Kaanapali, with its perfect year round beach weather and gentle ocean, always strikes me as a big parking lot in paradise. Annually, for 18 years, we stayed in a low rise condo at the Maui-Kaanapali Villas in a unit much enhanced by a long, uninhabited beach on one side–and grandpa next door. Now, ten years later, new construction stretches unbroken all the way west to wind swept Kapalua, whose more challenging weather, rough seas and higher prices once gave the impression of relative isolation. No more. According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, 2013-14 will set a record for the most air plane seats and visitors to the islands and even Kapalua feels paved like a housing development.
International tourists were everywhere at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, a high end property recently bought by the Marriott. I heard a babel of languages as I walked through the lobby looking for the haunting mural-sized landscapes of taro fields and tropical valleys that used to grace the once clubby public spaces of this hotel. They have disappeared. Accommodations are still luxurious but generic. The decent sushi bar in the lobby remains, good for thickly sliced Hawaiian-farmed kampachi sashimi and mirugai from Japan. A new two mile coastal trail with crashing ocean along one side and condos on the other now ends at Merriman’s, a branch of a restaurant started by locals on the Big Island. The Merriman bar makes a surprisingly tasty fresh pineapple martini, particularly nice sipped at sunset on a patio on a windy point above the sea–until it gets too cold. The Merriman menu advertises enough island-sourced ingredients to tempt, but kitchen turns out dishes with the predictable gloss of the overly composed.
The best new thing on this side of Maui is Mala Ocean Tavern, one of two Mark Ellman restaurants in Lahaina. Honu, Ellman’s pizza and seafood place is next door. They have a hidden ocean side location behind a mall with a gigantic Safeway, about a mile from the main part of town. Mala looks like a beach shack from the outside and thankfully keeps that demeanor inside with a wood table filled dining room, a small bar, lots of seats pushed close together, and one side open to the old Mala harbor.
A veteran of the Lahaina dining scene, Ellman started wirh Avalon in 1987 and ran it for ten years. He opened Mala in 2005. He’s still cooking up homey, tasty, Asian-Hawaiian-California style fusion based on excellent local fish and vegetables. Four of us ate thin, flax seed toasts topped with mashed green soy beans, Olowalu tomatoes, slices of seared yellow fin drizzled with olive oil ($8 a piece); a big bowl of Big Island Hamaukua Alii mushrooms seared with garlic and parsley ($15); and a whole local snapper ($70), crisply wok fried with ginger, garlic, black beans, tomatoes, shiitakes and snap peas, a delicious melange with accompanying brown rice. Mala only uses whole grains. A platter of broiled fruit and ice cream on a soup of warm caramel and fudge sauce ($20) called Caramel Miranda, somehow hit the spot. The sunset encouraged celebratory drinking of mai tais and pineapple martinis, now my favorite Hawaiian cocktail when made with fresh pineapple juice, and an exploration of the well curated if expensive California-centric wine list. Mala food feels immediate and natural. You sense the hand of the cook, a rarity in the hotel dominated dining rooms on the Islands.
The majestic banyan tree planted in 1873 by Captain William Owen Smith still drapes itself over Pioneer Court House Square at the historic raffish end of Lahaina. Brought from India by missionaries when it was 8 feet tall, the banyan was presented as a gift to Smith, the sheriff and enforcer of morals at the time. Now the Pioneer banyan has 16 trunks and is 50 feet tall, a rare piece of old Hawaii. Don’t miss it.
Mala Ocean Tavern, 1307 Front Street, Lahaina, Maui 808 667-9394 www.malaoceantavern.com Open for lunch or brunch and dinner every day