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A revival in Maui's Wailuku

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A revival in Maui's Wailuku



Wailuku is Maui's county seat. All of the major government offices are located here.

This Main Article Source: Los Angeles Daily News - other stuff are from Maui sites

WAILUKU, Hawaii - The uplifting tale of a decaying downtown district undergoing a dramatic recovery has played out in many American cities, but it's not commonly associated with Hawaii.

Blight in paradise? Unthinkable.

That, however, is the story of Wailuku, which was Maui's thriving center of commerce and social life during the plantation era a century ago, only to fall on hard times when the sugar industry soured in the 1960s and '70s. Today the town has stirred back to life, in fits and starts, and with a distinctly bohemian aspect.

The renaissance remains a fairly well-kept secret - at least with Maui's tourists. Wailuku is far, far from the beaches of this jewel in the Hawaiian chain. It is near the bustling airport, a gritty harbor and the big-box mediocrity of Kahului.

Yet Wailuku has a great deal of character to offer: Old West storefronts, eclectic retail products, a history that runs deep, a genuinely lived-in feel.

Attracted by cheap rents, offbeat entrepreneurs have established a burgeoning enclave of antique stores, art galleries, cafes, bookstores and clothing shops along its downtown streets. Plays are presented at the Iao Theater, a former Roaring '20s movie palace. Local music acts are given a forum - and they spurn ``Tiny Bubbles" to cut loose in blues, jazz, calypso and even Upcountry bluegrass.

It's probably too early to characterize Wailuku as a model of resurgence - not with the cracked sidewalks, peeling paint and businesses that seem to open and close with the wafts of the trade winds - but the signs are encouraging.

"Things move slowly in Maui," said Dave Coennen, a refugee from the Los Angeles film industry who operates Maui Booksellers. ``The revitalization is happening in baby steps. ... But there are many more positive things happening in Wailuku than negative."

One of the town's implicit challenges is to lure the tourists away from the sun-washed resort areas to the west: Kapalua, Kaanapali, Lahaina, Kihei, Wailea. And that's no mean feat. Thus far, the clientele is composed mostly of local residents who live nearby, but that could change if visitors are willing to deviate from their preconceived notions of Hawaii.

In Wailuku, you can probably find a mai tai, but you might be more intrigued by one of the 80 wines by the glass poured at Cafe Marc Aurel. You can certainly find a teriyaki dish somewhere, but it might be more interesting to step into the Main Street Bistro for the late-afternoon tapas menu - perhaps fresh ahi tartar and local greens served in an Asiago cheese cone, topped with diced Maui onions and fresh herbs. And although island apparel is sold all over Maui, you shouldn't buy anything until you've seen the stylized tropical prints at the boutique of renowned textile designer Sig Zane.

Best of all, Wailuku's retail cluster wasn't established entirely for tourists. The businesses are heavily dependent on local trade, so the authenticity tends to run deeper.

"People are starting to come to town in the evening," Main Street Bistro chef Tom Selman said of the tourist traffic. "It's not happening to the extent that it is in Lahaina (Front Street) or walking the Shops at Wailea, but it's coming back."

Wailuku's prospects are also aided by its proximity to the Iao Needle, a volcanic eminence covered with lush greenery that routinely lands on the checklist of sightseers. History buffs, meanwhile, will find remnants from the 19th-century missionary period, including Maui's oldest church and a former women's seminary that today houses a museum.


North Market Street is downtown Wailuku's main drag, and it's along here that you'll find the distinctive Iao Theater (68 N. Market), an irresistible subject for camera-toting visitors.

Its architecture is Spanish Mission Revival - all the rage with builders in the 1920s, even here - but with some art deco flourishes thrown in.

In the heyday of sugar, the 400-seat house played host to movies and vaudeville shows, but today it is used by Maui OnStage for community theater productions. Next on the bill (through April 23) is "Seussical," a musical that presents the interaction of such Dr. Seuss characters as the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant and Gertrude McFuzz.

Within a few steps are Sig Zane (53 N. Market), with its tropical apparel in optic, pop-art color combinations; Requests (10 N. Market), a scruffy record store with a vast collection of used CDs and vinyl albums; and Bird of Paradise (56 N. Market), which entices nostalgia enthusiasts with its glass fishing balls and Hawaiiana items.

The antique shopping is first-rate here. Brown-Kobayashi (38 N. Market) carries intricately carved Asian screens, made from camphor wood; stone Buddhas and other carvings; and snuff boxes from the Ming dynasty.

Proprietor Marc Kobayashi found us examining a meditation bench from Hunan, China, crafted in 1820. For one particular purpose, it would be perfect. He read our thoughts, declaring with a chuckle, "There are no antique coffee tables."

Gottling Ltd. (34 N. Market) carries Asian chests, statuary and pottery, as well as smaller items: bird cages, hat boxes, baskets.

Mixed in with the high-end antique stores are pawn shops, which causes some disorienting jolts. "It's still edgy," said Coennen, the bookstore proprietor, "but what downtown area isn't?"

His Maui Booksellers (105 N. Market) picks its way along that edge. An activist with a decided tilt to the left, Coennen and wife Chela don't just sell books (used, new, some signed first editions), they also conduct a monthly "poetry slam," host authors for book signings and occasionally screen documentaries and independent films on the big, white wall at the back of the shop. All this with espresso and vintage aloha wear, too.

Coennen further touts the store's emphasis on metaphysical and spiritual subjects. On the phone last month, he said brightly, "We're launching something new: psychics on call."


You're not likely to go hungry in Wailuku. There's some very good work being done at small, independent establishments here.

Selman was formerly the corporate chef for Hawaii restaurateur D.K. Kodama, and worked on Maui at Vino in Kapalua and Sansei in Kihei, as well as at David Paul's Lahaina Grill. When it came time to open his own place, however, he chose Wailuku, miles from the coastal resorts.

At his Main Street Bistro (2051 Main St.), he entices customers with such signature lunch dishes as macadamia nut smoked beef brisket and seafood Napoleon. From 3 to 7 p.m., tapas and martinis are served.

At Cafe Marc Aurel (28 N. Market) are gourmet coffee drinks (made from local Maui Oma beans), pastries, ice cream, appetizers and comparative tastes of wines from around the globe.

Aurel also provides an outlet for local bands, with live music on Thursday and Saturday nights. The stylings roam all over the place - blues, jazz, calypso, bluegrass. Dancing performances? Sure, but there's already a glut of hula on this island; this place offers a belly dancing show twice a month.

Wailuku is currently abuzz about the prospective opening of Unisan, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar to be launched by Maui's popular Sam's Sushi restaurant.

For a friendly lunch spot with sensational grub, however, it's hard to beat Sam Sato's (1740 Wili Pa Loop), an unassuming cafe in an industrial park where the specialty is "dry" noodles - chewy mein without the broth, served with such plate-lunch accompaniments as barbecued pork.

Afterward, consider one of the French pastry delights at Maui Bake Shop (2092 Vineyard St.).


Because of the verdant Iao Valley just upslope from Wailuku, Maui's ancient population was concentrated here. Subsequent arrivals in the 19th century found it just as appealing - first for missionary outreach, later for the growing and milling of sugar cane.

Today, many of the buildings from Wailuku's bustling plantation era remain - 10 that predate 1930 (which is pretty good for Hawaii).

Among them are the gleaming-white Kaahumanu Congregational Church (1876), with its pointy steeple that surely had the missionaries longing for their native New England. The church graveyard is intriguing for its headstone inscriptions that provide a glimpse into distant history.

Just up Main Street from the church is the rock-and-plaster Bailey House (1833), home of the Maui Historical Society's museum.

The house originated as the Wailuku Female Seminary. Missionaries were already operating Lahainaluna Seminary for men on the other side of the island, and "they wanted suitable Christian girls for the men to marry - but not have them close enough so that they could meet at night," said docent Maxine DelFante.

The museum has impressive artifacts from Hawaiian antiquity: stone adzes and grinders, wooden spears and calabashes. From the past century are massive furniture pieces crafted from the now-precious koa wood - wardrobe, four-poster bed, bench; they would cost thousands of dollars to construct today.

And there are Hawaiian quilts, but unlike the pristine ones that you'll see framed on the walls of the resorts, these were clearly utilitarian. They are worn, discolored and frayed at the edges, as if dragged for many years across wood floors.


The Iao Needle, which jabs 1,200 feet into the air from the floor of the Iao Valley, is one of Maui's most recognizable landmarks - enchanting painters like Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as countless photographers.

A state park surrounds it, with a native-plant botanical garden and walkways that ascend to viewpoints of the volcanic pinnacle.

This is a peaceful place today, but its history was much less so. When Kamehameha I invaded Maui in 1790, he drove his adversaries into the narrow valley, and legend holds that the stream ran red with the blood of fallen warriors.

The Iao Needle is a popular tourist stop - and seems to be particularly so when rain is falling on the west coast and a day at the beach isn't an option.

Thanks to Wailuku's impressive rebound, there is increasing justification for lingering - to settle in for lunch, pore over antiques or thumb a book. Or, in the town's most fervent hopes, to return in the evening for fine wine, gourmet dining, live music and theater.

Wailuku is enjoying a renaissance on the island of Maui after years of downtown decline. Now there are art galleries, bookstores and cafes on the once-tawdry street. But the edge remains -- evidenced by a scantily clad mannequin posing in a shop window. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


The Iao Theater, built as a movie palace in 1927, is the defining landmark of Wailuku, a Maui city making a comeback. Today the facility is home to live theater productions. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


Wailuku was a center of sugar cane commerce in the early 20th century, and its storefronts still reflect an Old West look. Fresh paint and imaginative merchants are now contributing to a comeback. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


The Iao Needle looms from a verdant landscape just up the mountain from Wailuku. Its an iconic Maui landmark, and merchants in town are hoping to lure tourists who make the trek inland to see it. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


There is deeply rooted history in Wailuku. The Kaahummanu Congregational Church, for example, dates to 1876, and reflects the New England architecture favored by Hawaii's first missionaries. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


Early churches in Wailuku were built with materials that were readily at hand. The Wailuku Union Church, for example, is constructed entirely from blocks of lava rock. It is one of the landmarks of a city that is in recovery from years of neglect. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


People have begun to rediscover Wailuku, a Maui city that suffered years of neglect. Fresh paint on the plantation-era storefronts and an eclectic array of businesses -- galleries, antique shops, cafes, bookstores -- are luring visitors back. (Eric Noland / Travel Editor) Published February 26, 2006


Click here to see the pdf file for the Wailuku Redevelopment Area Plan

Vision of Wailuku Town

The Wailuku of the next century will be a locus of

commerce, culture and entertainment in Central Maui. It

will be a vibrant, clean and safe place to live, work or visit.

Its urban edges will be clearly defined, and be in balance

with surrounding conservation, agricultural and rural land


The commercial core will be economically healthy and selfsufficient.

It will include office, residential and

entertainment functions in addition to retail shops and

restaurants. The Town will continue to be Maui County

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