PAIA, Hawaii — A message on my answering machine a couple of weeks before Easter started it all. Brian and Silke Horback, friends from Vancouver, British Columbia, had rented a house on Maui for two months, near the beach, in the vintage sugar plantation village of Paia. Even after five years of vacationing in that area, they still raved about the place: terrific surf and beaches for swimming, scenic hiking, great restaurants.
But unlike other Hawaiian destinations, Paia, which is on the north shore, has no hotels, no resorts, no malls and few tourists, just locals and "temporary locals" like the Horbacks. When they called to say they had a spare room for the week--"Come on over--the rent's already paid"--I decided to take them up on the offer. My better half had commitments, so I went alone, promising not to have too much fun and to find an affordable little rental of our own for next time.
Maui being Maui, I kept only half my promise.
The second-largest island of the eight-island chain, Maui welcomes 2.3 million visitors a year, who stay just over a week and spend $180 a day for a hotel room, on average. Still, avoiding the tourist crowds and experiencing Maui like a local is surprisingly easy. Most of Maui's main resorts and big hotels hug the sunny beaches on the west and southwest coast. Three-quarters of the 729-square-mile island is wilderness--rain forest, valley, volcano--and the island has a population of just 120,000. Apart from Kahului (the business and shopping center of Maui, with a deep-water port and an airport) and Lahaina (a historic whaling port bustling with tourists), Maui is made up of a smattering of traditional towns. Local residents often rent out rooms, cottages, small beach condos, plantation houses and ranch houses, independently or through agencies--an attractive alternative for those who don't want the resort or hotel experience. Vacation rentals also allow you to enjoy the feel of island life. For a week or a month, you become almost a local.
The towns of Paia, Haiku and Makawao form the points of a loose triangle stretching along the north shore and poking up into the eucalyptus-scented breezes of Maui upcountry. No Planet Hollywoods, Hard Rock Cafes or hotels here. This does not mean that tourists are unwelcome. They just won't find the standard trappings.
Tastefully furnished cottages with kitchens can be rented here for as little as $65 a night or $500 a month. Clean, comfortable, three-bedroom houses start around $600 a month per room, furnished. The footloose surfer has it even easier. He or she can wander barefoot into Paia, population 2,100, almost any day of the week and find a $20 room on the bulletin board at Mana Foods, just a shuffle from the surf.
I booked a flight to Kahului (another airport is Kapalua in west Maui) and, wanting to save a few dollars, called Word of Mouth Rent-a-Used Car. Asking for the least expensive rental, I was offered an air-conditioned Toyota Tercel for $161.62 for the week, including all taxes. A shuttle met me at the airport, and a quarter-hour later I was behind the wheel of a responsive little number with 115,000 miles and, best of all, no rental sticker identifying me as a tourist and thus a target for thieves.
Paia is an old sugar town that consists of a few dozen wooden plantation buildings, many brightly painted and transformed into surf shops, boutiques, bistros and restaurants. There's a general market, a health food store and one bar, Charlie's, where it's said that singers Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson like to hang out when they're on the island.
I entered a quiet residential area where the houses had palm trees, children played on tricycles and laundry dried on the line. In the carport I pulled into, Brian and Silke's mountain bikes leaned against the wall, sandals and camping equipment lay scattered on the porch and sugar cane rustled just beyond the backyard, which was shaded by plumeria, banana and breadfruit trees.
I grabbed my bags and eased open the screen door. Brian was upcountry near Makawao attending an "awareness through movement" workshop (a combination of yoga and massage therapy, one of several alternative workshops in the area). Silke, with their 7-month-old, Saleah, in a hiking sling, showed me around town, a five-minute walk from the house.
I asked her about rentals. (Their three-bedroom, single-bath unit, one block from the beach, was $1,850 for the month.) "I'll show you the bulletin boards," she said. "That's where most people who come here start out." In Anthony's Coffee Co., a popular cafe and deli combo, a few rentals were posted on the bulletin board opposite the ice cream bin. "Two acres in Haiku, kitchen, laundry, 10 minutes to Hookipa windsurfing. Standard room, $35 single/$45 couple; deluxe room $50/$60, four-night minimum," one read.