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There’s More to Maui than Sun and Surf

Andrea Gross | Mar 4, 2013, 11:01 a.m.

Today scrimshanders use fossil ivory rather than the traditional whalebones, but their work imbues us with a sense of history and an appreciation of Hawaii’s marine environment.

That evening we treat ourselves to a second lu’au at the Old Lahaina Lu’au, a restaurant that trades rigorous authenticity for a tourist-friendly introduction to the food, music and history of Hawaii.

After a meal of familiar food spiced with Polynesian flavor, we sit cross-legged on woven mats as performers—adorned with feathers, flowers and fronds and accompanied by drums and a variety of stringed instruments—tell stories about the migration of the Polynesians, the arrival of the missionaries, the formation of the Hawaiian Kingdom and Hawaii’s eventual decision to become the 50th state of the United States.

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The road to Hana is one of the curviest in the nation.

Our final destination is Hana, a small town 70 miles west of Lahaina, where life ambles along much as it did more than a century ago. The first part of the drive goes quickly. It’s not until we reach Kahului, the western terminus of the famed Hana Highway, that the challenge begins.

The 52-mile road consists of 59 bridges, most of which are single lane, and 620 curves. That’s right—620 curves in 52 miles or, to put it another way, 12 swerves per mile! But the scenery, a tropical rainforest replete with rushing water and fruit-laden trees, is worth every gut-wrenching turn.

We stop midway in Ke-‘anae in order to learn about taro, Hawaii’s most important plant. While touring a working taro farm, we learn that ancient Hawaiians believed the plant sprung from the burial place of the first child born to Father Heaven. Afterward, the plant was nourished by the deceased child’s sibling and thus is considered to be the “elder brother” of the Hawaiian people. We’re warned never to argue when a bowl of poi (cooked, mashed taro) is on the table. “It would be disrespectful to argue in front of your elders,” says our guide.

I find poi to be bland and rather slimy, and the idea of eating an elder brother strikes me as slightly cannibalistic, but just in case I should be served a bowl, I make a note to obey the Law of Taro.

As we approach Hana, the road straightens, and the loudest sounds come from the waves and waterfalls. Intellectually, I know that smart phones, even when in vibration mode, are out of place in this world of silence, but I’m a creature of habit. I pull it out and check the time. It’s 5 p.m., three hours ahead of Phoenix. “Forget the hours,” says my husband. “The clock may show that we’re hours ahead but the atmosphere shows that we’re eons behind. Here we can enjoy the past.” Properly chastened, I hide the phone and un-tether myself from the 21st century.

Our first stop is the Hasegawa General Store, which was opened in 1910. A fire in 1990 forced the business to relocate to the rusty-roofed, chipped-paint building that once housed the town theater. Now it houses everything from CDs to T-shirts, fishing equipment to car jacks, muumuus to mangos.

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