LAHAINA, Maui — This tropical town may be better known for its touristy souvenir shops and cafes, but a stroll along Lahaina’s waterfront yields a glimpse into Hawaii’s past, from its whaling days to King Kamehameha’s extracurricular activities.
Some walking tour maps suggest that you include 28 historic stops on your stroll — and start early in the day, so you don’t swoon from the heat as you contemplate Herman Melville’s cousin’s grave and a tennis court that was once the site of a sacred pond. We may be die-hard history buffs, but 28 seems like a lot. Besides, there’s a beach waiting — and the promise of margaritas.
So we’ve narrowed the field to an eye-popping eight and traced a path that leads from Lahaina’s spectacular banyan tree to dinner and cocktails. Consider it a Lahaina history appetizer.
1. The Banyan Tree
This enormous tree is not just the centerpiece of Lahaina’s courthouse plaza. It’s a Hawaiian icon and one of the largest banyans in the U.S. The tree was just 8 feet tall when it was imported from India in 1873 and planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of American Protestant missionaries.
The tree, which has 12 major trunks, is more than 60 feet tall. Its branches shade a 2/3-acre expanse of the park.
Details: Open 24/7 at Lahaina Banyan Court Park, 671 Front St., Lahaina
2. The Old Fort
The banyan is actually planted on the grounds of the historic Fort at Lahaina, which was built in 1832 to protect the town from cannon fire. In the first half of the 19th century, whaling ships anchored off Lahaina’s shores by the hundreds, their sailors eager to re-provision and enjoy a little shore leave.
In 1827, a British whaling ship fired cannons over a missionary’s house, which prompted the queen to order an old mud and sand fort rebuilt into something more substantial. Built from coral blocks, the 20-foot tall walls of the Old Fort were topped with 47 cannons. What you see here now is a partial reconstruction, done in 1964.
Details: Open 24/7. Find the ruins at the southwestern edge of the park.
3. Old Courthouse
See that cream-colored, Greek Revival building with the terra cotta tile roof? Originally built as the Lahaina Court and Customs House in 1860, this was the place where the Hawaiian flag was retired and the new U.S. flag raised in 1898, when the American government — incited by U.S. business titans and Sanford Dole, the son of missionaries to Hawaii and a cousin of the Dole pineapple family, whose empire rose in 1899 — annexed a sovereign country and deposed Queen Lili’uokalani.
Today, this beautiful building, which was renovated in 1998, is the home of the Lahaina Visitor Center and, upstairs, the Lahaina Heritage Museum (lahainarestoration.org).
Details: Open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free admission. 648 Wharf St. at Banyan Tree Park
4. The Pioneer Inn
Maui’s first hotel was opened by a 6-foot, 5-inch Royal Canadian Mountie in 1901 at a time of immense change. Theodore Roosevelt had just become president. The Victorian era had just come to a close. And for the next 50 years, the Pioneer Inn would be Western Maui’s only lodging option — and a popular Hollywood filming site.
Before you go inside, though, stop and look at the Lahaina Lighthouse on the waterfront across the street from the hotel. King Kamehameha III had a 9-foot tall lighthouse built here in 1840, its lamp fueled with the whale oil procured in Lahaina’s waters. It predates any lighthouse on the U.S. Pacific coast. In 1866, the lighthouse was expanded to 26 feet and the whale oil was replaced by kerosene. The 55-foot tall lighthouse — with its Fresnel lens — you see today was built in 1905.
Details: 658 Wharf St., Lahaina; www.pioneerinnmaui.com
5. Hauola Stone
Look for the brass marker pointing the way to a sacred stone half-submerged in the water. For centuries, it was used as a royal birthing seat. According to legend, a Hawaiian queen had to give birth in one of these chairlike stones, lapped by ocean waves, for her child to carry the royal lineage.
6. Baldwin Home Museum
Whatever your views on Hawaii’s missionary experience, Dwight Baldwin, a Harvard-educated doctor and missionary to Maui, is a figure worth celebrating for this fact alone: His insistence on vaccination in 1853 saved Maui, Molokai and Lanai’s residents from the smallpox epidemic that killed 12,000 people on Oahu and the Big Island. Baldwin spent months traveling from village to village to administer immunization shots.
Today, the Baldwin family home is a museum that offers a look back at 19th century missionary life, from medical equipment to mosquito net-draped beds and games of Konane, a Hawaiian game similar to Chinese checkers that uses black and white rocks on a wooden gameboard.
Details: Tickets $5-$7. Open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and until 8:30 p.m. on Fridays at 120 Dickenson St.; Lahaina
7. Wo Hing Museum
Chinese immigrants first arrived on Maui on 19th century trade or whaling ships. If you’ve driven the Road to Hana, you can thank Chinese labor for building that challenging road’s many bridges. In 1912, the Wo Hing Society — Wo means peace and harmony, Hing means prosperity — built this two-story building, with a temple upstairs. The first floor now houses a museum.
Details: Admission is $5-$7, but admission to the Baldwin House covers both museums. Open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily at 858 Front St., Lahaina; lahainarestoration.org/wo-hing-museum
8. U.S. Seamen’s Hospital
This stone-front building was commissioned as an inn for sailors in 1833 by Kamehameha III and later used as a hospital for injured seamen. It had a much more colorful purpose, too. Situated on the outskirts of town, it was a good mile from the missionary settlement — and the king needed a rendezvous spot for trysts with his sister, the Princess Nahi’ena’ena. The idea of sacred marriages between royal siblings is an ancient one, and it extends back through generations of Hawaiian royal lineage.
Details: 1024 Front St., Lahaina; lahainarestoration.org/seamens-hospital