Magazine article Sunset

Lahaina Cleans Up Its Act

Magazine article Sunset

Lahaina Cleans Up Its Act

Article excerpt

Maui tourist town draws on its history and new business to improve a tacky image

A short walk down Lahaina's Front Street suggests that one of the West's oldest frontier towns has become yet another tourist trap of T-shirt shops, commercial art galleries, souvenir emporiums, and restaurant chains.

But historian Jim Luckey is quick to show the town in a very different light. "Lahaina has not been abandoned to the visitor," insists the gray-haired executive director of Lahaina Restoration Foundation. Yes, there's a Planet Hollywood restaurant and a Hard Rock Cafe on Front Street, but there are also carefully restored wooden false-fronts and modest coral stone buildings forming an architectural collage of Lahaina's days as a whaling port. "This town still has an integrity that most other tourist destinations envy," says Luckey.

For all Lahaina's sacrifices in the name of merchandising, the waterfront still has the ramshackle appearance of an old whaling town. Visitors looking for the feel of early Hawaii can stay in a historic hotel and follow a historic walking tour of the town. Regular Maui visitors may remember the unsavory street scene of the early 1980s, but in recent years bicycle police patrols have eliminated open drug dealing, and sidewalk time-share hucksters have been forced indoors. Even the quality of shopping has improved as lodging and several creative restaurants have drawn increasing numbers of visitors into town.

This spring's planned widening of Front Street sidewalks won't necessarily insulate you from a doorway sales pitch, but it should make a stroll easier - especially in the evening, when pedestrian traffic can approach gridlock and often spills into the street.

ALWAYS A TOURIST TOWN

One reason for Lahaina's success may be that it has been balancing the social threat and economic benefit of tourism since the first New England whaling ships began calling here in the 1820s. Within 10 years, this early capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii became a rip-roaring port, with as many as 100 ships anchored in the sheltered waters called Lahaina Roads. When missionaries persuaded the monarchy to prohibit young maidens from swimming out to ships, angry whalers lobbed cannonballs into town. A fort and a prison were eventually built, and order was gradually restored.

A century later, after Lahaina had ridden the boom-and-bust cycles of the sugar industry, new shopping and restaurant complexes catering to tourists began to replace plantation- and whaling-era buildings. In the early 1960s, Maui County established two Lahaina historic districts, with strict regulations designed to preserve the town's vintage buildings. In 1964, the National Park Service designated the area a national historic landmark. While these historic designations haven't stopped new development, the designs and sizes of new buildings and businesses have largely remained complementary to the feel of the original waterfront.

PLANNING A HISTORIC TOUR

Lahaina means cruel sun, and summer afternoons can be hot and airless; mornings are best for a walking tour of town. Finding parking on or near Front Street is also easier early in the day; fee lots a block or two off Front are your best bet. The area code is 808 unless otherwise noted, and all hotel room prices are for double occupancy. …

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