Roadside America: Keokea, Maui

Let’s get real. The island of Maui isn’t exactly a secret. The nation’s 17th largest island (how’s that for trivia points?) sees over two million visitors per year, and it’s been voted as the best island in the world by Conde Naste readers an astounding 19 times. To say the least, it seems to be a vacation destination firmly on every traveler’s radar.

While it’s tough to compete with other global perennials such as Bali, Bora Bora, Kauai, or Santorini, what makes Maui an annual favorite is the diverse selection of offerings available for those who make the lengthy flight.

Want to lounge on a sandy crescent of a beach with the palm fronds rustling above you in the trade winds? Not a problem. Want to hike through bamboo forests and wade across mountain streams to a waterfall you refreshingly have all to yourself? Yep, it’s got that too.

But what if you want to sit in the middle of ranchlands amongst green pastures where farmers still sell their vegetables on the side of two-lane country roads? A place where the cool 3,000-foot elevation warrants the use of a morning flannel, and the stillness of the morning air is matched only by the calm demeanor of the affable locals? A friendly smile here, a well-placed shaka there, and merchants who swap stories with customers they know by first name?

That can all be found here too, although you may have to drive a little farther to find it. While most visitors to the island will only venture “Upcountry” on their drive to the summit of Haleakala Crater, those who instead head out towards the ranching outpost of Ulupalakua (a one-shop town home to the island’s only winery), will find a corner of the island where life moves so slow you’ll wonder if time actually stopped.This is Keokea, a rural farming hamlet first constructed by Chinese immigrants and now home to the likes of Oprah. Yes, Keokea possesses such a striking sense of calm that of all the places in the world to buy a ranch house, the world’s most notable media mogul decided on these green pastures right here.

As you can imagine, however, the downtown hub isn’t on Oprah’s front porch. It’s back on the main highway at Grandma’s Coffee House, a mom and pop venture where the omelets and coffee are served with a side of aloha and down-home friendliness. Sunday mornings feature slack key guitar played lived on the porch, and it’s a place where morning joggers, passing cyclists, small-town locals and a few lucky tourists all mingle in an atmosphere of simplicity.

Need a few snacks for an afternoon picnic? Walk next door to Ching Store, a mom and pop general store in existence since the arrival of the pioneering Chinese. Need to top off the gas tank? Fong Store is the next door down, and it offers gas, which is usually the cheapest on the island. Why the discount? No corporations to report a bottom line to, because Fong Store is a mom and pop store as well.

On the drive back towards Kula, consider picking up some locally grown vegetables at the roadside stall, which sits on the same land where it was grown. Another reason why it’s not as expensive to live in Maui as you think, you would be amazed at the prices you can get when shipping and packaging costs are factored out.

So if you’ve traveled to Maui a number of times but have yet to stray off of the tourist map, do yourself a favor and pay a visit to Keokea. Bring a jacket, a camera, and an agenda, which includes nothing. Get a second cup of coffee, listen to some music and see what Maui looks like from 3,000 feet on the mountainside and 30 years or so set back in time.

[Grandma's photo credit: ewen and donabel on Flickr]