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Lahaina, Maui: History & Culture

If you look past the souvenir shops in Maui’s tourist center, you'll discover a former whaling town with a rollicking past and a pleasurable present.

Lahaina, Maui
Photo caption
Historic Front Street in downtown Lahaina runs along the water for a mile and a half.

To get a sense of the mixed currents coursing through Lahaina, consider that the remnants of a house built around 1800 for King Kamehameha I lie just blocks from the Hard Rock Cafe. Or that the 1901 Pioneer Inn overlooks a harbor now used for sunset cruises and submarine tours. Lahaina has been many things: capital of Hawaii. Home to missionaries. Harbor for New England whaling ships. All this was long ago, before whale hunting gave way to whale–watching, before the first snorkeler strapped on a mask. Yet the past still plays a vital role in Lahaina, making the place what it is today—a Hawaiian time capsule tucked inside a tourist town. The history of Lahaina isn’t instantly apparent when you pull onto Front Street, the main thoroughfare. It’s a busy road crammed with restaurants, galleries, and souvenir shops selling "unique" gifts that seem unique until you step into the store next door. All around Lahaina, modern–day Hawaii is marketed as memorabilia: flowery muumuus, shell necklaces, just mauied T–shirts. Tour guides work the wharf like laid–back barkers. They’ll take you deep–sea fishing, sunset cruising, snorkeling with dolphins.

But look beyond that first impression and another Lahaina comes into view. Like the town’s most striking landmark—a giant banyan that shades two–thirds of an acre and is the largest tree of its kind in the Hawaiian Islands—Lahaina has ancient roots.

Centuries before Captain James Cook "discovered" Hawaii in 1778, Polynesian immigrants arrived here in hand–carved canoes. By the early 1800s bigger ships were sailing into the port, initiating a period of social tumult. Missionaries and whalers made up the bulk of the new arrivals. One group had strict ideas about virtue, the other had an appetite for vice—opposing motives that boiled down to a conflict between God and grog.

A local prison, built in 1853 to lock up delinquent sailors, is one of dozens of landmarks you’ll visit on a self–guided Lahaina walking tour. On the first floor of the Old Lahaina Courthouse, you can pick up a map to such historic places as the site of the Richards House, named for missionary William Richards, whose outspoken stance against brothels and booze halls so angered a ship captain that he fired a cannonball at the dwelling; or the Wo Hing Temple Museum, a former hangout for a Chinese fraternal society. Next to the museum’s main building in the cook’s house, you can watch some of the first silent movies shot by Thomas Edison. The early 1900s footage includes images of both labor and leisure around the islands: men toiling in sugarcane fields and others strolling Waikiki Beach in dark hats and suits.

Beachwear is different in Lahaina these days. And so are aquatic activities. Along the harbor, tour operators offer whale–watching, snorkeling, deep–sea fishing, and rides on glass–bottom boats. Atlantis Adventures doesn’t go far, but it goes deep. The tour company takes travelers on a submarine to a sunken ship that lies beneath 100 feet of water. To the south of the harbor, surf instructors offer beginner’s lessons on the gentle waves near Kamehameha Iki Park. To the north, at small, sheltered Baby Beach, swimmers bask in a sea as warm and soothing as bathwater.

Back on land, tourism and tradition blend beautifully in Ulalena at the Maui Theatre. Performing to live music, dancers and acrobats in exquisite costumes relate Hawaiian myths and legends with an artistry that recalls Cirque du Soleil. As the curtain opens, the Kumulipo, a stirring Hawaiian creation chant, echoes throughout the theater. Before long the demigod Maui appears onstage to create the Hawaiian Islands by pulling them out of the sea with his magic fishhook.

Island history also plays out in performances accompanying a Hawaiian feast at the Old Lahaina Luau, held every night along the water. Aloha Mixed Plate is a less expensive option for authentic local dishes, such as slow–roasted pork, poi (mashed taro root), and kalbi ribs (Korean–style short ribs marinated in a sesame teriyaki sauce). The casual service fits the setting: patio dining with an ocean view.

Down the road at Cheeseburger in Paradise, you can sip fruity drinks as Jimmy Buffett tunes drift amid ocean breezes just blocks from where whalers used to land. That’s Lahaina. Come for the history, stay for happy hour.

Photography by Tony Novak-Clifford

This article was first published in July 2006. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.