By John Wogan -
A verdant expanse of misty hills punctuated with tiny, preserved-in-amber towns, Central Maui goes largely ignored by sunbathers and surfers congregating on the island’s southern towns of Wailea, Lahaina and Kapalua. Sitting as high as 3,600 feet, Upcountry, as this 200-square-mile area by Haleakala Volcano is called, has cooler temperatures (at night it can approach freezing) and more eucalyptus trees than coconut palms. It became an agricultural center in the late 1700s, when a British naval captain gave Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I a herd of longhorn cattle that spawned an entire ranching industry. There aren’t as many paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) today as there were in the 19th century, but several big ranches remain, as does a general appreciation for living off the land: In addition to the ranches, there are coffee farms, lavender fields and scenic hiking loops through forest reserves.
Many of Upcountry’s 38,000 residents (less than one-fourth of Maui’s overall population) live in and around its small, historic towns, which include Haiku, Pukalani and Makawao, former pineapple plantations and ranch communities established in the 1800s. As industrialization forced plantation owners to downsize post-World War II, the families of the primarily Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese workers who remained were joined in the 1960s and ’70s by a wave of mainland hippies looking to get off the grid. (Willie Nelson and Mick Fleetwood have homes nearby.) Over the past decade or so, the area’s relatively cheap housing and temperate climate have attracted all sorts of wanderers, dropouts and seekers, including jewelry makers, woodworkers and glassblowers, as well as a new generation of farmers growing organic produce (poha berries, lilikoi) for local restaurants. (The cuisine here leans more toward Provençal than taco truck.) And so, these days, Upcountry is worth more than just a drive-through on the way to the rocky, rust-colored terrain of the island’s most spectacular national attraction: Haleakala Crater, 10,023 feet above sea level and best experienced at sunrise, when the ghostly fog lifts to reveal peaks and valleys all around. You may even realize you don’t need a beach after all.
The first thing one notices at this wellness retreat in Makawao is the silence. Shrouded with bamboo and palms and enclosed by a lava rock wall, it has 24 guest rooms with colorful Indian cotton textiles covering the pillows and daybeds, and hosts yoga and meditation classes on the grassy lawn. Breakfast includes papaya, mango and guava straight from the trees. Other meals are had at the hotel restaurant, which serves healthy-leaning dishes like fresh-caught mahi-mahi with heirloom tomatoes, and house-made ulu (Hawaiian breadfruit) with a sweet persimmon chutney.
Built into the northern slopes of Haleakala Crater just outside of Makawao, Kula Lodge is as much a time capsule as a hotel — it opened in 1951 and is known for its rustic, kitschy charm (rocking chairs and floral bedspreads). The property’s five shingled-wood cottages, each with its own fireplace and balcony, offer sweeping views of the neighboring islands. There are no televisions (or air-conditioners, though they’re hardly needed 3,200 feet above sea level), and so guests spend time reading under blooming jacaranda trees in the garden and lingering over bowls of macadamia-nut pesto pasta in the glass-enclosed lodge restaurant, also famous for its sunset cocktail hour.
With the island’s best organic food market, Mana, and half a dozen contemporary art galleries, the town of Paia — about five miles northwest of Makawao — offers the same rural-bohemian spirit as Upcountry, but with beach access as well. The five-bedroom Paia Innopened there in 2008 in a two-story, bougainvillea-fringed 1920s-era stucco building. Its simple décor of hand-carved koa wood daybeds and bright white linens is offset by local painter Avi Kiriaty’s vibrant depictions of ancient Polynesian life. There’s also a spa offering volcanic stone and coconut oil massages, and a cafe that’s become a magnet for surfers, who stop in for a juice — try the Shrub Sparkler, made with watermelon and hibiscus — before hitting nearby Baldwin Beach.
Crops at this eight-acre establishment in Kula range from coffee and kaffir limes to mint and marigolds. Founded in 2000 by two surfer friends, O’o supplies both the Maui Food Bank and local purveyors, including the farm’s open-air restaurant, Pacific’O, located on the western part of the island. There, you can find vegetable-focused dishes like roasted Maui onion and beet confit with hijiki, but in Upcountry, you can simply go to the source: Twice-daily tours through the orchards conclude with a family-style meal of ahi tuna marinated in lemongrass oil, roasted rosemary chicken and heaping platters of grilled fennel, chard and eggplant. Makawao Steak House This green-shingled, 1927-built structure, which sits on Makawao’s sleepy downtown strip of Baldwin Avenue alongside hippie shops peddling crystals and wind chimes, houses what may be Upcountry’s most old-school restaurant. Its clubby wood-paneled dining room has studded leather armchairs and oil paintings, and in the adjoining fireplace-lit cocktail lounge, mai tais are served without a hint of irony. The food is predictable — truffle fries; perfectly marbled grass-fed rib-eye from nearby Hoku Nui Farm — but deeply satisfying after a day spent hiking Haleakala.
A low-slung roadside cafe 14 miles up Kula Highway from Paia, Kula Bistro is an anomaly in a place where many businesses are run by descendants of the original owner. But ever since Italian Luciano Zanon opened his cheerful, fast-paced restaurant with his Maui-born wife, Chantal, in 2012, it’s been a hit. Zanon makes Italian staples with a Hawaiian twist, such as wood-fired pizza topped with kalua pork and chunks of fresh pineapple, plus traditional island specialties, including one of the best takes on loco moco — a gravy-smothered hamburger patty with two over-easy eggs, sautéed mushrooms and onions all served over steamed white rice.
Hot Island Glass
Founded in 1992, this Makawao gallery took off nearly a decade later when two of Hawaii’s leading glassblowers, collaborators Chris Richards and Chris Lowry, purchased it from the previous owner. They’ve since filled the wooden plantation-style building with their own work — swirling cerulean and scarlet vases and sculptural pieces with multicolored jellyfish forms that appear to hang in midair — as well as a few items from other makers, including Jim Graper’s sea-urchin-like paperweights.
Pink by Nature and Homme by Nature
These his-and-hers clothing boutiques on Makawao’s Baldwin Avenue are indicative of Maui’s increasingly sophisticated beach-style scene. Pink, which Desiree Martinez opened in 2004, carries polished warm-weather staples like denim shift dresses from the Australian label Lilya, leather thong sandals from the Brazil-based Tkees and woven palm frond-woven handbags from San Francisco’s Nipomo. The men’s shop followed in 2014, and is as notable for its rustic-chic interior as for its stock of geometric Pendleton beach towels and witty, well-made Aloha shirts from Honolulu label Kahala, as well as cutting boards that Martinez’s fiancé, Marco Daniele, makes out of reclaimed koa, pheasant and mango woods.
Upcountry’s nutrient-dense volcanic soil accounts for Maui’s only vineyard, which stretches across Haleakala’s southern slopes and grows everything from malbec and syrah to chenin blanc and grenache. Tasting tours start at King’s Cottage, a stone dwelling built as a guesthouse for King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last reigning royal. Wine, though, is just one aspect of the 18,000-acre ranch, which also offers horseback riding through lush pastures and woodsy areas dense with eucalyptus, jacaranda and camphor trees.
Ali’i Kula Lavender
This sprawling lavender farm nestled deep in the Kula hills inevitably calls to mind southern France. Owner Ali’i Chang was growing protea (a time-consuming South African flowering plant also known as sugar bush) when he received a single lavender plant from a friend and decided to switch tracks. Sixteen years later, he has some 55,000 plants of 45 different varieties, from Grey French to Super English, as well as olive trees, succulents, hydrangeas and one family of chickens (a farm stand is in the works). Visitors are free to roam the fragrant grounds, which include a shop selling lavender soaps, candles and essential oils.