How to get there:
There is frequent public bus service to downtown Lahaina from the resort center of Ka’anapali, but most travelers will arrive by car. Downtown is spread out along the waterfront, so any parking lot or street space is as good as any other. It’s about a 10-15 minute drive from Ka’anapali and Kapalua; 40-70 minutes from Kahului or Wailea, depending on traffic on the beautiful but frequently-congested Honoapiliani Highway.
A brief history:
As Europeans and Americans began to colonize Maui in the early 1800s, whaling, industrialized agriculture, and trans-Pacific trade gradually developed. In fact, sugar refining from cane was an old Chinese process, and the Hungtai Company, formed by businessmen from China, started Maui's first sugar mill in 1828. By the 1850s, the labor supply was getting tight and there weren’t enough people moving over from North America, or many remaining Native Hawaiians, who were willing to do the hard and dangerous agricultural and whaling work at low wages. Unsurprisingly, company owners went overseas for cheap labor. In 1852 the first Chinese workers arrived, followed by Japanese workers in 1868. Later on, Korean and Filipino contingents were also brought over to work.
Each of these groups maintained cultural, family, and financial ties to their home countries, but the high debt the workers took on to come to Hawaii, coupled with the low pay rates, caused many of the Asian workers to either move back home, or press on to California and beyond. But there were still thousands of Asians who decided to stay on, create new families, and become part of Island culture.
Lahaina was the chief port on Maui at the time, and much of the “downtown” along the waterfront was built by and for its Asian community. After two World Wars and waves of displacement and resettlement, the loss of mass agriculture on West Maui and building of a bigger port in central Kahului, little remains of a classic “Chinatown”. But this shouldn’t be seen as the loss of the Asian community; it has evolved and intermingled with Native Hawaiian, American, and South Pacific peoples to become a truly Pan-Pacific culture! And what was Chinatown is now called Lahaina’s Historic District.
What to see and do:
There isn’t much left of Asian settlement or commercial buildings, but there are two key places to visit:
The Wo Hing Museum, at 858 Front Street, will provide an interesting 30 to 60 minutes of exploration with hundreds of artifacts from Chinese migrants and even historic films by Thomas Edison, shot across 1898-1906.
The building’s international importance comes from the Chinese leader Sun Yat-Sen, who traveled to Maui six times during 1879-1910 and spent considerable time in Hawaii planning the Revolution of 1911, including many meetings here. Sun’s older brother ran a cattle ranch on Maui, so the family connection was deep. Many tourists from Taiwan and the People’s Republic make a special stop here.
The main two-story building, constructed in 1912, was a fraternal-order social meeting hall which served a similar purpose to VFW posts or Elks lodges. The downstairs holds a small gift shop and multiple historic exhibits of clothing, money, tools, documents, and photos; the upstairs is the meeting hall, decorated in period detail and ready for use as it was in the old days. There is also a separate building on the property that functioned as a community kitchen; the stoves and cookpots and woks are enormous! Admission is $7 for adults; kids 12 and under are free.
After leaving the Wo Hing complex, look carefully at the older shops along Front Street; some of these have been around nearly a century and built for the Chinese and Japanese families and merchants.
Not quite a mile north on Front Street, at the turnoff for the Mala Boat Ramp is tiny Ala Moana Street, and on it the Lahaina Jodo Mission. This is an active Buddhist temple with landscaped grounds, and a 90-foot-tall pagoda and bell tower. In the summer they put on the largest Obon Festival on the island, and every night at 8 pm, the temple bell is rung eleven times. The most notable part of the complex, however, is the 12-foot tall seated Amida Buddha bronze statue: built in 1968 and the largest of its kind outside Japan. Admission is free.
Where family travelers can stay:
The many resorts in Ka’anapali, Napili, and Kapalua give families plenty of choices to match their taste in activities and budget. Some of the more familiar names at ‘reasonable’ prices for this area would include:
The Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa
The Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa
Marriott Maui Resort and Ocean Club
Further north in Napili, the Kahana Beach Resort and Napili Kai Resort are also well-reviewed.
Maui’s reputation as a vacation paradise is well-deserved, with outdoor activities to match any enthusiasm. Some of the bigger resorts in Ka’anapali and Wailea have substantial family programs and often incorporate elements to teach about ecological and Native Hawaiian themes.
The Hawaiian culture was formed by voyagers from several distinct island chains, so from the start it was a blend, and every group of people who have arrived since have added to the mix. Because of this, there are social elements in traditional culture which North Americans should be able to grasp quickly. Since you’re already on the island, and in Lahaina – the original capital of the Hawaiian Islands – why not learn a bit more?
The Lahaina Restoration Foundation has the task of preserving historic structures and telling the stories of the people who’ve lived on Maui. They run seven museums, including the Wo Hing Museum, plus manage additional heritage buildings and the public spaces in the Historic District, particularly the famous Banyan Tree Park. Their Baldwin Home Museum is a great first stop to learn about the island’s history.
Maui Nei is an organization that conducts two-hour guided walking tours of Lahaina, and also offers a three-hour cultural arts program. If your kids are up to walking around for that time, listening and participating, they’re more than welcome.
Another entertaining and delicious way to learn more about local culture is to attend one of the big luau dinner theaters; there are several in the Lahaina-Ka’anapali area. The biggest and closest to downtown is the Old Lahaina Luau, where you’ll experience a professional two-hour show by an amazing dance troupe.
Even more cultural and activity links are listed below.