Maui No Ka Ouch

To millions of enchanted admirers, Maui comes as close to perfection as nature probably allows. But even this best of all possible worlds has a few shortcomings.


Story by Tom Stevens

Nothing’s perfect.

Not even Maui.

To millions of enchanted admirers, the island comes as close to perfection as nature probably allows. But even this best of all possible worlds has a few shortcomings.

Admittedly, any list of “Maui worsts” would provoke snorts of hilarity elsewhere. I once made the mistake of complaining about island traffic to a visitor from that other famous island, Manhattan.

He burst out laughing.

“Traffic? Where?” he sputtered, beating his fists on his thighs to contain his mirth. “You call this traffic?”

Point taken. The following list of Maui “worsts” was the best I could do on a cloudless, 80-degree day.

1. Worsening traffic. Although still laughable by big-city standards, our ever-thickening traffic may be one reason Maui slipped, for the first time in a dozen years, from the coveted “World’s Best Island” status bestowed by Condé Nast magazine.

Maui’s worst traffic jam? Pa‘ia, Makawao, Kihei and Lahaina vie daily for that distinction, but the most memorable stoppages occur whenever brush fires close the pali road to Lahaina. Seasoned West Maui motorists now pack blankets, food and water in their cars for occasional overnight stays on Honoapi‘ilani Highway. Which brings us to:

2. Worst-kept promise. It has been 30 years since Hawai‘i’s state government agreed to develop a Lahaina bypass that could ease West Maui traffic congestion. During that same period, the state authorized construction of tens of thousands of West Maui residential and resort units. The bypass is still a fantasy, but development continues apace. Which brings us to:

3. Dueling hospitals. Concerned about Maui’s sole, often-overburdened hospital and what could happen during an epidemic or disaster, separate citizens’ groups in West and South Maui have submitted proposals to build regional medical centers, using private funds. But Maui Memorial is also often the state’s only profitable hospital. Wary that any rival facility would drain those resources, the state has thus-far declared both proposals DOA. You could call it the high cost of dying. Which brings us to:

4. High cost of living. On any given day, Maui boasts prices for gasoline, groceries, housing and other essentials that are among the nation’s highest. Many residents work multiple jobs to make ends meet. It’s one reason many born-and-raised Mauians have moved to Las Vegas, Alaska, California, the Pacific Northwest, Arizona and other points East. Among the other reasons—some of them noted above—is the perception that Maui has lost the leisurely pace and small-town friendliness they knew growing up. “No Hawaiians, no aloha,” reads one bumper sticker. “Slow Down, This Ain’t the Mainland!” reads another. But to many Islanders, Maui already is the Mainland. Which brings us finally to:

5. Worst Mainland import. Some might nominate for this dubious honor MTV’s new Maui Fever sex-on-the-beach series; others would pick parasitic, tell-all, “secret places” travel books. But my vote goes to “beach replenishment,” a marginal Mainland practice that bodes much worse for Maui.

Why? As any snorkeler or diver can attest, Maui still has live reefs. We also have tides and seasonal surf. When millions of pounds of sand “replenish” an eroded beach, where does that sand end up a year later? Washed out to sea, of course, where it becomes a choking shroud on offshore reefs. Doubters need only snorkel O‘ahu’s much-replenished Waikiki, once a live reef ecosystem of rich biodiversity and gemlike clarity. Today, Waikiki below sea level is an aquatic desert. Ballyhooed by opportunistic realtors, beach replenishment is now gaining traction on Maui. If it does, you won’t need your snorkel gear much longer. There’ll be nothing to see but sand.

If we’re lucky, what’s “worst” about Maui will progress at the leisurely pace known as “Maui time.” A rooftop sign in Lahaina promises passersby: “Jesus Coming Soon,” while a sign in Kahului assures motorists: “Zippy’s Coming Soon,” referring to a restaurant chain whose arrival some Mauians anticipate even more eagerly. Both signs have been up for years.


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