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The Royal County of Lahaina?
January 12, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama
On a visit to Lahaina I was startled to hear from a businessman in the condo rental industry who arrived in Maui in the early 1980s that the most strenuous, taxing and time-consuming trip for a Lahaina resident was to drive out to the strange and far-away region called Wailea, the made-up name for the master-planned resort (starting with a then-lonely golf course now called “Wailea Old Blue”, built in the early 1970s).
I waited for him to laugh, but he was serious about his statement. In fact, when some Kapalua or Launiupoko residents say they are going to “town”, it is tiny Lahaina, the urban center of their world, hugging the shore, not to Wailuku, the official County capital of four islands and former hub of Hawaiian royal families or ali’i.
On a map Lahaina looks closer to the rest of Maui. But drivers know it is harder to get to from the rest of Maui. It is easy to draw a straight short line through the western mountains from Wailuku to Lahaina, but the permit process and construction process en toto – including a car tunnel, like in the Swiss Alps, far more towering -- is probably more challenging than building a giant rocket and going to Jupiter and back again to Earth.
A Maui County manager confirmed that the West Side “physical” infrastructure – like water and sewage – is indeed isolated from the rest of Maui. In terms of people and movement, Kihei/Wailea are linked to Wailuku/Kahului for jobs and food – even Paia/Haiku/Spreckelsville and Up-Country residents stream to Dairy Road shopping corridors and back to their cool protea-filled homes.
So psychologically and physically, West Siders relish their “separate-ness” from the rest of Maui.
Compared to the windy government/industrial/commercial centers of the twin-towns of Wailuku-Kahului and the new rugged pioneer town of sunny Kihei (in a few years a new Kihei high school will be a symbol of its population significance, like Kaiser highlighted Honolulu’s far-eastern edge suburb of Hawaii-Kai), Lahaina has an unusual “historical” ambience. Even recently-built Lahaina commercial buildings conform to strict design codes, evoking the mid-19th century when Lahaina was in its peak of global importance. The mid-Pacific port name “Lahaina”, a vital link in the global “supply chain” for re-supplying whaling ships, was mentioned repeatedly in mid-19th century whaling business and sailing conversations from Hong Kong to San Francisco to Salem, as “Silicon Valley” is dropped now from Delhi to Beijing to Tokyo to London.
Between 1820 – 1845 Lahaina was the royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and a whaling supply center -- and enjoyed its time in history. Perhaps a little too much. It was soon apparent that Lahaina, after the decline of whaling, could not fit in the new sugar-cane business paradigm, as Lahaina’s port lacked efficient access to the sugar fields of central Maui (plus there was a fast-growing shipping harbor over in Honolulu). So, by the early 20th century, the railroad-plus shipping terminus of Kahului increased in commercial viability: transportation was the key for Maui agri-business growth, and Lahaina did not have the right location and what we would now call “scale-ability”. So, Lahaina “fell off the map” for several decades.
Yet I find a seductive anachronistic charm in Lahaina. It is a “walkable” place, with tourists streaming among historic homes and a cramped harbor. Makawao barely offers about a half-hour of walking in-and-out of small shops featuring cowboy accessories or Tibetan prayer beads; the new Maui “town centers” are now Costco and Walmart, the size of football fields. I am far more likely to meet my North Kihei neighbor at the freezing vegetable storage room at Costco’s than at Sugar Beach.
Lahaina has Front Street – an easy name to remember. And Prison Street. Even easier. Plus I can drop in cozy, neighborhood-like bars and restaurants, relaxing in easy chairs to feel the trade winds and watch Lahaina characters, with bold personalities and wild, colorful pasts, and ubiquitous parrots screeching in cages. Somehow the Lahaina business people’s Aloha attire is more resort-like and they seem ready to switch to swimming gear in a flash – and a mai tai in hand (which I never drink, but may be convinced in a minute or two in Lahaina). It’s OK to be a bit eccentric in Lahaina, a bit loose, and begin the party earlier and end a bit later.
If the “West Side” ever seceded* as a new political entity from Maui County, the rest of Maui island could go about doing business in a land mass comparable to Kauai, so there is no shortage of space for what is left of “Maui County”.
Perhaps in this fantasy there would be a large sign on the highway just beyond Maalaea, proclaiming “Welcome to Lahaina City**, Capital of the Royal County of Lahaina”. The Royal County visitor booth would encourage all tourists to dress in 19th century costumes, with pirate costumes in particular favor (after all, Halloween is big in Lahaina). Fluttering overhead would be the newly-designed flag; in the middle would be the iconic reddish parrot sipping a mai tai through a straw.
*The only other place where there was any separatist talk has been the Big Island of Hawaii. It is easy to see the “old” northeastern sugar-port-government seat of Hilo and Hamakua Coast contrast with the “new” mega-hotel enclaves of South Kohala and Kona (the latter similar to a much more sprawling combined Kihei/Wailea/Kapalua, the former like a bigger Wailuku with more bars). Even the lush greenery of Hilo town is totally different from the barren, dry volcanic black moonscape surrounding the luxury hotels (and a large tax-paying, recent-transplant population base) of the western, still-growing (by lava flow) Kona coast. In the mid-1970s a friend published a funny monograph entitled “Kamehameha County” about a fictional split-up of the Big Island, right-down the middle, but the book unfortunately never survived my constant moves during the last many years.
**There are currently only three places on the map named “City” in Hawaii: Pearl City, Lanai City, and the City of Refuge. Brashy and dominating Honolulu took both names -- City and County.
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