I went to Maui for the first time in the mid-Eighties. While I was there, a house on the beach became available for rent, and I took it. It made no practical sense — I was a young guy living a fast life in New York. Yet I kept that house for close to 10 years — it was the best decision I ever made. Even when I was nowhere near Maui, I got great use out of the place.
When I was rushing and late — as I always seemed to be — or when I was trapped in traffic, or on the subway, or hassled at work, I pictured myself hopping down from my backyard onto the sand of Keawakapu Beach and stepping into the sea, often just after the sun set beside the island of Lanai. Or I thought of simply swaying in my hammock, strung between the straight and tall palm and the short and crooked one, watching the pair of nene birds that came by every morning topeck at the grass in my yard.
Often I woke before dawn, dragged my kayak down onto the beach, pushed it through the breaking surf and pointed south. I’d paddle into a gently north-flowing current, usually with a trace of breeze in my face. The night would yield to a purple then pink dawn, but the sun wouldn’t crest Haleakala, the 11,000ft volcano dominating the island, for another hour. Off to my right was the crescent-shaped Molokini, whose beaches remained secluded — the boats from Lahaina taking snorkellers around this small island hadn’t left port yet. Uninhabited Kaho’olawe sat just beyond.
Off my bow, a large, rock-like shape often bobbed in the sea. As I came closer, the rock would reveal itself to be a sea turtle, usually by lifting its head. I’d slip on my fins and mask and ease into the Pacific. Then I’d float close and shadow the ancient-seeming turtle as he glided in a large arc around me before darting off with deceptive speed and grace. Some mornings, I made it as far as La Perouse Bay and snorkelled with the porpoises that usually convened there. Or I’d stop paddling and bob in the open sea, scanning for humpback whales.
When the sun crested Haleakala, instantly transforming the day, I’d dip my paddle, spin my boat, and let the wind and current carry me home.
I liked to drive upcountry, away from the shore from which so few visitors strayed. I’d go high up on the slopes of the volcano and hike Polipoli Spring State Park; through the redwood trees, the clouds far below. Or I’d tramp down into the lunar-like crater of Haleakala. I stayed overnight a few times, in one of the handful of cabins available for rent. After the sun went down it was cold and black, except for the gauzy sky, littered with dead stars tracing their arcs toward the horizon.
I’d always stop at Grandma’s Coffee House in Kula whenever I was upcountry. It was a one-room, ramshackle, plantation-style cottage, serving the locals, who grabbed their personal coffee mugs hanging from the hooks above the register. Big Al Franco, who loved to night dive with the sharks, owned Grandma’s, and he’d greet everyone who came in with a knowing remark or sly look.
At least once each trip back, I’d take the famous drive out to Hana, through the forest of rainbow eucalyptus, past the waterfalls and over the 59 one-lane bridges and swim at Hamoa Beach, the most beautiful beach on Maui.
And despite myself, I’d drive over to touristy Lahaina every once in a while and walk along Front Street, with its T-shirt shops and art galleries. Then I’d sit under the sprawling banyan tree before continuing on, past the golf courses of Kapalua. The road would narrow and become ragged and twisting. After a dip and a sharp left, a yellow roadside stand would come into view and I’d stop for some of Auntie Julia’s banana bread. I usually ate the whole loaf before I arrived home and wished I’d bought a second.
It was a good life; simple and restorative — exactly what I’d needed when I stumbled upon that ‘house for rent’. I make it back to Maui every few years now. It’s changed a lot: the roads are wider, the shops more plentiful; undeveloped coast is harder to find, but somehow it always feels like no time has passed at all — maybe that’s because in my mind, I was there just yesterday.
Actor and travel writer Andrew McCarthy is an editor-at-large at National Geographic Traveler and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal. His memoir, The Longest Way Home, will be released in September. He’s also starred in dozens of films, from The Spiderwick Chronicles and Less Then Zero to St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, plus TV hits such as White Collar and Gossip Girl.
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)