October ‘Spotlight on Maui’: Halloween in Lahaina, the ‘Mardi Gras of the Pacific’

“Spotlight On Maui” is a monthly series written for Vacation Roost, an online accommodation site helping you find your perfect rental.

While some visitors to Maui may not realize it, from 1820 to 1845 the town of Lahaina dutifully served as ancient capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The “Wild West” of Hawaii, this  watering hole of a town was a precarious arrangement of pious missionaries, drunk whalers, and a confused monarchy of Hawaiian rulers just wondering who all these new white people were.

Hale Pa'i Museum in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

During the early 1800’s New England missionaries fought for the hearts and minds of the native Hawaiian people, bringing in printing presses and creating a written language in an effort to educate and convert the pagan population. Simultaneously, pent up whalers who had been at sea for too long stumbled to shore to get wild in the grog shops–and, when it came to the local female population, their attention was focused on parts of the body other than the hearts and minds. Throw in a rapidly modernizing monarchy trying to keep pace with the Western world, and it’s fair to say that Lahaina in the 1800’s was a pretty rowdy place.

Although the capital eventually moved to Honolulu, a host of cultural and historic sites in Lahaina still remain. While some sites such as Hale Pa’ahao on Prison Street (the building was actually the old prison) remain intact and are open for people to visit, others such as the royal palace grounds at Moku’ula are now covered in foliage and visited solely by those browsing  history books. In some venues, hugely historic events took place over an area too large to warrant a plaque or visitor site. On Luakini Street, a name applied to sacrificial heiaus (temples), a massive funeral procession was held in 1837 for the deceased Princess Nahi’ena’ena who passed away far too young at the age of 21.

Nowadays Luakini street is best known by visitors who are heading to Kobe steakhouse, looking for the public parking lot, or waiting to catch the bus on the backside of the Wharf Cinema Center. For the 10,000 or so residents who inhabit the modern day town of Lahaina, it’s easy to walk past places of immense cultural significance and be largely unaware of the history which follows you as you walk.

It’s for this reason that many native Hawaiian groups are opposed to the annual Front Street Halloween festivities which have been dubbed by many as the “Mardi Gras of the Pacific”. Shut down for two years due to concerns of lewd and raucous behavior on culturally significant sites, after the economic effects of eliminating one of the state’s biggest parties was felt by local merchants, Halloween on Front Street is ready for another throwdown come the very end of this month.

So why are native Hawaiian groups concerned? Because Halloween on Front Street gets crazy. And by crazy, I mean absolutely insane. Think the full moon party of Koh Pha Ngan meets the Mardi Gras of New Oreleans. Or the Carnival of Rio meets an Ibiza superclub. OK, maybe not that crazy, but considering this is still a part of the US it’s about as crazy as it can legally get.

Each October 31 a section of Lahaina’s Front Street is closed to traffic from 3:30pm until midnight, and it’s during this time when crowds of up to 20,000 revelers pack this one-mile, oceanfront section of street. Though the afternoon usually starts out calm with a keiki (children’s) costume contest and parade, by nightfall it’s time for the adults to party. As the night stumbles into the early morning hours, the costumes and general atmosphere get racier, raunchier an borderline out of control.

While the street scene is a party all to itself, given the strict open-container laws in Lahaina those looking to fuel the merriment with some liquid courage can be found jamming into bars from 505 Front Street clear down to the Hard Rock Cafe. More than just a popular party among locals, Halloween on Front St. is renowned throughout the Pacific and costumed partygoers fly in from the neighbor islands, mainland US, Canada, and beyond to take part in the tropical festivities.

With large crowds again expected for this year’s event, many in the community are hoping that the partygoers and native Hawaiian groups can strike an agreeable balance where a good time can still be had by all without the historic nature of the town being tarnished by lewdness and general debauchery. Then again, it’s not as if the whaler’s ever set a great example, and in some ways the party is all a part of this seedy port town’s past.

Thinking about visiting for Halloween? Why not check out Vacation Roost for an affordable list of places to stay on Maui.

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