If you come to Maui on vacation, chances are you’ll end up at a beachside resort. Whether it’s the extravagant Wailea or family-friendly Ka’anapali, you’ll hopefully get great sunny weather and lots of beach and ocean time. But that’s not the real Maui, not the Maui that people move here from all over the world to experience. Maui is a melting pot, a cheerful blend of locals and people who are drawn to the island from all over the world, whether for the surfing in Paia or to escape the world in tiny Makawao. Regardless of where you choose to stay when you visit the island, head to Upcountry Maui for a glimpse into life as a local.
I got a small taste of the real Aloha spirit when Kerry Mekeel, whom I was interviewing for a magazine story, “kidnapped” me (her words, not mine) for a morning and showed me a few of her favorite places on the island. Kerry moved here after several years spent living on St. Thomas in the Caribbean and loves Maui’s abundance of fresh produce. At Upcountry Farmers Market, I saw a vibrant local food culture along with warm, open hearts. This is island life – everyone hugs you when they meet you for the first time and invites you to a barbecue at their house the next day after chatting for just a few minutes.
The various vendors I met at the farmer’s market included a man from West Virginia making coconut kefir, a woman from Kansas City making her own sweet and savory jams (banana coffee was an unexpected hit) and a Dutch and Chinese couple selling some of the best pâtes de fruit I’ve ever tasted. You must try the noni flavor – the fruit tastes like blue cheese, so in candied form it’s the same idea as a cheese plate with jam to balance sweet and savory, efficiently combined in one compact square. Plus, there were dozens of vendors selling glamorous proteas and romantic hibiscus flowers, along with a colorful array of fresh fruits and vegetables.
We purchased 20 coconuts that Kerry needed for her apothecary bar, and the guy we bought them from (I’m told he also makes outstanding venison jerky) wheeled them over to Kerry’s truck for us in a jerry-rigged trash can wheelbarrow.
A kombucha trend is brewing in Maui too (pun intended). I saw several examples at the market and Kerry has kombucha on tap from Maui Kombucha at her poolside bar. I really enjoy both the sharper, more vinegary style of Big Wave Organics and the softer, more lyrical style of Maui Kombucha, where Kerry and I had lunch. Their brewery also doubles as a raw food café and Saturday morning it was the most happening spot in Haiku.
The “boochtender” on duty let us try all three varieties they were serving (mango jasmine was my favorite) before we ordered a raw pizza, dehydrated kale chips and spring rolls to share. The café has a Peter Pan-like youthful aura and you feel like if you nourish your body you’ll never grow old. I saw a seven-year old knock back a shot of wheatgrass juice like a pro and the exuberant artwork on the walls is a by four-year-old Juna, a prodigy if there ever was one.
If you are staying in Wailea, Hotel Wailea is the place to be. With just 72 suites, this is the smallest hotel in the area, and you get the same luxury you’d find at the Four Seasons, but with a much more personal touch, like private cabanas and fresh hibiscus blooms lining the staircase each day. Plus, rates here are lower, although I can’t imagine it will stay that way for too much longer once word gets out. You’re not right on the beach, but you have a sweeping view to the ocean and the complimentary housecar will take you down to the hotel’s exclusive beach area where chairs and umbrellas await. The villa layout reminds me of Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil and Hotel Wailea recently joined Auberge as the first Hawaiian member of Relais & Chateaux.