Paddling outrigger canoes, the first ancestors of today's Hawaiians followed the stars and birds across the sea to Hawaii, which they called "the land of raging fire." Those first settlers were part of the great Polynesian migration that settled the vast triangle of islands stretching between New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii. No one is sure exactly when they came to Hawaii from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, some 2,500 miles to the south, but a bone fishhook found at the southernmost tip of the Big Island has been carbon-dated to A.D. 700. Chants claim that the Mookini Heiau, also on the Big Island, was built in A.D. 480. Some recent archaeological digs at Maluuluolele Park in Lahaina even predate that.
All we have today are some archaeological finds, some scientific data, and ancient chants to tell the story of Hawaii's past. The chants, especially the Kumulipo, which is the chant of creation and the litany of genealogy of the alii (high-ranking chiefs) who ruled the islands, talk about comings and goings between Hawaii and the islands of the south, presumed to be Tahiti. In fact, the channel between Maui, Kahoolawe, and Lanai is called Kealaikahiki, or "the pathway to Tahiti."
Around 1300, the transoceanic voyages stopped for some reason, and Hawaii began to develop its own culture in earnest. The settlers built temples, fish ponds, and aqueducts to irrigate taro plantations. Sailors became farmers and fishermen. Each island was a separate kingdom. The alii created a caste system and established taboos. Violators were strangled. High priests asked the gods Lono and Ku for divine guidance. Ritual human sacrifices were common.
Maui's history, like that of the rest of Hawaii, is one of wars and conquests, with one king taking over another king's land. The rugged terrain of Maui and the water separating Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe made for natural boundaries of kingdoms. In the early years, there were three kingdoms on Maui: Hana, Waikulu, and Lahaina. The chants are not just strict listings of family histories. Some describe how a ruler's pride and arrogance can destroy a community. For example, according to the chants, Hana's King Hua killed a priest in the 12th century, and as a result the gods sent a severe drought to Hana as a punishment.
Three centuries later, another ruler came out of Hana who would change the course of Maui's history: Piilani, the first ruler to unite all of Maui. His rule was a time not only of peace but also of community construction projects. Piilani built fish ponds and irrigation fields and began creating a paved road some 4 to 6 feet wide around the entire island. Piilani's sons and grandson continued these projects and completed the Alalou, the royal road that circled the united island. They also completed Hawaii's largest heiau (temple) to the god of war, Piilanihale, which still stands today.
Maui was a part of a pivotal change in Hawaii's history: After conquering Maui in 1795, Kamehameha united all of the islands into one kingdom. It started in 1759, when yet another battle over land was going on. This time Kalaniopuu, a chief from the Big Island, had captured Hana from the powerful Maui chief Kahikili. Kahikili was busy overtaking Molokai when the Big Island chief stole Hana from him. The Molokai chief escaped and fled with his wife to Hana, where the Big Island chief welcomed him. A few years later, the Molokai chief and his wife had a baby girl in Hana, named Kaahumanu, who later married Kamehameha.
The "Fatal Catastrophe" -- No ancient Hawaiian ever imagined a haole (a white person; literally, one with "no breath") would ever appear on one of these "floating islands." But then one day in 1778, just such a person sailed into Waimea Bay on Kauai, where he was welcomed as the god Lono.
The man was 50-year-old Capt. James Cook, already famous in Britain for "discovering" much of the South Pacific. Now on his third great voyage of exploration, Cook had set sail from Tahiti northward across uncharted waters to find the mythical Northwest Passage that was said to link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. On his way, Cook stumbled upon the Hawaiian Islands quite by chance. He named them the Sandwich Islands, for the Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, who had bankrolled the expedition.
Overnight, Stone Age Hawaii entered the age of iron. Nails were traded for fresh water, pigs, and the affections of Hawaiian women. The sailors brought syphilis, measles, and other diseases to which the Hawaiians had no natural immunity, thereby unwittingly wreaking havoc on the native population.
After his unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage, Cook returned to Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, where a fight broke out over an alleged theft, and the great navigator was killed by a blow to the head. After this "fatal catastrophe," the British survivors sailed home. But Hawaii was now on the sea charts, and traders on the fur route between Canada and China anchored in Hawaii to get fresh water. More trade -- and more disastrous liaisons -- ensued.
Two more sea captains left indelible marks on the islands. The first was American John Kendrick, who in 1791 filled his ship with sandalwood and sailed to China. By 1825, Hawaii's sandalwood forests were gone, enabling invasive plants to take charge. The second captain was Englishman George Vancouver, who in 1793 left cows and sheep, which spread out to the high-tide lines. King Kamehameha I sent for cowboys from Mexico and Spain to round up the wild livestock, thus beginning the islands' paniolo (cowboy) tradition.
The tightly woven Hawaiian society began to unravel after the death in 1819 of King Kamehameha I, who had used guns seized from a British ship to unite the islands under his rule. One of his successors, Queen Kaahumanu, abolished old taboos, such as that of women eating with men, and opened the door for religion of another form when she converted to Christianity.
Staying To Do Well -- In 1819, the first whaling ship dropped anchor in Lahaina. Sailors on the Bellina were looking for fresh water and supplies, but they found beautiful women, mind-numbing grog, and a tropical paradise. A few years later, in 1823, the whalers met rivals for this hedonistic playground: the missionaries. The God-fearing missionaries arrived from New England bent on converting the pagans. They chose Lahaina because it was the capital of Hawaii.
Intent on instilling their brand of rock-ribbed Christianity in the islands, the missionaries clothed the natives, banned them from dancing the hula, and nearly dismantled their ancient culture. They tried to keep the whalers and sailors out of the bawdy houses, where a flood of whiskey quenched fleet-size thirsts and where the virtue of native women was never safe.
The missionaries taught reading and writing, created the 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet, started a printing press in Lahaina, and began writing the islands' history, which until then had existed only as an oral account in memorized chants. They also started the first school in Lahaina, which still exists today: the Lahainaluna High School.
Children of the missionaries became the islands' business leaders and politicians. They married Hawaiians and stayed on in the islands, causing one wag to remark that the missionaries "came to do good and stayed to do well."
In Lahaina's heyday, some 500 whaling ships a year dropped anchor in the Lahaina Roadstead. In 1845, King Kamehameha III moved the capital of Hawaii from Lahaina to Honolulu, where more commerce could be accommodated in the natural harbor there. Some whaling ships started skipping Lahaina for the larger port of Honolulu. Fifteen years later, the depletion of whales and the emergence of petroleum as a more suitable oil signaled the beginning of the end of the whaling industry.
King Sugar Emerges -- When the capital of Hawaii moved to Honolulu, Maui might have taken a back seat in Hawaii's history had it not been for the beginning of a new industry: sugar. In 1849, George Wilfong, a cantankerous sea captain, built a mill in Hana and planted some 60 acres of sugar cane, creating Hawaii's first sugar plantation. At that time, the gold rush was on in California, and sugar prices were wildly inflated. Wilfong's harsh personality and the demands he placed on plantation workers did not sit well with the Hawaiians. In 1852, he imported Chinese immigrants to work in his fields. By the end of the 1850s, the gold rush had begun to diminish, and the inflated sugar prices dropped. When Wilfong's mill burned down, he finally called it quits.
Sugar production continued in Hana, however. In 1864, two Danish brothers, August and Oscar Unna, started the Hana Plantation. Four years later they imported Japanese immigrants to work the fields.
Some 40 miles away, in Haiku, two sons of missionaries, Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, planted 12 acres of this new crop. The next year, Alexander and Baldwin added some 5,000 acres in Maui's central plains and started Hawaii's largest sugar company. They quickly discovered that without the copious amounts of rainfall found in Hana, they would need to get water to their crop, or it would fail. In 1876, they constructed an elaborate ditch system that brought water from rainy Haiku some 17 miles away to the dry plains of Wailuku, a move that cemented the future of sugar in Hawaii.
Around the same time, another sugar pioneer, Claus Spreckels, bought up property in the arid desert of Puunene from Hawaiians who sold him the "cursed" lands at a very cheap price. The Hawaiians were sure they had gotten the better part of the deal because they believed that the lands were haunted.
Spreckels was betting that these "cursed" lands could be very productive if he could get water rights up in the rainy hills and bring that water to Puunene, just as Alexander and Baldwin had done. But first he needed that water. Thus began a series of late-night poker games with the then-king Kalakaua. Spreckels's gamble paid off: Not only did he beat the king at poker (some say he cheated), but he also built the elaborate 30-mile Haiku Ditch system, which transported 50 million gallons of water a day from rainy Haiku to dry Puunene.
The big boost to sugar, not only on Maui but also across the entire state, came in 1876, when King Kalakaua negotiated the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty with the United States, giving the Hawaiian sugar industry a "sweet" deal on prices and tariffs.
In 1891, King Kalakaua visited chilly San Francisco, caught a cold, and died in the royal suite of the Sheraton Palace. His sister, Queen Liliuokalani, assumed the throne.
A Sad Farewell -- On January 17, 1893, a group of American sugar planters and missionary descendants, with the support of U.S. Marines, imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani in her own palace, where she later penned the sorrowful lyric "Aloha Oe," Hawaii's song of farewell. The monarchy was dead.
A new republic was established, controlled by Sanford Dole, a powerful sugar-cane planter. In 1898, through annexation, Hawaii became an American territory ruled by Dole. His fellow sugar-cane planters, known as the Big Five, controlled banking, shipping, hardware, and every other facet of economic life on the islands.
Planters imported more contract laborers from Puerto Rico (in 1900), Korea (in 1903), and the Philippines (1907-31). Most of the new immigrants stayed on to establish families and become a part of the islands. Meanwhile, the native Hawaiians became a landless minority in their homeland.
For nearly a century on Hawaii, sugar was king, generously subsidized by the U.S. federal government. The sugar planters dominated the territory's economy, shaped its social fabric, and kept the islands in a colonial plantation era with bosses and field hands.
World War II & Its Aftermath -- On December 7, 1941, Japanese Zeros came out of the rising sun to bomb American warships based at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu. This was the "day of infamy" that plunged the United States into World War II.
The attack brought immediate changes to the islands. Martial law was declared, stripping the Big Five cartel of its absolute power in a single day. Japanese Americans and German Americans were interned. Hawaii was "blacked out" at night, Waikiki Beach was strung with barbed wire, and Aloha Tower was painted in camouflage.
During the postwar years, the men of Hawaii returned after seeing another, bigger world outside of plantation life and rebelled. Throwing off the mantle of plantation life, the workers struck for higher wages and improved working conditions. Within a few short years after the war, the white, Republican leaders who had ruled since the overthrow of the monarchy were voted out of office, and labor leaders in the Democratic Party were suddenly in power.
Tourism & Statehood -- In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the union. But that year also saw the arrival of the first jet airliners, which brought 250,000 tourists to the fledgling state.
Tourism had already started on Maui shortly after World War II, when Paul I. Fagan, an entrepreneur from San Francisco who had bought the Hana Sugar Co., became the town's angel.
Fagan wanted to retire to Hana, so he focused his business acumen on this tiny town with big problems. Years ahead of his time, he thought tourism might have a future in Hana, so he built a small six-room inn, called Kauiki Inn, which later became the Hotel Hana-Maui. When he opened it in 1946, he said it was for first-class, wealthy travelers (just like his friends). Not only did his friends come, but he also pulled off a public-relations coup that is still talked about today. Fagan owned a baseball team, the San Francisco Seals. He figured they needed a spring-training area, so why not use Hana? He brought out the entire team to train in Hana, and, more important, he brought out the sportswriters. The sportswriters penned glowing reports about the town, and one writer gave the town a name that stuck: "Heavenly Hana."
However, it would be another 3 decades before Maui became a popular visitor destination in Hawaii. Waikiki was king in the tourism industry, seeing some 16,000 visitors a year by the end of the 1960s, and some 4 million a year by the end of the 1970s. In 1960, Amfac, owner of Pioneer Sugar Co., looked at the area outside of Lahaina that was being used to dump sugar-cane refuse and saw another use for the beachfront land. The company decided to build a manicured, planned luxury resort in the Kaanapali area. They built it, and people came.
A decade later, Alexander & Baldwin, now the state's largest sugar company, looked at the arid land they owned south of Kihei and also saw possibilities: The resort destination of Wailea was born.
By the mid-1970s, some one million visitors a year were coming to Maui. Ten years later, the number was up to two million.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the visitor industry replaced agriculture as Maui's number-one industry. Maui is the second-largest visitor destination in Hawaii. For 13 years in a row, the readers of Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines have voted Maui the "Best Island in the World."
Hawaii was at record-breaking visitor counts (6.9 million) in 2000. Then on September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the mainland and tourism dropped abruptly in Hawaii, sending the state's economy into a tailspin. But people eventually started traveling again, and in 2003, visitor arrivals were up to 6.3 million. By 2005, Hawaii's economy was recovering, the number of visitors to the state shot up to 6.75 million, business was booming in construction, and real-estate sales were higher than ever.
Just 3 years later, the economic pendulum swung the opposite way. Real estate in Hawaii, as on the mainland, dropped in value and sales plummeted. A record number of visitors, some nine million, had come to Hawaii in 2007, but the economic downturn in 2008 caused the closure of Aloha Airlines (which had served Hawaii for 61 years) and ATA Airlines, as well as Molokai Ranch, that island's largest employer and landowner.
After more than a decade in the new century, Maui is still climbing out of the recession and the tourism industry has not yet recovered to its former healthy state.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.