It’s hard to say whether the durian tree standing along the Old King’s Trail is the oldest durian on Maui. It could be, but people tend to stay hush-hush about their durian trees. Many people came here seeking seclusion, and the last thing they want is durian hunters traipsing across their property. The trees, if you can find them, are some of Maui’s best-kept secrets.
So I’m not going to 100% ruin this secret durian for you. Secrets are ephemeral, precious commodities lost or destroyed in a moment. Secrets taste better than other things, because if you get to experience a secret, you know you’re lucky.
I certainly felt lucky when Jason King, a Maui local, invited me to visit this old tree hidden in a lush valley along the Hana Highway.
So I’m going to let this durian be flavored with the gratitude of being let in on a secret.
About the Hana Highway
The Hana Highway is the serpentine 64 miles of asphalt that crawls in and out of breathtakingly lush valleys and crevices along the northeastern coast of Maui. There are 59 bridges and countless waterfalls, and amazing views overlooking the ocean. The pace is slow, and cars often block the one-lane bridges as tourists stop to snap a photo.
It’s a place where you can believe for a moment that Eden was real.
Along this stretch are few signs of civilization. There a handful of coconut stands, a barbecue hut, and an ice cream store that close at sundown. If not for the winding line of cars stuffed with camera-wielding tourists, you might feel as if you’d discovered a totally untouched corner of the world.
This is exactly how the inhabitants, tucked away in their off-grid homes along the valley crevices, want it.
The thing you have to know about Michael’s house is that he carried it there himself. On his back. Piece by piece.
The only road to Michael’s house is the narrow trail built by King Pi’ilani in the 16th century. It was once a highway lined with basalt rocks running over 220 miles in a circle around the island, but over centuries of disuse the trail is now pocked and disturbed by lumbering roots.
We crossed two streams on the way, knowing that whatever durians we purchased from Michael, we were going to be carrying back out on our backs. Jason was prepared and brought two large camping backpacks.
The trail isn’t too long, but immediately you feel engulfed by the jungle and the pounding surf of the ocean below, which if you took two steps to the right of the trail, you would fall into and probably not survive.
Jason told me about Michael’s lifestyle on the long, slow drive down the Hana Coast. He’d never met Michael, but he’d heard the rumors. Michael was a buddhist monk. Michael was a mathematical boy-genius turned hermit.
How did Michael become the hermit of Maui’s secret durian tree? I wondered.
When we arrived, Michael was standing on his porch in tall rubber boats, durians jumbled along the counter and filling the wheelbarrow beside him. We were right on time.
He gave us hugs and smiled. For a hermit, he was surprisingly friendly.
As I took this picture he looked up at me and pointed over our heads. “The tree is there,” he said.
I turned and there it was, rising over the low canopy of his garden like an enormous Christmas tree.
I heard a rustle, and then a thud. The first durian of our visit had fallen. By the time we left, five or six had fallen altogether, each one audible from all corners of the property.
Leaves crashing. Thud.
Other than that, it was quiet at Michael’s house.
Most of the durians had fallen that night, or the day before. Michael worried they might taste unripe, since they weren’t splitting on their own.
I shook and smelled them and found one I thought would be perfect. But before I could open it, I had to promise Michael I wouldn’t complain about the quality if it still tasted unripe.
As I readied the durian for opening, I couldn’t help but feel that the durian seemed very familiar. No, can’t be….
The durian, at first glance, looked surprisingly like a Musang King.
There was the flat brown bottom with the hint of a star running up the seams.
The shape was pear-like, with a heavy bottom and narrowing to an almost smooth crown, Musang King’s most common shape.
The color of the thorns wasn’t quite right, but when you take a durian and plant it in a new biome, its pretty common for the coloring to be different. Just look at Green-skinned Red Prawns in Johor.
The crown around the stem also didn’t seem right, and the thorns were just a bit too widely spaced and pyramidal, but the similarity made me pause. Really? I thought. Here? In the middle of Hana Coast?
Well, I guess it’s possible that a seedling of a Musang King relative ended up on Michael’s property.
The question was if the durian was yellow inside.
I’i Nui has a cream-colored flesh tinged golden bronze that gives its thick, voluptuous folds delicious shadows. Inside, it doesn’t taste or look anything like Musang King.
But it’s not fruity tasting, which already gives it a thumbs up in my book. I would label the flavor of this durian Oreos and Milk.
Michael was skeptical as I fought open the durian on his porch, worrying that it would taste underripe. He typically prefers to wait until the fruits have started to crack open by themselves, about a day and a half after falling.
When at last I got it open, I noticed that the color was a bit darker and silkier than durians that had fallen the day before, but the texture was super thick, sticky, and milky, with a subtle hint of something darker.
Michael said he preferred it a little bit older, once the texture was looser and more watery, and the flavor had lightened and become more floral. Jason concurred.
Personally, I think if I had waited just another 30 minutes after opening, the durian would have been just perfect.
I’i Nui is not a bitter durian. It’s sweet and mild, perhaps in the same flavor category as D24. But unlike D24, I’i Nui is not voluptuous. This was my biggest complaint about it — it’s a temptress of a durian.
The shell is pretty thick, and the seeds are large and round. A lot of the durians had low pollination with only two or three mature pods in each fruit and a whole lot of shell.
So you get a taste and get really excited, but there’s no more, leaving you with harsh cravings.
The average durian lover would need to eat three or four of these durians all by themselves to even start to take the burn off the craving.
Which, at $4-5 per pound (depending on availability) makes I’i Nui both an expensive and difficult to obtain treasure.
But if you manage to get some, you will definitely feel like you experienced something magical. Maybe it’s the durian, but most likely it’s meeting Michael and entering his slightly fantastical, beautiful garden tucked away in the quiet jungle.
How I’i Nui Got There
As we walked around his orchard, Michael pointed to rock walls and stone paths that wound along the hillside. He said they were remnants of kalo lo’i, the terraced paddies where ancient Hawaiians grew taro. Nearby was a black basalt rock, where the women pounded taro into a sticky paste called poi.
“In the thousand years that Hawaiians lived here, they never made war on this piece of land,” he said. “This was always a place of peace.”
Michael purchased the 6 acres in the 1970’s, when the land was nothing but scrub brush. He cleared it by hand, whenever he could get time off from his job as a mathematics professor at UCLA. These days keeps the jungle back with a mower that he dragged in over the bumpy trail (2 creeks, remember).
One of the first two trees Michael carried there was a durian tree and a mamey sapote tree that he bought while shopping for food at the Maui Mall in Kahalui over 30 years ago.
Twenty years went buy, and one day Michael decided to do some weeding. He found a thorny fruit. “Now where did that come from?” he wondered for a moment, before remembering the small treelings he had bought so many years before. They had been swallowed by jungle.
Michael cleared the space of weeds. The mamey sapote tree was still alive too, but was crowding out the durian. Forced to choose between the two trees, Michael chose durian.
The rest is history.
Conclusion: Revealing I’i Nui
“You know that book Maui Revealed?” Jason asked me as we wove along the coast, his car oozing durian aroma.
I knew it. It’s an alternative guidebook that that promises the local scoop on things to do and places to go. My family used it on a trip when I was 13, when we accidentally and hilariously stumbled onto a beach of nude locals.
“Locals hate that guy now,” Jason said, referring to the book’s author. “He ruined Maui for the locals. I hope you’re not going to do that to our Maui durian. We still don’t have enough Maui durians for Maui, not to mention tourists.”
It was something I hadn’t considered. Maui Revealed was designed to give an inside scoop on beaches and waterfalls with few crowds; with the release of the books, quiet lanes became congested with lost tourists, and families like mine stumbled onto nude beaches.
But at the same time, Maui Revealed allowed many people to have a more authentic, richer experience. It shifted focus from big, oceanside resorts to smaller, more local businesses, changing tourism in Maui forever. And I’i Nui is also changing the landscape of durian on Maui.
Michael’s neighbor has planted over 60 durian trees, 15 of them seedlings of I’i Nui. The trees are seven years old. In three or four years, the trees will begin bearing and the durian situation in Maui will change. Getting I’i Nui durians won’t be so difficult or so rare, but they will certainly be just as appreciated as now.
But Michael’s mother tree, and Michael himself, will always remain a hidden piece of something precious.
Last year, a group of filmmakers made a video about Michael and his unconventional life. You can watch their Kickstarter trailer here.