A-List Island

Surfing superstars, media magnates, Hollywood glitterati—and you

Maui's bright side     Photo: Corel

SO HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO FEEL when the valet at the Hotel Hana-Maui (which must be the most understatedly elegant, eco-positive hotel on earth, in a genuine rural paradise) smiles and says, "You know, the surf's so uncrowded around here that I'm usually trying to find people to go with me"? Especially when the guy's eyes light up as he describes jet-ski trips to breaks so remote that you don't see a single building, road, or human all day? Or when he freely gives me directions to a nearby beach break and those directions take me past the sleepy old Hasegawa General Store and out toward a barbecue stand with a hand-drawn sign reading LOCAL KIND GRIND?

And sure, I know that Carol Burnett, Jim Nabors, and George Harrison used to live out here in Hana, the easternmost point of the island, and that Kris Kristofferson still does. And I know that the town's aflutter over Oprah's recent purchase of more than a hundred acres of undeveloped Hana coast. But somehow the celebrity density only heightens my astonishment that on Maui, of all places, with its Gold Coast resorts and almost hourly jumbo jets, I can drift down a one-lane country road, past white egrets loitering in overgrown pastures among grazing Holsteins, and into a dazed state of tropical rapture.

I awoke yesterday morning in the baroque splendor of the Fairmont Kea Lani—65 miles away on the south shore, among Fantasy Island villas and talk of the Maui film festival and how it had drawn Adrien Brody and Greg Kinnear and Angela Bassett. Then I was whisked by helicopter along the slopes of 10,023-foot Haleakala to watch a 2,000-foot waterfall gush only yards beyond the windshield. I hiked 15 miles and 5,000 feet up into the famed Kaupo Gap, from prickly pear desert through sodden forest and alpine tundra beyond, then into the volcanic moonscape of the giant upper crater, an unearthly world of red ash and cinder cones, bizarre silversword plants, and solidified rivers of black magma.

Cresting a high ridge, I looked down the long, sweeping slopes to funky Paia town, where I'd dawn-patrolled clean-point surf the day before and watched gorgeous, half-naked fitness fanatics drink wheatgrass juice outside Mana Foods, chatting about their late-morning wave sail at windsurfing's sweetest spot on earth, Hookipa. And those alpha dogs I saw at Anthony's Coffee Shop? That was Laird Hamilton himself, with his pal Dave Kalama, who together had pioneered tow-in big-wave surfing on the 50-footers right down the road at Jaws—and who were among the first to launch kiteboarding as a sport, at the nearby strand known today as Kite Beach.

And now, not 24 hours later, I'm killing the engine at a red-sand beach with only three surfers in the warm water—two tanned adolescent boys and a teenage girl in a red bikini. Island kids, done with school for the day and frolicking in the world as they know it. There are finer pleasures to come—the full-body spirulina-and-kava spa treatment I've scheduled at the hotel and the nine-course tasting menu with wine pairings—but it's right now, wading out for a sunset surf, that I realize why Maui is the only Hawaiian island named for a demigod. And not just any god, either: Maui was the greatest trickster in Polynesian culture, a sort of South Pacific Paul Bunyan/Odysseus hybrid who fished the Hawaiian islands up from the ocean floor, lifted the sky so people could walk upright, and lengthened the day by climbing to the top of Haleakala and lassoing the sun god.

There's a genuine delight in this island and in the fact that—among all the high-dollar tourism and great yoga studios and world-famous surfing and movie-star real estate—there exists the paradoxical sense that you've finally found the place you've always dreamed about, the one beyond the end of the road, where you can leave it all behind and just stay.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Set amid a 23,000-acre working pineapple plantation on Maui's northwest shore is the 548-room Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, on white-sand D.T. Fleming Beach, near Honolua Bay, one of the world's best right-hand surf breaks. Doubles from $365; 800-241-3333, www.ritzcarlton.com/resorts/kapalua » The Fairmont Kea Lani, on the sunny south side of the island, offers big-resort glam (suites are at least 840 square feet), exceptionally calm water, and a secluded beach. Doubles from $465; 800-257-7544, www.fairmont.com/kealani » Hotel Hana-Maui—47 cottages and 22 bungalow rooms overlooking the ocean—is the only hotel on the remote east coast. Doubles from $395; 800-321-4262, www.hotelhanamaui.com

Dine: The Paia Fish Market restaurant, in the heart of Paia, has your postworkout grilled mahi-mahi, fresh from the sea—just like you. 808-579-8030 » On the western edge of Lahaina and right on the water, Mala offers fresh and organic tapas—like mahi-mahi chermoula and crunchy calamari with aioli. 808-667-9394

Get Out: Latatudes and Attitudes does an all-day heli-hike, starting with whirlybird sightseeing over Haleakala and ending with a 15-mile catered hike from Kaupo Gap through the volcano's crater (from $2,500). They also offer a four-hour guided waterfall hike in the West Maui Mountains ($75). 877-661-7720, www.ecomaui.com » Visit Hana's secluded Koki Beach for surfing and relaxing. » Sample Maui's unrivaled watersports by ogling windsurfers at Hookipa, just beyond Kahalui's airport, and tow-in surfers riding the monster waves at Jaws, 15 minutes east of Paia (turn left after the cemetery). Or learn to surf with the Nancy Emerson School of Surfing at the beginner-friendly Breakwall in Lahaina. $75 for two hours; 808-244-7873, www.mauisurfclinics.com » The road to Hana—600 curves and 54 one-lane bridges on about 30 miles of cliff- and jungle-edged road—is so unpopulated, you'll find it hard to believe it's on glitzy, golfer-inundated Maui. Gas up and take the long way back, along Haleakala's leeward slope.

Shop: Drop by Hana's Hasegawa General Store, for a Coke in a glass bottle—and trip out on a bygone world. 808-248-8231

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