Rob Parsons

30 Years on Maui

Looking back, even while facing future

by Rob Parsons

September 06, 2007

Let's get together and do it again
-Cecilio & Kapono

A lot can happen in 30 years. Back when I arrived on Maui in 1977, the population hovered around 63,000-less than half of what it is now. Traffic was light, or nonexistent. Maui had yet to be fully "discovered" by the rest of the world, and by those who would see dollar signs where others saw unspoiled beauty and charm.

Two college buddies had come out the year before, while I managed a record shop in East Lansing, Michigan, right across from the Michigan State University campus. A third college buddy had a brother who lived on Maui, and told my friends to look him up when they arrived.

Martin Blechta and his wife Mary ran a restaurant in Paia, the EZ Cafe. Located where Flatbreads is today (Wunderbar and Dillon's before that), the EZ was a hippie health food haven, and the only place I've ever had a waitress take my order twice. Martin and Mary also opened up PicNics on Baldwin Ave., home of the fabulous spinach nutburger.

My friends were told that two hotels had just been completed in Wailea, the Hotel Intercontinental and the Wailea Beach Resort, and jobs were easy to find. While I toiled back in chilly Michigan, letters arrived describing the Hawaiian beaches, flowers, trees, culture and way of life. Bundled up in layers of clothing, I thought it all sounded good.

Wazoo Records was a ticket outlet for lots of shows, and one night a local club, the Silver Dollar, hosted an up and coming band from Hawai'i: Cecilio & Kapono. On tour promoting their second album, they sounded fabulous.

Finally, I packed my bags and flew to Hawai'i. Walking from the plane to the terminal in Honolulu, the warm humid air enveloped me, with a mixture of jet fuel and plumerias wafting on the tradewinds. On Maui, the tiny airport still featured a banyan tree growing through the roof, where mynah birds would gather at dusk and raise a ruckus.

I had arrived. I began the search for a car, a job and a place to stay. President Jimmy Carter had just been through the Mideast oil embargo, sending gas prices soaring to $1.25 a gallon. Fuel efficiency and compact cars were hip. My first car was a 1970 Toyota Corolla.

I quickly found work at a popular open-air restaurant in old Wailuku town. La Familia, where Saeng Thai now operates on Vineyard St., was in its heyday. Serving great Mexican food and frosty margaritas, it was hugely popular for a business lunch or to whisk airport arrivals to the tropical setting for Happy Hour.

Tony Habib, La Familia's owner, had owned a nightclub in San Diego called Funky Quarters and still had connections in the music business. Thus, his customers included Alice Cooper, Jesse Colin Young, Yvonne Elliman and members of the Eagles.

When La Familia began featuring live music at night, Merv Oana's 'Iao Stream Band would launch into a chicken skin rendition of Peter Moon's hit "Cane Fire." In time, they introduced a newly arrived conga player, who would become far better known for his guitar artistry-Joe Cano.

Wailuku was a quaint mix of old town charm and thriving new business. Frenchy's newsstand and crack seed stood next to the dry cleaner, now Unisan sushi. Around the corner, the 'Iao Grocery still operated where Bernard's Bentos to Banquets now dishes up local food. Across the street, the dilapidated King Theater still stood, in shades of gray. Just below the Vineyard Tavern, the Chee Kung Tong Society building, built in 1905, was in a similar state of disrepair.

Carlene's Cafe across from National Dollar Store was often standing room only for breakfast, with generous portions and homemade toasted herb bread. Later eateries in that locale include Hamburger Mary's, Shakalaka Fish and Chips, Cafe Brooklyn and now Ohana Cafe.

I'd found a car and steady work, but a home rental proved more challenging, and certainly not because vacation rentals meant less availability for residents. We found a two-bedroom rental in Kuau for $325 a month, but it wouldn't be ready for another month. With that, I found myself sleeping on the beach between Ma'alaea and North Kihei, usually within range of several other campers.

My first Christmas away from home also meant no roof over my head, only the stars sparkling through kiawe branches. Had I not been staying on the beach, I likely would have missed seeing the most glorious sunrise of my life, Jan. 10, 1978. Clouds stretching from Haleakala's summit lit the sky in vivid pink, gold and red.

Playing pool in one of the only places available, Charley's in Paia, I was taught the correct pronunciation of "Hauoli Makahiki Hou" by Eddie "Too Tall" Wilson. I would sometimes see Eddie playing trumpet at the Pioneer Inn, sitting in with local legendary boogie-woogie pianist David Paquette.

Fleetwood Mac, at the height of their popularity, played a sold-out concert at Lahaina Tennis Stadium. Bob Marley and the Wailers filled the Lahaina Amphitheater on a weekend afternoon, long before reggae and Hawaiian music melded into "Jawaiian." Elton John showed up unannounced one night in Lahaina and rocked the Blue Max where BJ's Chicago Pizzeria is today.

Before direct flights came to Maui in the early 1980's, the economy felt a seasonal surge from its hidden agricultural industry, pakalolo. I actually used to think that "pig hunting" was merely a euphemism for going hiking in the mountains to tend one's plants, until I found out that people actually did both. Oasis Maui in Haiku's Pauwela Cannery was a thriving business, with organic fertilizers used by many growers.

Up in Makawao, Sub Molina's Club Rodeo served up dinner and dancing, preceding Piero's, the Tillerman and Casanova's. The corner now occupied by Polli's was the Upcountry Fishery, with Whitey's Upholstery across the street in the Matsui Store building, and the Tam Sing gas station on the corner above Komoda's Bakery. Riding horses in town was commonplace, and not just a Fourth of July event.

Late afternoons were often spent body surfing at Baldwin Beach. For 65 cents, you could quench your thirst with Haiku juices in tin cans wrapped in colorful paper labels. Nagata Store's boiled peanuts and a jar of kim chee were the perfect compliments. Hawaiian sunset music was featured nightly on the radio, with the classic tunes of Gabby Pahinui, Olomana, Hui 'Ohana, Billy Kaui and Country Comfort, the Brothers Cazimero and Macky Feary's Kalapana.

An adventuresome soul could still take the old road from Ulupalakua to Makena, though I recall seeing a muffler or two that had been lost along the way. Makena was still a long way from anywhere, requiring the commitment of navigating dusty, potholed Old Makena Rd. The few houses along the shoreline were humble, not the palatial mansions that now crowd our coast.

We celebrated special occasions by dressing up for Sunday champagne brunch at Stouffer's Wailea Beach hotel, with Tony Van Steen elegantly playing the grand piano. Stuffed as could be, we'd head south to any number of mostly deserted beaches, with room to throw a Frisbee or just sunbathe and swim.

In 1979, Elmer Cravalho suddenly resigned during his term as Maui County Mayor, prompting a special election. Wayne Nishiki ran a bold campaign, asking, "Do you want Maui to become another Oahu?" His TV ads slashed the "N" of his last name across the screen like the "Z" in Zorro, while the voice-over exclaimed, "Nishiki!" The election was close, with Hannibal Tavares winning and guiding Maui's development and growth over the next decade.

The 1980's brought direct airline flights, a Time Magazine cover featuring Maui, and unprecedented growth in building new hotels and condos. Investments from the Japanese market lifted the economic bubble into the 1990's. After a short plateau, construction and real estate continues to bring new wealth into the islands, and new challenges along with it.

It's not easy to imagine what Maui may be like in another 30 years, or what sort of memories from 2007 we may look back at with great fondness and nostalgia. By giving a nod to what makes Maui so special, past and present, perhaps we may choose wisely to create the future we wish to face. Hopefully, that future will be one that holds respect and aloha for our entire community, our shared resources, and for making positive changes to strive for peace and harmony.