For a lesson in Hawaiian history, visit Lahaina. Glorious era of kings and sailors still visible amid booming tourism

Maui and modern tourism are almost synonymous. But there is far more to this verdant isle than slick condominiums and high-rise hotels. A rich and colorful history predates this tourist haven. A trip to the old whaling village of Lahaina can provide a stereoscopic view of the past, with history presented in three-dimensional perspective.

Front Street - with its colorful, ramshackle, two-story wooden shops - has been taken over by tourists padding about in flip-flops and flashy aloha shirts.

In 1802, before Lahaina became a whaling boomtown, Hawaiian King Kamehameha I put his royal seal of approval on this western Maui town by making it the capital of his kingdom. Although Kamehameha spent little time here, his ``sacred'' wife, Queen Keopuolani, as well as his favorite wife, Queen Kaahumanu, felt at home enough in Lahaina to raise Hawaii's future rulers along these very shores. The foundation of Brick Palace, Kamehameha's residence, can still be found behind the library here.

It was back in the mid-19th century that Lahaina became one of, if not the, greatest whaling ports in the world. You can still sign up for a whale-watching cruise from December through April.

Gone are the days when old salts, weary from their voyage from New England, came ashore for a rip-roaring night on the town before stumbling back on board to ply the waves in search of humpback whales. Lahaina has now become one of the great tourist ports of the world, though vestiges of the past remain.

During those four decades of the last century, whalers came into conflict with Protestant missionaries. Both groups came from New England, for the most part, but they sought very different goals in coming to Hawaii.

The pious missionaries came to save souls, but they found it easier to convert Hawaii's royalty to Christianity than to cope with the advancing tide of rowdy whalers. Attending church was not quite what the sailors had in mind as they stepped from their masted barks after several months at sea.

Agitated sailors occasionally rioted, and a few well-aimed cannonballs were lobbed into the Rev. William Richards's front yard after he convinced certain local women that it was not in the town's best interest for them to make overnight visits aboard the whaling ships.

These periodic outbursts were a less-than-gentle persuader that more buildings were needed in this seaside town, namely a prison and a fort to remind the rebellious sailors to mind their manners.

As the demand for whale oil burned out in the late 1860s, the whaling era came to a close and abruptly put an end to this struggle between vice and virtue.

Much of the old town has worn away through years of neglect. But under the watchful eyes of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation and the Maui County Historic Commission, what is left is carefully maintained.

A walking tour of the town can uncover a variety of historical treasures, since there are some well-preserved remnants of a Lahaina of yesteryear. The two-story Masters Reading Room, established in 1833, is thought to be Maui's oldest building. Situated on the corner of Front and Dickenson Streets, it was originally built as a mission storeroom, the second floor devoted to any literate sailors who would rather read and write than riot. It now houses the active Lahaina Restoration Foundation as well as a bookstore.

Next door, the Baldwin House Museum is an excellent example of the simple plastered and whitewashed coral homes built among the native huts by early missionaries. This home - in a somewhat antebellum style, with pillars and large, sweeping balconies - was the scene of minister-doctor Dwight Baldwin's active family life, and also a busy gathering place for Hawaiian royalty, visiting sea captains, and earnest missionaries.

It has been carefully restored and now shelters some of Dr. Baldwin's imported china, Steinway piano, and physician's license, which allowed him to charge as much as $50 for ``very great sicknesses'' down to $30 for ``a good deal less.''

Down on the waterfront, docked in front of the Pioneer Inn, is the Carthaginian II, an exact replica of a 19th-century brig. This floating museum will put the visitor in touch with the seafaring history of the town. This vessel is the type that brought so many missionaries here on their 160-day voyage from Boston. It is said to be the only authentically restored brig in the world.

When you finally emerge from your plunge into Hawaiian history, a modern Lahaina will still be there to greet you with all of the modern tourist attractions for which Maui is famous.

Other stops in Lahaina

Between Lahaina's historic places of interest are dozens of interesting shops, from the colorful O'Rourke's Tourist Trap stores to the fine-quality crafts at the Old Lahaina Luau Gallery and Shop in the Whalers Market Place. Shops of this high quality aren't always found on the island. Here you may find such things as Japanese pearls at bargain prices; eelskin in every form, including bags, shoes, belts and wallets; scrimshaw; and the ubiquitous T-shirt shops, as well as several fine art galleries.

The town is easily managed on a one-day tour. If you go early, stop off for breakfast at the Pioneer Inn, with sausage and pancakes with coconut syrup. A printed guidebook is available at the information booth outside the Wharf Shopping Center or at your hotel or condo.

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