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In Search of Old Maui

Troy Johnson turns back the clock in Kaanapali



There’s not much here. No state-of-the-art water slide. No fake-rock swimming pool for billionaires. No miniature theme park with carvings of pagan gods. It’s just a lawn with shade trees, and it is perfect. I am standing on the plain, pretty grass and I don’t feel stimulated. I’m wonderfully bored. No push notification can undo my aloha.

I’d never been to Hawaii before. I was always pretty sure it had been Disneyfied. I envisioned its rich pan-Asian island culture turned into a sort of cruise ship that had run ashore; mainland tourism dollars transforming its serene coastline into a resortopia. I had no interest. So I went to destinations with fewer footprints, like Costa Rica and Indonesia. But extended family members have weddings; that’s what they do. And I recently found myself headed to Maui.

I was determined to find old Maui. Admittedly, I wasn’t kayaking around Molokai or tent squatting at Kanaha Beach. But I head for Kaanapali’s two oldest tourist destinations. The originals: Sheraton Maui and Kaanapali Beach Hotel (KBH). After decades and billions of tourism dollars, was their old magic still alive?

Kaanapali Beach Hotel, opened in 1964, is my sweet spot. I spend days at the tiki bar with “Uncle” Duke. He’s lived in Kaanapali since he was 3; he’s now 70. He estimates he’s made over 500,000 mai tais. I help him get to 500,010. “Now that the sugar cane fields are gone, so is the rain,” he tells me about how Kaanapali has changed. “The cane pulled the clouds down.” He is Isaac from The Love Boat, cheerfully marooned in his tiny umbrella-drink hut. Locals come to visit him every single day. He doesn’t serve drinks as much as adopt people for days at a time.

The Hale Huaka‘i aquatic center at Kaanapali Beach Hotel offers surf lessons, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkeling, and more.

The KBH pool is quaint to a point. Its most notable quality is that it’s shaped like a cartoon whale. That’s okay. I didn’t come to Hawaii for a pool. The Pacific Ocean is the best pool. The hotel has an aquatics center run by native Hawaiians who’ve navigated the tricky waters since they could walk. I paddleboard around the sacred “Black Rock” with Iokepa Naeole, manager of the Hale Huaka‘i aquatic center. He explains that Hawaiian kings used to jump off the rock, competing for the smallest splash. I watch a mai-tai’d twentysomething jump off the rock. His splash is large, as is his joy.

KBH lives up to its billing as “Hawaii’s Most Hawaiian Hotel.” Instead of $300 lava rock spa treatments, they have ukulele lessons, lei-making sessions, and a very traditional luau feast and performance. There are far posher resorts along the Kaanapali strip. In comparison, KBH feels like a picnic. It has this little spot of grass, looking out at the 78-degree oceanic cove, with that boat-drink sun, and the trade winds. Aloha cannot be funded into existence. Seems to me aloha is best achieved in the absence of built things, and that is KBH.

Aloha cannot be funded into existence. Seems to me aloha is best achieved in the absence of built things.

Next, I move down the road to Kaanapali’s oldest hotel. The Sheraton Maui is built on Kaanapali’s sacred Black Rock and the tranquil, snorkel-happy bay. They were the first hotel to arrive here, in 1963, so they got the alpha real estate. This resort is sprawling. It’s also confusing. Elevators seem to go sideways. M. C. Escher may have been the architect. Getting lost is part of the experience. Like KBH, the Sheraton is unpretentious. There are people in tailored resort-wear, and people whose Corona tank tops struggle to hide their beery midsections. Having both refined and unrefined qualities myself, I prefer this cross-section of American resort friends.

From the balcony of my room, I can watch a single palm tree bend to the trade winds as the sun sets. I climb the rock, which is feet away from my room. I jump. My large splash is not royal.

To get a counterpoint to my travel back in island time, I check into the Hyatt Residence Club, opened in 2014. It’s stunning. The kitchen in my residence is nicer than the one in my home. The lanai is larger than my home. There is a kids’ pool and an adults’ pool, because splashing and kid noise constitute the great vacation dilemma. There are so many waterfalls. I feel very adult, and can smell my own wealth. My family visits my residence and threatens to move in permanently.

My affinity for old Maui doesn’t waver in the presence of the Hyatt’s open, airy, arty newness. But I’m also not such a nostalgic Luddite that I can’t appreciate the grandeur.

My cousin eventually gets married in a park overlooking the water. I don’t see a turtle, which vexes me. But amid a thousand attractions, I’ve managed to find Maui’s originals—banyan trees and hot sand and sun and oceans. It’s still there, in the cracks between the fancy.

Where to Eat

Star Noodle
Food Network chef Beau MacMillan found out I was in Maui and texted to say drop everything and try this place out. Though founding chef Sheldon Simeon (Top Chef season 10) isn’t there anymore, quality at this hip pan-Asian bistro is top notch. It’s up the hill from the main tourist area, and worth the very small detour. The Ahi Avo with lemon-pressed olive oil, sambal, and usukuchi (lighter, saltier, sweeter soy sauce) is mind-blowingly fresh. Also try the steamed pork buns and ramen.
286 Kupuohi Street, Lahaina


The Gazebo
Unassuming, stuck in time, perched in a perfect Maui corner—The Gazebo is the embodiment of old Hawaii. The star is the macademia-nut pancake, but the macademia-nut cinnamon roll gets us drooling, deep-fried as it is and topped with coconut crème anglaise. Naughty. The line forms early, so dawn patrollers are rewarded.
5315 Lower Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina

Chef Mark Ellman, who also owns Mala and Frida’s, is one of the biggest names in Maui food. Honu is his seafood, steak, and pizza joint. Since he’s a longtime vet, it’s no surprise Hona has one of the best views in Maui. This is modern bistro stuff, from kale salads to mac and cheeses to gourmet pies. And it’s about half the cost of Mama’s Fish House.
1295 Front Street, Lahaina

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