Lessons Learned from Twenty Minutes in Lahaina

Aloha sign

I’d like to think that I’m a well-reasoned, thoughtful traveler and that I give every new destination the time it takes to form an impression before passing judgment. Sometimes though that judgment comes quickly, as it did in the case of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

My last day in paradise was a busy one; I was trying to fit in everything I hadn’t yet managed to do while touring around. At the top of my list was a visit to the summit of the Haleakala volcano which towers an impressive 10,000 feet over the island. I seriously misjudged how long it would take to visit this amazing natural wonder though and by the time I finally made it back down to sea level, I found that my time on the island had been reduced to only a few hours. I typed Lahaina into my trusty GPS and was encouraged by the estimated time it would take to visit. After some quick and dirty, back of the napkin arithmetic I resolved that I could indeed visit the historic whaling town, thereby bringing to close decades of pining.

As a kid I read Michener’s Hawaii and was captivated by the stories he shared. While they were fictionalized, the great epic storyteller based them on real events and people, including the early missionaries in Lahaina. In the early 19th century, Christian missionaries established themselves in the royal city of Lahaina, building the first mission school open to everyone and not just the elite. As Christian influence spread, so did commercial interests, namely whalers. Great whaling fleets used Lahaina as a base from which to hunt the whale pods found throughout the islands, but especially in the waters off of Maui. These two forces came to not only define Lahaina for decades to come, but Hawaii as well.

Armed with this knowledge, I parked my car and set out to explore the town. I didn’t know a lot about the actual logistics of seeing the historical side to the city, but I did know that Front Street was the place to be. Front Street in the 19th century was ground zero for the conflicts between the whalers and the Christian missionaries. The whalers were famous for their lewd behavior and lax morals, which came into direct conflict with the morally astute missionaries. Whaling outposts and missionary homes sat next door to each other and this strange relationship defined life in Lahaina for nearly a century. Today the road is no less important, although there are fewer brothels and saloons than in the 19th century. But a walk down Front Street is one of the best urban walking experiences found anywhere in the country.

I walked up the street past a shaved ice store, then a t-shirt shop, then another shaved ice store, then another t-shirt shop, then… Within a few paces I realized that instead of a charming historic village I had entered into tourist hell. The place was a mob scene, partly due to the cruise ship docked nearby. I’m a tourist, so I don’t mind fellow tourists as long as they’re well behaved. But this was the worst form of tourist, the touron. It was horrible and I could see that the town strives hard to cater to these lemmings. Endless tacky souvenir shops lined the once beautiful Front Street and where there should have been historical markers and interpreters, there were high end stores (LUSH soap? Seriously?) and chain restaurants, like Famous Dave’s BBQ. You know,for the quintessential Hawaiian experience.

I tried to ignore the stream of tacky novelty items and the smell of cheap plastic and walked to Banyan Tree Square, a beautiful source of calming shade and a respite from the madness of the tourist melee. The exceptionally large banyan tree was planted in 1873 in order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Christian missionaries. In front of the park is the old courthouse, which was built from remnants of King Kamehameha III’s palace in the 1850s on the site of a still older fort. The building served as a general government services buildings through the 1980s and today is home to the Lahaina Visitor’s Bureau.

I walked behind the courthouse and then I saw IT, a sight that always makes me happy, the water. I walked past the gazillion sightseeing tour signs lining the waterfront out onto the docks and looked across the channel to the nearby island of Lanai. Paragliders were enjoying the beautiful weekend day and I could imagine how different (and much more relaxed) the day was like for the folks on Lanai. But I had a renewed vigor and was determined to find more bits of history wherever I could in Lahaina. There just had to be something redeeming about this town.

Just up the street from the courthouse is one of the most important historic sites in town, the Bishop House. Built in the 1830s for Reverend Dwight Baldwin, the building is key to the history of Maui and indeed Hawaii. Reverend Bishop was a missionary, but he was also a doctor and saved as many lives as souls during his lifetime on Maui. More than religious studies though, Bishop instituted a robust educational system teaching local youth in both English and Hawaiian and covered subjects as varied as literature and constitutional government. It was this methodology and the inclusion of the Hawaiian language that is part of Bishop’s ongoing legacy. But little of this information was actually imparted at the museum itself, sadly.

I paid my entrance fee, grabbed a brochure and started to walk around the house. And five minutes later I was done. The historical interpretation was bad, very bad; an embarrassment really for a structure of such importance. I compared it to the similar Bailey House I had visited just a few days before and the differences were stark. I began to wonder if Lahaina even cared about its past anymore or if the soap stores and BBQ joints meant more to the city fathers.

I walked for a few more blocks and caught another sight of IT, the ocean. It was the only source of peace and calm in the city and it instantly put me at ease and placed a big smile on my face. I looked around behind me at the horrible stores and the even more horrible (horribler?) tourons and sighed, but kept my smile. This isn’t what Hawaii really is, not at its core. But it wasn’t all bad either; I just had my expectations set a little too high. A lot of people love Lahaina, love spending time there and especially love some of the things I hated most. And that’s ok. As I walked back to my car I decided that I didn’t hate Lahaina, not really. It’s like when you get angry with your spouse or a good friend. You still love each other, you’re just not happy with their actions.

For the amazing mountains behind the city and the proximity to the ocean that has been bringing strangers to her shores for centuries, these are the reasons why I love Lahaina. They may not be the same reasons other people love it and that’s ok, that’s just what travel is all about.

Have you been to Lahaina? What did you think?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

9 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Twenty Minutes in Lahaina”

  1. I just returned from Lahaina and agree that Front St. is plagued by too many T-Shirt places, unless of course you are in need of a T-Shirt. Though I did find the Vintage Poster shop charming and enjoyed the surf shops.

  2. Enjoyed the pics, Matt, especially the ones of the banyan tree and the pier. I haven’t been to Lahaina yet but my experience in Hawaii has been that it is many-layered – the historic and mythic are right under that thar souvenir shoppe – and I had to slow down to see and sense it. Despite the annoying commercial trappings that sometimes get in the way of a good view (and they do have to make a living, even in paradise), I found Hawaii the most timeless place I’ve ever been. Can’t wait to go back, and wouldn’t pass on Lahaina based on your pics, it looks lovely!

  3. I was lucky enough to live on Maui for a year in 1969-1970 or thereabouts. Population 20,000 and the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived. I ran into a guy a few years ago who lived there about that time, too and still lives there. He told me I’d probably cry if I saw it now – and not tears of joy.

    1. Well it’s definitely changed, no doubt about that. There are though still some areas of the island you’d love to call home. Probably not Lahaina though…

  4. I live in Maui, but on the other side, on Haleakala. I love the Westside but Lahaina can definitely feel like an amusement park of sorts. :)

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