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Upper Kula Really is Cool

July 9, 2009
Maui Weekly

Modern-day Upper Kula, as a more-or-less settled area, roughly extends from Haleakala Highway in the east to Keokea in the west-a distance of about 16 miles. And, just as you would expect, the expansive and largely rural "neighborhood" known as Upper Kula generally incorporates the region upslope from Lower Kula, the more densely populated area spread along the old and new Kula Highways.

Kula is the Hawaiian word for a specific type of land and terrain, and on Maui, is one of the island's 12 moku or land divisions and districts. Generally, kula means a zone of arid, open country slopes between the inhabited and productive shoreline areas and, in ancient times, the densely forested zone higher on the mountain.

Maui's Kula district is the island's largest moku, extending from the dry coastal region of arid Kihei to the somewhat wetter high pasturelands of three major ranches-Haleakala, Erewhon, and Ulupalakua -that cap the region about halfway up the slopes of Haleakala. It also laterally extends from Keokea to near Makawao where the rainforest of East Maui once began.

Article Photos

The Kwock Hing Society House in Upper Kula’s Keokea region was a Chinese enclave for decades at the turn of the century.

In most leeward areas away from the prevailing and moist tradewinds-called the rain shadow of Haleakala-the lower portion of Maui's Kula moku consists of a broad, arid expanse where little cultivation is possible. This zone consists of dry, desert-like open range just inland from the sea in artificially well-irrigated Kihei, and is covered with kiawe trees to an elevation of about 1,000 feet on the volcano's slopes that provide an imposing backdrop to the coastal region.

Between this zone and the upper reaches of the moku hillsides, especially up steep Waipoli and Poli Poli Roads, broad, open areas for vegetable and fruit crops and comprise most of Maui's farms. The climate makes the area especially productive due to the moderate climate that often yields as many as four harvests per year.

Maui's kula zone has taken on the more formal status as Kula, another of Maui's locales that is an area, rather than a town or village.

The twisty Haleakala Highway, from its junction with Kula Highway in Pukalani, loosely defines the eastern edge of Upper Kula. The road slices through usually green pastures and silvery eucalyptus tree groves, giving an immediate sensual relief to the monotony of the miles of sugar cane below. Where the road makes an abrupt upward tack to the national park beyond Kula Lodge, the ill-defined area known as Upper Kula clings to the Kekaulike Highway, that in less than five miles descends the slope to rejoin the Kula Highway near Rice Park and heads west to Keokea.

There is almost no commercial development along Kekaulike after the intersection with Haleakala Highway. But, Kula Botanical Gardens and Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, both great points of interest to visitors and locals alike, thrive in the area. Vegetable and flower gardens surround the meandering highway as farmers large and small take advantage of the area's unique combination of open space, good soil, moisture-laden clouds and filtered tropical sun.

New homes, nestled beside the older homes that look as though they have been there forever, dot the area, taking advantage of the moderate weather and bi-coastal views of the isthmus far below.

After Kekaulike rejoins the Kula Highway near Keokea, the imposing Kula Hospital sits on the hillside above the road. Originally a tuberculosis treatment sanitarium built in 1909, Kula Hospital now serves the sprawling community as a critical access hospital.

This area near the western edge of the Kula moku is also the site of the remnants of a once-flourishing Chinese community in the area that numbered over 700 family members of immigrant workers and farmers. While the area is now more mixed, Keokea is still home to a pair of Chinese family-owned stores and service station.

A mile or so beyond Keokea is the charming county park dedicated to one of the area's most famous former residents, Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese political leader often referred to as the "father of modern China." He lived in the area with his brother while he was in exile from his homeland during the revolution that established a democratic China.

Just as Upcountry residents cherish visits to the seashore for a break from the same old routine, residents near the shore equally relish a visit to Upper Kula, and the cooler temperatures that may even demand a fireplace in winter.

Like the saying goes: "It's cooler in Kula," and more and more are finding it appealing.

September 27, 2007

Wayne Smith



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