We walked onto the rock breakwater that formed the south wall of the Lahaina boat harbor. The sun was setting as local surfers worked the last few waves before darkness fell, their silhouettes stark against the waters of the ‘Au’au Channel separating Maui from Lanai.
To our right was the harbor, and behind it was a walkway with waves lapping against the concrete and rock sea wall. To our left, modest homes lined the shore under large trees all the way to Kamehameha Iki Park and beyond. Three teenage girls who had been lying in the late afternoon sun were gathering their things. Dogs barked; children played.
Behind us was the King Kamehameha III Elementary School, six buildings whose dark green metal rooms shimmered in the late afternoon sun.
That was 21 months ago, in November of 2021.
Today, the boats in the harbor, the quaint homes along the shore, and the school buildings are all gone. Most of the town of Lahaina was heavily damaged or destroyed on Aug. 8 by a wildfire that raced down Mauna Kahālāwai and didn’t stop until it reached the ocean.
Our grown daughter, Jen, and son, Matt, joined my wife and me on a long-planned trip to Maui to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. It was the first time we had ever been able to make such a trip a reality.
And we fell in love with the place.
Our rental home was actually in Kaanapali, about four miles north of Lahaina. It, too, was beautiful, featuring many of the island’s most luxurious tourist hotels. But Lahaina captured our hearts.
We spent at least half of our days on Maui exploring the famous Front Street area, walking the side streets, buying shaved ice with different flavors each time, visiting shops and looking up in awe at the canopy of the massive and historic banyan tree in the town center.
Front Street was, and I hope will be again, a narrow thoroughfare barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Sidewalks fronted shops of all kinds, from jewelry stores to tattoo parlors to the many bars and restaurants, including Fleetwood’s on Front St., owned by Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac fame. He remains a full-time resident of Lahaina.
Every time we stopped by Fleetwood’s, it was so busy we couldn’t get in. Instead, we browsed in the gift shop filled with beautifully framed art featuring musical artists past and present – very expensive but beautiful. I wish now that I had purchased one.
We spent a couple of evenings at the Kohola Brewery, a microbrewery just across Honoapi’ilani Highway that encircles most of the northern end of Maui. Based on a local resident’s recommendation, we found Kohola tucked behind a dive shop and a strip mall. It was housed in a large metal building with massive garage doors that revealed its bar and seating area. Brewing tanks and kegs were stacked to the ceiling beyond the bar.
The music was good, and the owner and staff were friendly, as were everyone we met on the island over 10 days. We bought T-shirts to remember the place.
Based on new reports and a New York Times map of destroyed structures, Fleetwood’s and Kohola did not survive the fire.
We took a sunset cruise that was stunning. We looked back from a few miles out in the ocean and watched the Mauna Kahalawai volcano turn glorious shades of red and orange as the sun dropped close to the mountains of Lanai to the west. We could see the blinking lights of Kaanapali and Lahaina to the south.
As the sun disappeared behind the island’s ridge, the captain of our catamaran played a song I’d never heard – “Island Style.” Maybe it was being with my family in a special place, maybe it was watching the last flicker of sun draw a line of light across the water, maybe it was remembering that my mother had died earlier that year, but tears streamed down my face as the song played. I watched the halo around the Lanai mountain tops and felt grateful to be there.
“On the island, we do it island style / from the mountain to the ocean, from the windward to the leeward side.” (Cruz, 1996)
Today, I watch aerial images of Lahaina that show the banyan tree, scorched but still standing. Arborists are working hard to save the tree. Virtually everything around it is damaged significantly or burned to the ground.
Not just part of Lahaina, but 80% of it, was virtually destroyed, according to news reports.
We visited the Maui Ku’ia Estate chocolate factory, about a mile east of Lahaina Town, on the lower slopes of Kahalawai.
We sat in their open-air rooftop pavilion for a tasting session on a Saturday morning, hosted by no less than the company’s CEO, Dr. Gunar Valkirs, who started the factory and cacao farm from scratch in 2013.
In between bites of chocolate made from cacao grown on a 20-acre farm just a short distance from the factory, he explained that Maui Ku’ia donates 100% of its net profits to Maui charities and non-profit organizations via the Makana Aloha Foundation started by Valkirs and his wife, JoRene.
We bought their chocolate that day and brought it home. When we got home, we bought more.
Somehow the factory survived the fire as hundreds of homes just south of them burned. Unfortunately, the farm was decimated by 100 mph winds that defoliated all of the cacao trees, resulting in the loss of their fall crop and severely reducing their spring 2024 crop.
Several Maui Ku’ia employees lost their homes and belongings. But everyone escaped injury.
“We have faced tough challenges before in our chocolate company’s young life, and we are optimistic about our resilience, determination and ability to survive this tragedy,” the company said on its website the day after the fire.
My daughter, Jen, still can’t look at the pictures of Lahaina. All of us took home wonderful memories of a little town that captured our hearts. It’s difficult, even this far away, to imagine how it is affecting the fire’s survivors.
We grieve their losses and wish them Mahalo in the days, weeks and months ahead. And when the time is right, we will go back.
We visited Kohola Brewery the night after our sunset cruise. I approached the young musician who was singing and playing guitar for the patrons. In between songs, I walked up to him, dropped a few dollars in his tip jar, asked for a favor, and returned to our table.
He began singing.
“Mama’s in the kitchen cooking dinner real nice / beef stew on the stove, lomi salmon with the ice / We eat and drink and we sing all day Kanikapila in the old Hawaiian way.
“On the island, we do it island style/from the mountain to the ocean, from the windward to the leeward side.”
Editor’s note: Many donation sites have sprung up to benefit the victims of the Maui fires. EPLN has been monitoring the Instagram account of Malika Dudley, a Hawaiian TV journalist from Lahaina. Her top three recommendations are Hawaii Community Foundation, Maui Food Bank, and Maui United Way.
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