Hawaii continues to amaze

It had been six years since I had last set foot on Maui. I won’t make that mistake again.

The impetus for this latest visit was an almost magical home exchange that our adult son began three years ago. On Craig’s List Seattle, Riley found a couple with a comfortable home three blocks off the beach in Kehei. The Maui couple had a daughter, son-in-law and two grandkids living in Ballard, and hoped for a Seattle home (and car) swap.

Five exchanges of typically a week to 10 days later, it was obvious that the relationship was a win-win.

And this past holiday season, our kids invited the parents to come along. (See, there are benefits to having children.) It was our first holiday season away from Western Washington, and frankly, I like the concept.

Like many of us in the Seattle area, I have visited Maui five or six times over some 40 years. What amazes me about that island is that there seems to always be tons of ways to enjoy the place regardless of one’s age.

I can’t say that about all the holiday spots on the planet. Take Mexico’s coastal resorts for example. They seem perfect for 20-and-30 somethings. Margaritas. The beach. Margaritas. Open Jeeps for exploring. Body surfing. And did I say “Margaritas”?

Mexico’s historical colonial art towns from San Miguel de Allende to Patzcuaro to Tlaquepaque attract North Americans and Europeans by the hundreds, but few of the pilgrims are much younger than 50.

Or take Florida. Busch Gardens. Alligators in the Everglades. Spring baseball. And Disney World, of course. Can there be a better vacation destination for families with young ones?

But for me, Maui has resonated at 20, 30, 50 and now past 60. I was aware on this trip that the gentle breezes rhymed with the gentle rhythms of Hawaiian music during my afternoon naps on the veranda. In earlier years, I was enthralled learning to surf or hiking to inland waterfalls with crystal pools. On this trip, I found myself drawn to the excellent art galleries of postcard-cute Paia and up-country Makawao. Those visits gave me inspiration to get out my own easel and acrylics, and capture some of the purples and pinks of the sky over Molokai.

I’m obviously not the only one who enjoyed Maui over the holidays. The restaurants were hopping between Christmas and New Year's, and so were the hiking tours and sunset cruises.

Whenever I had the chance, I asked the hotel general managers and restaurant managers when the slack season was. The answer: if you want a great deal on a flight to Maui or any of the Hawaiian Islands or a hotel room or rental car, there are two periods when island tourism is slow and the deals are big. From the Sunday following Thanksgiving through Dec. 15-20, it is extremely quiet, and from the Sunday after New Year's until about the second week of February, it is equally slow. I checked on the prices for flights from Sea-Tac to the islands, and found prices at less than half of what we paid to fly over on Dec. 23.

Speaking of prices, if you’ve never been to Hawaii, you must prepare yourself for higher prices. It has always been true with islands. Everything costs more to get there, so get used to it. I found food prices to be 25-50 percent higher in the grocery stores, and 50 percent higher in the restaurants. Gas costs a buck more per gallon, and tours and entrance fees to attractions are pricier as well. Having said that, I noticed that Maui tourism businesses were working hard to keep prices down, given the economy.

If you are headed toward Maui in the future, here are some of my favorite places:

For dining:

Kehei Café: Why not start at the modest end? Along the two-mile stretch of coastal road businesses that serve residents of Kehei and the owners and visitors to the many condos in that neighborhood, the Kehei Café doesn’t stand out. Except it is where the locals get their breakfast burritos, pineapple smoothies, French toast and omelets, burgers and cokes. It’s alfresco on the sidewalk, and the mood is totally casual. The price is right, and save room for a cinnamon roll.

Kimo’s: Located in downtown Lahaina on the ocean side with afternoon and sunset views and good food that keeps people coming back for years. Kimo’s is modest from the street side, but expansive and well-run on the inside. We had fish, a strong suit at Kimo’s, and it was some of the best we’ve ever had. Fortunately, we went easy on the warm rolls to start the evening and had room for the best dessert I’ve had in four years — Kimo’s Hula Pie, a specialty of the TS owner-managers of Kimo’s and their other outlets, which include the Cliff House in La Quinta. Caution: Do not attempt to eat a slice of Hula Pie on your own.

The Seahouse Restaurant: There’s a wonderful all-family resort north of Kaanapali and Lahaina, on Maui’s northwest corner, called Napili Kai Beach Resort. Napili Kai’s protected sandy cove and beach is a favorite for swimming and snorkeling. Its restaurant is worth the 12-minute drive north of Lahaina — even if you aren’t staying at the resort itself — for two reasons. Its sunsets are unbeatable, and no one gives larger portions of prime rib, steak or fish of any of the restaurants that I’ve enjoyed on Maui. The chef at the Seahouse doesn’t want anybody to be hungry after eating at his table.

Duke’s Beach House at the new Honua Kai Resort: If you are familiar with Duke’s Restaurant on Waikiki, Malibu or Huntington Beach of Kauai, then you get the picture. Only this one is newer and better than ever. It’s surf city a mile north of Kaanapali, with all of Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboards, his heritage black and white photos, and his favorite food — seafood, salads, burgers and drinks under a giant open air veranda. We loved his crab and mac nut wontons, the Maui onion soup, and the Ho Daddy fish and chips.

Lahaina Grill is a contemporary bistro set in the center of downtown Lahaina in the historic Lahaina Inn. Its bar, dining room, experienced wait staff, and cool plantation atmosphere makes it a perfect relaxed, intimate, upscale Hawaiian experience. The accent here is on the cuisine, its freshness and presentation. Jurg Munch’s restaurant has been an institution since 1990 — 20 years of making customers happy. That’s a great track record for any restaurant, and especially in tourist settings. It’s good.

The Banyan Tree at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is the gemstone dining room at this famous former pineapple field. It is quite possibly Maui’s finest hotel property. The Banyan Tree is elegant and deservedly pricey. Its seafood is Maui’s most varied and freshest. The Kai Sushi sampler for under $40 allowed us to have tastes of gorgeously presented Japanese-style fruits of the sea. We arrived too late for the sunset and views, but enjoyed live saxophone music that softly fit with the spacious room and widely placed tables. I have yet to find a more intimate and relaxed dining atmosphere on Maui.

Mama’s Fish House, a mile east of Paia, is equal to the Banyan Tree in expense with hardly any entrees under $40, but that’s where the similarities end. From the valet entrance to the $14-$16 opening drinks, Mama’s says, ‘This is going to cost you.’ That said, the food was superb, the setting near a lava-lined beach was visually fun if you get there before sundown, and the tropical interiors attractively capture the essence of the South Pacific. Be warned. It’s not a cheap evening.

Gannon’s — A Pacific View Restaurant: Bev and Joe Gannon have earned praise for their Haili’imaile General Store Restaurant in up-country and Joe’s in Wailea. Bev has the touch with interesting fish, pork and fruit combinations, and now she has brought that light approach to Wailea’s Emerald and Green Golf Club House, taking over the tired Seawatch space. With a soft opening beginning this recent January, Gannon’s is sexy with its iconic red lighting and elegant bar. A Pacific View is something new down on the south end of Maui’s west side.

Leilani’s on the Beach and the Hula Grill at Whaler’s Village in Ka’anapali: These two sister restaurants sit out on the far end of one of Maui’s best shopping areas. Take an hour either before or after you eat to visit the shops. But go for the food. Leilani’s on the Beach offers two styles of eating, either at its casual Beachside Grill or under roof in the dining room. Either way, look for classic Hawaiian fish, pork or beef entrees such as short ribs or teriyaki steak. The entrees range from $18-$29, and their pupus, salads and deserts are priced right, too. The next-door Hula Grill has a classic feel of an old island plantation with rich koa wood trim everywhere and slow-moving fans above. The Hula Grill menu features a wider range of cuisine with Asian fusion pupus and Dim Sum or coconut seafood chowder as appetizers for entrees, such as shrimp and mac nut pasta or Kansas City steaks served with a hint of the islands. The Hula Grill’s prices are a dollar or two higher than Leilani’s, yet both restaurants are clearly among the most popular on the island. It’s a good idea to have reservations during busy seasons for either of these.

Other Maui experiences:

Old Lahaina Luau: Is it a dining experience, or is it a show? It’s both, and it’s good. Guests are met with orchid leis and mai tais at the door by gorgeous Polynesian men and women, and it just gets better. The bar is open, and you can have almost all the drinks that you can carry. I suppose at some point they will cut you off, or more likely, hand you drinks with more juice and less of the bad stuff. Guests are shown to their tables, then encouraged to stroll the grounds, which includes watching the digging for buried roasted pork, getting photos taken at romantic sunset spots by the most fun photographers I’ve ever met, and mingling with the other guests. Dinner is a never-ending buffet of Hawaiian meats and fish, fruits, more drinks, dessert and yes, more drinks. Then the show begins, which is lively and highly professional with dancers from various islands and all the pyrotechnics that accompany stage shows. The grounds were laid out so that there isn’t a bad seat in the place. Everyone gets a good view. And when the show and dinner are over, the dancers who are also the wait staff bid you a heartfelt Hawaiian aloha.

Bailey House: The history of Maui includes a rich heritage of islanders, missionaries, whalers and plantation owners. That history is gathered in a National Historic home called the Bailey House, a must-stop for anyone interested in Maui history. It takes no more than an hour to enjoy this pleasant spot on Main Street in old Wailuku, not far from the entrance to the hikeable Iao Valley. If you visit the Bailey House, drive up the road two minutes and stretch your legs in the Iao Valley State Park with its stream, pools, lush vegetation and famous ‘Needle’ pinnacle.

Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment: The Ritz Carlton Resort at Kapalua has teamed up with the sea-famous Cousteau brand to create a series of classes for children from age 5 and up, as well as youth programs and classes for adults in which they can learn more about the special world of nature that Maui offers. We took a snorkeling class from Kevin, a native of the Virgin Islands. We are decent swimmers and snorkel divers, but Kevin opened our eyes to things we had missed on a hundred previous dives. Part of the deal was to learn how to shoot a camera underwater and be able to share the action with friends back home, and get a photo disk of the shots we took while diving.

Maui Ocean Center — the Hawaiian Aquarium: If you are not comfortable underwater, then this is the one island experience that is a must. This fabulous aquarium offers guests gigantic underground viewing pools of every fish you’ll find in the islands, including hammerhead sharks, sting rays, poisonous jelly fish, manta rays, tiger sharks, moray eels, devil scorpionfish and barracuda. (Maybe I won’t have fish for dinner tonight.) Plan on at least two hours at this top-level exhibit, and since they serve food in a pleasant dining room, you may very well want to stay the entire day.

Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert Series: Local guitar legend and Grammy Award winner George Kahumoku Jr. hosts weekly Wednesday night concerts of Hawaiian guitar music at the covered outdoor auditorium at Napili Kai Resort. Visit the Web site at for details. The shows are affordable, and the music is a true Hawaiian experience.

Paia Town and Makawao for art and dining: Artists rarely make much money. For that reason, art communities always have the best coffee shops, modest cafés and stylish eateries. On Maui, head to the north side, to Paia, which is becoming hipper by the year. As our society ages, one byproduct of aging is an increase in interest in art, and that is evident in these two art towns. Locals say that five years ago, both were quite funky, broken down, with deserted store fronts and not much going on. That has all changed these days, and Paia has even attracted an upscale beachtown boutique hotel: the Paia Inn. There are five to 10 good diners or cafes in both Paia and Makawao, so you can space out your gallery walking with lattes and fish salads. If you find yourself on Maui in the hot season, then definitely visit Makawao, which sits about 2,000 feet up Haleakula and welcomes cooling breezes and even a touch of rain. Makawao is an old cowboy town, so if western wear is your thing, you’ll find a couple of fun stores for cowboys and girls.

Art on the Green — The Emerald and Green Golf Clubhouse: Every Sunday afternoon, different local Maui artists are invited to exhibit their talents and meet visitors who want to learn more about their work. The venue is the Golf Clubhouse, about two miles south of the Shoppes at Wailea in the lobby, a well-lit and spacious environment for artists to share their styles and secrets. The price is free, and the artists are seriously good and happy to chat. For art lovers, it is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Incidentally, Gannon’s new Pacific View Restaurant is adjacent, so you can sample the restaurant and talk with local artists in one easy trip.

Bill Morton can be reached at

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