Maui: Old Lahaina Town

SEE THOSE TINY DOTS in the middle of the ocean? I’m on one now — the island of Maui in Hawaii, the remotest population center on the globe, 2,500 miles from anywhere.

I’m here to visit my daughter, Zoë. I’ve been to Maui before. I’ve blogged about the old plantation cottages and famously twisting mountain roads and spectacular sunsets, even written an article about Maui’s charms for Coastal Living magazine.

Lahaina cottage, hardly visible behind the greenery

This is the first time I’ve been here in winter, though, when humpback whales in the hundreds give birth and raise their calves in the channel between Maui and neighboring Lana’i. You can see their fins gliding through the water even from the beach. The other day, I added a signature Maui experience to my list — my first whale-watching cruise ever, on the Hula Girl, a 65-foot catamaran, below (my daughter works on the boat).

From the deck, we saw baby whales breaching — that is, jumping clear out of the water, as if for joy. It’s not known exactly why they do it, but it sure looks playful (not my photo, below;-)

In another exciting marine life encounter, while snorkeling today at Airport Beach in Kaanapali, I followed a huge sea turtle along the coral reef for about 3 minutes, coming within two feet of it.

I’m based in the town of Lahaina — a onetime whaling village, now tourist mecca — on the leeward (sunny, calm ocean) side of the island. That’s Front Street, above, early in the morning before the tourist hordes arrive.

My hotel, below, the historic wooden Pioneer Inn, feels just right.

Built by an Englishman named George Freeman in 1901, it has an authentically nautical vibe left over from the days when its bar and 35 rooms were occupied mostly by rowdy sailors.

Now it’s surrounded by shops selling aloha wear, bad art, shave ice, etc., but I don’t mind — not even The Parrot Guy taking photos of visitors posed with his colorful birds, who  create quite a racket.

Dan’s Greenhouse is a second-floor shop on Front Street selling bonsai and exotic tropical plants approved for export, along with talking birds and mini-pot belly piglets

We spent a couple of days in Hana (subject of my next post), then braved the partly unpaved, cliffside route around the southern rim of the island. But besides these classic Maui adventures, I’m getting a kick out of all the little things that set Hawaii apart from the other 49 states: roadside fruit stands selling tiny ‘apple bananas’ 5 for $1, muu-muus on a dry cleaner’s price list, unimaginably fragrant flowers everywhere. Only in Hawaii does it not feel ridiculous to pluck a hibiscus blossom or plumeria, below, and tuck it behind your ear.

Best Lahaina food discovery so far: Star Noodle, below. a cool spot in an unlikely place (an industrial park in the hills above town), serving Asian fusion in a design-y setting.

Grilled Brussel sprouts with kim chee puree, pan-roasted local mushrooms, garlic noodles, scallops and asparagus…all very healthy until the waiter foisted upon us some upscale malasadas, a dessert brought to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese who came to work the farms — fried dough balls, 3″ in diameter, swathed in chocolate and butterscotch sauce, with a side of banana ice cream and a handful of chopped peanuts for good measure.

The Buddha next door: Zoë lives very near the Lahaina Jodo Mission, which also has a most impressive pagoda and massive gong that rings 11 times each evening