Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017
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Hawaii Wild-O

Wicked waves, volcanic views and sleepy small towns seduce visitors to Maui

Year after year, readers of Condé Nast magazine vote the Hawaiian island of Maui the "best island in the world." I must say, I'm hard pressed to think of another that packs as much variety into such a tiny area -- everything from palm-fringed beaches to a volcanic crater the size of Manhattan. Throw in some swank resorts, whale watching, great surf and one of North America's most dramatic coastal drives, and it's no wonder the visitors keep coming.

Many come for the luxury resorts of Wailea and Kaanapali where, after sipping mai tais on the beach, guests can shop at Tiffany's and Louis Vuitton. But there's another side to the island far away from the glitz of the west coast. All you need is a rental car and a good map to see something of the other, and less expensive, Maui.

Take Paia, for example. On the north side of the island, the village is a throwback to the '70s and '80s when nearby Ho'okipa Beach was nirvana for wave-sailing windsurfers from around the world. The constancy of the winds makes this place special, and there are more than a few beach bums living in and around Paia doing whatever is needed to live -- as long as they can get their adrenalin rush at Ho'okipa. If the surf's up, head for the viewpoint east of the beach to see the action.

Back in Paia the locals are easy to spot: lean guys in faded shorts with beards and pony-tails and women with the long blonde hair of the girl that came here 25 years before. Maybe they're the smart ones; people live longer in Hawaii than any other state. This isn't surprising. The air must be clearer on these specks in the middle of the Pacific than anywhere else on earth.

Waiting to cross the street at Paia's only traffic light, a young man ahead of me had not one but two ukuleles sticking out of his backpack. The sign in the window of a small gallery across the road read: "Open when we reach / Close when we like." A bumper sticker on an old Volkswagen camper warned: "Slow Down. This Ain't the Mainland." You get the idea. Paia makes few concessions to visitors.

It's the same thing at the H.P. Baldwin Beach Park just outside Paia: strictly a local beach with skinny-dipping kids, dogs running through the surf, and joggers with tans the colour of walnut stain. Not a patch of tourist-red skin anywhere.

And if Paia is quirky, how about Hawaii's strange addiction to Spam? Not the junk that clogs up your computer, but the processed canned meat I remember as a kid in England during World War II. For some reason, Hawaiians (including those on Maui) eat more Spam than anyone else in the world -- over four million cans of the stuff a year. That's 12 cans each for every person on the islands.

At the McDonald's in Kahului, the breakfast special is Spam, eggs and rice. There's also a sushi-like version called Musubi: a slice of fried Spam on rice wrapped in seaweed. I am not making this up.

We preferred breakfast at Charley's in Paia, where the pan-fried potatoes are to die for. Willie Nelson drops in here for "unannounced" sessions when he's on the island -- sometimes with his buddy, Kris Kristofferson. Somehow word gets around, and the place gets packed to the doors.

We had come to Maui for two weeks because our son's family was offered the use of a friend's house near Paia. It's hard to refuse an offer like that, late in a Canadian winter. We had been to Maui 14 years earl-ier on our way to Australia and were curious to see how the island had changed.

We looked for the B&B we had stayed at high above Kihei but were told it had been bought by Oprah, who had plans to turn it into a spa. But we did recognize the Hali'imaile General Store, where we had dined on our previous visit. It is still one of the best restaurants on Maui.

As for the beaches -- including those at the five-star resorts -- they're still open to anyone. One day we took our folding chairs, books and sun umbrellas to the Wailea Beach Park, following a path between the Four Seasons Resort and the Grand Wailea Resort. We enjoyed the same beach and the same surf for which the guests of the resorts were paying a small fortune.


Under the Volcano
Maui's unique experience has to be the drive to the top of Haleakala. The road to the summit of the volcano twists and climbs for 60 kilometres from sea level to 3000 metres. Most visitors try to arrive at the summit in time for dawn. That means a very early start and a long drive in the dark. But the reward is worth it.

Our view of the crater's rim at first light was across a field of clouds that were below us. The colours of sunrise on Maui are breathtaking. Going down the trail into the actual crater with its cinder cones and mounds of volcanic ash is like entering a lunar landscape. Coming back up again had us puffing because of the altitude.

It's a good idea to get acclimatized by staying at the summit for an hour before attempting a hike into the crater. Driving down from the summit we encountered swarms of cyclists who had signed up for the thrill of riding all the way down to sea level.

Maui's other popular drive is the road to Hana. Somewhat overly dramatized, its 80 kilometres of twists and turns deter some people, but it's a perfectly safe trip that takes about three hours -- more if you stop frequently.

Waterfalls plunge into roadside pools beside towering tulip trees, nature trails wind into lush gorges, and side roads lead off to tiny communities such as Keanae, where we stopped for a fruit smoothie and fresh banana bread.

The road officially ends at Kipahulu, just past Hana, and most people return over the same route -- largely because part of the road from here is unpaved. But we wanted to complete the entire circuit of the volcano's base.

Leaving Kipahulu, the lush landscape we had passed through gave way to wide open vistas. We passed isolated, weather-beaten churches and stopped briefly at the even more isolated Kaupo General Store.

At times, as we passed through groves of eucalyptus trees, we were reminded of the Australian outback. In other places cattle wandered in the middle of the road and the treeless slopes were like the foothills of the Rockies in southern Alberta.

High above us, Haleakala's summit was ringed in clouds, and the late afternoon sun etched deep shadows in the gulches running down to the sea. Further along the coast, at La Perouse Bay, a huge lava field remains from the volcano's last eruption in 1790. Then the road gradually turns north and climbs halfway up Haleakala's western slope towards Kula.

Far below are the resorts of Wailea, and across the shimmering Pacific, the islands of Kaho'olawe and Lanai were becoming silhouetted in the fading light. We were back at our guest house by 6:30pm -- just in time to pick up a pizza. Who says Maui has to be expensive?

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