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The Cool Side of Maui

Cool is a matter of attitude as much as climate in Maui's Upcountry region of cowboys, artists, and country inns.

Haleakala silversword growing in a lavascape on Maui, image
Photo caption
The rare Haleakala silversword only grows at elevations above 6,900 feet.


All roads lead upward to the House of the Sun. As if it were an enormous, powerful temple and we its mesmerized devotees, we beam up in our rental cars from the sun-besotted shores of Maui to the lei of clouds that lies upon the rolling green flanks of Haleakala, largest dormant volcano on earth.Midway up the 10,023-foot mountain, in a fertile belt known as Upcountry, the roads wind among vast ranches, farms, and tiny towns and districts with names that fall like poetry from the tongue: Kula, Keokea, Olinda, Makawao, Pukalani, Paia, Ulupalakua, Haiku. Bursting from the volcanic soil come surprises of roses, cabbages as big as minor comets, onions as sweet as apples, and strawberries so juicy they drizzle down your arm at the first bite. Prophetically, Upcountry was once known as Nu Kaliponi, New California. During the 1849 California Gold Rush, Upcountry farmers fed the forty-niners and became more prosperous than most of the gold diggers. Today, the area is practically a suburb of Marin County or Los Angeles. Scratch a shopkeeper, waiter, innkeeper, or artist and underneath you'll find a California transplant. The older ones came during the hippie era, and the younger ones got off the last jet. Nowhere is the character change more evident than in Makawao. Until the 1970s, it was a cowboy town, affectionately called "Macho-wow." It had a gun and ammo depot, feed stores, and hitching posts along the main street. On Saturday night the paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboys, came to drink, dance, play the ukulele, and sing the praises of the land. Now? It's like—Maka-wowie. The old wooden storefronts have morphed into art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants, most of them very good. I stopped in at the Dragon's Den and, while sipping an immune support tea, poked around among the pendulums, crystals, and jars of kava, unicorn root, and herbal remedies. I picked up a brochure on ear coning, a practice dear to the ancient Egyptians and Mayans, for cleaning the ears and aura: "It works for people stuck in untenable situations and helps us to gain control of our personal space so nothing can penetrate or escape without our permission." Not everything here is so hip and profound. You can still get the world's creamiest Long Johns (elongated custard doughnuts) at rickety old Komoda Bakery, even though the store is now between a Tibetan jewelry shop and Altitude, a new boutique that is owned by a Frenchwoman who continually plays Parisian golden oldies on her stereo and hopes for the best. As it has always done, Kitada's little restaurant serves great steaming bowls of saimin, Hawaii's ubiquitous noodle soup. But don't expect to find any of those newfangled coffee drinks here. You can get your cappuccino fix a few doors away at Duncan's or at half a dozen other totally trendy cafés. Makawao may be this minute's hot spot, yet fields and forests edge right up to its streets. The serenity that is in Upcountry is palpable, almost marketable, it is so pervasive. This is the area's draw.An international community of artists lives among the hollyhocks and pine trees, the eucalypti and redwoods. Curtis Wilson Cost, noted landscape painter, has a gallery in the Kula Lodge. Mika McCann grows and harvests materials for weaving her famous baskets. Artists gather at Hui Noeau Visual Arts Center, where there is a full calendar of classes, lectures, and workshops, plus a gift shop, all housed on a gracious old estate on the edge of Makawao. People from Honolulu head to Upcountry just to bask in the cool air, to light a fire in the evening's hearth, and to wear a sweater in the morning. I wanted a few days of solitude and booked myself into the Olinda Country Cottages and Inn at the dead end of Olinda Road, straight up from Makawao as far as you can go before the trees close in. I found, tucked away in the woods, a mansion with the timeworn grace of the Riviera, surrounded by a Beatrix Potter garden rife with foxgloves, Nile lilies, and saucer-sized daisies filling the crisp air with sweet fragrance. I knew immediately it was the kind of place where the tea would be organic, the sugar brown, the apple juice unfiltered, and there would be a Buddha on the shelf. No one was home, but there was a note on the door telling me to let myself in. My room was up the back stairs. More roses and a cloud of lavender, as a jacaranda tree was seeping into bloom. I settled down amid chintz and determinedly old furniture that had been distressed and painted. The room was certainly quiet. I went for a long walk in the woods, along the Waihou Trail, my footsteps cushioned by pine needles. I was all alone. For dinner, I drove back down to Makawao, enjoying the way the late light slashed through the tall eucalypti. I chose Polli's Mexican restaurant. It was lit up with Christmas lights like a shrine to the Virgin. Inside, margaritas in candy flavors were flowing in big salty glasses. The place was packed and loud. They could seat me only at the bar. The woman next to me said, "I don't know why I'm here. I spent the whole day at a waterfall. There wasn't a sound." I thought of my room up in the Olinda forest. The following day I signed up for a Jeep ride around Ulupalakua Ranch. It's a new tour that covers more ground than a hike or horseback ride ever could. We explored rolling hills, deep ravines, volcanic cinder cones, and stands of koa trees, breezing past cows, elk, deer, and partridge. The Wrangler bounced across lava flows where ohia lehuas bloomed and the rocks were festooned in bright orange lichen. The Jeep tour ended at the ranch's Tedeschi Winery, which features tours and a new tasting room. Its champagne, Maui Blanc de Noirs, was served at the 1985 Reagan presidential inauguration. A little "story room" next to the gift shop displays family photographs and ranch memorabilia. Makena Stables stages horseback rides to the winery including a picnic under the huge camphor tree. When my husband, Jim, flew in, we moved into the bunkhouse at neighboring Silver Cloud Ranch, now a nice bed-and-breakfast. Silver Cloud was until recently part of the huge Thompson Ranch. In order to pay his inheritance tax, Jerry Thompson, youngest son among the 28 children of Charlie Thompson, sold the ranch's most valuable portion, which included his gracious old family home. Jerry and his wife, Toni, run Thompson's Trail Rides. "A lot of people get to enjoy the ranch now," he said quietly. The paniolo tradition is helped along by Jerry's sister Teresa, who organizes the parade for the annual Fourth of July Makawao Rodeo, the biggest rodeo in Hawaii. She said, "Our dad was the first grand marshal in the first parade. He'd want me to do this." The 35th annual rodeo parade wound up bunting-draped Baldwin Avenue: horses and riders; traditional pa'u units with their mounts garlanded in leis; and the Ikua Purdy Ohana, descendants of the famous Hawaiian paniolo honored in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Hawaiian cowboys were riding and roping long before the American West was won. Consistent winners in mainland rodeos, they wowed the crowds at the rodeo following the parade. Dusty Miranda rode a bucking bronco bareback to the limit. Jerry Thompson's daughter Andrea, looking so tiny in the saddle, had fans cheering with her breakneck barrel race finish. But it was the bulls, weighing nearly 2,000 malevolent pounds each, that tested the men's mettle. We could almost smell the adrenaline as cowboys prayed, stretched, and twisted before climbing into the chutes and onto the backs of the brutes for the most terrifying seconds of their lives. Makawao was once again Macho-wow. Happily reassured, we drove Upcountry's back roads. Driving these byways is pure joy, especially in June when the jacaranda trees strew their lavender blossoms with profligate abandon. The prized flower, however, is the enormous protea, whose colossal blooms look like flowers of the moon. The species, a native of South Africa, is about 300 million years old. It was pioneered as a Maui crop by the University of Hawaii Agricultural Substation in Kula, which offers a self-guided walking tour of its interesting acreage. Two exceptional gardens grow in Upcountry. At Kula Botanical Garden, the walkways meander among the great trees and exuberant tropical flowers. There's a koi pond with lilies and a wall of black-eyed Susans. Enchanting Floral Garden is tidier, more compact, but crams in more than 1,500 species of plants and flowers, all artistically grouped by color and arranged among trellises, gazebos, and paths. Most bear name tags. In addition to 30 varieties of protea, there are an orchid tree, sweet white pineapples, jade vines, and orchids. Free samples of fruit are offered. Looming over this lush green belt is the cold summit of Haleakala, up above the tree line. People drive there, as if on pilgrimage, to see the sunrise. With hundreds of others, we shivered at the lip of the crater and saw the sun sitting below the clouds, all soft and pink and radiant. Watching it rise was like seeing time being born and the new day tumbling from the hand of the Creator. It was the most soft and benign of mornings. The pilgrims checked their watches. Most were bikers, signed up for the harrowing bicycle ride from the summit to the sea. We took our time watching the sun paint the hills and cinder cones in umber, amber, green, and even lilac. We drove to Hosmer Grove by the park entrance and walked in the sun-dappled woods listening to the trills, arias, and police-whistle notes of native birds such as the iiwi, apapane, and amakihi. Afterward, we rewarded ourselves with Belgian pancakes at the Kula Lodge, then a massage and facial at Spa Luna down in funky Haiku town. This is the Crate & Barrel of spas, located in an old warehouse. But the treatments are first-rate and half the price of those at spas—even cheaper if you request a student practitioner. Owner Samana Benedetti once wanted to be a doctor. Her approach is therapeutic and holistic. "This is not a fluffy beauty thing," she said. She employs European, Chinese, and Ayurvedic techniques, and can arrange both tarot and palm readings. Our other reward was dinner at Haliimaile General Store. In this tiny plantation hamlet, owner-chef Bev Gannon serves Hawaii regional cuisine with a finesse that has earned her rural restaurant an international reputation (in announcing its annual dining awards last year, Hawaii Magazine said, "One of the . . . sustained creative influences on Honolulu regional cuisine (is) Bev Gannon, whose Haliimaile General Store remains one of Maui's leading lights"). We started dinner with fish cakes accompanied by a ginger cilantro sauce, progressed to a fine Caesar salad, and enjoyed entrees of Hunan-style rack of lamb (me) and a scallop stir-fry with unusual vegetables (Jim). We shared a feather-light chocolate cake, baked by Bev's daughter Teresa "Cheech" Gannon, a pastry chef who has a nearly fanatical following. Another of the amusing pastimes here is checking out the town bulletin boards. These are actual notices: "Male involved in childhood grief therapy desires to be held by woman (grounded and some awareness of holding compassionate space). I'm serious and safe." "Perfect for Mother's Day: certificate for Qi and Five Element Balancing." "Learn to create small flower arrangement, then commune with the flowers." There were phone numbers for colon hydrotherapy, a course in sexual health, swing dance classes, and a cleaning lady who cleans with aloha. Some people seek enlightenment along more traditional lines. The 1894 Holy Ghost Octagonal Church in Kula is like a little Fabergé egg. Inside are an ornate altar and stations of the cross that are unusually fine examples of 19th-century ecclesiastical art. The church is on the national and state registers of historical places. When it was diagnosed with termite damage, parish volunteers raised $1.5 million by baking Portuguese sweet bread. With the debt paid off, Charles Lopes, who mixed the batter, said, "Next we're going to restore the old churches at Ulupalakua and Keokea." On the feast of the Holy Ghost, parishioners host a luau. It's their way of saying thanks for their many blessings—most of all for living Upcountry amid peace, plenty, and beauty.

Photography by Larry Ulrich


This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.