Hansen: Olympic battle between Laguna and Lahaina

August 01, 2012|By David Hansen

Whenever you visit Santa Barbara or Carmel or Lahaina, it's hard not to compare them to Laguna Beach. All are filled with beach-loving, art-minded tourists clamoring for something special.

Which is better? How do they compare? Who wins the gold medal? Well, it depends.

Today we will score the battle of Laguna versus Lahaina, the comparatively sized city on the west side of Maui. If you've never been, it has about 11,000 residents but its population swells to more than 40,000 because of vacationers. Like Laguna, it also boasts about 3 million tourists annually.

So there are many things about Lahaina that remind you of Laguna, but there are differences as well.

One obvious similarity is Lahaina has art — sort of. On paper, it has all the trappings of the wine and cheese set, including that fancy pocket guide listing galleries and various exhibits.


For example, it has a Wyland gallery, courtesy of the prolific artist with strong Laguna roots. It's always strange, by the way, seeing a Wyland in other beach towns because it's sort of like going to Disneyland in Paris. Does context matter?

In this case, a Wyland actually works better in Lahaina. He probably does good business there. The colors and vivacity of his fish and ocean somehow seem more 3-D and less treacly.

But the art in Lahaina is not on par with Laguna. There's some interesting work, but overall, it's not particularly compelling. Gold medal: Laguna.

The next heat is schlock. Because both towns cater to tourists, both have lots of inane trinkets. And boy oh boy does Lahaina excel here, with T-shirt shops on nearly every corner. As much as Laguna residents may sometimes grouse about the city's strict business codes, there is something to be said for limiting T-shirt shops and chain restaurants.

So for downtown business originality, the gold goes to Laguna.

Having said that, Lahaina knows its tourists. The city is clearly a well-oiled machine and tourism dominates the job market. Almost everything is tied to tourists in some way.

Lahaina knows better than to bite the hand that feeds them (at least publicly). They think through the tourist amenities, crowd control and assorted pleasantries. Laguna may try hard here, but Lahaina has mastered tourist management. Lahaina gets the gold.

But who wins the coveted traffic award? This one is difficult. Both towns have geographic constraints, tight budgets, bureaucracies and stubborn locals.

Coastline Pilot Articles Coastline Pilot Articles