On Maui in the 1970s, the airport was an open-air shack much like the ones you can still encounter on small islands the world over. It sat in a valley between two dormant volcanoes, the ground covered with tall sugar cane, lush green, waving in the fierce trade winds that blow constantly. After five hours of nothing to see but clouds and water, it always took my breath away. We deplaned by walking down the ramp stairway, and were immediately enveloped by humidity and the powerful scent of tropical flowers and pineapple. Intoxicating. It felt like emerging from a time machine.
After five hours of nothing to see but clouds and water, it always took my breath away.
In comparison with the big city Honolulu on Oahu, the “neighbor island” of Maui was unsullied and pristine; some would have called it backward. Those of us who knew better called it paradise.
In those days it was possible to explore the island feeling like you were among the first outsiders to discover it. The roads were empty and development was just beginning. The 2-hour drive up the Haleakala volcano, as moonscape-like a place as you’re likely to see on Earth, and the long, winding, 3-hour road trip to Hana through the only tropical rain forest in the US, were joyous journeys of discovery. As much as we savored the beach—and jumping into the ocean was the first thing we did after dropping our bags—we loved exploring the island next.
For a while we came back every year. Then twice a year, then as often as we could. To the point where we had to force ourselves to travel to other places. We weren’t done yet; there were other neighbor islands to discover!
Even learning about the geological history of the islands intrigued me. The chain sits over a hot spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the movement of the Pacific Plate over this spot created the islands. Maui is the second youngest. The Big Island of Hawai’i, which is still over the hot spot and therefore still forming, is the youngest (if you don’t count the seamount Lo’ihi, still submerged to the southeast). Where else can you go to see an island being created before your very eyes?
Maui has always been a magnet for artists, hippies, adventure seekers, and those just looking for something else. The farm (or should I say ocean?) to table movement arguably started here, out of necessity, and we were among its most passionate participants. Ono, opah, liliko’i, opakapaka, macadamia—the names are as melodic as the flavors. I swear we go back just for the apple bananas.
By the late ‘90s, a local friend saw us in a restaurant looking over the art for sale on the walls and remarked; “Uh oh, I’ve seen this before. Once they start looking at art, real estate is next.” And so it was.
We bought a condo, and then built a house. We wanted to share our love for this place with friends and family. Fast-forward 30 years: so too did many other people. By the time our visitors came, they encountered a very different Maui than the one we fell in love with decades earlier. The sugar cane is all but gone, a victim of globalization and development. Ditto the pineapple fields. Our own house was built on one. The final landing approach through the valley now passes over rows of houses. Life is certainly easier for the locals, but something has been lost.
While there is still much that is breathtaking—the beauty and the sunsets remain, and the humpback whales still spend the winter—getting around is more difficult and discovery means a new shop or restaurant. The tendency for many is to stay put at the beach or the pool with a drink in hand. There are packaged tours for everything, with the sense of wonder all but wrung out of them.
I want to scream at them: “You should have seen it back in the day. Before Disneyfication. Don’t you want to explore it for yourselves??” But I have to accept that others’ experience of the islands as they are today is just as valid as mine. Although the Maui I brought my niece to is not the one I fell in love with, she fell in love with Maui 2.0.
It is still one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I dare you to visit with an open heart and not be changed.
Patricia is a co-founder of Retrospect, and generally can be found two standard deviations from the mean on most issues. Lover of chef's tasting menus, cute shoes, and the music of Brahms.