At Little Beach, hippies' naked legacy endures

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau
Monday, November 26, 2001

MAKENA, Maui — It was the late 1960s, and young Americans were growing their hair long, engaging in free love, experimenting with LSD and flexing their flower power.

They were also discovering the sun-splashed beaches and turquoise waters of Maui's remote southern coast.

By 1969, the hippies began arriving from California and elsewhere to establish a makeshift colony amid the sand, caves and kiawe near Makena — much to the bewilderment of the local population.

The hippie lifestyle included drugs, loud music and war protests, but it also meant living closer to nature and freedom from the constraints of clothing. Nakedness, as it turns out, is the movement's most enduring legacy at Makena.

Although it is against the law, public nudity has persisted for more than 30 years at Makena, and Little Beach, or Pu'u Ola'i Beach, has gained an international reputation for it.

That's not to say there haven't been attempts to stop it. A new proposal to put limits on the clothing-optional practice at Little Beach brings to mind previous run-ins between unabashed beachgoers and the authorities.

A hippie legacy

It all began with the hippies, who began showing up on Maui in 1969 to create a handful of settlements with colorful names such as Banana Patch, Soul Acres and Trouble Gulch.

At Makena, a shantytown was carved into the thick kiawe forest on the edge of Oneloa Beach, commonly called Big Beach, and at several neighboring beaches. In those days, nudity was the norm. Bonfires shot up from the beach. Hallucinogens and marijuana were common. Rock stars were said to have visited a happening place with a growing reputation.

The inhabitants of Makena got their water from friendly neighbors, their food from wherever they could.

Only a handful of locals visited the beach, including fishermen and others who were fascinated by the nudity.

Off the beach, the strange newcomers clashed with the establishment and were accused of freeloading and stealing. Mayor Elmer Cravalho scolded both sides at a Kihei Community Association meeting in March 1970.

To those who didn't like the newcomers, Cravalho said that his own grandfather might have been called a hippie and shipped back to Portugal if he had been judged on his appearance when he first came to Hawai'i.

To the hippies, he said hiding in the "boondocks at Makena" was cowardly and that they should get involved in the community.

Police step in

By late 1969, the police were raiding the place on a regular basis, looking for runaways, draft-dodgers and nude sunbathers.

U.S. Marshal Howard Tagomori, a former Maui Police Department vice officer, remembers driving on the dirt road to Makena in the early 1970s with a handful of officers to make busts.

Once a month, he'd make the trip with a 20-member task force.

The hippies posted lookouts, and Tagomori said there were times when the officers would sneak up around the northern side of the Pu'u Ola'i cinder cone and sometimes go over the hill.

"We were friends with most of the guys,'' recalled Tagomori, who later became Maui's police chief. "It was like a game. We would talk story with them.''

Former Maui officer Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. joined teams of officers that sometimes arrived before sunup to surprise the nude beachgoers, only to watch them scamper into the ocean. He said there were times when the officers waited hours for the swimmers to come back in. While he waited, he would serenade the group with his 'ukulele.

The Makena colony grew to 300 to 400 people before it was largely evicted in 1972 with the help of health officials and landowners concerned about the possibility of a disease outbreak.

But nude sunbathing persisted at Makena's more remote beach, Little Beach, which is tucked behind Pu'u Ola'i and separated from Big Beach by a 30-foot bluff.

Efforts to stop the nudity also continued, and it wasn't just the police.

U'ilani Endo said her family in those days traveled to Little Beach for its safe offshore break, and she remembers family members getting into fights with the naked beachgoers.

"I was raised bodysurfing there. Now, I can't even go there,'' said Endo, a Kahului resident.

Nudity persists

By the 1980s, nude sunbathing at Little Beach was well-established.

Californian Peter Rowley had read about the beach in a tourist book in 1981, and when he finally saw it, he was astonished by its beauty and peace.

"It was the embodiment of a totally relaxed, idealistic culture,'' he said. "It was amazingly beautiful, completely in a natural state. The people were friendly, and they were enjoying the fact they weren't wearing anything.''

It wasn't long before Rowley was a daily fixture. He joined a core group of regulars who looked after the beach, hauled out trash, acted as lifeguards and welcomed newcomers.

The group organized the Friends of Little Beach, and Rowley published a newsletter that was sent to 2,500 people. He became known as "the mayor of Little Beach."

Another thing happened in the '80s that had a significant effect on Little Beach: Hannibal Tavares was elected mayor of Maui County. The former police officer was adamantly opposed to nude sunbathing, and he instructed police to aggressively enforce the county's indecent exposure law.

Dozens of visitors and locals were arrested in police sweeps, but many of the cases didn't stick.

The Little Beach sunbathers had a friend in District Court Judge John Vail, who threw out a number of arrests of women for topless sunbathing

Vail ruled that baring only your breasts didn't meet the definition of nudity. He rejected other cases after ruling that Little Beach was not easily accessible to the public and, therefore, nudity at the beach was not likely to be observed by those who would be affronted or alarmed.

In response, authorities proposed a staircase over the bluff that leads to Little Beach, but that proposal never came to fruition.

State gets involved

When police attempts to enforce the law were stymied, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources stepped up enforcement of a law barring nudity at state parks. By that time, the area had become Makena State Park.

Rowley was singled out, arrested and convicted in a trial, but the case was appealed to the Hawai'i Supreme Court, which struck down the conviction in 1989 on a technicality: The justices determined the state had failed to hold a full public hearing during the development of its park rules.

The state eventually developed new rules, but by then Tavares' time in office was ending and the political winds had shifted, said Anthony Ranken, an attorney who represented many of those arrested at Little Beach in the 1980s.

The 1990s were relatively peaceful years for the nude sunbathers, with authorities choosing to look the other way. Rowley moved to Las Vegas, and another Little Beach regular, Tom Collins, took over as head of the Friends of Little Beach.

Dick Hyers, a board member, said the beach today exists in a harmonious confluence of groups that include new-styled hippies, gays, tourists and "your average Joe Blows, 35 and up, married with children, taxpayers and business owners.''

On Sundays, the hippies throw a large sunset celebration featuring a circle of drums and other instruments. The dancing continues into the night.

A gathering place

The Friends of Little Beach is still going strong, with members enjoying holiday potlucks in addition to socializing on the beach .

Hyers said he has made friends with hundreds of visitors who return year after year to a place known internationally as one of the top nude beaches in the world. There's a group of 10 to 20 couples from all over North America, for example, who meet on the beach every February.

Hyers said the beauty of Little Beach is the complete lack of social barriers. With no clothes to indicate social status, there is nothing to separate rich industrialists or high-powered surgeons from waiters or cab drivers. They're all just as naked.

After a decade of tranquility, however, conflict over the practice of nude sunbathing has emerged again. Native Hawaiian representatives on a committee convened by the state to make recommendations on a master plan for Makena State Park have been pushing for limits.

Maxwell, the former policeman who arrested nude sunbathers on Little Beach years ago, has filed a complaint asking authorities to enforce the nude sunbathing ban.

He said nudity is offensive to most Native Hawaiians and has prevented them from using the beach.

Maxwell, a cultural specialist, said ancient Hawaiians weren't nude unless they were procreating, and that's why Native Hawaiians today object to public nudity.

However, there are historical accounts — including those presented by Gavan Daws in his history of the Hawaiian Islands, "Shoal of Time" — that indicate nudity did exist before the missionaries arrived.

Maxwell said nude sunbathing amounts to another Western confiscation of land from Native Hawaiians.

"Why has your department enforced laws on kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) camping on the beach, and homeless people in Kanaha were evicted for camping on the beach?'' he wrote to authorities. "Yet these people in Makena are blatantly breaking the law and denying us the use of this beach.''

Officials said recent court rulings have thrown a cloud over enforcement.

Clarification may be needed from the state attorney general before action against nude patrons of Little Beach could begin again.

Contact Timothy Hurley at or (808) 244-4880.

© COPYRIGHT 2001 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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