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Maui, just right

Not too big, not too small, not too crowded. In between the mega-resorts, we discover little corners of the island that are cheaper-- and sometimes more charming.

March 07, 1999|By Susan Spano

NAPILI BAY, Hawaii -- Near the golf courses, shopping malls and hotels of Kaanapali and Wailea, the two prime resorts on Maui's sunny western coast, there are places in-between, not so sprawling, pricey or perfectly arranged.

Convention-goers and package vacationers who favor the big resorts pass by enclaves like Napili (north of Kaanapali) and Maalaea (at the head of Maalaea Bay) in a blink, briefly wondering what they're like. Budget travelers don't frequent them either, heading instead to funky surfers' hotels and out-of-the-way state park cabins. This is because, though not as expensive as resorts like the Kaanapali Beach Sheraton (where rates start at $310), the places I'm talking about aren't dirt cheap. They're in-between in price and almost every other respect, with small, low-rise, Hawaiian-style hotels, modest recreational facilities and a sense of neighborhood that recalls the way the island must have been 30 years ago before developers' bulldozers rolled in.

Two weeks ago, I spent four days exploring Napili Bay, Maalaea Beach and a few other in-between spots. On such a short trip, I didn't get much of a tan, but I did come home with lots of ideas about where to stay the next time I go, and strategies for doing it at a reasonable price.

Which isn't easy. In 1998, the average daily rate for a hotel room on Maui was about $180, slightly higher than the year before--giving the lie to the idea that the Asian economic crisis has turned Hawaii into a bargain-basement paradise. (Asian visitors traditionally have favored Oahu, which meant that Maui didn't feel the worst of the pinch when visitors from the Far East started staying home.) It only took a few calls for me to figure out that the booming convention business is keeping the island's major chain resorts too full to offer discounts. And in Hawaii it's high season (Christmas to Easter, roughly), which only made matters worse. But here's a tip to file away from a hotelier on Napili Bay: For fair weather, thinner crowds and low rates, the best times to visit Maui are May, the first week in June and the first two weeks in December.

It was a spur-of-the-moment trip--I went on one day's notice, which, as everyone knows, is lunacy for getting low air fares and good rates at hotels. The major airlines had no seats nonstop from LAX to Kahului, Maui's main airport, for less than about $1,000. But after spending some time on the phone, I found a $445.65 ticket to Maui from Cheap Tickets Inc. on Hawaiian Airlines, via Honolulu. (For details on my last-minute hunt for a good fare, see Guidebook, this page.)

It would have been faster and simpler to fly into the little Kapalua West Maui Airport, about a five- to 10-minute drive to Napili. That way you avoid the drive south from Kahului Airport over the saddle between Maui's two volcanoes, then north around the traffic-clogged west coast. The drive should take about 45 minutes, but crowds and construction on Hawaii 30 at Kaanapali made it more like 1 1/2 hours on my trip.

Of course, the real culprits are the humpback whales, plentiful in the waters around Maui from January to March and often visible from the shore. The joke on the island is that the leviathans are the No. 1 cause of automobile accidents among tourists; rainbows are No. 2.

My timing was good for whale watching, though. I saw humpbacks from Napili Bay, which is at the top of my list of places to stay when I return to the island. It's classic Maui, flanked by homes, the red-earth fields of the Maui Land and Pineapple Co. and the hermetic, mist-veiled West Maui Mountains. The beach is not too big, not too small, but just right, pinioned to the south by a two-story condo complex called Napili Point and to the north by the 162-room Napili Kai Beach Club. The club, founded by two island-enraptured Canadians, Jack and Margaret Millar in 1962 (a year before the Kaanapali Sheraton down the coast opened its doors), sets the tone on Napili Bay. It's a quietly classy place, catering to families who return decade upon decade and generation upon generation.

The rates start at $180, so I did not stay there. But the night I arrived, I made a beeline to the Sea House restaurant on the waterfront at Napili Kai to see the children of club employees perform their Friday night Hawaiian dances. The fixed-price dinner cost $35, including salad, baked mahi-mahi, delicious homemade coconut cake and the show. The troupe was sponsored by the nonprofit Napili Kai Foundation, which is dedicated to teaching indigenous arts to children age 6 to 18. The darling kids performed the most genuine Hawaiian show I have seen in half a dozen visits to the islands. Easily apparent in the wings, grade-schoolers waited to make their entrances while straightening hula skirts and putting orchids in their hair.

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