“Don’t drink this alone,” cautioned the clerk at Mana Foods in the Maui town of Paia, as he handed me my raw coconut-macadamia nut smoothie. “It’s got about four shots of cold-pressed espresso. It’ll give you a real high.”
As I stood in the checkout line amidst the dreadlocked hippie chicks, board-short-sporting surfer dudes, and sunburned tourists in this North Shore grocery store, I realized that Paia itself was something like the breakfast drink I had just ordered – funky, cool, and full of buzz.
Located about 15 minutes’ drive east of Maui’s Kahului Airport, Paia was once a sugar plantation town. Then, the community became a kind of hippie escape, where surfers, yogis, and New Age seekers dropped out or turned on. For tourists, Paia was primarily a coffee stop as they headed east toward the serpentine Road to Hana.
These days, this eclectic beachfront community is a destination in its own right for visitors looking for lodging, shops, and restaurants with more character than West Maui’s chain hotels and Cheeseburgers in Paradise. You won’t find big resorts or shopping malls here. What you will find are surfing beaches, independent shops and restaurants, and several cool places to stay.
Big wind, big surf
While the beaches in and around Paia don’t have the fine, manicured sands of West Maui’s Ka’anapali or Kapalua beaches, they do have personality – and big surf. The long sandy H.A. Baldwin Beach Park is Paia’s main beach, a local hangout just west of town, where you can stroll along the bay, people-watch, or picnic.
Hold onto your hat at Ho’okipa Beach Park. East of Paia along the Hana Highway, this frequently blustery beach is a mecca for surfers and wind surfers. You may not want to venture into the rough waters yourself, but the experienced surfers put on a good show.
Shops and a stupa
When you’re not on the beach, you can wander around town, browsing Paia’s boutiques, galleries and surf shops, many of which are housed in plantation-style wooden buildings. If you need to chill out after shopping, visit the Maui Dharma Centre on Baldwin Avenue. Poke your head into the 27-foot bright white Stupa (temple) at the entrance to the property. Or for more serious calming, ask about the center’s Tibetan Buddhist prayer and meditation sessions; visitors are welcome.
Drive up Baldwin Avenue toward the former ranching town of Makawao, and you’ll reach the Hui No‘eau Visual Arts Center. Housed on the former grand estate known as Kaluanui, built in 1917, Hui No‘eau has a small gallery that shows works by Hawaiian artists. The center offers art classes and workshops for both adults and kids, too.
Maui has a growing local food movement, and Paia is a good base for exploring many of the island’s farms and agritourism destinations. In Kula, you can tour Surfing Goat Dairy to learn about the goat cheese – and goat-cheese truffles – they produce on the property; you’ll taste a variety of their cheeses, too. On the same road as the dairy, the family-owned Ocean Vodka Company, which produces spirits from organic sugar cane, recently opened a new farm and distillery, where you can learn about their production process. Also in Kula, you can tour the Ali‘i Kula Lavender Farm; breathe deeply to take in the lavender aroma.
In Makawao, eat locally at the Market Fresh Bistro, which serves a tasty sandwich from Maui-made tofu. You can continue your local food adventures east of Paia in the town of Haiku. Have a locally-sourced lunch at Colleen’s at the Cannery, or stop in for samples at Maui Kombucha, which brews several varieties of this fermented tea-based drink fresh daily.
Where to eat
New owners from the mainland took over Paia’s Moana Café in 2012, and they’ve transformed this Baldwin Avenue eatery from a lackluster sandwich shop into an intriguing contemporary bistro. The kitchen now turns out fresh and distinctive locally-influenced small plates designed to share. Try the “winged beans,” a four-sided tropical green bean grown on Maui that’s dressed in a piquant ginger vinaigrette, or sample the creamy curried breadfruit served with crisp taro chips.
Walk past the Paia Fish Market Restaurant, where a line-up stretches out the door nearly every night, and you might think it’s just another touristy seafood shack. But you’d be wrong. Join the line, order at the counter, then get cozy with your neighbors at the communal tables. Your reward will be fresh local fish, simply prepared, from mahi mahi ‘n’ chips to grilled ono. The seafood salad – crisp greens topped with a grilled, locally-caught fish – is excellent.
For a more elegant seafood experience, visit Mama’s Fish House, which has been luring fish lovers to their retro-Hawaiian beachfront dining room since 1973. For each type of seafood, the menu lists not only where it comes from but the fisherman who caught it – now that’s local! Book at table at Mama’s when you’re ready to splurge on a romantic meal.
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Where to stay
To sleep right in the heart of the Paia action, reserve a room at the boutique Paia Inn. The original 1920s inn building was completely redone several years ago and now has five small but stylish second-floor guest rooms. The bold paintings by Hawaiian artist Avi Kiriaty add pops of color. The inn also has 10 larger rooms in several cottage-style buildings tucked behind the main inn, ranging from studios to one- or two-bedroom suites. If you’re traveling with the gang, you can splash out in the dramatic 1350-square-foot three-bedroom beach cottage. Follow the path beside the inn directly to the beach.
Tucked behind and around Mama’s Fish House restaurant, several cottages and studio suites comprise the Inn at Mama’s Fish House. The top choices here are the two-bedroom beachfront cottages, with a full kitchen, living room, and beachside lanai. Couples might consider one of the newer junior suites; they’re spacious and more modern, although they don’t front the beach.
On the road between Paia and Makawao is Maui’s newest retreat: Lumeria Maui, a yoga center and lodging conceived by Los Angeles designer Xorin Balbes. Balbes and his team restored a former plantation lodging house, built in the early 1900s, creating a posh Asian-inspired lobby and 25 spare but comfortable guestrooms. In the bathrooms, the glass-walled showers have a natural stone floor that feels wonderful between your toes. Guests help themselves to fresh island fruits, pastry, and coffee for breakfast, and join in daily yoga classes, taught outdoors on the manicured lawn. Lumeria is classy, a little bit funky, and definitely chic – just the place to escape, Paia style.
Photos courtesy of Carolyn Heller.
Find more things to do in Paia
– Carolyn B. Heller