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Islands’ small towns are rich in Old Hawaii

Islands’ small towns are rich in Old Hawaii

Islands’ small towns are rich in Old Hawaii
September 03
19:49 2017


Typically, you can find it in the local grocery store.

It’s where people “talk story,” and where the stock includes bait, school supplies and, on the counter, fresh-made Spam musubi or butter mochi with a handwritten label.

Or alongside the road, where aunties and uncles — the local term of respect — sell malasadas, boiled peanuts or smoked fish. Or at parties, where no one shows up empty-handed, or leaves hungry.

That’s where you find Old Hawaii.

Newcomers to the islands are often told it no longer exists: Too many luxury resorts now rise above former fishing spots, suburban homes sprawl where sugar cane once waved, and mainland chains (not to mention Amazon) have put the squeeze on mom-and-pop shops and humble cafes.

But residents and savvy travelers know the spirit of Old Hawaii is still out there. While you can find patches of it in populous places such as Honolulu, Hilo and Kahului, it’s easier to savor in the islands’ small towns.

Old Hawaii towns often have no hotel — but if they do, it’s typically a thin-walled inn from the plantation era. Instead of dipping in a resort pool, you’ll have to ask directions to the nearest swimming hole, or head to a beach where fishing poles and coolers are more common than fancy umbrellas and lounge chairs. Nightlife may consist of watching the sunset, while Sunday mornings see dawn patrols of surfers and churchgoers.

With the advent of online vacation rentals and Airbnb, more and more people are choosing to stay in towns that radiate Old Hawaii. Here are four smaller, less well-known enclaves that strike a balance between hospitality to strangers and nurturing the home-grown community — two Native Hawaiian values key to experiencing Old Hawaii.

Puako, Big Island

Driving along the highway, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing but scrubby kiawe groves and lava rock lie between the elegant Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea golf course resorts on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. But keen-eyed map readers may note the dot labeled Puako, a coastal hamlet strung along 3-mile Puako Beach Drive and a half-mile of Old Puako Road.

A Hawaiian fishing village for centuries, its population fell with the spread of Western diseases in the 1800s and a nearby lava flow in 1859. After a brief flirtation with sugarcane, Puako mostly stayed off the map until 1952, when a subdivision of 163 lots went up for sale. Big Island residents snapped them up, even though electricity arrived only 5 years later, according to “Puako: An Affectionate History.”

While many of the oceanfront lots today sport sprawling mansions, original houses remain on both sides of the street, along with two churches, a general store and a go-slow vibe shared by the shoreline’s numerous turtles.

Day-tripper draws: Snorkeling at Waialea Beach Park, widely known as Beach 69, lures some people away from the much larger but more exposed Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area just to the north of Puako. Hawaii Surf and Kayak (www.hawaiisurfandkayak.com) leads 2.5-hour kayak and snorkel tours through the marine sanctuary, which includes vast coral gardens with a rainbow of reef fish and turtle cleaning stations.

You can also take a scenic oceanfront hike that connects to an inland path to the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, one of the most extensive fields of Hawaii’s mysterious etchings in rock. Near the southern end of Puako Beach Drive, park at the oceanside turnout and follow the pebbly Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail about a half-mile to Holoholokai Beach Park in the Mauni Lani Resort. Head just north of the parking lot for the 1.5-mile Malama Trail, which leads through kiawe forest to a field of more than 3,000 carvings.

Local flavor: Most days of the week, Manuela Malasada Co. parks its bright blue truck at the exit for Puako Beach Drive off Highway 19. The cooked-to-order Portuguese doughnut holes are worth the wait (and extra napkins). At Puako General Store, you can pick up bags of Waipio Valley poi, local avocados and citrus, jars of Rare Hawaiian White Honey (harvested from hives in the kiawe forest), poke bowls and other ready-to-go meals from Puako Provisions, prepared by former Blue Dragon chef Noah Hester.

Beach hangout: In addition to Beach 69 (nicknamed for a former numbered utility pole), a dozen short public access paths lead between Puako’s homes to coves, tide pools and black lava rocks strewn with white coral. The southernmost access has dirt parking, picnic tables and portable toilets.

Where to stay: Depending on your budget, rent a sprawling beachfront house, humbler cottage across the street or one of the comfortable condos in Puako’s lone high-rise building. See Island Beach Rentals (www.hawaiioceanfront.com) for well-managed listings.

Hanapepe and Waimea, Kauai

Most visitors to Kauai motor through the West Side towns of Hanapepe and Waimea en route to breathtaking Waimea Canyon, Kalalau Overlook or Polihale Beach.

Heading west, some hang a quick right from the highway into Hanapepe, so they can traverse its creaky Swinging Bridge, built over the Hanapepe River in the 1900s and reinforced after 1992’s Hurricane Iniki. Post-hurricane, a dozen galleries and gift shops gradually helped restore the nearly derelict main drag of Hanapepe Road, which still boasts a few mom-and-pop shops. While the latter are starting to be replaced by artisan cafes — Little Fish Coffee, Midnight Bear Breads and Japanese Grandma’s among them — plaques with photos recall the original Japanese, Chinese and other immigrant owners of the plantation-style buildings.

As visitors return from their outings, Waimea frequently serves as a pit stop for shave ice, side-of-the-road shrimp plates and other refreshments.

Though Western disease, evangelism and commerce would eventually destroy “Old Hawaii” as those Native Hawaiians knew it, many of their descendants in Waimea today are reviving cultural practices and the Hawaiian language, alongside the families from Niihau who never stopped speaking it.

Day-tripper draws: Besides the swinging bridge, Hanapepe’s biggest tourist attraction is the Friday Night Festival and Art Walk, now in its 20th year. Shops and galleries stay open till 9 p.m., with live entertainment and food trucks bringing in locals, too.

Local flavor: Dale Nagamine is the sole employee of Taro Ko Chips Factory in Hanapepe, in a tin-roofed green shack that has seen better days. Yet no one can best his impossibly thin and crispy taro and sweet potato chips. In Waimea, factions argue over who has the better shave ice, JoJo’s (www.jojosshaveice.com) or Jo-Jo’s Anuenue, just around the corner; rise above the fray with Roselani ice cream or a milkshake at nearby Super Duper Two. For savory fare, including a wide variety of poke, cruise the deli at Ishihara Market in Waimea.

Beach hangout: Families congregate at Salt Pond Beach Park, next to Hanapepe’s off-limits salt ponds, thanks to its shaded pavilions, reef-protected waters and kid-friendly shallow pools. The dark sand and muddy waters of Waimea Beach discourage swimming, but Waimea’s long wooden pier attracts fishermen, crabbers and sunset watchers.

Where to stay: With no inns and virtually no vacation rentals in Hanapepe, plan to overnight in Waimea. Inn Waimea, a former parsonage near picturesque Waimea Hawaiian Church and Wrangler’s, a popular steak house, offers four Craftsman-style rooms and suites (one with air conditioning); www.westkauailodging.com. Or choose from a variety of restored vintage homes dotting the leafy grounds of oceanfront Waimea Plantation Cottages; www.waimeaplantationcottages.com.

Kapaau and Hawi, Big Island

North Kohala on the Big Island is King Kamehameha country. Here is where the first ruler of all the Hawaiian islands was born, most likely in 1758, and where he later ordered a war temple to be built, using a 25-mile-long human chain to pass stones from lush Pololu Valley to arid Kawaihae. A bronze statue of Kamehameha stands at the North Kohala Civic Center in Kapaau, one hand on a spear, one lifted up in welcome.

Kapaau and Hawi, twin plantation towns along the oceanfront greenbelt of Kohala Mountain, serve as more subtle tributes to the work of common folk. Seventeen workers from Japan died building the Kohala Ditch, a massive system of irrigation channels, flumes and tunnels, which allowed Kohala Sugar Co. to operate for nearly seven decades after the ditch opened in 1906. A railroad built by Chinese immigrants brought sugarcane to the harbor at Mahukona, while Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese and other nationalities toiled in the fields.

Today their descendants own many of the small stores and cafes dotting the main road, Akoni Pule Highway, while the Saturday farmers’ market in Hawi showcases the benefits of less back-breaking agriculture.

Day-tripper draws: Hawaii Forest & Trail and partner Kohala Zipline bring visitors here on intriguing tours exploring the forests and waterfalls of North Kohala; www.hawaii-forest.com. Others come for one of four guided kayak tours a day of the Kohala Ditch led by Flumin’ Kohala; www.fluminkohala.com.

It’s free, however, to hike down to the rugged shore of Pololu Valley from the overlook 6 miles east of Kapaau, after the obligatory photo op at the King Kamehameha statue.

You’ll want four-wheel-drive, and a respect for history, to visit King Kamehameha’s windswept birthplace and original war temple, Mookini Heiau, at Kohala Historic Sites State Monument near Upolu Point, 5 miles southwest of Hawi; http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/hawaii/kohala-historical-sites-state-monument/.

Local flavor: Enjoy plate lunches (fresh fish, kalua pork or Korean chicken recommended) on the porch at Minnie’s Ohana Lim Style, open weekdays in Kapaau. Vegetarians, vegans and devotees of chef Susan Alexy’s dairy-free coconut ice cream helped her recently expand Sweet Potato Kitchen in Hawi; www.sweetpotatokitchen.com. Kohala Coffee Mill in Hawi has forgettable food, but the area’s best selection of locally made Tropical Dreams ice cream.

Beach hangout: Sand is in short supply on this rocky shoreline, but locals swim, snorkel and soak in Maui views from the old harbor at Mahukona Beach Park, southwest of Hawi. East of Kapaau, Keokea Beach Park has rough surf unsafe for swimming, but offers a small inlet behind a breakwater and a stream for wading on hot days, along with picnic tables and restrooms.

Where to stay: If your budget runs more toward plantation manager than laborer, Puakea Ranch outside of Hawi offers ocean views and four restored vintage bungalows, some with private hot tubs or pools, that sleep up to six; www.puakearanch.com. Kohala Village Inn in central Hawi offers 18 cheery plantation-style rooms and a locally focused restaurant, the Hub Pub; www.kohalavillagehub.com. Kohala Club Hotel has five even more basic accommodations in a renovated house and cottage built in the late 1800s, just off the highway in Kapaau; www.thekohalaclubhotel.com.

Makawao and Kula, Maui

For many travelers, Upcountry Maui is just the scenery en route to Haleakala National Park, or an obligatory stop at Tedeschi Winery on a Hana tour bus. Artisan farm tours at lower elevations — Surfing Goat Dairy, Ocean Organic Vodka, Alii Kula Lavender — have also become popular tourist attractions. A longer stay in the Upcountry towns of Makawao or Kula, however, provides a better chance to savor Maui’s multicultural history, abundant flora and home-style treats — and a later wake-up call to witness sunrise atop Haleakala.

In 1845, Makawao became the first place in Hawaii where commoners could own land, quickly leading to vast sugarcane plantations and ranches, served by shops in rustic storefronts on Baldwin Avenue. While suburban homes have replaced many former sugarcane fields, and more and more boutiques take over quaint shops, Makawao’s proud paniolo (cowboy) legacy remains evident in its hitching posts and annual Fourth of July rodeo and parade.

Eight or 9 miles up the road (depending on which highway you take), Kula shares Makawao’s heritage of ranches and plantations, which brought many Chinese workers to the area. Today their descendants are likely to grow strawberries, protea, coffee and other higher-elevation produce.

Day-tripper draws: A tranquil counterpart to the busy farms listed above, Kula Botanical Garden has 8 acres of lush native and exotic plants, plus waterfalls, koi pond, aviary and tall tiki carvings; www.kulabotanicalgarden.com. February through July, the Shim Farm Tour provides insights into the area’s Chinese history as well as a look at growing coffee and protea; www.shimfarmtour.com.

In Makawao, the 100-year-old Baldwin family home on the Kaluanui Estate now hosts the galleries and studios of Hui Noeau Visual Arts, while its leafy grounds claim two of the island’s largest Norfolk pines among 70-plus specimens of plants and trees. The estate is open for self-guided tours daily, and guided tours twice a week; www.huinoeau.com.

Local flavor: Islanders and visitors alike line up for doughnuts on a stick, malasadas and other pastries at Makawao’s T. Komoda Store and Bakery, founded in 1916. Between Makawao and Kula lies Pukalani Superette, a mom-and-pop market that also prepares a smorgasbord of fresh poke, chili chicken, roast pork and other plate lunch and bento box staples. Kula Bistro serves somewhat fancier breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with bakery items, across from all-purpose Morihara Store.

Where to stay: A few miles downslope from the center of Makawao, Lumeria Maui offers 24 rooms in a lovely renovated wooden structure built in 1910; www.lumeriamaui.com. Kula Lodge & Restaurant, close to the final, 20-mile winding ascent to Haleakala, has five woodsy, farm-style chalets that sleep up to four people; www.kulalodge.com.



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