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Central Maui Wailuku, Kahului 'At the heart of it all'

For The Maui News

Nestled between the misty peaks of the West Maui Mountains and the rugged slopes of Haleakala, the scenic isthmus of Central Maui was the inspiration for Maui’s nickname, “The Valley Isle.” Miles away from resorts and beaches, the area is best known as the commercial hub and county seat of Maui — but there is more to Central Maui than meets the eye.

Encompassing the towns of Wailuku and Kahului, Central Maui is the most densely populated residential and commercial area on the island. And while Kahului and Wailuku are close in proximity, they are miles apart in personality. The historic town of Wailuku, which means “Water of Destruction,” evokes small town charm and character, with a Main Street, a courthouse, a library, schools and office buildings.

In the early 1900s, Wailuku was a primary tourist destination, but through the years, its appeal became overshadowed by the popular resort areas of Wailea and Kaanapali. Today, Wailuku town’s cool climate and relaxed atmosphere continues to draw visitors and residents to its eclectic blend of restaurants and shops. Shoppers will delight in the discovery of rare treasures, antiques and local art as they wander streets lined with wooden storefronts and art galleries, while those yearning to treat their taste buds will find a diverse selection of restaurants, delis, bakeries and coffee shops, offering delicious, inexpensive meals ranging from spicy Thai cuisine to the ever-popular plate lunch.

Tucked inside the town’s borders are several Native Hawaiian cultural and historic sites, including the Iao Theater, the picturesque Ka'ahumanu Church and clock tower, and two ancient temples, the Haleki'i Heiau and the Pihanakalani Heiau. The town also has a number of historic buildings and museums listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Bailey House Museum, which was constructed in 1833 within the royal compound of King Kahekili, the last king of Maui. Today, the Bailey House Museum exhibits a rare collection of Native Hawaiian artifacts, a gallery of 19th century paintings and a gift shop offering traditional and contemporary hand-crafted products.

Bordering the downtown area of Wailuku is the lush Iao Valley, considered one of Maui’s most sacred places. Surrounded by exotic tropical plants and sparkling pools of water, it may be difficult to imagine that Iao Valley is the site of one of the most savage battles in Hawaii’s history. In 1790, King Kamehameha destroyed the Maui army in his effort to unite the Hawaiian Islands. Today, it is a peaceful area with easy hikes, plenty of spots for leisurely picnics, and the iconic Iao Needle, a 2,250-foot rock column towering over the luminous Iao Stream and surrounded by the Pu’u Kukui Crater. And a hike to the highest point of Iao Valley will reveal a ridge-top lookout that offers spectacular views of the valley and Kahului Harbor.

For outdoor enthusiasts, the Kepaniwai Park and Heritage Gardens, Hawaii Nature Center and Maui Nui Botanical Gardens offer guided hikes and activities to experience the flora and fauna that make Maui a tropical paradise. And just a few miles away, the Maui Tropical Plantation provides an opportunity to learn more about the island’s commercial crops, such as sugarcane, pineapple and macadamia nuts.

Accommodations are limited in Wailuku; however, there are a handful of charming bed-and-breakfasts, youth hostels and private guest houses. Just minutes away from the water’s edge, there are a few quiet, secluded beaches perfect for swimming, fishing or surfing. The town also neighbors several parks, tennis courts and golf courses, including the Sandalwood, Maui Lani and Waiehu municipal golf courses. As one of Maui’s living treasures, Wailuku has stood the test of time and has kept its own distinctive character, a seamless blend of modern amenities and old-fashioned charm.

The thriving town of Kahului is the metropolis — and the heartbeat — of the island. As the “Portal to Maui,” Kahului is often a visitor’s first glimpse of the Valley Isle. Set against the stunning backdrop of the West Maui Mountains, Kahului is bustling with activity as the home to the main airport, a deep-water shipping port, light industrial areas, the University of Hawaii at Maui Community College and several commercial shopping centers. Kahului was designed and built during the 1950s by Alexander & Baldwin as a “Dream City” for plantation workers. Today, the vibrant town is the commercial hub and retail center of the island, featuring an assortment of shopping malls, department stores, and a popular weekend swap meet selling handmade crafts, locally-grown produce, souvenirs and rare treasures.

While it is not generally considered a major tourist destination, Kahului has a number of must-see attractions, including the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum, the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary, Kanaha Beach County Park, and the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Located on the outskirts of Kahului, the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum exhibits the lifespan of Maui’s sugar industry and the plantation life it engendered. A few miles away, the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (The MACC) features the 1,200-seat Castle Theater, the 300-seat McCoy Studio Theater, the Alexander & Baldwin Outdoor Amphitheater and the Schaefer International Art Gallery. From musical performances to children’s theater productions, the center is the pride and joy of the community and a pinnacle of artistic diversity and variety. A trip to the neighboring Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary will offset the faster pace of Kahului. The 143-acre wildlife preserve is a scenic oasis that serves as a breeding area for endangered Hawaiian birds and a rest stop for migrating Canadian geese. Visitors will find their own rest stop at a hotel district located along Kahului Harbor, within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Kahului has a dining experience for nearly every palate, from fast food to fine dining, Maui fish tacos to freshly tossed pizza.

While it may be recognized as the nexus of commercial and retail activity, Kahului is also a popular spot for community events and outdoor recreation. The name Kahului is translated as, “Athletic contest,” which is an appropriate description of the area. Kahului is the site of many athletic competitions, including sports exhibitions, fundraising events and canoe regattas. The town is also home to several scenic parks, walking trails and beaches ideal for surfing, kitesurfing and windsurfing. The high winds of Kanaha Beach County Park attract windsurfing enthusiasts from around the globe, while the calm, glassy waters of Kahului Harbor have been lauded as the best location for paddling, kayaking and surfing. And while Kahului may seem like all hustle and bustle, there is a prevailing sense of warmth and hospitality. Amid the glass-paned office buildings and busy shopping complexes, there are many family-owned shops and restaurants that have the inviting, friendly character of any small town. Far from the beach umbrellas and sandcastles of Maui’s resort areas, Central Maui offers a unique blend of history, culture and cosmopolitan savvy—a testament to the fact that it is truly at the heart of it all.

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