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Hikers, artists, banyans, and onions all thrive here

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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MAUI - I confess I was afraid to go to Maui. I imagined the beaches there would be so beautiful I would never be able to enjoy the ones closer to home the same way again. My fears were confirmed. Maui is a tropical paradise. I can’t wait to go back. Here are some of the many things I love about the island.

Makena Beach, or Big Beach, is a gorgeous swath of powdery sand and powerful surf that’s perfect for sunbathing and people-watching. Be careful if you venture into the water; the waves will knock you down like an angry linebacker. One hit me so hard that I flipped head over heels. Luckily, I managed to keep a tight grip on my bathing suit. There’s a reason locals call it Break Neck Beach. Makena State Park, Makena Road, www.hawaiistateparks.org

Speaking of bathing suits . . . At the northern end of Makena Beach there is a large volcanic cinder cone called Puu Olai. If you climb over that, you’ll find Little Beach, a calmer, gentler cove that has long been regarded as clothing-optional (even though public nudity is illegal in Hawaii).

The highest point on Maui is the top of Haleakala, a dormant volcano whose name means “House of the Sun.’’ We made the 38-mile trek in our rental car, driving slowly up the steep, winding road. The views from the 10,023-foot summit were incredible. It seemed as if we were looking out onto a vast ocean of clouds. Many tourists come here before dawn to watch the sun rise. A car pass costs $10, valid for three days. Haleakala National Park, 808-572-4400, www.nps.gov/hale

Private companies will drive you to the top of Haleakala, then let you ride a bicycle back down. Hard-core cyclists can pedal up on their own; a pass is $5.

The summit area of Haleakala looks like a gigantic crater, and there are plenty of hiking trails. The air is thin up there, and it’s typically 30 degrees colder than on the coast. As my friends and I trudged through the barren, desert-like landscape, it felt like we were visiting another planet. Overnight camping is available. Campsite permits are free; cabins cost $60-$75 per night. www.fhnp.org/wcr

If you can’t afford to stay at a posh hotel resort like the Four Seasons or the Ritz, you can still drop by and see how the other half lives. We strolled around the grounds of Grand Wailea and stopped at the Bistro Molokini, one of several dining areas at the complex, where we sat at the bar, ordered an appetizer, and treated ourselves to $13 pina coladas. 3850 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea, www.grandwailea.com

The Baldwin Home, the oldest house on Maui, is located in the town of Lahaina, the first capital of Hawaii. Built in 1834, the house has walls made from coral, sand, and lava rock, and was originally used by medical missionaries from New England. It now operates as a museum, open to the public daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. 696 Front St., Lahaina; admission $3, 808-661-3262, www.lahainarestoration.org

Shave ice, a delicious treat that looks like a Sno-cone, is served all over Maui. The recipe is simple: ice and sugary syrup. I sampled the pineapple and raspberry flavors at Annie’s Island Shave Ice. It looked like a red-and-yellow snowball in a styrofoam cup, and tasted super sweet. 117 Prison St., Lahaina

Cheeseburger in Paradise is an oceanfront restaurant with a fun, Tiki-bar-inspired decor. Laren Gartner and Edna Bayliff opened their first cheeseburger joint in Lahaina in 1989, and their business has since expanded to eight locations. 811 Front St., Lahaina, 808-661-4855, www.cheeseburgerland.com

The famous Banyan Tree stands in the center of Lahaina. It was planted in April 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of Protestant missionary work in the village, and has grown to be 60 feet tall, with an umbrella of branches that covers two-thirds of an acre. Front Street, between Hotel and Canal streets, Lahaina

Adventurous motorists will want to brave the drive along the northwest shore of the island. This narrow road twists around steep cliffs (who needs guardrails?) providing breathtaking ocean views. From the driver’s perspective, navigating these nail-biting stretches of Route 340 and 30 make the Road to Hana (see below) seem like a breeze.

Whalers village, an outdoor shopping complex on Kaanapali Beach, is a popular tourist destination. Besides stores and restaurants, it’s home to the annual Maui Onion Festival (yes, a raw onion eating contest - the next one is May 1) and the Whalers Village Museum, which features historical exhibits on the island’s whaling industry and a collection of 19th-century scrimshaw. 2435 Kaanapali Parkway, museum admission free, 808-661-4567, www.whalersvillage.com

Leilani’s on the Beach, in Whalers Village, has outdoor seating that faces Kaanapali Beach. It’s a great place to see the sun set while munching on a salad of mixed greens and sweet Maui onions. 2435 Kaanapali Parkway, 808-661-4495, www.leilanis.com The Road to Hana, a 52-mile scenic drive along the northern coast, takes several hours. Along the way are 600 curves, 59 narrow bridges, and plenty of photo ops for waterfalls, cliffs, valleys, tropical rain forests, and views of the ocean pounding the rocks below. We stopped near Mile Marker 28, at the Nahiku Marketplace, where you can buy fish tacos, coconut candy, baked breadfruit, and locally-grown coffee. There are also arts and crafts for sale at the Nahiku Ti Gallery.

Just past Mile Marker 32 on the Hana Highway is a volcanic sand beach. The state also operates cabins here that can be reserved for $45 a night. Waianapanapa State Park, Waianapanapa Road, 808-248-4844, www.hawaiistateparks.org

Ten miles past the town of Hana we reached the Oheo Gulch, where cascading streams feed several pools of water. This spot, nicknamed the Seven Sacred Pools (although there are more than seven and none is deemed sacred), is part of the eastern end of Haleakala National Park.

The towering 400-foot Waimoku Falls is also part of the park. To reach the falls, we hiked on foot along the Pipiwai Trail, through a dense bamboo forest and countless guava and mango trees.

Maui is a haven for artists. I got to hang out with Dale Zarrella (www.dalezarrella.com), an accomplished painter and sculptor who lives in Kihei. He works with wood, stone, and bronze, and his work is displayed at the Grand Wailea and other places on Maui. He has also shown his work in Lahaina, a community that bills itself as The Art Capital of the Pacific and claims to have more art galleries per capita than any other town in the United States. Every Friday is Art Night in Lahaina, when from 7 to 10 all the local galleries hold an open house with guest artists, special shows, and refreshments.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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