So You Want to Live on ... Maui, Hawaii

SYWTLI Maui, Hawaii
Photo: NOAA

A popular sign around Maui reads, "Slow down. This ain't the mainland." Developer Pete Martin heeds the advice. "I can see you on Friday," he tells an appointment seeker, "but we'll have to be finished by 3. That's when I go mountain biking."

Over in Kahului, the island's largest town, Alan Ireland pauses, menus in hand, at Manana Garage. Why did he switch from a 30-year management track with such restaurants as New York's 21 Club and Dallas' Mansion on Turtle Creek to open this hot spot for Nuevo Latino cuisine? "For the same reasons a lot of people buy one-way tickets here--the beaches, the climate, the beauty," he says. "And Hawaiian people have chosen not to participate in the American excessiveness of ambition. I like that."

Japan-born Paige De Ponte agrees. "On Maui, people have a saying: 'Too much, not good. Plenty, all right.'" She left high-fashion photography in New York and Milan to create Kumula'au Hale Private Residential Club in the town of Pa'ia. "On Maui, nobody cares if you're famous or rich," she says. "If you care, then you shouldn't move here."

"There's a different definition of wealth here," says Kula resident Thom Search, who came from Florida 23 years ago. The athletic, 50s-something grandfather guides sunrise bike rides down from Haleakala Crater. "We're big on 'ohana [family]. A strong family life is wealth," he adds.

Reverence for family at least partly explains the wide berth for tolerance on this island. Haoles (white people), Japanese, Hawaiians, Filipinos, Chinese, and Hispanics thrive on an impressive degree of cultural harmony. Newcomers are welcomed from around the world--Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Canada.

"I love living in a place where diversity informs everything you do," says Lynne Woods, president of Maui's chamber of commerce. "There is no perception of 'minority, majority.' And there's acceptance of varying belief systems."

Within this mix also lies a struggle, especially amid Hawaiiana. That's parlance for the resurging interest in Hawaiian history, language, arts, and customs. In historic Lahaina, the Friends of Moku'ula organization represents the trend. Across from the Friends office, a baseball field and parking lot cover the rich wetlands and pond island of Moku'ula, one of Hawaii's most sacred sites for hundreds of years. Aloha spirit is helping Friends raise funds for a multimillion-dollar environmental and cultural restoration. Says project assistant Shirley Kaha'i, "You don't need to yell or scream. Just speak sincerely and from the heart."

Those allied with Friends and other indigenous groups tend to resist plans such as Pete's latest--to develop Olowalu, a 15-minute drive south from Lahaina. The Hawaiian name evokes its origins as an ahupua'a, a land division that gave a wedge of mountain, stream, and ocean--in other words, subsistence--to each Hawaiian chief and his people. "Then Olowalu became a sugar plantation," Pete says. When sugar was no longer king, Pete bought 700 acres, parceled it into about 40 lots, and wants buyers to build homes in the traditional island style of the plantation manager's house. "There will be an 80-acre cultural reserve whose management board are members of the Hawaiian community," Pete continues. "We have to have ho'oponopono [to make it right]."

That's an important mission here. In 1993, President Clinton signed a resolution apologizing for the 1893 U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Though some dismiss the act as merely symbolic, it has fueled debate over the islands' potential return to sovereignty. "Even the Hawaiians don't agree on the matter," Lynne says. "There's everything from 'we want our land back' to 'go with the system--don't rock the boat.'"

Whatever the outcome of Maui's issues, it's likely that the spirit of aloha--an empowering word--will prevail. In 1986 Hawaii's legislature enacted The Aloha Spirit law. Hawaii Revised Statutes, section 5-7.5, pays homage to the ways of the ancestors, who believed in mutual regard and collective existence. At its roots, aloha means an exchange of breath, the life force, and Hawaiians summon that essence when they say it.

(published 2002)

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