We recently treated ourselves to a weekend at the Sheraton Maui, where in 20 years on the island I'd never been. We got a good deal on the rate, an excellent deal, allowing us to live for a few days like high-flying tourists on our own island.
The hotel is now my vote for best resort on Maui, not because it's the most glamorous or exciting, but for its beauty, its privacy, its commanding presence on Ka'anapali Beach and the role it has played in Maui history. It's one of those places people went to as a child and return to year after year for the superb setting and service.
Our room the first night overlooked an old-fashioned tropical garden with tall old palms and a native 'ulu, the finger-leafed breadfruit tree. From the lanai, we spied a sliver of ocean off the Royal Lahaina and the thousand-room condo warrens to the north. There, the desire to maximize square footage trumps Hawaiian charm, a contemporary disease the Sheraton wisely managed (mostly) to avoid in its 1995 remodel. (Why no gardens in the new wing?)
On the second night we looked out onto the sparkling ocean and the pleasurable scene framed by serpentine pool, the beachside bars, and the original eight-story building with its curved balconies and hanging bougainvillea that was carved into the side of Black Rock. A rare view from a perch on the top floor takes in the southern expanse of the beach stretching past the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel to the Whalers condos and beyond.
The promontory of Black Rock, of course, lies at the center of it all, looming over what was once a dry, rock-strewn place. Today it would be sacrilege, and undoubtedly illegal, to slice off the top of a landmark like Pu'u Keka'a that was sacred to the Hawaiians.
The moku of Ka'anapali (the name means "divided cliffs") stretched from north of the point to Waihe'e, while the ahupua'a of Lahaina extended to the south. The name went into disuse when the Ka'anapali moku was folded into the ahupua'a of Lahaina in 1923, until revived by "the haole guys from Amfac," according to a friend, and applied to both sides of Black Rock.
The area belonged to Pioneer Mill, a stark reminder of the dominion the sugar companies once held on Maui. In 1953, the company's board authorized a study to determine the best land use for the property and met at a luau near Black Rock in 1957 where they voted to create the 395-acre Ka'anapali Beach Resort, the first master-planned resort community in Hawaii.
Engineers went to work removing cane haul roads, moving irrigation lines and building a water supply system and sewage disposal plant. Robert Trent Jones was hired to design the first championship 18-hole golf course and land was graded and filled for six hotel sites (using half a cinder cone from Olowalu, according to my friend.)
In June 1962, an airstrip opened at North Beach where the Westin Ka'anapali Ocean Resort is now, and in December the private Royal Lahaina Beach Club offered 31 cottages, the effective date of the resort's opening. In January 1963, the Sheraton Maui, now celebrating its 50th anniversary year, became the first official hotel of the resort, and the first built by a major chain on a Neighbor Island.
The award-winning design by Honolulu architect George Wimberly (featured in a Museum of Modern Art show in New York) daringly put the entry to the new hotel at the top of Pu'u Keka'a, where the lobby, restaurant and bar looked out onto a dazzling vista from coast to coast. Guests descended to their cliffside rooms: $12.50 for a single, $16, double. Circular cottages dotted the grounds.
It was like being at the pearly gates, one travel writer said.
On Jan. 22, 1963, 2,000 out of Maui's 40,000 residents waited in the rain at Kahului Airport for a chance to inspect the Mark IV DC-8 jet in which United Airlines ferried movie stars, golf celebrities, "and some of the nation's top newspaper people" for the Sheraton's grand opening. (Bing Crosby and Phil Harris struck up duets over the speaker system "to brighten the trip.")
A hundred agricultural workers enrolled in federally sponsored training classes, hoping for jobs as chambermaids or "waiter and waitresses." So began the demise of the sugar and pineapple industry as the main employer on Maui. As Alexis Eaton, the Sheraton's public relations manager put it, "Our history is so much a part of everybody else's."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.