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Maui History: A Quick Look at 3 Historic Maui Towns

Maui is home to many incredible towns that offer impressive beaches, restaurants, shopping and art scenes. But these Maui towns also have fascinating histories that remain unknown to most who encounter these modern day centers of activity.

With a little digging, their stories begin to emerge. And these stories help explain how each town formed their distinct characters we can experience today. Each one unique to a different era of Maui’s history, the towns of Pāʻia, Wailuku, and Lahaina are 3 Maui towns definitely worth a closer look.

Pāʻia

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Windsurfers enjoy the North Shore's perfect conditions

Pāʻia is a vibrant town located on Maui’s North Shore. Now known as the “Windsurfing capital of the world,” Pāʻia is a popular place to eat, shop, and play in the sand - all while possessing a rich history that dates back to the 1800s.

The Pāʻia Sugar Mill opened in 1880 and Pāʻia Town, located in the traditional Hawaiian Moku district of Hamakuapoko, quickly became the ideal location for the immigrant plantation workers to live, leading to a tremendous expansion of the town's population. Bustling with plantation immigrants from all over the world, Pāʻia quickly became a melting pot of diverse cultures and traditions.

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Storefronts at the intersection of Baldwin Ave and Hana Highway

In the 1930s, a devastating fire ravished Pāʻia town, and in 1946 the largest tsunami in Hawaiʻi's recorded history hit the coastal town. After both disasters, Pāʻia underwent massive reconstruction phases, and the extensive rebuilding forced many to move away.

As the sugar mill's plantation lifestyle faded and workers went elsewhere, the plantation residents of Pāʻia were soon replaced by a new crowd: windsurfers from around the world who were drawn to Maui's North Shore for its near-perfect conditions.

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The sun sets behind a cluster of palm trees at Hookipa Beach Park

Today, world famous surfing and windsurfing competitions are held just outside of Pāʻia, at Ho’okipa Beach Park. Meaning "hospitality" in the Hawaiian language, Ho’okipa is also a great spot to relax on the beach and watch the turtles sunbathe on the warm sand. While people are prohibited from getting too close and disturbing the turtles, they are a sight to see, especially around sunset.

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Paia has lots of healthy food options for everyone

Pāʻia town itself is a funky world of its own, with brightly colored store fronts and boutiques bustling with people. The town also has a wide variety of restaurants, serving all types of delicious cuisine from Mediterranean to Mexican. The meals are always fresh, as most of the restaurants use recently caught fish or food locally sourced from farms in the area.

 

Wailuku

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Wailuku Town storefronts

Wailuku is a unique town on Maui that holds some of the most fascinating stories of Hawaiian history and culture. Meaning "waters of destruction," Wailuku has long been known as the political and business center of Maui. And its no accident that this water-rich part of the island has played a central role in Maui's own story.

Situated in the traditional Wailuku Moku district in the central part of Maui, the town has historical roots in Hawaiian conquest; it was the site on which Kamehameha invaded Maui in 1790. Known as the Battle of Kepaniwai, Kamehameha fought Kalanikūpule in a battle between Maui and Hawaiʻi Island that was so fierce, it was said to make Iao River run red with blood.

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The Bailey House Museum in Wailuku Town

The Bailey House Museum is a modern reminder of the area's rich history, and preserves the grounds on which this event occurred. The Bailey House is also home to Hale Hōʻikeʻike, a former girls seminary run by Edward Bailey in the 1840s and then used as Civil Defense headquarters during WWII.

Wailuku town has always prospered under economic growth. In the mid-1800s the Wailuku Sugar Company discovered a method of bringing water from the mountains overlooking Wailuku down to the fields, and as a result the sugar industry flourished. Consequently, the town of Wailuku saw a large growth with schools, stores and churches, until the industry slowed in the late 1960s.

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The old Wailuku Court House along High Street

Modern day Wailuku serves as a combination of new and old. There is a large performing arts community present in the town, from the Maui Academy of Performing Arts and Maui Onstage to the numerous galleries and opportunities to see live musicians. Large, colorful murals adorn the walls of several buildings in Wailuku.

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The historic Iao Theater in Old Town Wailuku
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One of many murals you can find in Old Town Wailuku

The town itself is home to an eclectic mix of shops and plentiful restaurants and cafes. It is also located right in Central Maui underneath the beautiful Iao Valley State Park. Iao Valley is a lush and tropical area with scenic hikes, fresh water swimming holes, and an impressive heritage garden that honors the many cultures on Maui.

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Iao Valley State Park's iconic needle

The first Friday of every month, Wailuku town hosts their Friday night town party along Market Street, featuring vendors, live music and local treats. This is an event that sees the Central Maui community come together and is the perfect spot for visitors looking to buy locally made clothing and gifts.

 

Lahaina

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Lahaina Town and harbor from the air

Lahaina Town has a spirit and history like no other. From the sunny weather to the numerous attractions, it is no surprise that Lahaina draws in such large crowds (approximately 80% of Maui’s tourists visit Lahaina Town) year after year. But the area in and around Lahaina has a long history of being the ultimate Maui gathering place.

Located in the traditional Hawaiian Moku district by the same name, Lahaina Town is now on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1800s, Lahaina was considered such a perfect spot that King Kamehameha named it the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. And it remained the capital for over 50 years before its relocation to Honolulu.

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Historic Mokuula - home of the alii

When King Kamehameha II gave permission for missionaries to come to the town, they brought along several new customs. The missionaries established the Lahainaluna High School. Built in 1831, it is the oldest school in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains. In 1823 the missionaries established the historic mission now known as Waiola Church, originally called the Waine'e Church. The cemetery on site is the final resting place for many royal family members of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Another burial site for Hawaiian royalty is Moku'ula. A former tiny island that used to be surrounded by a fish pond, Moku'ula was home to King Kamehameha III in the mid-1800s. Moku'ula is considered sacred to the people of Hawaiʻi but the pond was filled in and the area was turned into a park in 1919. There have been recent efforts to reestablish the site, as it is one of the most significant archeology spots in Hawaiʻi.

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Visitors to Lahaina enjoy the banyan tree's shade

Lahaina is also home to a famous banyan tree that was planted in 1873. The banyan tree is now over 60 feet high, and serves as a shady spot on the Front Street courthouse square. It is also a place to gather the second Friday of each month for the Lahaina Town Party, an evening event for community members and Maui visitors to enjoy local food and live music while discovering the unique gifts and crafts on display.

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Pioneer Inn and Banyan Tree park along Front Street, Lahaina

The rest of historic Front Street has something for everyone, from the  oceanfront shops and art galleries, to the nightlife and renowned places to eat. Front Street was ranked as one of the “Top Ten Greatest Streets” by the American Planning Association.

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Baby Beach with Lanai in the distance

The natural reef around parts of the Lahaina coast creates gentle beaches with very little surf, making them popular swimming and snorkeling spots for children and families. Two of these beaches include Launiupoko Beach Park on Lahaina's southside, and Baby Beach on the northern end of Front Street.

(listen to our podcast on Lahaina Town history)

Pāʻia, Wailuku and Lahaina all represent different parts of Maui's past, from the sugar industry to Ancient Hawaiian battles to the time of missionaries. The culmination shows how rich Maui's history is and how diverse the cultures and experiences are in each town to this day.

While these three towns do not serve as a complete picture of Maui's history, their stories help us further appreciate the island. Look a little deeper into your favorite locations around Maui, and you'll discover a past that permeates the present.

More from the Maui Visitor Channel Archives

Video: Lahaina History Part I
Video: Lahaina History Part II
Video: Lahaina History Part III
Video: Wailuku Town
Video: Paia Town

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