Maui captured “Best Island in the World” honors in the annual Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards Poll for nearly twenty-years in a row. Readers rave about this “veritable paradise,” calling it a “combination of tropical ambience and American comforts.”
Maui is known for its beaches and water activities, and the west side, including Lāhainā, boasts some of the most beautiful shores in Hawaiʻi, and it also has the distinction of having some of the most beautiful sunset views on the planet.
Lāhainā is the second most visited place in Maui – (behind the beaches) – a combination of natural scenic beauty, white sandy beaches, lush green uplands, near-perfect weather, rich culture and a great Hawaiian history in its sunny shores.
From 700 AD to the present, Lāhainā’s Front Street has experienced six major historical eras, from its days as an ancient Hawaiian Royal Center, capital and home of the Hawaiian Monarchy, home to Missionaries, Landing/Provisioning for Whalers, the Sugar and Pineapple Plantation era and now Tourism.
All are still visible in town.
Lāhainā has played an important role in the history of Maui and the neighboring islands of Moloka‘i, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, with Lāhainā serving as the Royal Center, selected for its abundance of resources and recreation opportunities, with good surfing and canoe-landing sites.
Probably there is no portion of the Valley Isle, around which gathers so much historic value as Lāhainā. It was the former capital and favorite residence of kings and chiefs. After serving for centuries as home to ruling chiefs, Lāhainā was selected by Kamehameha III and his chiefs to be the capital and seat of government; here the first Hawaiian constitution was drafted and the first legislature was convened.
Hawai‘i’s whaling era began in 1819 when two New England ships became the first whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands. Over the next two decades, the Pacific whaling fleet nearly quadrupled in size and in the record year of 1846, 736-whaling ships arrived in Hawai’i.
Lāhainā was the port of choice for whaling ships. Central among the islands, Lāhainā was a convenient spot from which to administer the affairs of both Hawaiian and foreigner.
The anchorage being an open roadstead, vessels can always approach or leave it with any wind that blows. No pilot is needed here. Vessels generally approach through the channel between Maui and Molokaʻi, standing well over to Lānaʻi, as far as the trade will carry them, then take the sea breeze, which sets in during the forenoon, and head for the town.
In November 1822, the 2nd Company from the ABCFM set sail on the ‘Thames’ from New Haven, Connecticut for the Hawaiian Islands; they arrived on April 23, 1823 (included in this Company were missionaries Charles Stewart, William Richards and Betsey Stockton – they were the first to settle and set up a mission in Lāhainā.)
The Christian religion really caught on when High Chiefess Keōpūolani (widow of Kamehameha I and mother of future kings) is said to have been the first convert of the missionaries in the islands, receiving baptism from Rev. William Ellis in Lāhainā on September 16, 1823.
In 1831, classes at the new Mission Seminary at Lahainaluna (later known as Lahainaluna (Upper Lāhainā)) began. The school was established by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions “to instruct young men of piety and promising talents” (training preachers and teachers.) It is the oldest high school west of the Mississippi River.
Per the requests of the chiefs, the American Protestant missionaries began teaching the makaʻāinana (commoners.) Literacy levels exploded. From 1820 to 1832, in which Hawaiian literacy grew by 91 percent, the literacy rate on the US continent grew by only 6 percent and did not exceed the 90 percent level until 1902 – three hundred years after the first settlers landed in Jamestown – overall European literacy rates in 1850 had not been much above 50 percent.
The early Polynesian settlers to Hawaiʻi brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully. It was not until ca. 1823 that several members of the Lāhainā Mission Station began to process sugar from native sugarcanes for their tables. By the 1840s, efforts were underway in Lāhainā to develop a means for making sugar as a commodity.
Historically Maui’s second largest industry, pineapple cultivation has also played a large role in forming Maui’s modern day landscape. The pineapple industry began on Maui in 1890 with Dwight D. Baldwin’s Haiku Fruit and Packing Company on the northeast side of the island.
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America.
It is not likely anyone then foresaw the impact this would have on the cultural and social structure of the islands. The sugar industry is at the center of Hawaiʻi’s modern diversity of races and ethnic cultures. Of the nearly 385,000 workers that came, many thousands stayed to become a part of Hawai‘i’s unique ethnic mix. Hawai‘i continues to be one of the most culturally-diverse and racially-integrated places on the globe.
It is believed that Hawai‘i’s first accommodations for transients were established sometime after 1810, when Don Francisco de Paula Marin “opened his home and table to visitors on a commercial basis …. (in) ‘guest houses’ (for) the ship captains who boarded with him while their vessels were in port (Honolulu.)”
Tourism exploded. Steadily during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the millions of tourists added up. A new record number of visitor arrivals (over 7.8-million visitors) came to the islands in 2012. Tourism is the activity most responsible for Hawaiʻi’s current economic growth and standard of living.
By whatever means (vehicle, transit, bicycle or on foot,) exploring Lāhainā and embracing the scenic beauty, natural features, historic sites, associated cultural traditions and recreational opportunities will give the traveler a greater appreciation and understanding of Hawai‘i’s past and sense of place in the world – and demonstrates why Lāhainā is a “window to the world.”
To commemorate Lāhainā’s rich heritage, the Lāhainā Interpretive Plan Team has designed a series of interpretive signs and orientation maps called Ala Hele Moʻolelo O Lāhainā, the Lāhainā Historic Trail, which is now installed throughout Lāhainā’s two historic districts surrounding Front Street. Lāhainā Restoration Foundation participated in this trail formation.
The historic “trail” is not really a trail, but rather identification of the historical sites scattered throughout Lāhainā. Many have been restored by the Lāhainā Restoration Foundation, and can be found within the core of Lāhainā.
This self-guided walking tour provides a view of each era of the town that is considered one of the most historically significant places in Hawai’i.
Lāhainā is a place where history and culture come alive.