is a personal favorite that goes back to when I was a kid visiting from Honolulu. One of the oldest hotels in the islands, the Pioneer Inn is located across the street from Lahaina Harbor and the Big Banyon tree. The hotel is modest and quaint, but I love it for a look back to a simpler time before the innovation of the mega resort. The bar is bedecked with harpoons and whaling paraphernalia. I always enjoy a stop in this salty old bar and restaurant. For breakfast, be sure to order the Portuguese sausage, cooked extra well done. Go island style and order eggs and rice. Drizzle a little shoyu (soy sauce) on the rice. If you are in the mood they make a mean Bloody Mary. In the evenings local musicians often perform on the lanai.
Mala Ocean Tavern
Mala Ocean Tavern sits on the edge of Lahaina on the opposite side of town from The Big Banyan tree. Located literally on the water, Mala Ocean Tavern is local casual; you will be perfectly comfortable eating there in shorts, a t-shirt and slippers. If you are lucky you will get a seat on the lanai next to the water. If you are even luckier, you will see turtles swim along the shoreline and crawl up on the rocks.
A small, family-owned restaurant run by husband and wife team, Mark and Judy Ellman, Mala's works with local farmers to offer fresh, organic and delicious food. Try their whole wok fish, ahi bruschetta and tomato and burrata salad.
Mala’s owners have opened two adjacent restaurants, Hono Seafood & Pizza and Frida's Mexican Beach House. They are right next door to Mala's and both have casual, open-air atmospheres right on the water. Every time I go to Maui I vow to try one of them, but I can never seem to get past Mala’s.
Make your reservations way ahead of time if you want to insure a seat at this award winning restaurant. Written up in Gourmet Magazine, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Magazine and the winner of a plethora of awards, including Trip Advisor's Top 25 restaurants in the U.S. If fine dining is your thing, Lahaina Grill will not disappoint. Plan to upgrade your attire from shorts and slippers and budget some serious cash for the evening.
Sale Pepe, a recent addition to Lahaina, is a casual Italian restaurant owned and run by another husband and wife restaurant team, Quiana and Michele. They offer up some seriously good Italian food that uses a combination of fresh local ingredients as well as specialty products imported from Italy. The pig cheek bruschetta and prosciutto flatbread are to die for.
Sale Pepe's menu changes daily and their specials are highlighted on a chalkboard covered wall. T-shirts and slippers are appropriate attire.
Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop
In Olowalu on the Honoapi'ilani Highway on the drive into Lahaina, there is a great little family-style restaurant called Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop. Casual, farm-fresh and delicious, you can't go wrong with anything on their menu. They tout their menu as glorified grandma food, but my grandma never cooked like this!
Let’s get right to what is most important. Leoda's has incredible pies: Chocolate mac nut, Banana cream, Coconut cream, Olowalu lime, Peanut butter and apple crumb. Don’t worry about deciding on one pie. These pies are miniature sized to serve about 2 people. So the good news is you can pick up two or three. It is no wonder Leoda’s has won the Maui No Ka Oi Magazine ‘Aipono award for “Best Dessert” for the last three years in a row.
Olowalu Fruit and Juice Stand
After you pick out your pies at Leoda's, a 100 yards down the road is Olowalu Fruit and Juice stand. If you are staying in West Maui this is the place to load up on a wide variety of island fruit, fresh coconuts, fabulous smoothies, mango and banana bread, sugar cane, and some locally made coconut candy. You have to love their brightly painted juice truck and signs. How can you not stop?
Ono Gelato Company and Espresso Bar
Founded by a third-generation gelato maker from Torino Italy, Ono Gelato is the perfect stop on a hot afternoon. They offer an abundance of homemade gelato made from local and imported Italian ingredients. My personal favorite is lilikoi or passion fruit gelato. Ono Gelato Company also sells a variety of made-in-Maui products including an assortment of island-made jams, jellies and fruit butters. Try their Maui Butter, a heavenly concoction of pineapple, guava, and lilikoi.
Favorite Lahaina Stores
Maui Hands Art Gallery
Maui Hands offers handcrafted jewelry, paintings, ceramics, woodwork, textiles and photography crafted by over 300 Maui artists. They have four Maui locations with their Lahaina shop located across the street from the Big Banyan tree.
Hale Zen sells beautiful items for the home, hand-crafted local jewelry, and comfy casual clothing for woman and children. It is a fun place to pick up a souvenir for your home.
Maui Vintage Clothing Company
If vintage aloha shirts are your thing, this store is a must-stop. In addition to vintage shirts that come with a hefty price-tag, they offer some beautiful reproductions of classic aloha shirts. I bought my son a reproduction of the shirt Montgomery Cliff wore in the 1950’s movie From Here to Eternity.
This grocery store carries many local specialties, fresh fish and a good selection of wine and cheese. My favorite is their poke bar. They offer a half dozen or more different types of poke. My favorites are Spice Bomb and Avocado. The people who work at the poke bar are very nice and helpful.
My very favorite thing to do in Lahaina is totally free. I love to watch the beautiful sunsets in West Maui. With sunset views over Lanai and Molokai, the sky becomes a work of art each evening. Sunset is a great time to stroll down the beach or sit on your lanai and enjoy an evening cocktail as the sun goes down. At the right time of year, when the sun sets over the ocean, the green flash can sometimes be seen. Some people doubt that the green flash is a real thing, but I have clearly seen the green flash twice, and possibly seen it a few more times. Don't expect to see the green flash on your first sunset. You have to work for it and get several hundred sunsets under your belt. But if you are diligent and patient you may experience the green flash. Sipping a cocktail is said to possibly improve your odds of seeing this ephemeral sight.
Mahalo to Tom and Carrie for sharing their time and beautiful West Maui home with us.
Mahalo to Casey of Happy Places Happy Faces for allowing me to share some of her incredible photography on this post. Casey just returned from 7 weeks on Maui where she captured some truly amazing photographs - all on her Iphone! Check out her website, her instagram @happyplaceshappyfaces, and her Facebook page.