CENTURIES AGO, all sea roads led to Lahaina, capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and home to the royal family. Lele, as the ancient village was called, was once described by a European explorer as “the Venice of the Pacific,” because of its network of canals and waterways. These were used for transportation by canoe and primarily to cultivate Hawaii’s food staple, the taro plant.
With the influx of Britons and Americans in the early 19th century, Hawaiians gradually embraced most things Western. Remaining legacies include Lahainaluna Mission School, opened in 1831, which was the first secondary school West of the Rockies. The first Constitution was adopted at Lahaina with a legislative session held in 1840. In the second half of the 19th century, the Royal Court had left Lahaina and moved the capital to Honolulu. James Campbell started Lahaina’s first sugar mill, the Pioneer Mill, whose smokestack is still standing. In 1873, Sheriff Smith planted Lahaina’s now-famous Banyan Tree.
The 20th century established the plantation era in Hawai‘i. In 1901, Pioneer Hotel was opened and remained Lahaina’s only hotel until the early 1960s. Pineapple also came to Maui. Through the 1940s and 50s, the town’s family-owned and -operated fish markets, stores and restaurants were thriving, supplying plantation workers and visitors alike. As Hawai‘i became the 50th State, Hollywood became fascinated with Lahaina. In the 1960s, several movies and TV shows were filmed in town. By the mid-1970s, Lahaina was fast-becoming a vacation get-away for the jet set. Celebrity musicians, TV stars and movie actors were frequently seen around town. Mom-and-Pop stores evolved into stellar restaurants, galleries and boutiques to accommodate the growing number of visitors to Lahaina.
Most Maui visitors, if not already staying on the westside, end up here sooner or later and with good reason. West Maui, from Olowalu to Kapalua, is one of the most culturally and geographically rich regions on the island.
LahainaTown sets a dramatic stage in history, interspersed with Hawaiian chiefs and kings, foreign ship captains and missionaries, plantation laborers and celebrities. This important port’s past is as colorful as the tranquil seas and verdant mountains which embrace it.
In 1790, Kamehameha the Great conquered Maui, married into its sacred royal family and later named Lahaina the capital of his kingdom. The royal complex and spiritual sanctuary was located on the island of Moku‘ula in the center of the 14-acre Mokuhinia Pond, across the Front Street causeway to the ocean. On the beach fronting today’s 505 Front Street complex, Maui’s royal family would entertain chiefs with lu‘au celebrations at Lele (the jumping off place for ancestral spirits).
LahainaTown bloomed in the following century, its freshwater and lush gardens attracting both missionaries and whalers to a perfect reprovisioning port where Native Hawaiians thrived. Whaling collapsed by the end of the 19th century with the advent of crude oil refining, and much of Lahaina’s business activity moved up the slopes of Mauna Kahalawai, the West Maui mountain range, with the sugar and pineapple plantations. Except for family activity brought about by plantation life, Lahaina fell asleep.
The town reawakened in the 1960s when tourism developed and the picturesque port attracted celebrities in a big way. Lahaina’s eyes are wide open now as its streets teem with visitors from abroad who find this quaint town an ideal spot for a holiday.
To recapture history, the Baldwin Home at Front and Dickenson Streets is a good place to begin. It was the 19th century home of missionary Dr. Dwight Baldwin and has been restored as a museum and historical center by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation (LRF). Other LRF projects worth visiting are the Wo Hing Museum on Front Street, the whaling-era Hale Pa‘ahao (Stuck-in-irons House) on Prison Street, and Hale Pa‘i (House of Printing) on Lahainaluna Road. Lahaina Heritage Museum and interactive exhibits are located upstairs in Old Lahaina Courthouse, offering an educational overview of Lahaina’s history and many cultures. Lahaina Historic Trail is an interpretive, self-guided tour which tells the complete story of Lahaina through the centuries.
Shopping in LahainaTown and plying the harbor for its recreational activities are also high on the “must-do” list. Fine art galleries abound here, as do interesting boutiques and world-class restaurants. A wealth of ocean tours and water sports are available at Lahaina Harbor. There are ample opportunities for nightlife excitement, including a state-of-the-art theatrical production, magic club, and live music experiences. A look beyond the obvious into Lahaina’s rich tapestry of culture and history will reward you with a meaningful vacation experience.