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

By Susan Haynes
October 08, 2006
Douglas Peebles

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

Visitors often zoom their rental cars to Maui's well-knownresorts, dismissing this one-time whaling town on the island's westcoast as "touristy." But Lahaina has everything travelers couldwant: Water sports? Check. Proof that fine cuisine and water viewscan coexist? Check. How about Hawaiian authenticity? That's adouble-check―indigenous royalty made their homes here forgenerations, and Lahaina was capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom until160 years ago.

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

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

Nowhere is that more true than at the Plantation Inn. After onenight 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, despiteaward-winning Gerard's restaurant on the first floor and FrontStreet nightlife teeming less than two blocks away.

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

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

Art-night buyers and browsers disperse among dining spots alongthe 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 alwaysfall for the Kona coffee-roasted rack of lamb. Another perennialchoice, especially for seafood: Pacific'O, at the 505 Front Streetcomplex.

In that same cluster, you'll find extraordinarily beautifulpieces at Joëlle C. Gallery, and you can have wispy,one-of-a-kind fashions made at Maggie Coulombe. Her revealingdesigns call to mind an anecdote from Akoni. "[Anglo settlers] madeour 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 thebeach half-naked!"

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

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