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Lower Kula

July 9, 2009
Maui Weekly

n the minds of many Maui residents, Kula is the island's unexpected jewel. They happily leave the fringe of sun-drenched sand to visitors and newcomers, making their homes and raising their families in the slow-paced communities that dot the north slope of Haleakala.

Kula is the heart of Maui's "Upcountry," a rambling region of the island where once farmers, cowboys, planters and other country folks were the primary residents. The ill-defined boundary between Lower Kula and Upper Kula is largely drawn only in the minds of the residents, with no one having a distinct line to point to.

When the Territorial Legislature first set up the political design for the state in 1906, they decreed only two levels of government: state and county. Therefore, none of Hawai'i's cities or villages actually have boundaries or "city limits."

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In the late 1800s, Portuguese and Chinese immigrants, who had fulfilled their labor contracts with the sugarcane plantations, moved to this area, drawn by the rural agricultural lifestyle.

That's why Lower Kula is more a state of mind than a place, more a lifestyle than a single location on Maui's map. It's a nebulous place along a 15-mile swath of land encompassing a region between about 1,000 and 4,000 feet of elevation along the northern flank of Haleakala, our long-dormant volcano that dominates the island's landscape and the Kula district.

With its protea and lavender gardens, manicured fields of personal and commercial vegetable farms and fruit orchards intermingled with stands of gray-green eucalyptus forests, emerald meadows, and hills rolling down, down, down to the curve of shoreline, Lower Kula is a taste of pure Maui.

Communities along the old Lower Kula Road with names like Pulehu, Waiakoa, Omaopio and Keokea attest to Lower Kula's Hawaiian heritage, but each also has its own history of ethnic settlements by Maui's first waves of newcomers-immigrant plantation workers.

In the late 1800s, Portuguese and Chinese immigrants, who had fulfilled their labor contracts with the sugarcane plantations, moved to this area, drawn by the rural agricultural lifestyle. Later, large numbers of Japanese farmers moved into the fertile area.

These farmers have been producing vegetables ever since. In fact, during the gold rush in California, the Hawaiian farmers in Kula shipped so many potatoes that it was nicknamed "Nu Kaleponi," a sort of pidgin Hawaiian pronunciation of "New California."

That farming tradition and lifestyle continue today, among the fancy gentlemen farms that have sprung up in the past two decades. Kula continues to grow its well-known onions, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower and cabbage. It is also a major source of cut flowers for the state: Most of Hawai'i's proteas, as well as nearly all the carnations used in leis, come from Kula.

Lower Kula is generally thought of as the region encompassing the areas mauka and makai of Lower Kula Road, the remnants of the old county road that once spanned the region before the present Kula Highway was finished in 1964. The old meandering road crisscrosses the straight-as-an-arrow modern highway in numerous places along its length from Pukalani to Keokea, and gives frequent access to varied segments of the elongated community.

Even after nearly 50 years, there are no businesses along the "new" highway, while the well-worn old road is dotted with the usual establishments that serve a rural community, including historic churches. Holy Ghost Catholic Church, is celebrated for its unique octagonal shape and wonderful hand-carved alter. Its beautiful turret is a landmark on the slopes of Haleakala, visible from much of Central Maui below. It was constructed in 1894 by Portuguese immigrants who settled in the area to begin a new life in a new country.

In the past decade, the lush natural beauty, great bi-coastal views and cooler climate of Lower Kula have drawn a new type of resident to the district.

Large and small plots of agricultural land are being carved up to make small "gentleman farms" with their customarily large and sometimes lavish homes. Clusters of new and older homes above and below the old Lower Kula Road are becoming denser as newcomers and old timers alike search for their special place. And of course, with the influx of people, the narrow county roads are becoming clogged with more traffic.

But, the bottom line is simple. While life in Kula is changing, the area remains the preferred home for newcomers and long-time residents alike who choose to live a world away from the bustling beach resorts on the coasts below.

It's the attitude.

August 23, 2007

Wayne Smith



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