Your Destination Guide to Maui

Destination Guide Maui - Your Destination Guide to Maui, HI

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The history of Maui begins with the settlement of the Hawaiian Islands approximately 1500 years ago. Set at the northern tip of the Polynesian Triangle that extends from Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the southwest, to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) at its southeastern corner, the histories, languages, mythology, and cultures of the Polynesian people all evolved from the same roots. While scholars debate the exact date of human settlement in the Hawaiian Islands, nearly all estimates place the original contact anywhere from 300-800 A.D. by voyagers from the Marquesas Islands. During a time when few cultures navigated outside of direct sight of land, the early Polynesians were gifted seafarers and navigators that are regarded as among the most courageous and talented in the history of human movement. It is also believed by many scholars that a second group of voyagers from Tahiti arrived around the 12th century, supplanting the Marquesan settlers and taking the reigns as supreme leaders in the Hawaiian culture. These settlers instituted the strict ruling class system that would dominate daily life in Ancient Hawaii for centuries of ruling monarchs to come.

Ancient Hawaii:

As with many Western societies, Ancient Hawaii was run by feuding warrior-princes who engaged in traditional methods of land acquisition, including calculated marriage and brutal warfare. Of the many ruling chiefs, or mo'i, to rule Maui, some names are intrinsically linked to the long history of this great island.

One such ruler was King Pi'ilani, a 15th Century chief who is believed by Hawaiians to be the 130th generation descendant of Wakea, the God of Light. A noble ruler who led the island into a time of unprecedented prosperity, Pi'ilani is revered as no other and is best known as the first ruler to unite the districts of East Maui and West Maui through the construction of a footpath that encircled the entire island, the first of its kind in the entire island chain. Remnants of this 138-mile path are still visible today in remote, undeveloped corners such as Makena and Nu'u. In addition to the highway, Pi'ilani constructed many great temples, or heiau, including the towering Pi'ilanihale heiau in Hana, regarded as the largest ever built. To honor this great ruler, the modern day highway that serves all of West Maui (Highway 30 on a road map), is named Honoapi'ilani highway—literally "the bays of Pi'ilani—as it connects all the beaches and coves belonging to this former ruler.

While Pi'ilani oversaw a time of peace and prosperity, the 18th century ruler Kahekili—perhaps the island's most infamous—is best remembered for his outstanding courage and his propensity for the art of war. Born in 1706 in Hali'imaile, Kahekili was reputed to stand seven feet tall and weigh 300 pounds. A tenacious warrior, Kahekili tattooed the entire side of his body black from head to toe. Over the course of his fierce rule, Kahekili overthrew the kings of Oahu and Kauai, eventually extending his influence to every district in the chain, save for neighboring Hawai'i island. Up until this point in history, no one king had exerted power over such a large swath of territory.

Entry into the Kingdom of Hawaii:

After a succession of ruling chiefs, Maui would eventually fall under control of King Kamehameha I, principal monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The first foray that Kamehameha made into Maui was the well-chronicled battle of Kepaniwai in 1790, fought in modern day Iao Valley. Ruled at the time by Kahekili II, son of Kahekili, the Maui warriors were driven far into the valley by Kamemeha's men, who had arrived by canoe from the island of Hawai'i. It is said that so many lives were lost at Kepaniwai that the waters of Iao stream ran red with blood. In the battle of Kepaniwai, Kamehameha was aided by the use of cannons provided by western explorers, the first use of such weaponry. Needing to return to the island of Hawai'i to quell an uprising at home, Kamehameha took final control of Maui in 1793.

Western Contact:

Though Captain James Cook sighted the island of Maui on his "discovery" of the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, lacking a proper harbor for anchorage, Cook sailed on to the island of Hawai'i. The first Western explorer to set foot on Maui was French Admiral Jean Francis Gallup Comte de La Perouse in May of 1789. La Perouse brought to shore metals and goods suitable for trade—as well as infectious disease that would ravage the fragile population of the isolated island. Though only on the island of Maui for mere days, La Perouse initiated a relationship between Western explorers and the Hawaiian people that would alter the political, cultural, and socio-economic landscape of Hawaii forever.

Trade, Whaling, and Plantation Days:

Once the island was formally placed on the map by such men as Cook and La Perouse, it wasn't long until others followed suit. One such explorer, American Robert Kendrick, sailed to China in 1791 with a precious wood found high on the slopes of Maui's dryland forests—the much sought after and currently endangered sandalwood tree. Plying the forests in the name of foreign trade, virtually all of the island's sandalwood was replaced by invasive non-native plant species. This change had such a dire effect that it actually affected the climate of much of the island's leeward shores. On the slopes of Haleakala above the settlement of Makena—not far from the original landing of La Perouse—entire villages were forced to move due to the disappearance of the life-giving rains.

The Western influence in the Hawaiian Islands came at a critical time when many of the local people and monarchs were starting to question the strict kapu system that for centuries had deemed socially acceptable behavior. After the death of King Kamehameha, who maintained his capital of the Kingdom on the island of Maui in Lahaina, Queen Ka'ahumanu was the first royalty to call for the end of the kapu system when she broke strict tradition and sat down and ate with the men, at the time an unthinkable disrespect to the Hawaiian Gods. When Ka'ahumanu went unpunished, a call went out for the end of the kapu, and the tight-fisted system of religious rule was broken. At the same time of the breaking of the kapu in 1819, Christian missionaries began to arrive to the Hawaiian Islands in search of sun and souls. Finding a scantily clad, morally promiscuous populace lacking any proper form of religion, the missionaries seized the opportunity to civilize and educate these "heathen" islanders. Many of the ali'i, or chiefs, were taught by the missionaries to read and write in order to better their trading capabilities, consequently being converted to Christianity in the process. Missionaries flourished in Lahaina town, the first printing press was established on the island, and Lahainaluna High School was founded in 1831, the oldest public high school in America west of the Rocky Mountains.

At the same time as the Hawaiian people embraced Christianity, international whaling ships embraced Maui as a tropical "R&R" destination. Coming ashore in search of women and grog, the whalers were the moral antithesis of the Christian community. With hundreds of ships outside of Lahaina, whiskey saloons and brothels sprung up next to mission homes and places of worship. Unpopular with the Christian Ka'ahumanu, promiscuous acts such as public hula dancing were abolished, with harsh penalties placed upon adulterous Hawaiians and lewd sailors. With the passing of the Queen, however, the more traditional Kamehameha III reinstituted native customs, allowing the whalers to procreate at will. Venereal disease ran rampant through the islands, as Lahaina became the ultimate battleground of lust-filled sailors and God-fearing missions. While the whaling trade eventually subsided, many of the missionaries married Hawaiian women, producing offspring who stayed to take advantage of the prosperous business opportunities springing forth.

The Rise of Sugar:

While the whaling ships plied the waters offshore, the offspring of missionaries looked inland at the large tracts of land sitting empty across the isle. First choosing to plant sugar in the 1840s, the demand for the sweet powder reached new levels with the California Gold Rush of 1848. While the demand for sugar was apparent, proper farming methods were needed to increase the supply. Enter Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin. Sons of missionary parents, in 1869 the two childhood friends purchased 12 acres near Makawao for the sum of $110. Quickly purchasing another 559 acres, Alexander and Baldwin determined that they could dramatically increase their annual yield if they found a way to harness the abundant fresh water from Maui's windward slopes, and transport it to the semi-arid fields of the central valley. In 1876, after much engineering and creative construction, Alexander completed the Hamakua Ditch, thereby transporting millions of gallons daily from the upper slopes of Haleakala to his now fertile fields. With this newfound access to fresh water, Alexander and Baldwin—along with fellow sugar magnate and irrigation architect Claud Spreckels—would lead the island into unprecedented sugar fortune and the establishment of the island's multi-cultural plantation system.

Plantation Days:

With the astronomic growth of the sugar trade—strengthened by King David Kalakaua's signing in 1876 of the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty with the United States—the number of fields outgrew the number of workers. Unable to find adequate labor from the more subsistence-minded Hawaiian population, sugar barons began to import laborers from China to work the dusty fields. Plantation camps were established, and many immigrants, upon fulfilling their contracts, moved elsewhere on the island to start their own small businesses. The same process was repeated with laborers from Korea, Japan, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, all of whom lived together in plantation camps provided by their employers. With them, immigrants brought their own respective sets of foods, customs, and languages, thereby creating the ethnic "mixed plate" that comprises much of modern day Maui.

With the sugar business booming, the dollar symbols in the eyes of the sugar barons spelled the end for the monarchy and the Kingdom of Hawai'i. Already in control of the agribusiness, shipping, and majority of local transport, the White, Republican, sugar magnates sought to finalize their monopoly by ousting the monarchy and seizing control of the political realm. Thus, in 1893, a coup that was fomented by western business interests—and controversially backed by U.S. Marines—overthrew Queen Liliu'okalani and relegated her to house arrest in Iolani Palace. The Republic of Hawai'i was officially established under the leadership of Sanford Dole, who served as President until annexation by the United States in 1898.

World War II:

Plantation life continued on the island of Maui, with waves of immigrants plowing the fields for wealthy white landowners. Meanwhile, the native Hawaiian population had essentially become a landless minority in their own land. All of this changed, however, on December 7, 1941, when Japanese bombers flew in from the north and emptied their payloads on the U.S. warships stationed at Oahu's Pearl Harbor. In an instant, the United States was at war. While the main military presence in the Hawaiian Islands remained on Oahu, during 1943-1944 nearly 100,000 soldiers were stationed on Maui. Military barracks were commissioned in Ha'iku, and the beaches off of Kihei were used as practice zones for amphibious landing craft. To this day, a forested mound in Ha'iku is known as "Giggle Hill", as it was a place where the soldiers would slip out from their barracks to cavort with the local female population. While the war was quickly coming to Maui, some members of Maui were just as quickly going to the war, most notably those serving in the 442nd regiment. In what would become the most decorated military unit in the history of the U.S. armed forces, many 2nd generation Japanese-Americans, or nisei, volunteered to fight for the United States at a time when many of their family members were being subjected to martial law in Hawaii or, even worse, in internment camps on the mainland. Fighting in Europe with exceptional valor, the men of the 442nd found that winning the "battle at home" against a Japanese-fearing populace would prove to be more difficult than the War itself. With many of the veterans heading into local politics, the men of the 442nd would dramatically alter the political spectrum on a state and national level.

Statehood and Tourism:

At home, the War had enlightened many returning veterans that there was more to life than the plantation camps. Labor strikes against the ruling white landowners and the strength of the Democratic Party both grew in force. On a national level, the valor of the 442nd and the support shown by the people of Hawai'i mollified the government's fears about admitting a state to the union that had a majority-minority population. Therefore, on August 21, 1959, Hawai'i officially became the 50th star on the flag, ushering in massive celebrations and kick-starting the tourism industry that dominates the island of Maui today.

Though Waikiki was the Hawaiian destination of choice for many years, directly following statehood, curious visitors lusted to visit other islands in the chain. In 1960, Amfac Co, owners of then Pioneer Sugar Mill in West Maui, opened the sprawling resort district of Ka'anapali on 12,000 acres of land, luring visitors with its three-mile white sand beach and protected perch on the island's west side. An immediate success, Ka'anapali was the first master-planned resort complex of its kind in the entire state of Hawai'i. Seizing upon the success of Ka'anapali, Alexander and Baldwin opened their own resort complex in South Maui and thusly created the uber-luxurious Wailea development that exists today. Immensely popular with visitors, in the 1980s Maui began to annually welcome over two million visitors to its shores, and in 2009 Maui was voted "World's Best Island" by the readers of Conde Naste Magazine for a record 15th time. Along with a rapid growth in the island's population, tourists have officially supplanted agriculture as the number one "cash crop" on the island of Maui.

With such unprecedented growth, a battle for land between traditional agribusiness and dollar-struck developers currently ensues. Recognizing the need for growth yet loathe to relinquish traditional values and ways of life, the island of Maui and its residents currently wage the epic struggle of the pineapple field vs. the luxury home.

For more information visit the Maui Visitor's Bureau at


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