There's no front desk at Halemano, a sort of glam-hippie resort in Kipahulu, on Maui's rugged eastern coast.
But I hadn’t expected a clipboard with a treasure map and a flashlight. Gamely, I dragged my luggage along the winding dirt paths past several Balinese-style huts and funky Modernist cabins until I found my quarters, a yurt outfitted with a queen-size bed and little else. “Congratulations! You’ve found your room,” another clipboard hanging by the front door flap read. Was this what Emerson meant when he wrote about self-reliance?
Despite the communal kitchen stocked with Bragg Liquid Aminos spray, the bongo drums and flutes, and the shared bathrooms (alfresco showers and concealed toilets), the place oozed a certain luxury. It was choice real estate, set on a hillside shaded by prehistoric trees and promiscuous flowers on a cliff overlooking the charging Pacific Ocean. A manicured lawn as plush as a palazzo carpet sprawled out in the center. If jet-set photographer Slim Aarons’s trust-funded subjects had lived on a tropical ashram it might have looked like this. In fact, Kipahulu, a remote, off-the-grid farming community, could easily have been in one of his books about monied hideouts, had he been able to find the place. The jungly seaside properties have long moonlighted as home to wealthy eccentrics and incognito celebs including Oprah, Woody Harrelson, Charles Lindbergh, and Georgia O’Keeffe, who shacked up for a while in nearby Hana, painting her version of plein-air exotica.
Not much has changed in Kipahulu over the years, but the rest of Maui sure seems to have. The “other side” of the island, once the sterile zone of hotels and golf resorts, has caught on to the idea that sustainable living, organic farming, and a reverence for Hawaiian traditions can be made over as premium luxury. My plan was to drive—or rather have my sister, who was traveling with me, chauffeur us around the island. My sister is a weird combination of macrobiotic and race-car aficionado and was the obvious choice for this trip. We would start at the rainy hinterlands of Kipahulu in the foothills of the Haleakala volcano and hug the coast counterclockwise, ending up on the sunny, temperate, and touristed west side. The idea was to see how a once-fervent philosophical divide has morphed into one big progressive nuovo New Age, a term I use favorably to describe a more stylish, high-end take on 1960’s idealism. You know, crystals but not armpit hair. Organic kale but arranged as a delicate Caesar. And it goes the other way, too. While at a swank resort, I’d prefer my AC helped along by solar panels and the eggs Benedict procured from an on-site chicken coop. I’m pleased to report that Maui has reached a state of luxury nirvana—as long as you know where to look.
At first Kipahulu seemed like the absolute nowhere. No shops or electricity and just one narrow, pocked road. But then among the bananas and banyans I saw a parked van selling organic Thai food to scores of diners at shaded picnic tables. Adding to the lost-civilization irony was a 1920’s car buried in the weeds that we were later told belonged to local resident Theo Firestone (an heir to the Firestone tire fortune). Farther on was Laulima Farm, a bustling fruit-and-vegetable stand where tanned and nubile WWOOFERs were sipping freshly harvested coffee and discussing GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) and ride-share apps. (wwoof stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that connects volunteers with host farms around the world.) “Living out here is a protest in itself,” said Nick Vaca, a 23-year-old former WWOOFER who works at Ono Organic Farms, down the road. “It’s one more person not pulling from the power grid.” Vaca showed us the subtle differences between ice cream bananas and apple bananas, and then invited us to Café Attitude, a weekly hootenanny held Sunday evenings at the estate of Jeanne Angelheart, whose ex-husband started the Café Gratitude restaurant chain in California. Angelheart bought the farm, marked by a purple shipping container with a flying saucer sign on it reading cargo ship, from Mike Love of the Beach Boys.
The Café Attitude party was exotic in a vintage, beatnik kind of way. We paid a $15 “donation” for heaping plates of homegrown specialties with names like “radical renegade ratatouille” and “Shiva luscious greens” and gathered around a campfire by a stage stocked with solar-powered Christmas lights, microphones, and amps. A young WWOOFER from Brazil dressed in a Peter Pan minidress sang an emo bossa nova number. Next up was Angelheart’s boyfriend, wearing an embroidered vest and no shirt, who gave a Farmers’ Almanac–style news bulletin accompanied by bongo drums. “We’ll be driving to Costco next week if anyone wants a lift,” he announced. Sustainability has its limits, after all.
Days are spent surfing in Hana. And that’s where we meet Monyca Eleogram, 24, who lives on an organic farm here when not traveling the world surfing for her sponsor, Roxy. We follow Eleogram, short board under arm, over green fields and mounds of lava until we reach the red-sand beach, Kaihalulu. “Where else can you surf next to grazing cows?” she says, pointing to a herd of horned creatures lazing our way.
The road back to civilization begins in the north-shore town of Paia. Usually it takes half a day to get there on the Hana Highway, the famed 52 miles of hairpin turns and one-lane bridges clogged with mini tour buses and people in Mustang convertibles Instagramming waterfalls and the Middle Earth vistas. But emboldened by our off-the-grid sabbatical and a full moon, my sister managed it at night in under two hours as I played DJ, tuning our rental-car radio to an independent station playing old psychedelic B sides.
Paia is a funky former sugar plantation town with tanned travelers and surfers roaming the sunbaked main street and filing into coffee bars and shops like Mana Foods, a progressive shrine with organic offerings procured and labeled with laboratory precision. Old surfboards line fences, including some that say BLAME IT ON LAIRD, in homage to big-wave rider Laird Hamilton, who frequents the breaks at nearby Jaws. Puka Puka, a boutique and art gallery on the edge of town, is total nuovo New Age. Curated for the stylish, jet-set planetarian, there’s organic surfboard wax, Hussein Chalayan dresses, and 1940’s Tahitian music produced by Yves Roche. The opening exhibition showcased local artists, including John Severson, a photographer who started Surfer Magazine in the 1960’s (and the grandfather of Alizé de Rosnay, 30, who runs Puka Puka with her boyfriend, Nathan Howe). The clientele includes a who’s who of the local intelligentsia, people like Katie McMillan, a young Maui transplant who recently chartered the TEDxMaui conference, and Garrett Lisi, a renowned theoretical physicist and surfer who runs a free-of-charge hostel for scientists on the grounds of his property nearby.
Afterward, the party moves on to the buzzy new restaurant Nuka, discreetly tucked into a strip mall in Haiku, where diners in the latest après-surf fashions share izakaya-style fusion fare followed by a nightcap at the Maui Kombucha bar around the corner, which sells homemade drink flavors like pineapple-chili and “GMO-OMG-MOG”—mango orange guava.
There’s a labyrinth out back.” We’re staying at Lumeria Maui, an upscale wellness retreat in the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) town of Makawao in the hills above Paia. The receptionist is pointing to a map. “It will help you understand where you are in life and where you need to go.” We’re all standing barefoot, among French-colonial antiques and display cases of rare crystals, in the lobby of a former 1910’s plantation-style home for retired pineapple-company execs that has been transformed by a Los Angeles–based interior designer into lodgings worthy of a yogic Citizen Kane. I wander around and stop at Whispering Pines—an open-air lounge area with dozens of plush rope hammocks swishing in the breeze—and then on to an Olympic-pool-size meditation lawn ornamented by an imposing stone Buddha. I finally find the labyrinth (is that an oxymoron?), with stones arranged in intricate circular paths that remind me, neurotically, of an airport security line. “Well, that’s exactly the sort of perception you can work on changing here,” the receptionist said later. That evening, guests crowd into the thatched-roof yoga shala for a performance by Lily Meola, a 20-year-old singer who has toured with Willie Nelson, another Maui resident. (Meola met Nelson because her brother, Matt, a pro surfer, was homeschooled here with two of Nelson’s sons.) Afterward, several of Meola’s entourage head into Paia for a nightcap at Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon, where Nelson occasionally performs impromptu jam sessions. This was the type of wellness I could get behind.
In need of a retreat from our retreat, we drive northwest past the surf breaks of Lahaina and the West Maui Mountains to the resort community of Kapalua Bay. It feels like a well-to-do, country-club cousin of the unruly eastern coast, with expensively landscaped golf courses and condominiums. Our destination is the new Montage Kapalua Bay, from a luxury brand with properties in Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills, and elsewhere. Greeters in Hawaiian dresses rush out with orchid leis, cold face towels, and fresh pineapple. The 24-acre property, once the site of the 1970’s grande dame Kapalua Bay Hotel, fans out majestically over the ocean with black-lava rocks and a grotto-like swimming pool with secret nooks and the occasional Jacuzzi. My sister and I beeline it to the spa for traditional Hawaiian lomilomi massages that involve sliding techniques with elbows and hands that are the tactile equivalent of a slack-guitar solo.
A good chunk of the $15 million renovation seems to be concentrated in a massive wooden outrigger-style atrium that also houses the Cane & Canoe restaurant. When chef Riko Bartolome sends us to visit Napili Flo Farm, one of his main suppliers, we are surprised to end up in a suburban cul-de-sac five minutes away, where Hawaiian native Monica Bogar runs an intricate permaculture operation consisting of fish, microgreens, and edible flowers growing out of PVC piping affixed to a fence. It certainly felt like the future.
The next day we drive farther down the west coast to Wailea, a mellow aloha stretch with calm, secluded, sandy coves. Hotels began to go up here in the 1980’s, and now the area has several large properties including a Fairmont, a Marriott, a Four Seasons, and the Grand Wailea. The Andaz, owned by Hyatt, opened last year and is on the cutting edge of Maui’s new holistic luxury. It was awarded a LEED Silver certification for environmental practices such as composting and a solar-powered hot-water system.
You feel it as soon as you check in. Well, you don’t really check in in the traditional sense at the Andaz: we sat barefoot in a Zen sandpit in the middle of the lobby on tribal wooden stools, pushing our toes through the sand while the receptionist typed us in on her tablet computer.
The neo-Polynesian design courtesy of the Rockwell Group exudes a playful sophistication. In place of kitschy tiki totems and hula-girl figurines was an upgraded Hawaiiana of Noguchiesque carved sculptures and low- slung Midcentury-style furnishings in rope and raw woods.
Not that the guests at the bar were particularly concerned. It was sunset, and after a dip in the three-tiered swimming pool we joined them. Mixologists were shaking up artisanal takes on South Seas standards such as the Mai Tai Trader Vic’s 1944, updated with fresh lime and toasted-almond orgeat, and a nonalcoholic piña colada redux called the Coconut Wired, with fresh coconut cream.
Maui’s two disparate sides seemed to coalesce over dinner at the Andaz’s innovative Ka’ana Kitchen. The menu referenced not just New York, Honolulu, and Asia but also Makawao, Hana, and Kipahulu. I ordered the Makawao farm chicken with malasadas (Portuguese beignets, a staple of the immigrant paniolos) in homage to our stay at Lumeria, and I noted that the ahi tataki contained lilikoi (passion fruit) from Ono Farms, where our WWOOFER pal Vaca worked. Dining at Ka’ana was much like my trek around the island. It was high and low with yurt-shaped vertical integration. It was new, nuovo, and nouvelle all at once.