I grew up in the jungle of Maui, barefoot, climbing trees, keeping geckos as house pets. A trip to the busy west side of the island was an all day affair. After a two hour dance with the narrow, cliff-side Hana Highway we’d arrive in Kahului where I was fascinated by the fluorescent lights and honking car horns. I’d sing along to the Ka’ahumanu Center jingle on the radio and the grocery store might as well have been Disney World I was so eager for the cheese samples, flower displays and rows of sugary cereal I might possibly convince mom to splurge on.
When I was nine, my family relocated to Maine where grocery stores weren’t so special and civilization was easily accessed just a few minutes down the road. I spent my teenage years still titillated at the mere mention of a trip to the mall as it seemed Maine never got the overdevelopment memo the rest of the country took to heart in the 90s. The closest mall was still two hours away; I’m a country girl.
Though I still live in Maine today, I at least have made it to Portland, the “big city”. I have had the pleasure of getting my traveler’s feet wet as I’ve grown out of my rural roots but when I returned to Maui in 2005, I was caught off guard—the visit was nothing like I expected.
Fresh across the Pacific from a semester living in Auckland, NZ I was eager to return to Hawaii after almost fifteen years. I was scheduled to stay for two weeks with my mother and sister who traveled from Maine to meet me. Coming from quite a large city like Auckland, I was surprised as I recoiled from the asphalt, shriveled palms and blaring noise of Honolulu. “It’s just a busy airport--It will be better when I get to Maui”, I thought.
Kahului Wailuku and Kihei, Maui turned out no better though. Tourists in squeaky new sneakers jostled and crowded me, traffic was slow and the beaches were so congested with souvenir trinket stands I couldn’t walk three strides without a grinning salesman dangling a “Maui No Ka ‘Oi” keychain in my face. Home Depot, the Super Wal-mart and Target had risen up where sugar cane fields had once stretched and Ka’ahumanu Center was now the Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall, a multi-level, air conditioned eyesore.
I think part of my bad attitude had to do with checking back in with reality after five months of adventure and general debauchery in Auckland, but still, I was heartbroken that Maui seemed cheesy, congested and more than a little dirty. Iao Valley was lush and picturesque, albeit still choked with visitors. The mystical sunrise at Haleakela crater was ruined by tour buses full of bumbling, loud, tourists on bicycles and the iconic Lahaina banyan tree was positively swarming with people fiddling with their cameras for the ideal photo op. All of the beloved spots that had been my own private playgrounds as a kid I now had to share with muu-muu clad haoles.
Conditions (and morale) improved once we finally took the drive on that notorious highway back to Hana. As we hair-pin-turned our way closer to the east coast of the island, it became clear that these folks missed the development bus as Maine had. A tidy but ramshackle shop in Haiku provided us with a sack of homemade candied coconut and retro style bottles of POG (passion-orange-guava juice—the nectar of my upbringing). My resentful façade shattered and suddenly I was ready to kick off my flip flops, roll in some mud and climb lava rocks!
Hana was exactly as I had left it. Hasegawa’s General Store, Tu-Tu’s Burger Shack on the beach and the Hotel Hana Maui’s koi pond were like postcards from my past. Even the tangy smell of the overripe, dropped fruit mingled with salt and sand was perfect. So we played, ecstatic, at the black sand beach, hiked out near the Ka‘uiki Lighthouse and explored the network of caves at Wai’anapanapa State Park. After an unforgettable evening of fried (fresh caught) fish, wine and catching up at our friend’s farm in the thickly verdant hills south of Hana, we slept soundly in the spider draped platform tent in the backyard. I had never been so grateful for the chirping of the jungle instead of the buzz of central air conditioning. In the morning we drove up the hill overlooking town to Fagan Memorial Cross. I had vivid memories of a childhood face plant on that rough volcanic rock, and my knees stung at the sight of the stately lava monument. There were no tourists, no mini-cross keychain peddlers and I finally felt like I was home.
Noella Schink is a travel writer from Portland, Maine. She loves road trips, the beach and her dogs. Her favorite adventures so far have been studying abroad in New Zealand and touring the UK rental car-style.