In 1969, Maui was visited by hippies who established several settlements with unique names such as Banana Patch, Soul Acres, and Trouble Gulch. One of the shantytowns was created at Makena, where they lived in the thick kiawe forest next to Oneloa Beach, also known as Big Beach, and other nearby beaches.
Back then, nudity was common. However, the newcomers clashed with the locals and were accused of stealing and freeloading.
In March 1970, Mayor Elmer Cravalho addressed both sides at a Kihei Community Association meeting, reminding those who didn’t like the hippies that his own grandfather might have been considered a hippie and sent back to Portugal if he had been judged by his appearance when he first came to Hawai’i.
To the hippies, he said that hiding in the “boondocks at Makena” was cowardly and that they should become involved in the community. The police began raiding the area regularly, looking for runaways, draft-dodgers, and nude sunbathers. The Makena colony grew to 300 to 400 people before it was mostly evicted in 1972. However, nude sunbathing persisted at Makena’s more secluded Little Beach, which is located behind Pu’u Ola’i and separated from Big Beach by a 30-foot bluff.
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.
The 1990s were relatively peaceful years.
Rowley moved to Las Vegas, and another Little Beach regular, Tom Collins, took over as “Mayor of Little Beach.”
Dick Hyers, the former exchequer, 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 Little Beach sunset celebration featuring a circle of drums and other instruments. The dancing continues into the night.
The Friends of Little Beach/Maui SunSeekers is still going strong, with members enjoying holiday potlucks in addition to socializing on the beach. Dick Hyers has moved on, and now Dave Swanson heads up the group.
Hundreds of visitors 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.
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.
Fast forward today
Little Beach is a clothing-optional beach every day of the week, except on Saturdays and Sundays when, starting at around 3 pm, park officials may close the gate and issue citations for nudity. As someone who has dealt with many of these citations, I recommend wearing clothing after 3 pm on weekends until the officials stop targeting nudists and focus on more pressing matters.
The park officials have been successful in catching some people off guard. They use long-range photography, so wearing clothing may not always be effective in avoiding citations. If you do not have identification and provide them with a believable fake name, you may be able to avoid getting caught. However, if they suspect that you are lying, they may choose to arrest you.