Maui's Pot O' Gold

Douglas Peebles
On the island of rainbows, historic Lahaina offers a treasure trove of diversity-and fun.

The soft afternoon mist passes, leaving an arc of color in the skies over Maui. From the deck of the Trilogy VI catamaran, sailing into Lahaina Harbor, the rainbow looks like it just might touch the Plantation Inn. It's a sign that I made the right choice, booking into the 19-room hotel in the heart of town. My day trip to Lanai was perfect, but I'm eager to return to this thriving community that I've grown to love over the years.

Visitors often zoom their rental cars to Maui's well-known resorts, dismissing this one-time whaling town on the island's west coast as "touristy." But Lahaina has everything travelers could want: Water sports? Check. Proof that fine cuisine and water views can coexist? Check. How about Hawaiian authenticity? That's a double-check―indigenous royalty made their homes here for generations, and Lahaina was capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom until 160 years ago.

The town flourishes as a cultural hodgepodge―a description that won't make Akoni Akana twitch. He's executive director of Friends of Mokuula, one of Hawaii's most esteemed heritage-conservation groups. "Hawaii has been isolated," he says. "But we have people coming from all over, and we end up like me―I'm part Hawaiian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Scottish, and Tahitian!"

A stroll down Front Street underscores Akoni's point. Many of today's residents are descendants of Polynesian settlers and Asian entrepreneurs as well as Anglo missionaries and whaling captains. Modern visitors are equally eclectic. "People all over the world dream of a Hawaiian vacation," says Maui resident Luana Paahana, "but they want to feel at home. You can feel at home in Lahaina."

Nowhere is that more true than at the Plantation Inn. After one night in my comfortable two-room suite with its wicker-furnished, covered balcony, I felt like a queen in a gracious private home. Soundproof guest quarters stay pin-drop quiet, despite award-winning Gerard's restaurant on the first floor and Front Street nightlife teeming less than two blocks away.

Wedged between the mountains and the sea, Lahaina unfolds like a little resort, with access to snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, and day trips a short walk or bike ride from the hotel.

The Plantation Inn's location proves especially handy on Art Night, every Friday, year-round. More than two dozen galleries keep doors open, wine uncorked, hors d'oeuvres ready, and noted artists on site until 10 p.m. Front Street morphs into a vivid corridor of sculpture, oils, watercolors, prints, ceramics, and jewelry.

Art-night buyers and browsers disperse among dining spots along the way. One of my favorites remains David Paul's Lahaina Grill, where you can enjoy some of the best food in town. I seem to always fall for the Kona coffee-roasted rack of lamb. Another perennial choice, especially for seafood: Pacific'O, at the 505 Front Street complex.

In that same cluster, you'll find extraordinarily beautiful pieces at Joëlle C. Gallery, and you can have wispy, one-of-a-kind fashions made at Maggie Coulombe. Her revealing designs call to mind an anecdote from Akoni. "[Anglo settlers] made our Hawaiian ancestors wear wool, all buttoned up," he said. Pointing to his jeans and long-sleeve shirt, he then explained, "We're still covered up, and all the 'missionaries' are down on the beach half-naked!"

This animated spirit of Lahaina isn't easy to leave. With my departure approaching, I dust off my rental car and tool down Front Street. Windows open, a CD of Bruddah Iz turned up, I give the shaka―customary Hawaiian hand-signal greeting―to a passerby. He flashes a wide smile and signs right back.

"Aloha, Lahaina," I think. Until next time.

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