Maui’s Upcountry offers insight into an island of artisans and creators
Maui. The second largest island in the Hawaiian chain draws up a variety of images. Sand and surf are definitely two of them. But art? While many may not realize it, the center of the island is full of artisans, creators and artists, all working and plying their wares in what the locals call Upcountry.
The island of Maui is a graveyard, really. The western half of the island consists of the bones of an extinct volcano that has eroded into picturesque peaks and valleys, including the ‘Īao Valley, famous for the ‘Īao Needle. The eastern half of the island is made up of the largest dormant volcano in the world, Haleakala Volcano. It is here, in the shadow of Haleakala that you will find the creators of Maui.
Upcountry is a bit of a jaunt from the more popular West Maui destinations of Lahaina town or Kaanapali Beach but if traffic is good, the town of Makawao can be reached in a leisurely hour and a half. There you will find the epicenter of art for the Upcountry region with the land between Makawao and its neighboring city, Kula, hosting a variety of artisanal producers of everything from vodka to lavender to goat cheese, as well as any number of varieties of fruit and vegetables.
Makawao itself has an interesting history. What is now a thriving market town was once a rodeo town. In the 1900s, cattle grazed openly on the banks of the volcano. Hawaii’s cowboys, or paniolo, would wrangle the cattle to bring down for market. Cattle still roam freely there and each Fourth of July, the rodeo still takes over just as it has for the last 50 years.
Now though, if you wander into Makawao, you’ll find an extensive collection of boutiques and art galleries. While many come to Hawaii for inspiration, there are only a few galleries that specialize in Hawaiian art exclusively. One is the Viewpoints Gallery. All of the art exhibited has a local connection and ranges from nature inspired landscapes to sculpture hewn from koa wood. Quilted pieces share wall space with modern interpretations of nature and the variety makes a quilt of its own, one uniquely Hawaiian.
Down the street, Volcano Spice offers both art and flavor. The small shop features work from several different painters, as well as spice rubs, hot sauces and candies made from local ingredients. One of the artists, Irina, was manning the store. Her work focuses on nature and she paints en plein air.
“I think that people are attracted to the colors in Maui. The land itself attracts attention. It has a unique position. The colors are beautiful and the clouds are very low to the ground which offers a lot of inspiration. We have waterfalls and lots of contrasting shadows. We have a lot of people into art here,” she says.
Similarly, Irina says that the fertile volcano soil and plethora of flavors native to Maui inspire the culinary arts. “There’s a lot of passion and love in each bottle of these sauces and spices. This is the flavor of the islands here,” she says.
After leaving Makawao, visitors can make their way to one of the artisan producers in the area, such as Surfing Goat Dairy or Ocean Vodka. Ocean Vodka’s acres of sugar cane go into both their vodka and rum. They produce the only vodka in the world distilled from organic cane sugar and deep ocean mineral water. They offer tours of their plantation several times daily.
You would be remiss if you came to Upcountry and didn’t go see the volcano itself. Haleakala National Park offers breathtaking views of the island and on a clear day, you can glimpse the Big Island of Hawaii in the distance from the summit’s observation deck. Be aware, it is a treacherous drive full of corkscrew turns and sheer drop offs, but the view above the clouds is not to be missed. Also, dress appropriately as the temperatures regularly dip into the 30s and 40s on the top of Haleakala.
Of course the beaches in Maui are beautiful but for something different and just as refreshing, Upcountry offers so much to explore. Take a day trip on your next vacation to the islands.