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Where Wetsuits and Art Meet in Maui
IT was just after 10 a.m. and the Paia Contemporary Gallery was getting ready to open. The sun was streaming through the glass storefront, giving everything inside a warm glow. Alejandro Goya, the gallery’s owner, was adjusting a small glass sculpture just a fraction of an angle.
“I’m interested in abstract art, as you can tell,” said Mr. Goya, who was surrounded by crisp white walls and vaguely figurative sculptures, some costing a few thousand dollars. But any notion that this was a high-priced gallery in a big city was punctured when a group of surfers walked past the front door — barefoot, boards under their arms, and wetsuits unzipped to their waists.
Surfing and art mingle a lot in Paia — a blink-and-you-miss-it town — on the north shore of Maui. For years, this old Hawaiian sugar town has been a respite for stoners, surfers and, according to many locals, a certain low-key breed of celebrities like Willie Nelson, the Doobie Brothers, Woody Harrelson and Kris Kristofferson.
In recent years, however, the chill surfer vibe has been joined by a buzzing art scene, with a half-dozen new galleries representing artists like Mary Mitsuda, David Ivan Clark and Udo Nöger. Their works have not only attracted the attention of the international art-collecting crowd, who come here on spending holidays, but also that of major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Meanwhile, boho-chic hotels and fancy farm-to-table restaurants have opened, and a different caliber of tourist (as in the wealthy, art-buying caliber) has started turning Paia into an unlikely destination for contemporary art.
“You have all that exotica, these wonderful restaurants and top-notch galleries,” said Michael Kessler, an artist who lives in Santa Fe but recently had his first show in Paia. “I don’t know any other place like it.”
In the late 1800s, Paia was an important sugar town in Hawaii. But by the 1950s, with the sugar cane industry weakening, Paia had turned into a sleepy wisp of a village, making it a prime destination for hippies, artists and anyone looking for a quieter life.
This being Hawaii, Paia also has all the dramatic beauty you would expect from the South Pacific — dense greenery, powdery beaches and world famous waves. But it has almost none of the tourist crush that plagues bigger destinations like Lahaina and Wailea, just an hour away by car.
Paia is still surrounded by sugar cane fields and is pretty much the only village on the quieter, northern side of Maui. For decades, it was mainly a way station to the rest of the island. Tourists stopped here for gas and water, before driving into the upcountry, Maui’s lush inland region. Or it was where just-married couples picked up the windy road to Hana, the secluded honeymoon destination on Maui’s eastern tip.
But otherwise, visitors steered clear of Paia’s narrow main streets and roads, all lined with tropical plantation houses — small, wooden and painted in adorable Lucky Charms colors. Even as the rest of the island welcomed a Four Seasons, a Ritz-Carlton and other 750-room megaresorts, Paia has resisted modernity and held true to its weird little vibe. Just outside town, a rusty old mill stands as a vestige of its past.
Paia is also tiny. It’s about as small as a town can be while still being called a town. Ask for directions, and you soon find that everything in Paia is either on “Hana Highway, opposite Baldwin” or on “Baldwin Avenue at the corner of Hana Highway.” Or drop by Charley’s, the town’s greasy spoon, for dinner, and the evening’s entertainment may well be Willie Nelson.
“Paia is what Maui used to be about,” Mr. Goya said. “It’s not where you come to get massaged in a fancy hotel.”
But before Paia was an art destination, it was a surf spot. And the surfers who came to Paia were the canaries for the art scene that would follow. The surfing culture, which naturally dominates all of Hawaii, is especially pronounced in Paia: this is home to Jaws, a legendary wave that can climb 70 feet high and travel 30 miles per hour. Jaws is often credited with starting “tow-in surfing” — riding breaks so enormous that you need a Jet Ski to tow you in.
“The surfing here is maybe better than anywhere in the world, so first the surfers came, and soon enough everyone else clued into the magic of this place,” said Archie Kalepa, a professional surfer who was born and raised in Maui. Besides conquering Jaws, he is known affectionately as the unofficial mayor of Maui as everyone on the island seems to know him. “I still think of Paia as an old hippie town where you go to buy a doughnut from a mom-and-pop shop.”
The mom-and-pop shops still exist, but today they stand wedged between high-end art galleries. For the most part, the galleries — a handful of small, well-curated spaces that have opened in recent years — show no more than two dozen pieces at a time. Prices range as much as the art itself, from Gauguin-inspired portraits of Polynesia to modern, color block paintings, as in Mr. Goya’s gallery.
“Most of the people who come to buy art aren’t from around here,” said Keytoe Kiriaty, whose father owns the Avi Kiriaty gallery. The gallery, which opened a little more than a year ago, is small and dark with spotlights focused on each of her father’s paintings: haunting, swirling depictions of local scenes.
And unlike Mr. Kiriaty, who immigrated to Maui from Israel in 1979, most artists who show in Paia don’t live on the island. “That’s how you can tell the quality of the art is getting better,” Mr. Goya said. “Artists and the collectors come from all over the world.”
It makes for an eclectic community. “Paia is the land of the free, home of the strange,” said Konrad Juestel, who owns Konrad’s Ship Gallery, which sells hand-carved miniatures of Hawaiian canoes. As he spoke, a woman with dreadlocks rode by on a bicycle with a basket full of kittens, as if on cue. Moments later, a man with a long white beard strolled by in a flowing caftan with his sheepdogs. “We didn’t have a Halloween celebration here for years because, frankly, we didn’t think anyone would even notice.”
What Paia does have in common with the outside world is its ability to attract people of means. And with the rising art scene, that’s truer than ever.
“You can’t swing a dead mongoose without hitting a millionaire around here,” Mr. Juestel said. “This is the richest area of Maui, but it’s hard to tell because there are so many hippies walking around.”
IF YOU GO
Kahului Airport on Maui is served by most major domestic airlines. Flights between New York City and Maui typically require a plane change. A recent Web search found round-trip fares starting at $800 on Continental for travel in June. Paia is about a 15-minute drive from the airport. A rental car is needed to get around.
WHERE TO STAY
Opened two years ago, The Paia Inn (93 Hana Highway; 808-579-6000; paiainn.com) has five rooms, each furnished with bamboo floors, travertine-tiled bathrooms and a painting by Avi Kiriaty. It is conveniently situated in the middle of town. Double rooms start at $189.
The Inn at Mama’s Fish House (799 Poho Place, Paia; 808-579-9764 mamasfishhouse.com) is a Maui institution. Just outside Paia, the inn has 12 bungalows — they’re all different — but each is kitschy and secluded with private kitchens and terraces and hokey Hawaiian art. Rates start at $175.
WHERE TO EAT
Market Fresh Bistro (3620 Baldwin Avenue, Makawao; 808-572-4877) recently opened a few minutes outside Paia in the small town of Makawao. Virtually every ingredient that goes into the crisp salads and homemade sandwiches comes from local organic farms.
The food at the Mama’s Fish House Restaurant (799 Poho Place, Paia; 808-579-8488; mamasfishhouse.com) is good, if a little overdressed, but the view alone is reason to go. Get a table overlooking the palm grove.
WHERE TO SEE ART
Konrad’s Ship Gallery (120 Hana Highway, Paia; 808-579-9622; konradships.com) shows Hawaiian canoe models and wooden Polynesian sculptures.
Avi Kiriaty (corner of Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue, 808-573-5090; avikiriaty.com) features the oil portraits of the local artist of the same name.
The Paia Contemporary Gallery (83b Hana Highway; 808-579-8444; paiacontemporarygallery.com) specializes in abstract paintings and sculptures.