Paia, Maui, offers visitors a relaxed, island-style vibe. // © 2013 Ron Dahlquist/MVB
It was a Saturday afternoon, and the surf was up on the island of Maui. As we drove by Honolua Bay near the little beach town of Paia, we noticed locals packed on the hillsides watching surfers carve up waves.
When the surf is up on Maui, there’s no better place to be than the bohemian hippie town of Paia, and islanders and visitors alike flock to town to watch the surfers in action. But you don’t have to wait for the big waves to come to town. Paia is a great place to visit all on its own.
This one-stoplight town on Maui’s north shore has a free-spirited bohemian quality that is evidenced by its chipped and fading entrance sign, which includes a warning that reads: “Please do not feed the hippies.” Though it’s only about one hour’s drive from the popular tourist area of Kaanapali, the brightly colored wooden buildings, funky shops and eclectic restaurants that line Paia’s main street are a world away from the crowded tourist areas of the island. Walk around Paia and you can imagine what Maui was like a few decades ago.
The word “Paia” means noisy in the Hawaiian language, but when you walk around the town today it seems to be a poor moniker for such a sleepy little place. Although it’s hard to imagine, there was a time when the name actually fit. Paia’s roots go back to 1880, when the first sugar mill was built on the island. The town began as a camp for workers who came from all over the world to work in the sugar cane fields or at the mill. By the 1930s, one-fifth of Maui’s population, about 10,000 people, lived in the town — and it easily lived up to its name.
When the sugar industry stalled in the 1950s, the town was all but abandoned. Fortunately, it was rediscovered by hippies in the 1960s and has never been the same since. You can still feel their presence in everything from the town’s entrance sign to its alternative boutique-style shops.
On this particular afternoon, we parked our vehicle and grabbed a shave ice at Tobi’s before heading to the beach to see the surfing action. As Carrie, our server, shaved the ice from a huge block and shaped it into a snow cone cup, she told us it was “magic ice.” I sampled some on the way to the beach and realized she was right.
We watched the surfers on the big waves and took breaks to explore Paia’s fascinating little shops that sell everything from art and handicrafts to designer fashions and one-of-a-kind swimwear. We wandered into the natural food market and stopped for lunch at The Flatbread Company, the town’s best pizza joint. We ordered a pulled-pork pizza with mango barbecue sauce, Hawaiian goat cheese and Maui pineapple that was so good we made plans to return to Paia again — regardless of the surf conditions.