On the slopes of a volcanic crater on Maui, at an elevation of 3,500 feet, Casey Shim wakes every morning for a long day of farming. As the 87-year-old owner and sole employee of Shim Coffee and Protea Farm, he hand-picks, sun-dries, weeds, processes, and nurtures the coffee beans and decorative plants that comprise his seasonal business. He says the job is “25 hours a day and eight days a week,” entirely self-taught.
As he explains to guests, “It’s a learn-as-you-go farm, and nature has always been my best teacher.”
Shim is an Army veteran whose grandparents emigrated from China in the 1890s and bought the property he tills today. He points to a squat, single-room shack in the distance: “That’s where my grandparents raised eight children.”
I visited Shim Farm on my first morning of a weeklong Maui trip, following 14 hours of travel time from Fort Lauderdale.
I was still adjusting to the five-hour time difference and Hawaii’s mercurial temperatures.
Seeing that my wife and I were not dressed for the morning’s nippy weather and overcast skies, Shim shuffled into his house and emerged a moment later with a pair of tattered raincoats—our first example of the charitable spirit of aloha.
I saw Shim’s ripe coffee beans—up to 1,000 beans grow on each of his 1,500 trees—and alien protea plants, with their bright yellow and red stamens bursting like frozen confetti from fuzzy pincushions, before I saw a beach or a lei or a tiki hut. His modest farm did not fit the picture of Hawaii I had imagined.
The property is in the upcountry town of Kula, and it’s one of a handful of the island’s ag-tourism options. Driving up and down the slopes of the Haleakala crater, gas pumps and other civilized trappings are scant, two-lane roads often converge into one, livestock wander rolling hills, and signs advertise roping grounds and horseback riding—a holdover of upcountry’s paniolo, or cowboy, tradition. Shim keeps a couple of horses too, grazing in a shady corner of his farm.
“Horses are my psychiatrists,” he said. “You ride them, and all your problems go away.”
Unsurprisingly, tourism is Hawaii’s No. 1 industry, logging up to 250,000 arrivals each month. Maui is the chain’s second-most-visited island, after Oahu. Commerce is pervasive nearly everywhere on the island. At public outlooks offering postcard views of mountainous sunrises and sunsets, jewelry sellers ignore the “no vending” signs and hawk wares from the back of their trucks. Souvenir shops have sprouted like mushrooms in the beachfront cities and one-horse towns alike, overflowing with dashboard hula girls, pineapple-shaped cutting boards and tuneless ukuleles. Gather them all up, and there’s enough Balinese wood and Chinese plastic to make a sizable dent in the Great Pacific garbage patch. (And yes, I came home with a few.)
But the upcountry town of Makawao was a prime example of tourism’s positive encroachment. A tiny history museum in the blink-and-you-miss-it downtown preserves this onetime paniolo community. The curator described Makawao as “nearly a ghost town after World War II. Cowboys rode horses down the center of the street.” It was saved by tourism and by artists opening galleries. It’s now the kind of place selling novelty gifts and auric readings instead of saddles and spurs, though the heritage is kept alive each summer during a Fourth of July rodeo and parade. But as Shim Farm illustrates, there are still places in upcountry Maui to escape from city life and breathe in nature. Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm may be the most intoxicating example.
On the morning of our visit, an impenetrable and very un-Hawaiian fog blanketed the farm. I overheard one shivering visitor comment, “this is like being in London.” Later, lightning would strike, for what one resident said was just the third time in 10 years.
Still, nothing could diminish the farm’s stock in trade: Ali’i Kula was an aromatherapist’s Eden, with row after row of more lavender strains than you knew existed. Spicy Spanish, tall-stemmed English and braided French were among the 25 varieties, a battalion of faded purple wisps blowing in the wind as far as the eye could see.
The 13 acres of farmland was about more than lavender, though, with tier after tier of “Avatar”-esque protea plants, a chicken coop, a terraced vegetable garden and, every now and then, a flash of neon green as a Jackson’s chameleon darted among the lush rows of plants.
Surfing Goat Dairy, less than 10 miles away up twisty roads, was another unique stop, the island’s only outdoor goat dairy. Named after the donated surfboards that stud the property and decorate its buildings, this 42-acre operation produces award-winning goat cheese for the entire state, along with mainland locations from Las Vegas to Nashville.
On the tour, which runs about 30 minutes, we had the opportunity to pet and feed the animals on one of its 15 pastures, learned about the pasteurization process—16 hours from udder to shop—and sampled a few of its greatest hits. President Obama ordered 200 pounds of this stuff for his inauguration, and once I tasted it, I saw why.
The grandest (and priciest) ag-tourism destination on the island is certainly Maui Pineapple Tours from Maui Gold Pineapple Company, which services the island’s pineapple supply and a smaller portion of the continental U.S. market. From the tour bus—dubbed the Pineapple Express—I explored the entire process, from field to factory, with frequent stops to meander among the 1,000 acres of pineapple stalks sprawling in all directions.
The tour culminated in a tasting surrounded by expanses of Maui Gold’s ripest pineapples.
“We’re not going to run out of pineapple,” our guide Stephen Potter said, plucking a pineapple from a landscape of gold and green.
With a machete, he hacked off the spiny skin and sliced off liberally sized chunks for each of us. This continued for about 20 minutes and three more pineapples, which we devoured like gluttons. There was something communal and early-human about consuming food this way, in the raw, spitting out the inedible chunks, juice dribbling down our chins. Eating sloppy never felt so right.
You’ll leave the tour with a box of two Maui Gold pineapples ideally sized for carry-on transport. When you get home, you may cut them up into a fruit salad or blend them into a smoothie. But you won’t eat them fresh off the stalk while basking in the Hawaiian sun, giddy with an all-natural sugar rush. That experience is pure upcountry.
To drive Maui is to appreciate a slower pace than South Floridians are accustomed to. On island time, road rage was nonexistent, and just about everybody, to my astonishment, drove the speed limit, even on a 45-mph highway.
I wondered if the placid congeniality that defines the island persisted during Hawaii’s false ballistic-missile scare, which had spooked the island chain just a month before my visit. There was fear and panic, to be sure: One tour guide I spoke with recalled that his friend “crawled into his bathtub with a bottle of Jameson and called his mom.”
But those videos of pedestrians scrambling for shelter and burrowing under manhole covers? More often than not, they were tourists, said most of the locals I talked to. Hardened Hawaiians have reconciled the risk they face by living in the state most threatened by a nuclear exchange. One eccentric resident I met at a lookout—whose entire body was tattooed with Hawaiian kitsch, and who runs a “clothing-optional” drum circle whose attendees, he says, include Steven Tyler—said he wanted a “front-row seat” for the mushroom cloud. “Bring it on,” he added, moving his fingers to his lips in a smoking pantomime. “I’ve got the provisions.”
Another local, named Reid, with whom I booked an Airbnb night, was hosting a German couple the morning of the alert.
“They were freaking out,” he recalled. “I said, ‘follow me.’ We went outside and looked up.”
From the affable mates on cruise tours to the servers in restaurants to friendly hikers passing you on mountain trails, this sense of helping those in need, and welcoming them to their community, permeates Hawaiian culture. I saw it in my upcountry travels, too—in Casey Shim, who started my tour an hour before schedule, and kept me rapt for two full hours.
It was there in Sarah Adams, my guide at the Lavender Farm, who, after leading us through that foggy, rainy visit, welcomed us back for another day of our choice at no charge. True, I was there on a press trip, and they wanted me to be pleased, but it runs deeper than that, and it’s one of the things Reid loves about the islands.
“The acceptance the locals have to put us first is pretty awesome, and you want to return that,” he said. “That acceptance that most of the local Hawaiians show through the aloha—that’s what’s contagious. That’s what spreads.”
In between visits to upcountry, sprinkle your trip with these traditional diversions.
THE ROAD TO HANA
Maui’s most legendary drive is a 52-mile stretch of hairpin, often single-lane highway that snakes through lush rainforest, with stops along the way for waterfalls, hikes, food stands and breathtaking arboretums. The trip takes two and a half hours without stops; deserve a full day to explore.
The waters of Molokini reef off the coast of Wailea are a prime snorkeling spot. I recommend sailing out on a 65-foot schooner with the affable crew of Kai Kanani, which provides lunch, drinks and two 40-minute snorkel sessions. On my journey, I spotted a moray eel, triggerfish, yellowfin surgeonfish, yellow tang and octopus.
This prized beach town contains multiple parks ideal for sunset-gazing on the water, as waves lap against Maui’s ancient, jagged, volcanic rock. There’s a great nature trail at the end of one of the parks, and instead of a boardwalk, a sizable expanse of green fronts the beach, where plein air painters, sun-tanners, picnickers and dog walkers sprawl out for lazy afternoons. Maui is pretty much one giant photo op, but this is an especially vibrant place to snap a few memories.