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: 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.
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.
Tavares’ time in office ended shortly thereafter and the political winds shifted.