Walking Into West Maui’s Past
By Chris Millikan
Frequently escaping the west coast winter blues on sunny
Maui, my hubby and I inevitably head for her former kingdom capital and bawdy
These days in old Lahaina-town, art lovers can enjoy dozens
of galleries, bargain hunters explore countless shops or boutiques and diners
take pleasure in sunset suppers overlooking neighbouring Lana’i.
But this time, we step back to the days of royalty; sea
captains and missionaries instead…and soon find out that West Maui’s pretty
seaside town has always been a bustling place.
When King Kamehameha the Great conquered Maui and married
into its royal family, he’d designated Lahaina the capital of a united
Hawaii…and it remained so until Kamehameha III moved it over to Honolulu in
Remarkable legacies still surround her beautiful harbor,
including the hauola stone, a sacred healing place used in royal birthing. The
first western-style building in the islands and royal residence until the
1850’s, the floor of Kamehameha III’s brick palace remains nearby. While still
living there in 1840, he’d commissioned the neighboring lighthouse, still in use
today. Originally it had been a high wooden tower topped with whale-oil lamps,
which Hawaiians kept alight for $20 a year.
As homeport to the Pacific whaling fleet from the 1820’s to
1860’s, hundreds and hundreds of ships anchored here; gritty grogshops lined her
streets. Even Herman Melville had rambled around town, scribbling notes for Moby
Dick. And the wood-framed Pioneer Inn continues to post strict
turn-of-the-century regulations in its rooms to this day.
Dominating Wharf Street since1859, Lahaina Courthouse
served as a customs house, post office, police station as well as a courtroom
over the years. Nowadays home to the Heritage Museum and arts society, the
visitor center there provides free historical walking guides.
Wandering under the famous banyan tree planted by Sheriff
Smith in 1873, locals tell us that it now shades almost an acre. Watching
carvers shape sleek new canoes during the annual Festival of Canoes, I muse,
“There’s always something entertaining going on under this marvelous
tree…festivals… markets… music…celebrations…”
At Banyan Park’s southwest corner a small section of a fort
endures, built in 1831 after raucous sailors lobbed cannonballs into town,
disputing with missionaries over Hawaiian women visiting their ships. Demolished
twenty years later, hand-cut coral blocks from the 20-foot-high walls built the
jail remaining at Prison and Waine’e Streets, where we stop to imagine drunks
and deserters restrained for days in the tiny spartan cells.
Nearby, royal burial sites in Waine’e Cemetery have been
sacred to Hawaiians since 1823. Melville’s cousin and several shipmates lie in
Seamen’s Cemetery and further along, chiefs and commoners, captains and sailors,
missionary children and elders alike, lie in historic Waiola Churchyard.
Prompting the nickname Venice of the Pacific, extensive
canoe channels connected numerous taro terraces in what is now Lahaina’s
downtown. And Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliokalani grew up in a
large grass house just along Canal Street. On this site today, the Episcopal
Church welcomes all visitors; its rare koa altar features a unique Hawaiian
Madonna. Next-door, Kamehameha IIIs two-storied oceanfront palace stands
unfinished…he’d preferred living in pili-grass beach-huts cooled by the trade
Though hard to imagine these days, a tiny island once
existed in a 14-acre freshwater pond at Shaw and Front Streets, home to Maui
chiefs and three Hawaiian kings. Until the 1840’s important chiefs were entombed
there in elaborate royal coffins. After removal of their sacred remains, coral
rubble later filled in this pond and in 1918, a ballpark installed. Since 1998,
Friends of Moku’ula have been working to restore its royal glory.
We duck into the Baldwin Mission Home, welcoming the cooler
afternoon air under the spreading kukui-nut trees shading Front Street’s oldest
building. A docent at Baldwin House enthusiastically recounts, “Built from
coral, stone and wood in 1834, at one time this place was a busy mission and
medical center…and most of these lovely 19th-century furnishings were payment
for services. You know, Doctor Dwight Baldwin saved thousands of lives on Maui
with the early use of smallpox vaccinations and vigilant quarantines. Even so, a
great many islanders died, leaving a severe shortage of workers for the sugar
industry, made prosperous with irrigation flumes built by his youngest son.”
Down the block, two-story WO Hing Temple served early
Chinese laborers recruited for the cane fields; now rare artifacts and ornate
altars showcase their history. Surrounded by gigantic rusted woks and kitchen
implements in an adjacent community cookhouse, we absorb the romance of old
Hawaii captured in Thomas Edison’s earliest movies filmed in 1898 and 1903.
Along Front Street near the Mala Wharf, we end our
explorations on the Jodo Mission’s peaceful grounds. Commemorating Japanese
arrival on the island in 1868, the largest Buddha outside Japan sits serenely
against West Maui’s pastoral mountains and a graceful three-story pagoda soars
into cloudless blue Hawaiian skies…the perfect spot for contemplation of our
For Further Information
Maui Visitor’s Bureau:
If you’d like an exuberant spin through Lahaina history,
West Maui Bicycles:
www.westmauicycles.com rents a variety of bikes.
Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa:
www.maui.hyatt.com offers the fabulous Drums of the Pacific Luau, featuring
traditional foods, crafts & old Hawaiian dances.
Weston Maui Resort & Spa:
www.westin.com/maui for traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage utilizing
soothing, upcountry lavender products.
Resort Quest Kaanapali Shores:
www.ResortQuestHawaii.com for the ultimate condo experience.
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