Nestled beneath the green West Maui Mountains – Mauna Kahalawai (“holding house of water”), Old Wailuku Town boasts a rich, historic past and a promising, prosperous future as an exciting revitalization project moves forward. Historic buildings, stylish boutiques, popular eateries and local mom and pop stores mingle with the government buildings that form the hub of Maui’s County seat.
Wailuku has played an important role in Maui’s culture and history. It was a thriving population center under the island’s rulers, Pi’ilani and Kahekili before 1790, when Kamehameha scored a decisive victory at I’ao Valley, in the battle of Kepaniwai, leading to the unification of the Hawaiian islands. The influx of Christian missionaries and the development of sugar plantations in the mid-1800s changed the face of Maui, and the Wailuku Sugar Company, owned by C. Brewer & Co., brought new ditches and irrigation from the adjacent mountains.
The plantations brought thousands of workers from many countries – China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Okinawa, Portugal and the Azores, as well as from Europe and mainland America. Wailuku was home to many of these immigrant groups who brought their cultures, religions, foods and traditions with them. From the mid-1800s, new homes sprung up alongside churches, temples, stores and markets, schools, and hotels as the town buzzed with commerce and purpose.
In 1905, Wailuku was named Maui’s County seat, and government offices continued the town’s expansion. At the time, Wailuku was considered a mercantile center, and long-time residents recall the entertainment venues that included a bowling center and movie theaters, ice and soda works, family stores and bars that contributed to Wailuku’s flourishing economy. The town was an eclectic mix of art deco, colonial and plantation styles, and even New England influences set against a uniquely Hawaiian backdrop, with the cultural significance of the I‘ao and Wailuku valleys close and ever-present.
The growth era lasted until the late 1960s when the sugar industry began to slow. Reduced sugar operations and the development of alternative commercial centers drew business and residents away from Wailuku’s downtown area.
More recently, Wailuku has seen a revival as a new generation of entrepreneurs has begun to re-energize the downtown area, opening colorful and contemporary businesses alongside existing anchor enterprises. In the early 2000s, County planners and residents organized a revitalization program to inject energy and life back into downtown Wailuku. Historic buildings have been restored and rehabilitated, preserving the feel of the town in its heyday. Coffee shops, antique stores, boutiques and bistros occupying original storefronts all add to a cosmopolitan ambience.
Potential hangs in the air and the monthly evening town party – First Friday – has provided a glimpse of the festive gathering place and destination that downtown Wailuku can be. It is a place that still honors its past while celebrating an exciting and flourishing future.
County seat of Maui County
Located 10 minutes from Kahului Airport
Elevation: 249 ft. above sea level
Zip code: 96793