First, some bad news: Due to lingering COVID-19 concerns, the Honolulu Cookie Company in Lahaina is still not giving out bite-sized samples of its scrumptious shortbread biscuits. The good news is on the other side of touristy Front Street, Hawaii Gelato happily offers free tastes for the asking.
A less caloric inconsistency can be found a few steps away at the Sand People gift shop. While this browsable boutique enforces a cap of six customers being inside at one time per CDC recommendations, no such restrictions are found anywhere else on perhaps the busiest shopping street on Maui.
Contradictory coronavirus-related policies aside, tourists are returning to post-pandemic Hawaii like migratory humpback whales. A preliminary report on visitorship from Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism indicated a 91.6 percent recovery from the onset of COVID-19, and the coming months look even brighter. The skies, too, are getting friendlier.
“United Airlines is seeing similar levels of demand now compared to pre-pandemic, and we are offering a schedule in line with that demand,” said Maddie King, spokeswoman for the airline with the most flights between California and Hawaii.
A recent fourth visit to Maui since Dr. Anthony Fauci became a household name also suggests that the Aloha State is making a bona fide comeback. The better luaus were completely booked the entire week, and getting a dinner reservation at the fine — and not-so-fine — restaurants was nearly impossible. ATV adventures are selling out even at the unthinkable price of $364 for 90 minutes, and good luck getting an open slot on an Atlantis submarine ride.
Maui and the rest of Hawaii are clearly back in business now that the Aloha State is freshly freed of the rules and regulations of Safe Travels Hawaii. Launched two years ago this fall, the state-mandated program reopened Hawaii to visitors during the pandemic — just as long as they jumped through hula hoops.
For more than 17 months, getting there wasn’t half the fun for would-be vacationers who were seen getting red in the face at the airport instead of the sun-drenched beach due to constantly changing rules of the controversial program considered both aggravating and prudent. Without the right documentation, paperwork and test results, it was paradise lost, or at least tainted, for those required to immediately quarantine or be sent home altogether.
“It was a pain in the butt,” is how Julia Vu, a bartender at the Lahaina Sports Bar, described her trips between Maui and the mainland under the Safe Travels program.
But barring any virus flare-ups or, Hawaiian god forbid, a new pandemic, visitors are no longer saddled with red tape to enjoy blue Hawaii.
A new normal
So, is it again all sunshine and rainbows for this paradise or much sunshine and many rainbows? Not quite. Like in every corner of the world, this one also is adjusting to a new normal. We tourists are shielded from much of how Hawaii is changing in these disease-dreading times. Even returning visitors might not realize that what was altered during COVID-19 is part of that new normal.
Focusing on Maui, management of Old Lahaina Luau (www.oldlahainaluau.com) has decided to permanently jettison the self-serve buffet in favor of a waiter-served dinner. Small talk also is a thing of the past, at least in between bites of succulent pua’a kalua and laulau, as parties are being kept separated during the three-hour outdoor experience. Should strangers choose to socialize over mai tais and lava flows while engaging in pre-show activities, those tropical libations must be ordered through a server and not at the walk-up bar as in pre-COVID days. Reduced seating also is being preserved, bringing capacity from 480 to 400.
“Retaining these policies ensures that everyone is comfortable,” said Kerri Aotaki, sales manager of Old Lahaina Luau, which is sold out through late September. “What was originally done for safety reasons is resulting in happier guests. One benefit they really like is having fewer awkward conversations during the feast because they are not sitting with strangers.”
Breathing room also is being maintained at several of Maui’s most popular restaurants. At Lahaina Grill (www.lahainagrill.com), which competes with Mama’s Fish House for top honors on the island, if not the state, sociable owner Jurg Munch said that patrons and staff like the spaced-out tables. They also are embracing a new 12-and-older policy for dining inside the contemporary bistro.
“Some parents of young children complain, but the policy helps us provide an even more enjoyable dining experience overall, and after all we’ve gone through over the past couple of years, our patrons need and deserve that,” said Munch, who proudly pointed out that 58 of the 60 employees he had before tourism temporarily shut down came back to work.
Cheeseburger in Paradise (www.cheeseburgernation.com) reopened last year in the same prime location on Front Street, but as a completely rebuilt restaurant. “Everything is new except the freezer — it’s the epitome of new normal,” said a manager at the Lahaina institution.
New since COVID
Besides normal, there’s plenty more that’s new on Maui since the pandemic. Some changes bring sadness, as in the COVID-related closures of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and gourmet French restaurant Gerard’s, while others are exciting fresh options for visitors.
Maui’s newest signature oceanfront restaurant built from the ground up is Huihui (www.huihuirestaurant.com) at the kitchy Kaanapali Beach Hotel. Opened a year ago and named for the Hawaiian word for “gathering place,” the 5,000-square foot restaurant specializes in locally sourced menu items served in an atmosphere that pays respects to canoeing and other modes of Hawaiian wayfinding.
The venison and organic sweet potatoes come from Molokai, an island patrons can eye from their table. The stewed monchong used in the coconutty Seafood Huihui is caught nearby. That’s a winner, as are the short rib bao appetizer and hand line ahi entrée. Best thing on the menu, though, is the Banana Bread Ice Cream Sandwich — so worth the calories.
An even newer rookie sensation is Waicoco (www.waicocomaui.com) at the picturesque Westin Maui Resort & Spa Kaanapali. Chefs Chris Kajioka and Mourand Lahlou deliver on a concept and menu spiked with Hawaiian and Moroccan influence. Opened in March, the indoor-outdoor beachfront restaurant hits the mark with its Furikake Teriyaki Salmon, Maui’s Favorite Burger with a wagyu patty, and a pineapple upside down cake featuring warm rings of — what else? — Maui Gold Pineapple.
New since COVID is Café at the Point, a casual eatery on the 80-acre estate of the Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm & Distillery (www.oceanvodka.com) in agriculture-rich Up Country. Lunch or dinner of killer poke nachos, salads and flatbreads (called farm breads here) can be washed down at a tasting experience of organic vodka on the property. You’ll be sipping pretty with six varieties of rum and vodka being poured in a keepsake shot glass below majestic Haleakala.
Fresh to excursion ownership, but not adventure are Toni and Peter Colombo, who after working for a whale watching enterprise for years bought Hawaii Ocean Rafting (www.hawaiioceanrafting.com) last October. The couple offer a terrific alternative to snorkeling and marine life watching by catamaran.
Being on inflatable rafts for eye-level viewing with no more than 15 other people is a more intimate experience than the usual whale or dolphin offerings, and the excursions that combine snorkeling make getting in and out of the water much quicker and easier. Frills are few, and that’s fine because the most important thing, besides safety, is being taken to awesome spots for snorkeling and sightings.
For those who want maritime mingling, like Mary Jo Britt of La Habra, cruising South Maui by catamaran doesn’t get much better or swankier than on the new Alii Nui (www.aliinuimaui.com). Her fourth time aboard the company’s luxury 65-foot catamaran is a long time coming.
“It was painful staying away, but we didn’t want the hassles associated with COVID to impede on our love of Maui,” said Britt, owner of Brea Florist, as she and her husband enjoyed an evening of cool breezes, cocktails and gourmet cuisine in a romantic setting with dozens of new friends on Alii Nui’s exquisitely run and catered Royal Sunset Sail. talk about class; not only does the menu include herb-crusted prime rib, but it’s kept at a proper temperature with heat lamps. Oh, and they clean the cutting board every 10 minutes — definitely not your typical sunset sail.
Back on land, Maui’s sunnier and drier south side, in particular, the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort (www.andazmaui.com) upped its already lofty game during the pandemic by opening 19 1,900-square-foot, three-bedroom ‘Ilikai villas . Matching the tasteful grandeur of these villas is the resort’s Feast at Mokapu held Sundays, Tuesdays and many Thursdays. Since COVID-19, no longer are tables served family style; everyone is served individually. Another difference between this and the Valley Isle’s other premier luau on the north side is unlike Old Lahaina Luau that starts the show after the meal, Feast at Mokapu intersperses the performance between courses.
One more note about the friendly civil rivalry between the two best luaus on Maui: While the food at Old Lahaina Luau has improved since COVID — the mango-glazed chicken is just one example of Chef Craig Masuda’s skills — Feast at Mokapu now boasts Ritchard Cariaga , who became Andaz Maui’s executive chef in June. Guests can soon expect his touch on the menus of the luau and more so at the property’s signature restaurant.
“I’m excited to bring back the six-course Chef’s Table dinner to the Ka’ana Kitchen,” Cariaga said. “That was one of the more memorable experiences that went away during the pandemic, but when it returns later this summer, we will once again provide guests with a culinary experience that reflects the rich heritage of Hawaii.”