Sunny delight A Maui beachis alive with activity from dawn to dusk

Kaanapali Beach A couple takes introductory surfing lesson along Kaanapali Beach. (Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe)
By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / March 30, 2005

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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Days start early on Kaanapali Beach. As soon as the sky brightens, joggers and power walkers begin pounding the pavement on the beachfront path. And the ''Pineapple Lady" begins sweeping her metal detector over the beige sand.

When she gets a signal, she calls her little dog, Ulu, and points to the spot. Decked out in a pink rhinestone collar and a purple lei, Ulu needs little encouragement to dig with a flurry of paws, though shorebirds often distract her.

A fast-talking woman in her 60s, the Pineapple Lady hails from Arizona, but she has learned the subtleties of her adopted home. ''The best place to find loose change," she says, ''is under hammocks." Early in the morning, landscaping crews at the beachfront resorts look the other way as she hunts for treasure under the hammocks stretched between palm trees. As beachgoers take over the strand, the Pineapple Lady retreats to her van to sell slices of pineapple and passion fruit sprinkled with Chinese plum powder -- a refreshing treat she claims to have invented.

When it opened in the 1960s on the smaller, western lobe of the island of Maui, Kaanapali was Hawaii's first master-plan resort community. Although hotels, condos, shops, and restaurants stretch the length of the 3-mile beach, the development seems demure by today's mega-resort standards. There's still room for a free spirit like the Pineapple Lady.

After 40 years, the palm trees are tall and the flowering plants are lush. Following the beachfront path feels a bit like walking through a tropical garden. As the day progresses, early-morning athletes give way to leisurely strollers and parents with tykes in tow. Ambitious vacationers get ready for snorkeling, surfing lessons, or parasailing; others opt for a beachside massage or simply stake out a patch of sand and stretch out with a book.

Visitors are hardly new to this coast. From the 1820s through the 1860s, the village of Lahaina (6 miles south of Kaanapali Beach) was second only to Honolulu as a whaling port. In the mid-1840s, more than 400 ships a year dropped anchor to pick up supplies and send crews ashore.

Maui's whaling history is well told in the Whale Museum at Kaanapali's Whalers Village complex of shops and restaurants. You can pick up a Hawaiian shirt, a batik beach wrap, or a pair of swimming fins and then head to the third-floor museum where a video captures life aboard the Charles W. Morgan, America's last wooden whaling ship, now berthed at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

Displays of harpoons, try-pots, and scrimshaw carvings evoke the danger, dirty work, and long, boring hours at sea that were the whaler's lot in life. It's no stretch to imagine how a sailor's spirits would have soared at the sight of a palm-covered island on the horizon.

Despite a profusion of shops and restaurants that might have delighted those sailors, Lahaina hasn't lost touch with its past. The Wo Hing Museum, set in a temple, tells of Chinese immigrants who arrived on whaling ships, worked on sugar plantations, and became shopkeepers.

Lahaina was also the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom from 1820 to 1845. ''Missionaries were invited here by the king to be educators," said Jennifer Walker, a guide in the Baldwin Home. This gracious two-story building with a big front porch was occupied by Dwight Baldwin, a doctor and missionary, and his family from the mid-1830s to 1868.

The missionaries' efforts to ''civilize" native Hawaiians put them at odds with the seamen, whose attitudes were summed up in the adage that ''there's no God west of Cape Horn."

There were, however, more felicitous encounters. ''Missionary mothers introduced American quilting," Walker said, adding that ''Mother" Baldwin had brought her sewing box on the long voyage to Maui. ''Hawaiians took their own floral designs and kicked it up a notch."

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the missionaries in Lahaina, a banyan tree was planted near the harbor in 1873. It has grown into a 100-foot-tall wonder that marks the social center of town. When it gets too hot, just about everybody grabs a bench in the cool, dappled shade of its long branches and tangled canopy to gossip, read a newspaper, nap, or watch the bustle of activity at the waterfront.

The Carthaginian, a re-creation of a 19th-century freight-hauling brig, berths at the dock while fishing boats and ferries come and go. You might see divers returning with the slender, branched black coral that is made into jewelry and sold in shops along Front Street. The 21st-century version of a whale hunt, the whale watch tour, also sets out from Lahaina Harbor.

Endangered humpback whales migrate almost 3,500 miles from Alaska to Hawaii to mate and give birth to their calves. The leviathans spend about five months (from mid-December through mid-May) basking in Maui's warm waters, and often come close enough to be spotted from shore.

Papawai Point, south of Lahaina, on the south-facing tip of Maui's western lobe, is one of the best viewing spots. When I stopped, couples with binoculars were talking about the three whales that had been spotted a few minutes earlier.

Kaanapali Beach comes into its own again in the late afternoon, when walkers along the beachfront path head to the north end of the beach for the sunset ritual. Hawaiians believe that Black Rock, the cliff that encloses one end of the beach, is a sacred spot where departed souls leap to the next world. Maui's last ruler, King Kahekili, jumped to prove his fearlessness.

And then a diver reenacts the scene. As the sun sinks into the ocean in a burst of pink and purple, a lone figure ascends, lifts a torch to salute the sky, then plunges into the dark waters.

Freelance journalist Patricia Harris writes from Cambridge.