Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
Lahaina, a bustling waterfront town packed with visitors from around the globe, is considered the center of Maui. Some may describe Lahaina as tacky, with too many T-shirt vendors and not enough mom-and-pop shops, but this historic village houses some of Hawaii’s most excellent restaurants, boutiques, cafés, and galleries. If you spend Friday afternoon exploring Front Street, hang around for Art Night, when the galleries stay open late and offer entertainment along with artists demonstrating their work. Sunset cruises and other excursions depart from Lahaina Harbor. At the southern end of town an important archaeological site—Mokuula—is currently being researched, excavated, and restored. This was once a spiritual and political center, as well as home to Maui's chiefs. The town has been welcoming visitors for more than 200 years. In 1798, after waging war to unite the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha the Great chose Lahaina, then called Lele, as the seat of his monarchy. Warriors from Kamehameha's 800 canoes, stretched along the coast from Olowalu to Honokowai, turned inland and filled the lush valleys with networks of stream-fed loi kalo, or taro patches. For nearly 50 years Lahaina remained the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. During this period, the scent of Hawaiian sandalwood brought those who traded with China to these waters. Whaling ships followed, chasing sperm whales from Japan to the Arctic. Lahaina became known around the world for its rough-and-tumble ways. Then, almost as quickly as it had come, the tide of foreign trade receded. The Hawaiian capital was moved to Honolulu in 1845, and by 1860 the sandalwood forests were empty and sperm whales nearly extinct. Luckily, Lahaina had already grown into an international, sophisticated (if sometimes rowdy) town, laying claim to the first printing press and high school west of the Rockies. Sugar interests kept the town afloat until tourism stepped in.
Baldwin Home Museum
If you want some insight into 19th-century life in Hawaii, this informative museum is an excellent place to start. Begun in 1834 and completed the following year, the coral-and-stone house was originally home to missionary Dr. Dwight Baldwin and his family. The building has been carefully restored to reflect the period; many of the original furnishings remain. You can view the family's grand piano, carved four-poster bed, and most interestingly, Dr. Baldwin's dispensary. During a brief tour by Lahaina Restoration Foundation volunteers, you'll be shown the "thunderpot" and told how the doctor single-handedly inoculated 10,000 Maui residents against smallpox. Friday at 6 pm are special candlelight tours.
Hale Paahao (Old Prison)
Lahaina's jailhouse is a reminder of rowdy whaling days. Its name literally means "stuck-in-irons house," referring to the wall shackles and ball-and-chain restraints. The compound was built in the 1850s by convict laborers out of blocks of coral that had been salvaged from the demolished waterfront fort. Most prisoners were sent here for desertion, drunkenness, or reckless horse riding. Today, a wax figure representing an imprisoned old sailor tells his recorded tale of woe.
Wo Hing Museum
Smack-dab in the center of Front Street, this eye-catching Chinese temple reflects the importance of early Chinese immigrants to Lahaina. Built by the Wo Hing Society in 1912, the museum contains beautiful artifacts, historic photos of old Lahaina, and a Taoist altar. Don't miss the films playing in the rustic theater next door—some of Thomas Edison's first films, shot in Hawaii circa 1898, show Hawaiian wranglers herding steer onto ships. Ask the docent for some star fruit from the tree outside, for the altar or for yourself. If you are in town in late January or early February, this museum hosts a nice Chinese New Year festival.
Planted in 1873, this massive tree is the largest of its kind in the state and provides a welcome retreat and playground for locals and visitors, who rest, play music, and climb under (and atop) its awesome branches. The Banyan Tree is a popular and hard-to-miss meeting place if your party splits up for independent exploring. It's also a terrific place to be when the sun sets—mynah birds settle in here for a screeching symphony, which is an event in itself. Many Lahaina festivals center on the Banyan Tree as well.
Lahaina Court House
The Lahaina Arts Society and the Lahaina Heritage Museum occupy this charming old government building in the center of town that recently opened a massive exhibit about Lahaina's history. Wander among the terrific displays, pump the knowledgeable museum staff for interesting trivia, and ask for the walking-tour brochure covering historic Lahaina sites. There's also a theater with a rotating array of films about everything from whales to canoes. The nonprofit Lahaina Town Action Committee, which oversees Lahaina's attractions, can be found here as well. Erected in 1859 and restored in 1999, the building has served as a customs and court house, governor's office, post office, vault and collector's office, and police court. On August 12, 1898, its postmaster witnessed the lowering of the Hawaiian flag when Hawaii became a U.S. territory. The flag now hangs above the stairway. There's a public restroom in the building.
Lahaina–Kaanapali and Pacific Railroad
Affectionately called the Sugar Cane Train, Maui's only passenger train is an 1890s-vintage railway that once shuttled crops but now moves sightseers between Kaanapali and Lahaina. This quaint little attraction with its singing conductor is a big deal for Hawaii but probably not much of a thrill for those more accustomed to trains (though kids like it no matter where they grew up).
Waiola Church and Wainee Cemetery
Immortalized in James Michener's Hawaii, the original building from the early 1800s was destroyed once by fire and twice by fierce windstorms. Repositioned and rebuilt in 1954, the church was renamed Waiola ("water of life") and has been standing proudly ever since. The adjacent cemetery was the region's first Christian cemetery and is the final resting place of many of Hawaii's most important monarchs, including Kamehameha the Great's wife, Queen Keopuolani, who was baptized during her final illness.