April 1, 2020

The Soul of Maui

There’s a Hawaiian legend about a pregnant woman who developed a craving for the eyeballs of royalty. Advisers to the king took this to mean that the woman’s child would one day grow up to defeat the king and rule all the islands. The king decreed that the baby be killed as soon as it was born. So the woman had her newborn boy spirited away and hidden from the king.

The boy became King Kamehameha, who indeed conquered the islands of Hawaii.

I read this Moses-like story one night, sitting on the balcony of our room at the Maui Prince Hotel.

It was Aug. 20, 2003. The planet Mars was orbiting closer to earth than it had in almost 80 years. The red planet would have appeared as a fireball in a star-addled sky. The waves crashed close by, and the sounds of a Hawaiian guitar drifted up from a small wedding reception below. Beside me, The New York Times front page offered tragic news from Israel — more suicide bombings — but at that moment Mars felt closer than the Middle East.

It was strange to be in a place of such magnificent tranquillity at a time of such unease, but that’s the point of vacations. And what we found in Maui and Molokai during our 10 days there last summer were places that not only helped us relax, but also replenished our souls.

We were in south Maui, staying at the Maui Prince Hotel — which hosted our visit — in Makena. The row of luxury hotels that begins in Kaanapali and continues through Wailea is a familiar litany to the Maui-bound. The Westin, Alii, Marriot, Hyatt, Grand Wailea, Four Seasons and Kea Lani: plenty of Angelenos can reel their names off with greater ease than the seven Hawaiian islands themselves.

But those developments, with their theme park-worthy pools, happening boardwalks and busy beaches, come to an abrupt end in Makena. The Maui Prince is the last development before the undeveloped coast that includes Big Beach, Little Beach and the black sands of Oneuli Beach. It is all strikingly beautiful, and even more so because comparatively few tourists make it this far south.

The Prince is part of a chain of Japanese-owned luxury hotels and in both its beauty and quirkiness it echoes its roots. A huge koi pond — the largest on the island — winds its way through the hotel property surrounded by lush native plants and Zen-like raked pebble gardens. Part of the massive garden forms the center of the 310-room hotel. The hotel hallways remain open to the atrium on one side, while the rooms face the sea or the mountains on the other.

Best of all is the wide crescent beach that even in high season is relatively deserted. Here, sea life doesn’t mean your neighbors from Tarzana fighting for cabana space, but a pair of sea turtles that loll around a nest of rocks, wading distance from shore. The Prince’s own bit of cove has a gently sloping sandy bottom edged by lava rock and rimmed further by beautiful coral outcroppings. Tourists from other hotels pay good money to take "adventure snorkeling trips" that moor about 100 yards off the Prince’s beach.

There is cable TV — the suites have two of them — but it wasn’t on my diet. There is The New York Times, but it arrives a day late. There is Internet service and probably talk radio, but no Larry Mantle or Warren Olney, so why bother? I did marvel at The Maui News, whose cover photo on Aug. 21 — this is the day after a bomb in Iraq killed 17 and a suicide bomber in Jerusalem killed 20 — featured a photo of a Los Gatos man who, while visiting Wailea, constructed an especially large sand castle.

Strange, yes, but that’s the point of Maui. You go there to replenish what the mainland and the media suck out of you. If you’re Jewish, you can even do so in a minyan. We had been to Maui once before and knew that it was no problem to suss out the island’s 2,500 or so Jews. You could raise a minyan at the hotels in Wailea in minutes. The nondenominational Jewish Congregation of Maui, headed by Los Angeles-born Rabbi David Glickman, now has a religious school. Both the Safeway and the Star Market in Kihei carry a shelf of kosher food and a selection of frozen kosher meat.

The island’s Jews turn up in some unexpected places. On a visit upcountry to what is probably Maui’s best restaurant, The Hali’imaile General Store, I discovered that founder/chef Beverly Gannon is from a large Jewish family in Dallas. Which explains the warmth and vitality of her restaurant.

"That’s the way I was raised," she said. "In the Jewish tradition of ‘eat, eat, eat.’"

But spiritual uplift is not just a Jewish thing on Maui: it’s an island thing. Following the road up from Hali’imaile, we explored Haleakala National Park, site of an active volcano of the same name. The road ascends through heavy clouds. Along the way we spotted the rare nene, placid descendants of Canadian geese that got waylaid, then evolved and adapted to life at 11,000 feet. The tropical weather turns cold and windy near the top, but the terrain of barren, wind-swept lava is overpowering, inspiring.

The next day, more of the same sense of wonder struck us at the Hawaii Nature Center in the Iao Valley. Where Kamehameha’s soldiers fought the forces of the king of Maui until a river of blood roared through the peaceful valley (more biblical Hawaiian legends), we wandered down a trail lined with guava, banana, wild ginger, Indian almonds, mango. A river of pure water did roar beside us, and thick greenery blanketing the skyward spirals rising from the valley floor. It was an escape to Eden.

After Maui, we followed Eden to Molokai. If Maui is relaxing, then Molokai, the island northwest of it, is another order of tranquillity. There are no traffic lights on the entire 38-mile island. The downside is an island with some serious development issues.

"Why are we rebuilding Iraq?" my son asked as we drove down the slightly dilapidated main street of Molokai’s main town, Kaunakakai, "We should be rebuilding Molokai."

But a strong local pride infuses the island, whose roadside is dotted with handmade signs — "No Cruise Ships" — proclaiming the population’s intention to prevent the Waikiki-ization of Molokai.

The result is a population of 7,000 people who are struggling economically (many are on government assistance and hunt and fish for their sustenance) but who are stewards to an environment that recalls Hawaii of a century ago.

Back then, and for much of antiquity, Molokai was considered an island possessed of spiritual power. Only 4,000 residents inhabit the island, including the largest percentage of native Hawaiians in the state. There are dense rain forests, the tallest cliffs in the world (the opening scenes of Jurassic Park were shot here), deep pine forests, miles of ranch and farm land and a remarkable lack of tourism and industry. The island is famous for its colony devoted to people afflicted with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, but the area made famous by the Rev. Damien is open only by arranged tours. Medication has all but eradicated the disease, and the remaining elderly residents prefer to guard their privacy.

There are tours to be had on Molokai — a coffee plantation, rain forests that are mostly on private land, snorkeling — but the island is also a wonderful place to contemplate natural Hawaii. The Sheraton Lodge has private canvas-sided luxury bungalows right on the beach, which we shared with a pair of monk seals for the duration of our stay (the beach, not the bungalow). The lodge has sweeping views of ranchland, a pool a dude-ranch-with-mai-tais atmosphere and activities like hiking, horseback riding and skeet shooting. The air is pure, the stars dense and bright, the waters blue and warm and filled with colorful fish.

When it was time to leave Maui and Molokai for the all-too-real world, the beauty had worked its magic. We were relaxed and replenished. That was in August. It’s November now, and I’m ready to go back.

FYI: Maui/Molokai

Jewish Congregation of Maui Beit Shalom Synagogue
634 Alulike St.
Kihei, HI 96753
(808) 874-5397

The Suzi and Mitch Katz Jewish Library of Maui, Inc.
1325 Lower Main St.
Suite 103
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-3700

Haleakala National Park
Makawao, HI
(808) 572-4400

Hali’imaile General Store
900 Hali’imaile Road
Makawao, HI 96768
(808) 572-2666

Iao Valley Hawaii Nature Center
875 Iao Valley Road
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-6500

Maui Visitors Bureau
1727 Wili Pa Loop
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-3530

Maui Prince Hotel
5400 Makena Alanui
Makena, HI 96753
(866) 774-6236

Sheraton Molokai Lodge & Beach Village
100 Maunaloa Highway
Maunaloa, Molokai, HI 96770
(866) 500-8313