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A Hawaiian island lures visitors with sweet air, silky sands, and days of ukulele, hula, and bargain feasts.

Kaanapali Beach, Maui
Photo caption
Beaches like those at Kāʻanapali are what lure many visitors to Maui.

This is not your fantasy untouched tropical island, but still, as I walk down West Maui’s Kaanapali Beach one evening looking for a place to eat, it occurs to me how much I like this indisputably “touched” region of Hawaii. The restaurant choices alone make me happy: I can go to Leilani’s for ono tacos, or to Maui Fish & Pasta (formerly Cane & Taro) for fusion sushi, or to the Hula Grill for kalua pork pot stickers. To my right is the long shore with its soft sand and calm waters. To my left stretches a bounty of eateries and attractions. Would I be having a better time without so many amenities, shave-ice stands, and classes in surfing and hula dancing? Who am I kidding?

In the 1960s, the west side of Maui—the 11-mile strip of coastline that stretches north from the old whaling outpost of Lahaina to the posh resort community of Kapalua—began its transformation from an agricultural backwater. Today the region offers over-the-top luaus, diverse restaurants, and shops that sell everything from coconut-shell bikinis to Louis Vuitton bags, and you can find hotels, condos, and resorts for nearly every budget.

I decided to stay at the moderately priced Kaanapali Beach Hotel with its luxuriant gardens, proximity to the ocean, and range of free Hawaiian cultural activities, such as the ukulele lesson I join on the patio one afternoon. My first mistake is the pronunciation: “It’s OO-kulele,” says Mika Villaren, the amiable instructor who teaches our small group the fingering to the melancholy “Aloha Oe,” a love song composed by Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. “Mustang Sally” comes easier, and by the end of the class our group interprets the Beatles’ “Something” rather successfully.

I could easily spend a week lounging by the hotel pool, snorkeling, learning to cut a pineapple—but to taste some of the area’s other treats, I drive 10 minutes south to Lahaina, which in the 19th century became a key provisioning (and partying) stop for New England whalers en route to Alaska.

West Maui’s grogshops and brothels have long since been replaced by a number of outstanding restaurants, such as the Plantation House in Kapalua, 20 minutes north of Lahaina, where you can sip Château Margaux with your filet mignon. But I find no better food—and no better deal—than at Aloha Mixed Plate, a casual seaside restaurant where I eat an immense “plate lunch” of pork, macaroni salad, rice, and lomi lomi (a cold salmon side dish with onions and tomato). The bill comes to $9 including dessert, an aromatic and refreshing cup of jellylike coconut pudding called haupia.

After attempting an easy hula class one afternoon, I appreciate the dazzling skill of the dancers at the Old Lahaina Luau, which the Maui News has named the best on the island. I don’t know whether to focus on the show or the buffet, which is every bit as intriguing. Highlights: the jeweled cubes of raw ahi tossed with green onions and seaweed, the warm local sweet potatoes, and the kalua pig, pulled before our eyes from the cinders of the imu, a traditional pit oven.

Of course, none of these draws—not the luaus, the fancy digs, the ukulele lessons—would be here if not for West Maui’s welcoming beaches. You can relax at quiet Lahaina Beach, with its calm, clear waters, or take a 25-minute drive north to Honolua Bay, or check out the lovely, stony Honokowai Beach. Still, it’s hard to resist Kaanapali Beach. Long and sandy, Kaanapali is perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and boogie boarding. Snorkelers flock to commune with the giant sea turtles, rainbow-hued fish, and octopuses. I consider enrolling in a two-hour surfing class, but I’ve been toying with something even more daring—paragliding.

So on my last morning in paradise I board a pontoon on Kaanapali Beach with five other would-be parasailers, including a flushed 67-year-old great-grandmother who says she has wanted to do this “for years.” I haven’t wanted to do it for years; I’ve wanted to do it for four days. Once we’re safely at sea, the guide straps me into a harness and, as the boat surges forward, I float gently skyward 1,200 feet above West Maui, which appears as a tiny strip of civilization with a ribbon of white sand abutting a boundless ocean. It is utterly serene and beautiful up here, the only sound the rippling of the parachute. But when my 10 minutes end, I’m ready to get back down to West Maui for more fun.

Photography courtesy Maui Visitors Bureau/Ron Dahlquist Photography

This article was first published in December 2010 and updated in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.