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The other side to Maui’s story

Sun., May 9, 2010

There’s no denying that beaches are the top attraction, but upcountry scenery offers some incredible distractions

KULA, Maui, Hawaii – Maui is called the “Valley Isle,” but let’s face it: Most tourists’ topography is limited to beaches, beaches and more beaches.

Maui has 81 of them. Each day thousands of visitors arrive at the airport in Kahului and fan out across the narrow isthmus with its sugar mill still belching smoke, turning right to head up to the sand strands at Kaanapali, Napili and Kapalua, or left to the golden shores of Kihei and Wailea.

Most pay little more than an awed glance over their shoulders toward the cloud wrapped immensity of Haleakala, the “house of the sun,” a dormant volcano rising 10,023 feet from the sea surface that makes up 75 percent of the island’s surface.

It’s been a long time since it demanded attention; geologists were spewed with ash and lava in the 17th century.

I’m not going to be so preposterous as to suggest you ditch the sunscreen and pool chair for a cowboy hat and a sweater and spend your entire Maui vacation upcountry.

But slicing out a day or two for exploring the flanks of the volcano is a lot of fun, especially when the heat and the crush of crowds get to you. There’s nobody hawking timeshares in what passes for downtown Kula.

Up here, you get pines instead of palms. The scent of lavender instead of the smell of the sea. A landscape whose white picket fences and strands of barbed wire might remind people of the Texas hill country or Santa Barbara or eastern Virginia, except the slopes always go up, up, up.

“It was 39 degrees the other night,” said John Davis, a teacher who moved from the beachside resort of Kihei to Kula. “Living by the ocean, you forget what it is like to be cold. Up here, you can wear long pants and pajamas and sleep under blankets at night.”

Grab a map and follow my play-by-play for a day on the mountain. Go where the four-lane highway gives way to two-lane and then twisting, undulating side roads with blind corners and hairpin turns.

Those who take the time to turn from makai (toward the ocean) to explore mauka (toward the mountains) find a unique world of tropical cowboys, otherworldly gardens, plantation-style B&Bs, quirky animal farms, spirits (religious and drinkable) and the best restaurant outside of a resort gate.

Upcountry Maui is the first place I visited on my own dime, to see a friend who had moved to Ulupono and 25 years later has migrated even further up Haleakala’s flank to Kula. I’ve stayed on a protea farm and celebrated Thanksgiving in a former general store turned celebrated dining spot.

Start out in the hippie-turned-yuppie enclave of Paia, where the mountain roads hit the seaside. Continue up through Makawao, an old cowboy town that’s now full of yoga studios and touristy trinket shops but is 10 degrees cooler than on the beach.

Heading inland, Baldwin Road steepens as it climbs through cabbage and pineapple fields before pulling into the town of Makawao. The 19th-century village battles to hold onto its feel for the days of the paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys who still compete at the Makawao Rodeo Grounds.

The mix of clapboard buildings, trendy restaurants, barber shops and coffee bars is a big draw, and the traffic can slow to a crawl during the summer and on weekends when Maui residents head for the hills.

Makawao is a good spot to get out, stretch your legs and fill your tummy on the way to the crater.

Polli’s, a one-time vegetarian Mexican restaurant, now draws California expatriates who need to satisfy their chicken enchilada and beef taco cravings. Casanova’s Italian restaurant is open only for dinner, but you can go to the coffee house and bakery, sit on the lanai and enjoy watching the passers-by.

If you are just passing through, stop by Komoda’s Store on Baldwin Avenue, where the pastries are among the best on the island. The cream puffs are the most popular, along with Malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts).

Golf nuts will want to stop in Pukalani, which means “hole in the heavens.” Just to the southwest of Makawao on the Haleakala Highway, the town is home to the Pukalani Country Club, the only links in the area.

Heading south out of Pukalani, stay on Highway 37 and make a short stop at the Church of the Holy Ghost. This 1897 octagonal structure is an island landmark, one of the most important churches from the plantation era when exporting sugar and other commodities was more important than importing tourists.

The road winds higher still, past the black and white cows, where cypress dot the slopes and cows meander in green fields. There is a 1930s gas station with a sign warning “No smoking bruddah.”

The protea belt around Kula produces fields of brilliantly colored, hefty, bulbous flowers that look like something out of a psychedelic science fiction movie.

Kula Botanical Garden showcases the flowers, along with sandalwood and other island flora. If you are looking to buy, head up Upper Kimo Road to Cloud’s Rest Protea Farm, where four dozen or more varieties are grown and sold.

Kula is also home to Alii Kula Lavender Farm, where walking tours will take you through the purple herb garden. Owner Alii Chang can take you on a golf cart tour of the 45 types of lavender on his farm.

Set up a lunch with lavender seasonings on lamb or ono. Or just dawdle with a spot of tea and lavender scones, watching cows wander through the lavender fields while overhead tandem paragliding tourists float through the clouds to settle into a sloping, soft grassy field.

Somewhere up above is a zipline tour for those who need the adrenaline rush of speeding through trees like Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Leave with all things lavender: soap, candles or bath salts.

The farthest point out on an upcountry day trip is usually Ulupalakua Ranch on the south end of Highway 37 before it makes the big, scary (and mostly off-limits to rental cars) turn toward Hana.

Tedeschi Vineyards is Hawaii’s most famous winery. Grapes that go into sparkling white wines and dry reds are grown on the southern flank of Haleakala. There’s also fermented pineapple juice, all sold from a 19th-century tasting room that used to be a local jail.

If you time it right, you can have lunch across the street at Ulupalakua Ranch General Store, where burgers, beef or buffalo, are barbecued on a big outdoor grill from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

Vegetarians beware: The burgers are so fresh you can hear the future patties mooing out back.

It’s all served in a village so laid back that during my last visit a cat lolled undisturbed in the sun – smack in the middle of a crosswalk on the empty highway.

On the way back, fuel up for the drive to the beach with a blast of 100 percent organically grown caffeine at Grandma’s Coffee House in Keokea. Beware the awesome sugar high from the huge cinnamon rolls behind the counter.

A favorite kid’s stop is Surfing Goat Dairy, where German expatriates Thomas and Eva Kafsack churn out award-winning goat cheese spread drawn from the milk of more than 80 goats who call 42 acres of Haleakala home.

Visitors get to tour the European-style operation, with its Milk Room, Ripening Room and Cheese Room. Kids will like meeting the kids, while adults savor the creamy smooth cheese that comes in less expensive “Aloha” and “Paradise” varieties.

Connoisseurs go for the “Shark Bite” collection, named for the bite it takes out of your wallet. A two-ounce jar mixed with truffles will set you back $26.

When it comes to the end of the day, most vacationers want a great meal with a great view. So it will take some seriously good eats to pull away from the tiki torches and ocean views.

Haliimaile General Store won’t disappoint. Chef Bev Gannon’s “new Hawaiian” cuisine has been drawing diners up the hill to the old clapboard store in Makawao for more than 20 years.

Start with the signature crab pizza appetizer, then move on to coconut seafood curry and finish with Haliimaile pineapple upside-down cake.

After a long day on the mountain, go work off the food with a nighttime stroll on the beach, making sure to look back once in awhile to see if the moon is peeking out over the “house of the sun.”


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