We started off at 9:30 a.m. last Wednesday, meeting in Flatbread Pizza Co. While the popular restaurant is actually closed at that time of day, Local Tastes of Maui founder and tour leader Cindi Weldon had arranged to greet her group at a cozy seating area there.
Over a bowl of ripe, juicy strawberries, she introduced us to one another and then started talking about the history of Paia as she gave us printouts and pictures from the Maui Historical Society.
After listening to her warm and informative narration, my apprehensions about Weldon perhaps not knowing enough (as she's a malihini with only eight years on Maui) vanished, like the strawberries.
Local Tastes of Maui founder and tour leader Cindi Weldon (left) talks with visitors from Port Orchard, Wash., as they embark on a two-hour culinary odyssey that includes smoothies from Paia Bay Cafe, exotic fruit from Mana Foods and crispy duck fajitas at Cafe Mambo, to name a few of the tasty pit stops.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
At the get-go, Weldon enthralled us about the illustrious north shore town in such a way that made us know she did her homework. She made us want to hear more and open our minds to facts we may have forgotten or to stories we've never heard before.
Plus, we tasted foods at eight different establishments while meeting the chefs, managers and owners. Now I'm a believer this one's a winner.
"I've been an educator for 35 years," says Weldon, who was both a principal and a school teacher for much of that time in Seattle.
Local Taste of Maui at a glance:
* When: Two-hour culinary tour of Paia runs from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays.
* What: Explore Paia's colorful plantation history and its cultural diversity, discover hidden treasures and indulge in foods samples from eight or nine eateries.
* How much: Cost is $45 plus tax. Ten percent of the profits go to animal shelters.
* To book: Visit www.localtastesofmaui.com.
"I also taught at Makawao and Kamehameha schools for brief periods. I live in Makawao, had a bed-and-breakfast there, and now do tours there, too."
At Flatbread Pizza Co., she told us the pizza is made with organic fresh Maui ingredients, cooked in wood-fired cauldrons or an earthen oven. She went back in time to the Great Mahele and the land divisions of ahupua'a and talked about Paia's emergence as a plantation town that survived two disasters.
"The fire of 1930 almost burned Paia to the ground, and after it was rebuilt, the 1946 tsunami almost washed it away. It its heyday, Paia had three theaters, a hospital, schools and churches. Kobayashi was one of the big entrepreneurs, as were Hew and Ikeda."
Then Weldon gave us earphones, so that we could spread out and still hear her talk.
"You can be up to 150 feet away from me and still be able to hear what I'm saying" she said.
We learned Paia is 105 years old, and Paia Sugar Mill in upper Paia that closed in the year 2000 was the oldest and longest-running mill on Maui.
Weldon told us Tavares Bay was named after Antone E. Tavares, who ran Haiku Fruit and Packing Co. in the old Haiku Cannery.
As we walked, she noted the Paia Mercantile Building is where Milagro's is housed. She also pointed out former restaurants Wimpy's Corner and Matsui's.
"Being a teacher, I know how to herd people," Weldon said. " I can count noses with the best of them. And I make sure they all cross the street."
We walked past the now defunct Liberty Cafe, where back in the day, a complete steak dinner cut to order cost $1.25. Willie Nelson and Jim Fuller once contemplated opening Willie's Joint restaurant there, but the building was, well, disjointed, so it never happened.
Next stop was Paia Bay Cafe, where we were treated to mini Blue Hawaiian smoothies with pina colada flavors of coconut and pineapple outdoors near sculptures of a wooden giraffe and a bronze child by the owners of Turnbull Gallery in town.
Before we crossed the street, Weldon told us that the former Princess Theater is now Charley's, where breakfast samples would be served.
Charley's Juice Stand opened here in 1970, and the rest is history. Now it's a bustling breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as a late-night hangout and a major landmark in the popular town.
Everyone likes to get their pictures taken at Bigger Trigger, a giant replica of Willie Nelson's favorite guitar, which looms in the lounge.
The group was introduced to new consulting chef Curtis Hintz, who worked at the former Max World Bistro that recently was sold in Haiku. He wowed us with pancakes, burritos and all manner of Charley's favorite breakfast fare.
Pulling ourselves up from our chairs, we waddled over to Mana Foods, already stuffed from food after just the second stop. There, produce manager Ryan Earehart let us taste exotic fruits such as rambutan, cherimoya, longan, prickly-pear cactus called panini, and Golden Globe mango.
"I'd say 80 to 90 percent of our produce is organic and 50 percent is local. We buy from over 400 local farmers," says Earehart.
We walked up Baldwin Avenue to the old Ikeda Store, where Moana Cafe embraced us with samples of sticky cinnamon buns, baked fresh daily right on the premises. We crossed the street and headed to Cafe des Amis for hummus and pita bread and Cafe Mambo for crispy duck fajitas, and turned the corner and walked back on the Hana Highway to Anthony's Coffee Store for some iced coffee and made-on-Maui Roselani ice cream for dessert.
The last stop was Maui Hands Gallery, so the group could peruse artwork.
"My biggest challenge is that people ask, 'Why would I take a walking tour when I can do it myself?' " said Weldon. "But I have a good price point and you get lots of samples, meet the owners and learn about the town's history.
"The merchants are so wonderful and friendly and people like to talk to them and learn more about what they do. Plus, I give 10 percent of my profits to animal shelters - so it's a win-win for the shelters, a win-win for the merchants and a win-win for the tourists and the residents who take the tour."