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Kamaole Beach Park in Maui.Mathieu Duchier/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Riley Coon has a simple message for Canadians who aren’t sure whether it’s okay to visit Maui in the wake of last summer’s devastating fires: the return of tourism will help the Hawaiian island recover.

Coon is the third-generation owner of Maui’s oldest sailing company, Trilogy Excursions, which boats tourists to the nearby island of Lanai. It sails from the harbour in Lahaina: the capital of the former Hawaiian Kingdom that later became West Maui’s prime tourist destination – a historic community that was all but levelled when brush fires raced through on Aug. 8.

“The best way to support Maui right now is to come back,” Coon says.

I visited the island as a tourist in late February and early March. One day, we were cruising in one of Trilogy’s white catamarans, making our way back toward Ma’alaea Harbor, near Kihei. About six hours earlier we had set off for Molokini Crater, an extinct volcano five kilometres off Maui’s southwest coast.

Dropping into the cerulean waters off the crescent-shaped volcano, Maui’s charm seemed – if only for that sun-spanked morning – in full effect. Beneath the waves, schools of yellow tangs and black triggerfish whizzed past. Humpback whales swam in the distance. Beneath the water, you could hear their haunting, mournful songs – a sublime, moving experience.

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A couple explores a sandy shore in Paia, Maui.Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Trilogy had relaunched its tours from Ma’alaea Harbor 10 days after last year’s fire. The loss of Lahaina remains a wound felt across all of Maui, Coon says, his voice catching: “But the only way we survive is if we operate.”

On the first day of the fire, Coon’s family lost two homes and one of their six boats. Coon helped dozens of people escape the inferno into the ocean. Piloting a catamaran through searing heat and darkness, whipped by 125 kilometres-per-hour winds, felt like sailing through Dante’s Inferno, he recalls. One of his captains rescued two kids, aged 4 and 9, after paddling to shore on a surfboard.

In all, 101 people died in the natural disaster, and 2,200 structures were destroyed, making it the most devastating U.S. fire of the last century. In the weeks after the fire, Maui lost more than $13-million a day in visitor spending, according to an analysis by the University of Hawaii. In February, six months after the fire, the number of visitors to the island were still down 23 per cent over the previous year.

And so, what has become a refuge from winter for so many Canadians felt discernibly different this year. There was more space. Fewer crowds. I could be more flexible in planning. For example, I booked the Molokini snorkel trip on a whim the night before.

My goal was to do more than park myself on a powdery beach. I wanted to venture off Maui’s beaten path, support some local businesses and learn a little something as I went.

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Molokini Crater, an extinct volcano five kilometres off Maui’s southwest coast.Ron Garnett/Hawaii Tourism Authority

After the dive at Molokini Crater, Coon passed out fresh coffee and piping hot cinnamon buns. He explained how his dad, uncle and grandparents had founded Trilogy 50 years earlier. The Coon family, originally from Alaska, had embarked on a grand, two-year, round-the-world sailing trip. But on a stopover on Maui, Coon’s father and uncle each fell in love with a local girl. Instead of pushing on, the Coons settled in Lahaina and built their sailing business.

In light of the decline of tourism since the fire, Coon blames the lingering impact of the early “Maui is closed” messaging. It spread widely, boosted by big names on social media, such as actor Jason Momoa, who was born on Oahu. Coon understands the sentiment, but stresses that the island’s recovery depends on an infusion of tax dollars from tourism, which account for 70 cents of every dollar earned here.

“For Maui to survive, the rest of the island needs to thrive,” he says. This is a large island, Coon adds, and while the fires burned through a roughly nine-square-kilometre area, those areas cover a tiny fraction of Maui’s 1,800 square kilometres.

The lack of tourism meant I was able to nab a coveted table at Mama’s Fish House on the North Shore where normally, it books six months in advance. It’s known for its just-caught seafood and is considered among the island’s best eateries.

There may be no better atmosphere than Mama’s. The open-air dining room allows the tropical breeze to swish in; and every table has a spectacular view of Kuau Bay. The dark mahogany and hand-carved hula girl lamps give it an elegant, old Hawaii vibe. I chose the ahi seared in panang curry and coconut milk – the servers’ favourite dish, according to the bartender.

I walked off the rich, spicy meal in Paia, a short drive down the Hana Highway from Mama’s. The artsy-boho North Shore town has long been a haven for artists and free spirits (Willie Nelson and Mick Fleetwood live nearby). Its colourful, rustic storefronts, funky boutiques and galleries offer a nice alternative to Lahaina, which remains closed to the public.

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Freshly steamed fish at a potluck barbecue in Kihei.John Hook/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Nearby beaches attract big-wave riders, windsurfers and kite boarders. When the surf is cranking, you might see some of them dashing barefoot through Paia, grabbing a smoothie or poke bowl on their way to the waves.

Thanks to the efforts of Indigenous Hawaiians, new development on the North Shore is infrequent, giving the area surrounding Paia the dramatic beauty you might expect of the South Pacific: dense jungle, crashing surf, secluded shorelines.

Just 20 minutes from Paia, in Kula, in the fertile, volcanic slopes of Mount Haleakala, the temperature dropped by 12 degrees. Upcountry Maui – as the entire central island is known – is a region of jagged, misty hills and bumpy two-lane mountain roads. Driving Upcountry is a big part of the fun.

I was in Kula to visit O’o Farm, a coffee orchard and organic farm belonging to a pair of restaurateurs who are old friends: Louis Coulombe and Stephan Bel-Robert. The Frenchman and Canadian met windsurfing years ago, Molly, our tour guide explained. They bought the land near Kula to experiment with native crops and “re-localize” food production for their famed Lahaina restaurant, Pacific’O on the Beach. The Front Street eatery – the only one on Maui with its own farm – was one of the fire’s many casualties, however. O’o is now their primary focus.

The breakfast coffee tour began with a steaming French press of estate-grown coffee, which took the chill off the foggy mountain morning. We tasted coffee beans, then sauntered through the citrus and stone fruit orchard, where persimmons, Thai limes and tropical pears are grown. What followed was the freshest, most creative meal I ate while on Maui.

The multicourse outdoor brunch included 65 ingredients in all, explained chef Daniel Ekelson, popping up from behind a wood-fired oven. The seared mahimahi was served with heirloom fennel, daikon, watermelon radish and an arugula puree.

On my final morning on Maui, I climbed into the outrigger canoe for a sunrise paddle at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea. The water took on the pink and purple hues of the rising sun as we steered out of the Kea Lani’s protected cove.

The milky white Kea Lani, which was built to look like a Moorish castle, has a reputation as a place apart; it is fragrant with pine and blossoms, and set back from the bustle of Wailea Beach.

The resort took advantage of the pandemic shutdown to undergo an extensive renovation. Its towering lobby now includes a large Hawaiian cultural centre and an open-air bar and lounge, Pilina.

On my final afternoon there, the warm, late-afternoon light cut low. Bartender Jerome Sinaca lent me a pair of binoculars to watch the whales playing offshore. When the humpbacks are here – early March is the peak of the whale season, which runs to April – this stretch of coastline is among the best places on earth to spot them.

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Blake Bronstad/Hawaii Tourism Authority

The strong sea breeze kept the restaurant cool. I sampled the Mauka, Pilina’s signature cocktail; its lavender, honey and butterfly pea flower were all sourced from Upcountry.

The latest forecasts suggest Maui’s tourism economy may not be back to full strength until 2026, Sinaca noted. Overhearing the conversation, Kamahiwa Kawa’a, Fairmont Kea Lani’s manager of Hawaiian culture, shared a proverb befitting the moment: “Up go the sails, away goes the canoe.”

Life will always present us with hurdles and heartbreak, Kawa’a explains. But during this one wild and precious life, “we have to keep hoisting the sails and pushing onward – no matter the circumstance.”

The writer was a guest of the Fairmont Kea Lani and Maui Tourism Board, which did not review or approve the story before publication.

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