Beyond the high-rise hotels of Lahaina and Wailea-Makena on the West and South coasts, it’s long been possible to find a different Maui, one that’s more vibrant and eccentric, more historic and homespun. It all radiates outward from Paia (Pie-EEE-a), an old sugar plantation town that is now the epicenter of the North Shore’s surf and high-vibrational hippie scenes. Here, barefoot locals commingle with pro surfers, yogis and resident Owen Wilson, who fits right in. And in the months since Covid put a damper on incoming travel, the resort crowd, stopping through on its way out to Hana, hasn’t been missed by everyone.
Paia’s bustling stretch of surf shops and tourist kitsch has seen an increase in new businesses aimed at the community, including Better Things, a living room-like café opened last November by twin sisters home from college during COVID who couldn’t find “a place to sit” with WiFi for remote learning, says cofounder Taylor Rusnak. Last year’s struggles really brought the community together, she says: “The locals have taken us in.” Further down Baldwin Avenue, Molly Payne’s impeccably curated homewares store, The Shoppe by Hale Zen, opened in December, catering to locals and discerning visitors. (Payne, a second-generation entrepreneur, whose mother owns two stores on the island, happens to date Maui surf sensation Kai Lenny.)
While some spaces have sadly been forced to close, people are busy filling them with new ventures, says Runsak. Amid a cataclysmic reset, Maui’s upstart entrepreneurial energy lights an optimistic path toward a more diversified local economy and a more conscious, authentic visitor experience.
Ten minutes up the side of the volcano from Paia in the improbable jungle outpost of Makawao (Mah-ka-WOW), the Old West movie-set vibe is even stronger. This former ranch town and army outpost (during World War II, Maui hosted some 200,000 soldiers) is now a sophisticated lineup of colorful boutiques, coffee trucks and art galleries that wouldn’t be out of place in Venice Beach. Keep driving along the slopes of the Haleakalā crater and you’ll find an “Upcountry” vibrant with small farms, farm-to-table food, and the area’s first design-conscious lodging, Haiku House. “There are a ton of new businesses in town, and a lot of fresh new faces,” says Morgan Miller, owner of Makawao’s beloved sushi truck, Satori, which opened in 2019. “There seems to be a community revamping in the works.”
Maui’s history of exploitation runs deep: Native Hawaiians decimated by colonialism and disease; whales hunted for oil; coral reefs still threatened by resort wastewater runoff. But its wild charms endure. Alive and accessible, Maui is an evolving character in its own story, nowhere more so than in its rugged, energetic, wide-open north, the land of whipping tradewinds, frequent rains and omnipresent rainbows, a sign of transformation—and of better days to come.
See & Do
The parking lot of Maui’s quintessential locals’ beach is packed with camper vans and surfboard-stocked pickups belonging to neighborhood dads and the famous pros who put on an air show here all winter. Don’t expect to swim during the winter surf season—the waves are too choppy—but there’s no better place to splash in the tidepools or relax on the sand (or nearby grassy bluff) with a beer and watch homegrown stars like Kai Lenny and Matt Meola surf, windsurf, kite, and hydrofoil as the sun sets. At the far end of the beach, check out the sea turtles that sleep on the rocks, guarded by local volunteers who keep visitors at a safe distance.
Haleakalā National Park
You have simply never seen the likes of this remote volcanic landscape, a sparse, frigid dreamland 10,000 feet above sea level that last erupted between 1480 and 1600 (and likely will again, though it’s currently dormant). The Haleakalā (“house of the sun” in Hawaiian) summit is sacred for Native Hawaiians, who fiercely opposed construction of a massive solar telescope here (they lost; on the Big Island, locals had more success fighting a similar project). Bring food and sunscreen and hike a mile down into the desert-like crater. Or make a reservation and head to the summit at sunrise, when traffic is limited to 50 cars.
At this otherworldly farm, situated at 4,000 feet in the sleepy Upcountry town of Kula (home to ridiculous panoramic views of Central and West Maui and the Pacific beyond), you can wander among 55,000 lavender plants and shop for fragrant soap, honey, and shortbread. Afterwards, if you’ve got 4WD and a sense of adventure, head straight up Waipoli Road, a snaking lane of deserted mountain switchbacks with astonishing views, toward Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area, where you can hike among the eucalyptus and redwoods — or not: the drive up is an event in itself.
Upcountry’s busiest metropolis is a tiny, historic paniolo (a.k.a. Hawaiian cowboy) town now dotted with shops, galleries, food trucks and a yoga studio but still steeped in that horsey vibe (upheld by an annual local rodeo). Makawao dates to the mid-19th century, when migrant workers from China, Portugal and elsewhere flocked to Maui to work in its booming agricultural sector, and King Kamehameha III enlisted Spanish cowboys from Mexico to train the locals to control the cattle herds exploding on the island. Today, the saddles may be gone, but plush leather goods remain, at least at Holiday & Co., Makawao’s lineup of curated boutiques is the best on Maui—the locals actually shop here—with standouts including Tribe for well-made beach bags and denim; Monarch Collective for locally made silk scarves and face masks, puka-shell necklaces and ceramics; and Driftwood, which stocks popular Hawaiian swimwear line Acacia. Afterwards, grab a chai latte at Espresso Mafia, the newest coffee truck in town.
A popular and easy paved run or stroll in KeoKea, near Kula, scenic Thompson Road is an eden of breezy rolling pastures bisected by low rock walls, boasting bajillion-dollar views of Haleakalā and sea-level Maui down below. (No wonder Oprah has a house here.)
A highly curated store from the owners of Designing Wahine in Makawao and Hale Zen in Lahaina that cofounder Molly Payne hopes will serve the residents who kept her family businesses afloat during COVID. The Shoppe highlights distinctive products by local makers, including hand-screen-printed pillows by Maka Sea, turkish towels by Kipa Beach, and pastel-hued prints by local artist Margie Rice.
Eat & Drink
Open since 1973, Mama’s isn’t new or hip (or cheap—it’s definitely not cheap), but it remains the island’s definitive restaurant experience, a necessary pilgrimage for visitors and a special-occasion splurge for locals. The ahi with caramelized Maui onions may cost $60, but you’ll also get thoughtful service with aloha spirit, a story about the provenance of each catch down to the fisherman’s name, and a cute beach out back where you can collapse on your towel after brunch and sleep off your Mai Tai.
This popular juice bar and lunch spot opened in the middle of town in 2018, but it already feels like an institution, a place where residents flock for their morning celery juice and visitors order delicious burrito bowls made with plant-based meat and cashew cheese. Stop in for a smoothie after your hike or surf (we recommend the Chronic, a minty-cacao concoction with hazelnuts and coconut meat).
Paia’s newest coffee spot—opened amid the pandemic by local college students Taylor and Summer Rusnak, their dad and some friends—is trying to beam good vibes into a community still regrouping after an epic tourism downturn. Go for the animated locals scene (it has free WiFi and couches), the matcha lattes with homemade almond milk, the “pounded pesto” toast (made with bread from a local baker) and treats like banana power waffles, vegan chai cinnamon buns and gluten-free strawberry donuts.
A casual eat-in or takeaway taco joint built by the owner of the nearby Paia Inn, Surf Club opened in late 2019 with a Mexico City-inspired, locally sourced menu featuring plenty of inventive vegetarian options (like a delicious breadfruit taco). Closed during the pandemic, it’s now chugging back to life.
Oli Oli Pizza Pop-Up
The new pizza in town is a Napoli-style cart that pops up weekly in locations around Paia and Makawao. Husband-and-wife owners Naomi and Oliver (“Oli”) Rahm are pizza obsessives and former kitesurfing instructors who now work in computer repair (him) and wedding planning (her). They learned to make thin, puffy-edged Neopolitan pizza crust on their Italian honeymoon; Oli then built the portable wood-fired oven himself. In December, they started a weekend side business serving pies to a devoted local clientele (one recent special: Kalua pork with a lilikoi butter drizzle). Visit their Instagram for info on their next pop-up.
This atmospheric Japanese restaurant makes for a festive night out in sleepy Haiku (less than 15 minutes up the coastal Hana Highway—then up the mountain—from Paia). Nuka mills its own rice, sources ingredients from local farms and fishermen, and has an extensive sake menu and great cocktails.
Also in Haiku, Toohey’s serves burgers, tacos and burritos made with ethically sourced local meats and features live music on Saturdays. B.Y.O. for now.
Makawao’s beloved custom-built farm-to-table sushi truck offers innovative rolls made with plant-based Upcountry ingredients, such as Lillikoi Spicy Tuna and Roots On Fire, a vegan creation featuring jalapeño-pickled beets and fresh Thai basil. Satori is now also offering weekly live music, helping to fill the hole left by the closure of music venues on the island.
It’s technically not in Paia or Upcountry, but this buzzy, tiki-themed cocktail bar, which opened in August, is more than worth the 20-minute drive to Wailuku, a town at the mouth of the gorgeous Iao Valley. The longtime dream of two friends, it has charm and personality to spare, with a colorfully retro interior built by a sculptor whose work includes a massive lighthouse at Burning Man. Specialty drinks include the Mercury in Retrograde, a mixture of smoky mezcal aperol, absinthe and a coconut pineapple shrub. (As for the name: Esters are what give rum its distinct flavor, and opening a bar during a pandemic was what the friends considered a “fair prospect”.)
In Maui, you hear the name Baldwin everywhere: the descendants of a missionary couple that arrived in the 1800s became sugarcane titans, cattle ranchers and one of Hawaii’s largest landowning clans.
The lush Baldwin estate in Haiku sits on land once owned by King Kamehameha III himself, and its latest owners have refurbished the main house as a luxury nine-bedroom rental—not a boutique hotel, exactly, but the closest Upcountry comes to one—on 20 pristine, leafy acres.
Meredith Bryan is a writer and editor currently based in Australia.