KAHULUI, Hawaii — When we learned that there was no other choice but to stay in Kahului during our vacation on Maui, we were less than thrilled.
But while this little town of 15,000 is hardly a glitzy place, Kahului did prove to be a surprisingly pleasant alternative to West Maui's sleek high-rise hotels, with their matching high prices and wall-to-wall tourists. This is the place to stretch your vacation budget.
Unable to book reservations at some of the island's better-known resort hotels or condos, we took a friend's suggestion and found a room at the 154-room Maui Beach Hotel in the heart of Kahului.
Site of the island's major airport in the northern part of Maui, Kahului is also the island's main seaport. Most of the 2 million tourists who flock to Maui each year land at the Kahului terminal, hop into a rental car and dash off for resorts such as Kaanapali, Wailea or Kapalua.
But my wife and I found Kahului to be a convenient base for excursions during our five-day stay. Most attractions are less than an hour's drive away.
Built on the sandy shores of Kahului Harbor only five minutes from the airport, the Maui Beach Hotel, backed by mountains, is an excellent place to watch the arrival of cruise ships, tugs, barges and even the occasional outrigger canoe.
Three modern shopping centers with inexpensive restaurants are across from the hotel on Kaahumanu Avenue.
Accommodations are comfortable if not luxurious, but you do get a rental car for the $60 a day double. It beats the three-digit rates at the upscale resorts in Lahaina and Kihei, even if you won't find terry-cloth bathrobes, sweets on your pillow at bedtime or a telephone in the bathroom.
Sumptuous buffets are served at breakfast and lunch for $6.95. The dinner menu features steaks, Pacific lobster tail and roast prime rib, as well as such island specialties as teriyaki and mahi-mahi. Dinner for two with a glass of house wine ranges between $35 and $45.
It's only three miles to the neighboring town of Wailuku, capital of Maui and county seat of government for Lanai and Molokai.
Less than 45 minutes south and west lie such fabled beaches as Kaanapali and Napili. The summit of the 10,000-foot dormant volcano Haleakala is only a 22-mile drive. The view from Haleakala at sunrise is one of the most spectacular panoramas in all of Hawaii.
The 50-plus-mile drive along Maui's winding northeast shore to ancient Hana offers magnificent views, lush tropical vegetation, bamboo forests, waterfalls, freshwater pools and wayside parks for picnics. Plan a full day for this trip.
For the golf enthusiast, there's the Waiehu 18-hole public course, less than 10 minutes by car from the hotel. The front nine follows the scenic coastline, while the back nine takes you along the slopes of the mountains.
In the lobby of the Maui Beach Hotel we found "Charlie's Corner," Charlie Aruda's office. A bear of a man, Aruda is sales manager, entertainment director and public relations chief for the Maui Beach and its twin next door, the Maui Palms.
Former Sumo Wrestler
It's hard to miss Aruda, an affable, 300-pound former sumo wrestling champion who was born and raised on Maui.
He suggested that a good place to begin sightseeing was a visit to Old Wailuku Town. At the front of dramatic mountain slopes and surrounded by macadamia nut orchards, Wailuku features hilly streets, shops built of wood and an easygoing atmosphere for visitors en route to the nearby Iao Valley.
The valley's claim to fame is the dramatic Iao Needle, three miles into Iao Valley State Park. A landmark, the needle is a natural 2,250-foot lava rock spire that rises from the floor of the valley amid the background of green cliffs.
Once the playground of Maui's royalty, Iao Valley is a richly foliaged spot whose luxuriance inspired Mark Twain to call it the "Yosemite of the Pacific."
We joined others strolling through the delightful gardens of exotic tropical flowers and trees. From the top of a ridge we had a splendid view of the needle as well as the entire valley.
Iao Valley is famous in Hawaiian history as the site in 1790 where King Kamehameha defeated the Maui army, killing thousands trapped in the gorge that has only one exit.
Allow time to visit the Maui Historical Society Museum on Main Street in Wailuku. Built in the mid-1800s, the old Edward Bailey home was once a seminary and later a sugar and flour mill.
The museum features exhibits of art, canoes, exquisite period furniture and relics of ancient Hawaii. There's no admission charge, but a $2 donation for adults is suggested.
A few blocks from the museum on High Street we found the white-steepled Kaahumanu Church, Maui's oldest. It is a town landmark and a favorite of photographers.
Three miles south on Highway 30 to the lush Waikapu Valley we visited the Tropical Plantation. The island's newest attraction drew more than 500,000 visitors last year.
On its 60 acres you'll find tropical agriculture and plants. We took a 30-minute tram tour that passed fields of avocados, bananas, coffee, pineapples, sugar cane, taro, macadamia nuts and guavas, and a nursery full of exotic flowers.
For more information about Maui's activities and accommodations, contact the Maui County Visitor Assn., P.O. Box 1738, Kahului, Maui, Hawaii 96732; (808) 871-8691. Or Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010; (213) 385-5301.