Why You Shouldn’t Miss this Central Maui Gem
Maui’s coastal towns tend to get the most love from those visiting off-island. It’s a no-brainer—many come to the Valley Isle specifically for its legendary beaches—but other parts of the island can be just as enchanting. One in particular? Wailuku—a bohemian beauty at the base of the West Maui Mountains.
To outsiders, this small but urban town is little more than the bridge between Kahului (home to Maui’s international airport) and ‘Iao Valley, a state park that boasts a 1,200-foot lava spire and 4,000 acres of lush greenery.
But insiders know that Wailuku—which houses the county courthouse and Maui’s biggest performing arts center—is not only rich in Hawaiian history but also seeing a resurgence of noteworthy measure.
With a population of less than 16,000 and attractions that deviate from the common perception of Hawaii, it may be challenging to imagine that the city was once a thriving community, home to the boom of Maui’s sugarcane era and serving as the island’s hub of activity.
But with the decline of sugar in the 60s and 70s, the bustling county seat of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kaho’olawe faced dilapidation, becoming a place strictly for business rather than pleasure—and falling on the wayside of sleepy and wilted.
Consider that on the upswing—a rise that began a decade ago and continues now in earnest and passion, from the recent unveiling of a colorful four-story mural on Main Street and the opening of Wai Bar in the town’s center, to the restoration of buildings from the 194os. Yoga, sushi, tattoo parlors, a crystal shop, holistic healers, hostels, a monthly street festival that celebrates the island’s vendors, artists, and people—it’s no wonder some say Wailuku is Maui’s San Francisco. Happen to be visiting? Here’s where to go and what to see, both new and old (and some right in between):
In the roaring 20s, ‘Iao Theater served as the island’s movie palace, as well as a hip spot to catch vaudeville performances and live music, even drawing the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Mickey Rooney to its stage. (Side note: ‘Iao’s theater director was arrested in 1973 for screening the scandalous film, Deep Throat.) After enduring a decade and a half of neglect in the 1980s, it was carefully restored to retain its architectural integrity and historical legacy. Today, it’s a popular venue for Maui’s kama’aina and a veritable institution on the island, offering shows, presented by MauiOnStage, that range from Cabaret and Elf to a live chamber orchestra.
Antique shopping might not immediately spring to mind when thinking of Maui, but realize that Wailuku’s plantation past brought an influx of global workers and the vibrant cultures that defined them. Wailuku’s main drag underscores this fact with antique shops that are downright fascinating. Brown-Kobyashi, located on North Market, presents distinctive pieces that date back to the 1800s, many from the Ming and Ching dynasties; the prices may be steep but the inventory is museum-quality. Bird of Paradise is just as compelling, boasting everything from silk kimonos to old Hawaiian albums. And while Request is a music store, its very existence is somewhat of an artifact; navigate the crowded aisles to find used CDs and vintage records.
Part of the charm of dining in Wailuku is that it’s not overrun with tourist traffic—and, to that end, caters more to the local palate. Sam Sato’s—which has been on the island since 1933—might be the best representation of this, offering dry mein noodles at their industrial park venue that have earned them widespread praise. The sidewalk in front of Wailuku Coffee Company buzzes with budding artists and lunching lawyers; no surprise there, as their coffees, smoothies, and fare—including a berry and chevre salad and daily quiches—strike that ideal balance between comfy and gourmet. A Saigon Cafe—a popular hangout for Wailuku locals—offers inspired eats ranging from Spicy Island Eggplant with lemongrass and basil to Duck Noodle Soup with anise and shitake mushrooms, and Four Sisters Bakery specializes in local favorites like malasadas, butter buns, and manapua. 808 on Main swiftly became a choice stop with their burger bar, fresh salads, and paninis, while Tasty Crust has been beloved since it opened its doors in the 1950s. Here you’ll find homey, inexpensive fare and a retro vibe that is in itself nutritional. Those looking to wet their whistle with an island libation needn’t look further than the aforementioned Wai Bar. Located across the street from Wailuku Coffee Company, this hopping spot quickly became a community tavern upon its opening, thanks to a collection of excellent drinks (they feature every liquor made in Hawaii, from Koloa Rum to Ocean Vodka), BYOF (F as in food—yes, they’re that laidback), and live music most evenings of the week (they also host LGBT nights and holiday parties). And for an extraordinary meal, meander just outside Wailuku to Waikapu, a former kalo and sugar plantation community that boasts The Mill House—an award-winning venue (including 2017’s ‘Aipono for Maui’s Most Innovative Menu) that authenticates “farm to table.”
Shopping on Maui is more diverse than one might initially think, from Makawao’s luxe shops to Paia’s quirky boutiques. Wailuku adds to the mix with a swath of stores that specialize in funk and local flavor. Among them? Native Intelligence, where one can find fresh lei, artisan woodwork, and contemporary Hawaiiana; Maui Thing, where men, women, and keiki can shop island-inspired “clothing with a conscience” (and where children are encouraged to take their free art classes), and the gloriously named If The Shoe Fits, which offers specialty sandals, hiking boots, heels (and, yes, custom fits). Those looking for art will be pleasantly surprised by the zany creations at Sandell Artworks; here, local artisan and cartoonist David Sandell gives patrons much to consider with his bold paintings of everyone from the Beatles to Hillary Clinton.
Food for thought: Wailuku houses more sights on the National Register of Historic Places than any other town on Maui, giving it its intriguing, old-world quality. The Bailey House Museum, just upslope from Wailuku’s retail center, originated as the Wailuku Female Seminary during the missionary days—situated as such so that men at Lahaina’s male iteration could meet “suitable Christian girls” to marry “but not have them close enough so that they could meet at night,” said the museum’s docent, Maxine DelFant. Built in 1833, the gorgeously-maintained sight is home to the Maui Historical Society, and displays striking treasures from Hawaii’s bygone eras, including photographs, Hawaiian quilts, wooden spears, and calabashes (as well as 19th century paintings from the museum’s uber-talented namesake). Meanwhile, Ka’ahumanu Congregational Church—constructed in 1876—looms nearby; curious travelers can visit the graveyard to get a deeper look into Maui’s antiquity. For more on Hawaiian history, visit an exhibit or event at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, where the 42nd Regimental Combat Team of WWII—the most highly decorated battalion of its size in US history—honors the Japanese-Americans that primarily comprised the division. Maui Tropical Plantation, located just outside Wailuku, blends the past with the present, exhibiting everything from two zip lines and a farm stand to a historic house featuring stunning old photographs of the verdant and mystical Waikapu Valley. Savor the sight and then revel in the fact that Wailuku is well on its way from faded to, well, flourishing.