Audience members flash the shaka sign at a Maui Fridays event in Wailuku // © 2012 Gilbert and Associates
When Oahu resident Charlotte Woolard recently visited Maui, she and her friends decided to check out the Friday block party in upcountry Makawao.
“I knew that Makawao was a little town, so I kept my expectations in check,” said Woolard. “But it turned out to be great. They had musicians — including taiko drummers — performing on multiple stages and a packed art gallery, plus really decadent street food. Vendors were selling pulled pork, Indian curries, frozen chocolate-covered bananas and coconut-crusted fish. We settled on the pulled pork and stood around a tethering post as we ate.”
Makawao is one of four small Maui towns that is making a big impression at the end of each work week thanks to the Maui Fridays initiative, launched in November of 2011 by the county’s Office of Economic Development (OED).
OED took its inspiration from the successful First Friday events in Wailuku — dating back to 2008 — and created Second Friday in Lahaina, Third Friday in Makawao and Fourth Friday in Paia. The last bash of the month was recently moved to Kihei to better accommodate the crowds.
During each gathering, shops and galleries extend their hours into the evening and offer special promotions while chefs, crafters and artisans add their creativity to the festivities.
According to OED director Teena Rasmussen, the goal of the program is to create opportunities for Maui visitors and residents to discover or rediscover the unique features of the island’s small towns.
“These parties offer a great alternative for entertainment and dining,” said Rasmussen. “We encourage businesses in the towns to take their wares to the street. Restaurants can cook or grill outside and sell their food from booths on the sidewalk. Massage therapists can bring a massage chair out of doors. We have even seen people giving haircuts outside.”
The added benefit, said Rasmussen, is that when the party ends at 9 p.m., the crowds fill the restaurants and bars of the town, benefitting retailers.
Since the program’s inception, the weekly soirees have yielded increasingly larger crowds, Rasmussen noted. Attendance is ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 people per night, with an average mix of 60 percent locals to 40 percent visitors.
Town planners are becoming more organized and are dreaming up increasingly innovative activities for participants, said Rasmussen. Each month, they pick a specific theme and ask their merchants to follow the theme. In September, for instance, Lahaina highlighted the talents and products of the island’s local growers with its Farm-to-Fork theme, while Wailuku’s party kicked off the 2012 Festivals of Aloha.
Each town has a completely unique character, so each party is one-of-a-kind. During the First Friday event, Wailuku closes Market Street to traffic to make way for the fun, and its landmark buildings create a historic backdrop. Wailuku holds the added distinction of being the only town with a beer garden.
Second Friday host Lahaina presents a picturesque venue thanks to its fascinating past, distinctive oceanfront, colorful galleries and retail scene. Attendees have been known to explore the town’s history during candlelit museum tours, savor moon cakes as part of the Chinese Moon Festival, sip wine in an art gallery and take advantage of many restaurant discounts.
Surrounded by rural pasturelands and western-style architecture, Makawao injects a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) vibe into Third Fridays. Clients might find themselves learning how to make jewelry and leather crafts; watching an oil painter; applauding a fashion show; or attending a scripted stage presentation featuring music, poetry and drama.
Kihei, the newest venue for Fourth Fridays, plans on rotating the party setting among its different shopping centers. According to Rasmussen, this approach gives each center a chance to showcase a memorable event and drive customers to their businesses.
Maui Fridays also serves as an ideal venue for new and upcoming musical talent, said Rasmussen. Several groups that have debuted there have gone on to greater acclaim on the Maui performance scene.
The goal for Maui Fridays is to create an authentic, cultural, safe and fun experience for attendees.
“The mix of locals, visitors, music, kids, food, shopping and entertainment is magical,” said Rasmussen. “We have had everything from slam poetry to Hula Hoop contests. You might see someone coming to the party on their horse in Makawao, or wanna-be clowns who don full regalia to practice their craft. It’s a kick.”