Lahaina, a bustling waterfront town packed with visitors from around the globe, is considered the center of Maui. Some may describe Lahaina as tacky, with too many T-shirt vendors and not enough mom-and-pop shops, but this historic village houses some of Hawaii’s most excellent restaurants, boutiques, cafés, and galleries. If you spend Friday afternoon exploring Front Street, hang around for Art Night, when the galleries stay open late and offer entertainment, including artists demonstrating their work. A free gallery street map is available in Lahaina Visitor Center on the ground floor of the Old Lahaina Courthouse (648 Wharf Street).
Sunset cruises and other excursions depart from Lahaina Harbor. At the southern end of town an important archaeological site—Mokuula—is currently being researched, excavated, and restored. This was once a spiritual and political center, as well as home to Maui's chiefs.
The town has been welcoming visitors for more than 200 years. In 1798, after waging war to unite the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha the Great chose Lahaina, then called Lele , as the seat of his monarchy. Warriors from Kamehameha’s 800 canoes, stretched along the coast from Olowalu to Honokowai, turned inland and filled the lush valleys with networks of stream-fed loi kalo, or taro patches. For nearly 50 years Lahaina remained the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. During this period, the scent of Hawaiian sandalwood brought those who traded with China to these waters. Whaling ships followed, chasing sperm whales from Japan to the Arctic. Lahaina became known around the world for its rough-and-tumble ways.
Then, almost as quickly as it had come, the tide of foreign trade receded. The Hawaiian capital was moved to Honolulu in 1845, and by 1860 the sandalwood forests were empty and sperm whales nearly extinct. Luckily, Lahaina had already grown into an international, sophisticated (if sometimes rowdy) town, laying claim to the first printing press and high school west of the Rockies. Sugar interests kept the town afloat until tourism stepped in.