By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi, Honolulu Star Advertiser
(original print date: July 25, 2009)
The words “Semi-Boss” are engraved on the blue-and-silver name tag that Michael Baskin wears to work every day. Chat with the genial proprietor of the Paia Inn Hotel and he’ll be happy to share the story behind that curious title.
When he was growing up in the Caribbean, his parents owned a 24-room hotel called Baskin in the Sun. His dad, Alan, wore a similar name tag.
“Guests would notice it and say, ‘Semi-Boss? I don’t understand. Who’s the boss?'” Baskin recalled. “He would point to them and say, ‘You are. You’re the boss.’ My dad was very customer service-oriented. He listened to guests and always made them feel special.”
That same philosophy lies at the heart of the Paia Inn Hotel, which Baskin owns and operates with his wife, Sarah. Working at Baskin in the Sun taught him the hospitality business from the ground up. As a boy, he remembers doing everything from manning the front desk to teaching sailing and scuba diving to entertaining guests by climbing palm trees to pick coconuts.
Years later, Baskin also is hands-on at the Paia Inn Hotel, greeting guests, planning private parties and teaching stand-up paddling lessons.
“Our staff is like a family,” he said. “Everyone pitches in.”
The inn’s five rooms are in a two-story building that dates back to the early 1920s when Paia was a bustling Maui sugar plantation town. Baskin acquired it more than a decade ago, but leased it while he focused on architectural design projects on Maui and in Asia. When the lease expired at the end of 2007, he decided to invest in floor-to-ceiling improvements and reopen it as a family-run hostelry.
It took six months to complete the renovations, which reflect the impeccable taste of Baskin and his wife, a talented designer in her own right. Chic and contemporary without being pretentious, the decor features furniture from Asia, including Thailand and Bali, most selected by the couple during their travels abroad, and signed, Hawaiian-themed giclees by acclaimed artist Avi Kiriati, who lives just a few miles away in Haiku (original paintings fill his eponymous on-site gallery).
Opened in June 2008, the inn exudes a charm, intimacy and homeyness that can’t be found at big resorts. When guests check in, they enjoy a welcome glass of wine and peek at Poncho, Barley and Hops, the resident goldfish. Bowls in the lobby are filled with complimentary lilikoi, apples and tangerines, and in the upstairs lounge, games and guidebooks can be borrowed on the honor system.
Rooms include niceties discriminating travelers expect: 500-thread-count sheets, travertine tile bath, hardwood floors, high-definition flat-screen TV and an iPod docking station. There’s even champagne in the minibar.
Every morning, guests gather for muffins, scones, fresh fruit, oatmeal, coffee and organic tea on the patio. Fringed with edible and native Hawaiian plants including palms, ti, naupaka, sage, oregano and hau and papaya trees, this quiet oasis is also a relaxing place to read, surf the Net on a laptop and enjoy an al fresco supper (Flatbread Co. next door delivers ono pizza).
The inn is also green in other ways. A solar-powered water heater; recycling receptacles in the common areas; biodegradable cups, plates and cutlery for breakfast service; and organic Maui-made Love Inside Out bath products packaged in recyclable materials are among its many eco-friendly practices.
Although none of the rooms have an ocean view, guests can walk to pretty Paia Bay in a minute via a private path. Beyond it, Secret Beach and Baldwin Beach are two other spectacular playgrounds that have helped establish the North Shore as the hub of water sports on Maui.
“They add up to three miles of white sand, and they’re all great for swimming, snorkeling, paddling, bodysurfing and boogie boarding,” Baskin said. “During the winter, big waves roll in for surfing, and two miles away, Hookipa Beach is a world-famous windsurfing and kiteboarding spot.”
Paia is a draw in itself. Although it exudes the funky, laid-back ambience of a surfer/New Agey enclave, its shops are surprisingly stylish, carrying jewelry, clothing and art that will appeal to those accustomed to browsing on Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive.
Crowds pack more than a dozen restaurants serving everything from Kula strawberry gelato and tofu burgers to crispy duck fajitas and rack of lamb drizzled with a lilikoi, green peppercorn and saffron sauce.
All of the boutiques, galleries and restaurants are within easy walking distance of the inn.
“Staying with us right in town, guests feel like they’re part of the neighborhood,” Baskin said.
Giving back to the community strengthens that connection; the Paia Inn Hotel donates 1 percent of its revenues to guests’ choice of three local charities. Recipients change every year; this year they are Camp Imua, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and the Paia Youth & Cultural Center.
The inn might be small but it’s making a big difference.
“It’s important to me and my family to support worthy causes and to involve our guests in the decision-making process,” Baskin said. “Although they may be visiting for just a short time, they can, through this program, help make Maui an even better, more beautiful place.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.