Away from the corporate hustle, beach culture meets old Hawaii on Maui’s North Shore.
PA‘IA, Maui —
If you want to see buskers, locally owned shops and galleries, champion windsurfers on the water and snoozing sea turtles on the beach, ditch the West Maui resorts. Head for Pa‘ia, on the island’s North Shore.
You won’t find McDonald’s (historic Lahaina has one) or Safeway (ditto). But Pa‘ia’s little eateries — such as Café Mambo, Café des Amis or Pa‘ia Bay Coffee — will feed you just fine with no cookie-cutter look or feel. And Mana Foods, the town’s only supermarket, is one of the best natural food stores in the islands, with more than 400 local vendors.
If you go
Parking can be a problem
Pa‘ia has not gone undiscovered, and being on the famous road to Hana hasn’t helped it keep a low profile. Arrive before 10 a.m. to dodge crowds and find the easiest parking. A free, no-time limit (so far) county lot is off the Hana Highway on the west edge of town as you arrive from Kahului. Up Baldwin Avenue, there’s a pay lot near the post office.
Stay nearby and enjoy the town in morning and evening when crowds are in West Maui. We stayed at Ku‘au Inn B&B, a stately old sugar-plantation home a mile east of Pa‘ia. Close to the busy road, but with lots of charm, including outdoor showers; from $145 a night, kuauinn.com.
In the center of town, with some ocean views, is the stylish Pa‘ia Inn, paiainn.com.
On the hunt for souvenirs? Who needs ABC Stores (the Lahaina area has five) when Pa‘ia’s Alice in Hulaland, 19 Baldwin Ave., carries an astonishing array of Hawaiiana kitsch — and more than 50 ukuleles on sale, in everything from bubble-gum colors to seriously crafted local woods, $66 to $439.
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“Pa‘ia is the windsurfing capital of the world (at nearby Ho’okipa Beach) but it’s more than that,” says Noelani Sugata, director of the Pa‘ia Town Association. “There are still local descendants who live … near the old mill. People come here because it still has small-town charm.”
“We and (the nearby town of) Makawao are known as the independent shopping places, not corporate,” said Michele Lin, manager of Biasa Rose boutique. “People get here and see that.”
The place’s history is rooted in sugar production. The Pa‘ia Sugar Mill, in business here from 1880 to 2000, brought workers from as far away as China, Korea, Portugal and the Philippines. In the early 20th century, Pa‘ia was the population center of Maui. But by the 1950s, workers started moving to the new so-called “Dream City” of nearby Kahului, home to today’s international airport. In the 1960s came the newly arriving sons and daughters of the Flower Power movement who were looking for some place different, and saw charm in Pa‘ia’s plantation-style, false-front buildings. It became known as Maui’s hippie haven.
To this day, the town retains that influence of harmoniously mixed ethnicities and laidback lifestyles, which blossomed anew with the influx of beach culture when windsurfing took hold in the late 1970s.
One spinoff of the surfing vibe: Pa‘ia has grown a reputation as Maui’s place to buy a locally made bikini.
“There are lots of free spirits, lots of out-of-the-box ideas,” Sugata told me over coffee at Sip Me, one of the homegrown coffee shops in this town with no Starbucks.
Seen on a morning walk through town on a recent showery Monday:
• A wiry old man wearing only his board shorts, Joe Cool shades and long, graying dreadlocks, looking tougher than the leashed, well-muscled hound he walked up one side of the street and down another.
• On a shop door in one of the aging buildings, a sign urging visitors to “Push it … Push it real good.”
• A man with a dreadlocked beard. A flock of female tourists in jeans and ball caps heading for breakfast. A long table full of men at Cafe Mambo bearing the distinct look of a Kiwanis meeting. (No neckties, this is Hawaii.)
• Mana Foods’ new roof and spiffy new paint job — palmetto green with white trim, a full makeover from the dilapidated look it bore when I last visited. On the sidewalk out front, a young man sitting atop his rolled sleeping bag and drawing soulful tunes from a wooden flute, collecting dollars in a cup labeled “Peace, Love, Unity.” Inside: men with gray ponytails, others with funny hats, more dreadlocks, more surfing jams and a big sign: “Please, no eating before you have paid for your food.”
In this town of no worries, it might be easy to forget such a detail.
Even the turtles seem to have taken a chill pill on Maui’s North Shore. As rain showers fell around noon one day, my wife and I pulled our rental car into the unmarked parking lot of a tiny beach park off the Hana Highway just east of Pa‘ia. With a close-up view through our windshield of sand and spearmint-green surf, we ate a sack lunch and watched local kids giggle in the waves with no worries about the warm rain.
We sat for 20 minutes before realizing that the large “rock” the kids and their frolicking dogs had been running past, not 50 feet from us, was actually a green sea turtle, the size of a large foot stool, hauled up on the beach for a rest.
I got out of the car, walked the length of the short beach and counted 22 turtles siesta-snoozing on the sand. It’s a common sight on this stretch of coast.
Beaches nearby at the renowned Mama’s Fish House and at Ho’okipa Beach Park also collect turtles, perhaps resting from their own adventures in the surf. Give them respectful distance, take only long-lens photos (no perching your kids on turtles; they’re not ponies) and everyone’s happy.
Turtle-watching aside, it’s a rare day you can’t catch world-class windsurfers in action at Ho‘okipa, 2.3 miles east of Pa‘ia’s sole traffic signal. A spectrum of sails adds to Maui’s natural tendency to create rainbows. Come in the fall to see pros compete in the Maui Aloha Classic, a stop on the International Windsurfing Tour, Oct. 28-Nov. 10, 2018.
Shopping, galleries and dining
In a shopping mood? Poke your nose in at Maui Hands gallery, 84 Hana Hwy., which represents some 300 local artists and carries shell leis made by Native Hawaiian residents of the remote, restricted island of Ni‘ihau.
“They’re the only shells that gemologists grade for insurance purposes,” said gallery manager K-Lán Rohde, explaining that Ni‘ihau islanders collect tiny shells and sort them by hand to create leis in earth tones and subtle sunset hues, making them highly valued. (She showed me a 10-strand lei joined by a cowrie shell priced at $14,800; you can also pick up a potholder shaped like a gecko, for just $18.)
Strolling a couple blocks of Hana Highway and up intersecting Baldwin Avenue, my wife and I Iooked in windows and wandered through these Pa‘ia shops:
• Nuage Bleu, with women’s and kids’ wear. My wife liked the kids’ beach wraps that can be worn like a cape, with bunny or monster heads.
• A shop called Sun Showers, with a hula-girl onesie for a toddler.
• Jaggers, with “made in Hawaii” Aloha shirts for $35, or a kids’ “cabana set” of shorts and shirt for about $20.
• Biasa Rose, with home décor and women’s wear, in business here for 26 years. I liked the woodcut Hawaiian alphabet book by local artist Caroline Killhour and New Yorker Brendan McBryan.
• Mermaid Inn boutique, where you can get a singlet proclaiming that “Mermaids Don’t Do Homework.”
• Or at Kiwi John’s, pick up a T-shirt claiming “A Shark Ate My Homework” ($36).
We liked Cafe des Amis, 42 Baldwin Ave., where the 4-6 p.m. happy hour included half-price cocktails, including the Lilikoi Margarita (usually $9.95). We enjoyed a curry dish with rice, butternut squash, spinach and chickpeas, $13.95, served at lacquered wooden tables in a covered, open-air courtyard beneath potted palms.
A relatively recent addition to the town is a tiny storefront called POME (“Product Of My Environment”), whose sign advertises “Surf — Yoga — Cafe,” at 151 Hana Hwy.
“It’s three things everybody loves, it’s one stop for everything,” said co-owner Becky Hutton, whose husband, Walle, offers surf lessons every morning. “There’s a yoga session in the back right now. Take a lesson and have a kombucha on the way out!”
That’s the new Pa‘ia, perhaps: multitasking, but in a very tranquil kind of way.