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Hawaii getaway: A blast to Lahaina's historic past

Jackie Burrell, The Mercury News on

Published in Travel News

LAHAINA, Maui -- This tropical town may be better known for its touristy souvenir shops and cafes, but a stroll along Lahaina's waterfront yields a glimpse into Hawaii's past, from its whaling days to King Kamehameha's extracurricular activities.

Some walking tour maps suggest that you include 28 historic stops on your stroll -- and start early in the day, so you don't swoon from the heat as you contemplate Herman Melville's cousin's grave and a tennis court that was once the site of a sacred pond. We may be die-hard history buffs, but 28 seems like a lot. Besides, there's a beach waiting -- and the promise of margaritas.

So we've narrowed the field to an eye-popping eight and traced a path that leads from Lahaina's spectacular banyan tree to dinner and cocktails. Consider it a Lahaina history appetizer. And if you're still hungry for more, check out the extensive trail map designed by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation (lahainarestoration.org), which has spent decades restoring and mapping 65 historically important sites in Kamehameha's royal capital.

1. The Banyan Tree

This enormous tree is not just the centerpiece of Lahaina's courthouse plaza. It's a Hawaiian icon and one of the largest banyans in the U.S. The tree was just 8 feet tall when it was imported from India in 1873 and planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of American Protestant missionaries.

Grab a coffee -- or better yet, a scoop of Heavenly Hana ice cream at Lappert's (693 Front St.) -- to enjoy in the shade as you contemplate the history of this island nation and what happened when Christian missionaries arrived here. You'll have no problem finding shade: The tree, which has 12 major trunks, is more than 60 feet tall. Its branches shade a 2/3-acre expanse of the park.

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Details: Open 24/7 at Lahaina Banyan Court Park, 671 Front St., Lahaina

2. The Old Fort

The banyan is actually planted on the grounds of the historic Fort at Lahaina, which was built in 1832 to protect the town from cannon fire. In the first half of the 19th century, whaling ships anchored off Lahaina's shores by the hundreds, their sailors eager to re-provision and enjoy a little shore leave. The carousing was cut short in 1825, when Hawaii's royal family enacted a kapu -- a religious ban -- that prohibited prostitution and alcohol sales. Years of protests, rioting and death threats ensued, much of it aimed at missionaries, who sailors blamed for encouraging the royal decree.

In 1827, a British whaling ship fired cannons over a missionary's house, which prompted the queen to order an old mud and sand fort rebuilt into something more substantial. Built from coral blocks, the 20-foot tall walls of the Old Fort were topped with 47 cannons. What you see here now is a partial reconstruction, done in 1964.

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