Ka’anapali Fresh, celebrating the Maui food scene

Sorry, guys, but this is going to make you jealous. It just is. We went to Maui. And it was as marvelous as you would expect. 

Actually, no. Let me restate that. It was more marvelous than you would expect. And here’s why. 

We’ve been to Maui once before, about a decade ago, and to Kaua’i and O’ahu a decade before that. Both those trips were fabulous, except for one thing: The food. For countless years, the Hawaiian food scene has been synonymous with spam musubi, schlocky luaus with tiki buffets and uninspired plate lunches. If you stayed in a place with a kitchen, you could try to head that off with a trip to the grocery store, only to be faced with expensive, sad produce flown in from the mainland. 

On Maui in particular, most of the arable land used to be dedicated to two major commodity crops: Pineapple and sugar cane, almost all of which was for processing and export. Consequently, any produce for actual human consumption on-island had to come from somewhere else. But that’s changing. 

The commodity crops have scaled back considerably, and a new culture of small, independent family farmers is on the rise. Farmers markets are cropping up across the island. Fresh produce is now becoming so available that even the chefs of the big resorts are featuring it. And this was the central premise for the inaugural Ka’anapali Fresh food and wine festival, a three-day bacchanal celebrating the emergence of this new food culture that took place August 31-September 2, 2012. 

dpaul and I were invited to attend, courtesy of the Ka’anapali Beach Resort Association, representing the collective of resorts that sprawls up the West Maui coast north of Lahaina. These run the gamut from shimmering high rises to low-slung bungalows. Some are hotels, others are condo/timeshare resorts, coming in at a wide range of prices. What they all share is access to one of the best beaches in Hawaii, overlooking the channel to Lanai and Moloka’i.

Maui is easy to get to from San Francisco, with direct flights on Hawaiian and United Airlines. We connected through Honolulu on Hawaiian. Interisland flights are pretty frequent, so a layover isn’t really a big deal, and doesn’t greatly add to travel times for the most part.

Ka’anapali is about a 30 minute drive west of Kahului airport. A car is recommended to get to the resorts, but once you’re esconced into your room, the rest is quite walkable. But if you really want to get your lazy on, shuttles and buses run between the resorts very frequently.

For our first two nights we were stationed in the Ka’anapali Ali’i. One of the condominium resorts, each of the Ali’i’s suites is privately owned, and therefore uniquely modeled. For the most part, you can expect the suites to have fairly neutral, hotel-like d├ęcors, but each will be different. Our two-bedroom, two-bath suite was bigger than our flat at home. We opted to sleep in the second bedroom, as it had the ocean view and a bed that was so large I wasn’t sure whether it was a California king or just the entire state of California. The master bath, however, featured a massive shower room with a multitude of shower heads, including a glorious rain shower head. So, we had the best of both worlds. 

The Ali’i stands out in a couple of other regards. Unlike its neighbors, it has no food or drink premises on site. The resort is entirely self-catering. The major upside to this is that the resort is significantly quieter than the others, which tend to have music, live or canned, at their eateries. All suites have full kitchens, so you have the option of making a short journey to a nearby grocery, of which there are several, to purchase what you like and cook it on premises. Since the individual units do not have outdoor grills, the Ali’i has six large grills near the pool area. At mealtime, chefs come out, fire them up and stay on hand to offer help folks with selections of spices and rubs, and to help them cook their meats to perfection. They also keep these grills incredibly, fastidiously clean. We’re big fans of self-catered vacations — dining out three meals a day can get tiresome (and fattening) — so this really appealed to us.

For the remainder of our stay we were at the adjacent Westin Maui Resort & Spa, which offers a more classic, upscale hotel experience with a spa, bars (including one next to the upper-level “adult pool”), a restaurant, some high-end shopping and a lushly landscaped interior courtyard with waterfalls pouring into a pond with pink flamingos (the actual birds, not tacky lawn sculptures), a black swan (again, the bird, not Natalie Portman) and the biggest koi I’ve ever seen. 

Each of the resorts has its own thing on offer. The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel serves up a much more tiki-inflected experience and reasonable rates. The Sheraton‘s original midcentury tower backs up to Black Rock, where they have a torch-lighting and cliff diving ceremony each sunset. Farther up the coast, the Royal Lahaina‘s tower is flanked by a constellation of bungalows faintly reminiscent of the DHARMA Initiative village in Lost, only not ominous. Other condominium resorts, like the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas, offer more self-catered options, while still offering easy access to the dining and nightlife options in Ka’anapali. 

By now you’re thinking: Yeah, yeah. What about the food? Oh, I’m  getting there. Just you wait.

ReviewOur trip to Ka’anapali Fresh, including airfare and lodging, was compliments of the Ka’anapali Beach Resort Association. We received no monetary compensation for this post. All views are our own.

  • Sean, have you read A Little Too Much Is Enough, by Kathleen Tyau? It’s a novel (though more like a collection of short stories) about growing up in Hawaii, and especially about eating in Hawaii. Tourists in Hawaii may have eaten badly in the past, and many may still eat badly today, but for the locals, this book makes clear, good Hawaiian food is nothing new.

  • I haven’t, and will definitely add it to the list. I am sure it has always been possible to eat well in Hawaii, but as a tourist, and even among a few friends who have lived there, the options have seemed historically sparse at best. It does feel as though the land truly had been subjugated to the force of commodity farming, and it thrills me to see that trend shifting.