I spent some time exploring Maui a couple of years ago with my favorite travel companion, my wife. We'd already enjoyed Kauai, and the big island of Hawaii, but we had heard so much about Maui, we had to go. This year, we had arranged to visit Oahu for my birthday in May, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, that has been put on hold. Instead, I thought I would share photos of Maui to remind me of what we're missing. And we're missing a lot.
For this trip, we purchased a package deal with Hawaiian Airlines - airfare, condo in Kihei, and rental car. It was a great deal, and an incredibly memorable experience. We love a lot of history and nature on our trips, and we certainly weren't disappointed with Maui. A lot of folks just lie on the beach - which is fine - but we tend to pack a lot into our trips, so we were up early, usually with a breakfast of fresh pineapple and other local treats, then off to snorkel early in the day when the water is the calmest, and then off for the day, driving the north coast, the road to Hana, the road after Hana, hiking Haleakala National Park, exploring Lahaina's history, tracking down petroglyphs, chasing the best seafood, plate lunches, cocktails, and, of course, more snorkeling.
Where to begin? How about in and around Kihei, which has a heavy concentration of tourist lodging, but some sweet stretches of beach, decent shopping, great grocery stores (poke heaven!), and some prized food trucks. It's a great base for exploring the island, with day trips possible in every direction. We loved it, and it was budget-friendly. We had a condo on the third floor of a well-kept building, one block from the beach, with great views, fresh air, and plenty to do within walking distance.
In and around Kihei
One of our favorite things about Hawaii is the natural beauty and wildlife - on land, and in the sea. A short drive north of Kihei is the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge. It's a great place to take a walk on the boardwalk that takes you through beautiful wetlands filled with a variety of waterfowl, from the endangered Ae'o - the Hawaiian stilt, to the 'Auku'u - the black-crowned night heron. The Refuge preserves nesting, feeding, and resting habitat for endangered species, and provides human visitors with an excellent opportunity to do some relaxing bird watching, stroll the boardwalk and the beach, and enjoy some beautiful views on all sides. Morning and late afternoon/evening are the best times to visit, but really, anytime you're passing by, it's worth a stop.
Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Of course, you can stop there on your way to Lahaina, but as you head northwest on the Honoapiilani Highway, we made a detour, much of it on a dirt road, to visit the Olowalu Petroglyphs. Visiting Hawaii isn't worthwhile, in my opinion, if you don't try to learn something about the people to whom these islands truly belong - the native Hawaiians. Maui provides a number of opportunities to connect more with Hawaiian culture, both historically, and with contemporary culture. While the Olowalu site has degraded over time, it was inventoried and is said to contain about 70 petroglyphs, though only a handful are easily found. Still, this gives us a glimpse back to pre-European contact Hawaii, with figures of men and women, children, animals, boats, and more. The cliff they were carved on lies along the trail between the beautiful Olawalu Valley and the Iao Valley. We'll visit the Iao Valley, and it's bloody history, later.
Back on the Honoapiiliani Highway, we make sure to take the left into town and avoid the Lahaina Bypass. The bypass is good if you're headed north and have explored Lahaina to your heart's content, but Lahaina is one of my must-stop places on Maui.
Once, Lele (meaning "relentless sun" in Hawaiian) was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the early 19th century. Then Lahaina, as it became known, ended up as a whaling town during the mid-19th century. Up to 1,500 sailors from as many as 400 ships took leave in Lahaina, including Herman Melville. Whalers would hunt whales in the Arctic, and then, after months of freezing temperatures, hard work, and long, long days at sea, they would arrive in Lahaina. Their elation at leaving the Artic for Maui, was turned to song in the old sailing song, "Rolling Down to Old Maui," a song I've sung many times.
Once more we sail with a northerly gale Towards our island home. Our mainmast sprung, our whaling done, And we ain't got far to roam. Six hellish months have passed away On the cold Kamchatka Sea, But now we're bound from the Arctic ground Rolling down to Old Maui.
I intend to record a ukulele version of the song now that I have actually been to Lahaina and understand just how happy it would make me to return - whether I went whaling first, or not.
Lahaina now is a seaside town of art galleries, restaurants, shopping, shave ice, museums, and a base for fun activities on the water. The whalers would still love it, though they'd probably wind up in jail now - they weren't always the most respectful or appreciative guests. The town is on the National Register of Historic Places, as it should be, and you can conduct your own walking tour of the historic town, while enjoying all its modern amenities. Over 50 acres of historic Lahaina have been preserved, and you can walk the Lahaina Historic Trail to see the U.S. Seamen's Hospital, Hala Paahao (the Lahaina Prison), the Pioneer Inn, Maui's incredible banyan tree,
We caught the Baldwin Home Museum, the Plantation Museum, the Banyan Tree, and the Hale Pa'ahao Old Prison, among other stops, Together they provided a fascinating glimpse into Lahaina's past, from it's days as capital, through World War II. One favorite was the Wo Hiing Museum, a Chinese temple on Front Street. Lahaina's Chinese community formed the Wo Hing Society in the early 1900s, which built this temple and social hall in 1912. It is now an excellent small museum. We were lucky enough to stumble onto an impromptu solo guzheng (like the Japanese koto) concert in the social hall upstairs. It was supposed to be rehearsal for a later performance, but the friendly museum staff allowed us to enjoy it.
There's so much history to see in Lahaina that you can easily spend more than a full day exploring it all. While it seems many visitors shop and dine and enjoy the recreational opportunities based in Lahaina, if you leave the historical experiences out of your visit, I think you're only skimming the surface. The best place to begin your exploration is online at the site for the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. You can find maps and information for all of the historical sites in and around Lahaina there.
From Lahaina, we continued north on the Honoapiilani Highway to Ka'anapali on the northwestern coast of Maui. Here, large tony resorts, golf courses, and long stretches of beautiful beaches await. Unlike many travel writers who cater to everything luxury, I'm not an enormous fan of heavily developed upscale beaches. I much prefer that lonely stretch of road up ahead with its hidden coves, rugged coastline, and lush hillsides - the place where the highway turns into kind of a two lane road, filled with hairpin curves and breathtaking sights. Folks will talk about the Road to Hana, which is wonderful, but this north shore drive is also excellent.
First stop was Honolua Bay, part of the Honolua-Mokuleia Bay Marine Life Conservation District. There, we walked through the trees to the bay, where we snorkeled for hours. While snorkeling boat expeditions anchor in the mouth of the bay, and snorkelers swim out from the shore, the bay is large enough to let you enjoy yourself without feeling cramped. A truly delightful place - very difficult to leave. But on we (eventually) went.
We stopped off at the Nakalele Blowhole, which wasn't doing much (tide must have been out) when we arrived. But there was a coconut truck there, so we indulged in some fresh coconut milk straight from the coconut, and then had the coconut meat to enjoy. Refreshing! In Kahakkuloa Village, we stopped for Julia's Banana Bread - reputed to be the best banana bread on Maui (yeah, banana bread's definitely a thing here, and you can get it any way you want, from plain to fried). Whether it's the best banana bread on Maui, I can't say, as I am not the world's authority on banana bread. It was superb, however, and a delightful stop. You can order Julia's products, including her delicious guava jam and passion fruit butter online HERE. It's not cheap, but it's so good. Oh my!
The Kahekili Highway, as the winding two-lane (sometimes down to one lane) road along the north shore is known, is stunningly beautiful, but make sure to pay attention to the road. Traffic is supposed to be one way only for stretches of the drive, but that's not always the case, and the blind curves and potential for disaster help keep the excitement level high. I don't recommend this drive for the more timid driver, and this definitely is not a road to speed on either. Take your time, enjoy the view, and forget that some folks refer to it as "the trail of death and enlightenment." Soon, you'll find yourself winding your way back into civilization, arriving at Paukukalo, where you'll head south, and then turn back westward into the mountains to visit Iao Valley State Park.
Iao Valley has a rich history, and a lush landscape. Here, you can hike up to a viewpoint of Kuka'emoku, the Iao Needle, a landmark that rises 1,200 feet from the valley floor. The area is a state monument, and it's a place of significant cultural, spiritual, and historical significance for native Hawaiians.
It was here, in 1790, that Kamehameha's army conquered the army of Maui as he fought to unify his rule over the islands at the bloody battle of Kepaniwai. Don't let the lush greenery and the soothing sounds of the river running here detract from the brutal killing field that this lovely valley was back then. But do enjoy the rainforest and the stunning views.
Back out to Kahului, you can find shopping, dining, and other attractions like the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, detailing the island's sugar growing history. It's well worth a stop. Of course, all this is a bit much for a day. Our trip went more like this: Day 1: Arrival, get situated, explore Kihei
Day 2: Snorkeling in the morning, visit Lahaina for the afternoon and evening
Day 3: Drive the north shore, snorkel, eat banana bread, visit the Iao Valley
Day 4: Head inland
Kahului is one of the towns on Maui that you can often visit on your way elsewhere - especially if you're headed to the mauka (mountain) side of the island, as opposed to the makai (ocean) side, or if you're headed to the Road to Hana. But we chose the mauka side of the island, specifically the breathtaking (literally - you're up around 10,000 feet most of the time) Haleakalā National Park. If I have one reason to return to Maui that stands out more than any other, it is to return here to stay in one of the cabins in the park and backpack down to the coast. This is a landscape that can weave its way into your dreams. Please excuse the abundance of photos - this landscape captivated my imagination and I couldn't get enough. Many people go there for sunrise. We chose to snorkel instead, but if you do want to catch a sunrise there, plan on reserving a slot. It's quite popular.
Haleakalā National Park
Of course, the mauka side of the island has other attractions as well. We stopped for a bite at the Surfing Goat Dairy, which has wonderful award-winning goat cheeses you can sample, along with goat cheese truffles (out of this world). I couldn't pick a favorite cheese out of the six or so we enjoyed. They were all delicious. Surfing Goat Dairy offers tours where you can learn more about the goats and the cheese making process, or you can take their evening tour and milk the goats and tuck them in for the night. A wonderful place to stop for a snack, shopping, to pet the goats, or spend the entire day.
Down the road is an operation near and dear to my piratical heart - the Ocean Organic Vodka distillery. They distill from sugarcane and they grow over 30 species organically on their property, while the water they use is deep ocean mineral water. During our visit, they had some rums they were making as well. You can tour the distillery and enjoy a tasting outdoors. You'll definitely want to take home a bottle (or more), and now you can replenish supplies on the mainland.
A stop in Makawao is also worthwhile. This is an old paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) town, now filled with art and dining, and shopping. It's retained a feel for its plantation past and it's home to the Makawao Rodeo, held on Independence Day.
While it seems like we've seen a lot, I'm keenly aware that we've missed more than we've seen. What that tells me is that another trip to Maui is called for. But first, everyone likes to talk about the fact they've "done" the Road to Hana. It's a twisty, windy, two-lane road that travels down the east shore of Maui, and makes for a wonderful full day trip. Most people, especially those who listen to their rental car companies, drive to Hana and turn around and go back. But after our driving adventures, from the back roads of the Peloponnese to central Athens, the mountainous routes of Lesvos, and our own desert trails, we chose to press on for the most adventurous part of the drive - the road PAST Hana. I'm glad we did, though again, this was often a one-lane, gravel road, with blind curves (and speeding native drivers in pickup trucks). It was so beautiful though.
Hana is only 52 miles from Kahului. But that 52 miles includes 620 curves and 59 bridges, many of which are one-lane. While the Hana Highway is certainly winding and narrow, if you take your time, it's a drive immersed in beauty, on both the makai and mauna sides. There are plenty of waterfalls (many are easy stops), roadside stands, attractions, and sweeping vistas that make it a memorable drive.
One stop I'd recommend is the Garden of Eden, an arboretum filled with trails that allow you to wander among over 700 species of native and indigenous species of plants, including some donated by George Harrison of the Beatles. The 2.5 miles of trails go by quickly and Alan Bradbury's vision for this site has paid off with the opportunity to immerse ourselves in natural Hawaiian beauty (and yes, they sell banana bread there too).
Garden of Eden and the Road to Hana
There are many, many places to stop on the Road to Hana, and for our next trip, I'd really like to take more time exploring this coastline. There are hiking trails, black sand beaches, waterfalls, more botanic gardens, and cultural sites that deserve our attention. It would be best to book a night or two in Hana to allow for this further exploration.
But while we stopped often, we made it a point to head off to the makai side of the highway to visit Kahanu Garden, just outside of Hana. It was a magical place where you can still feel the spirit of ancient Hawaii. The coast here is rugged, and the garden hosts the Pi'ilanihale Heiau, a monolithic lava-rock creation believed to be the largest ancient man made structure in all of Polynesia. I may be just another haole, but this spiritual site emanates energy and power still today, and you can feel it when you are in its presence. Chief Pi'ilani ruled over these lands in the 16th century, and he couldn't have chosen a more beautiful land to rule.
Hana is a sweet town, and a joy to explore. At the south end of town, out at Koki Beach, lies one of my favorite dining establishments - Huli Huli Chicken. Sure, it's not a restaurant, but a tent with some lovely local women cooking up some absolutely 'ono chicken that you can eat at picnic tables along the beach with a world class view. It's a poor man's five-star dining experience, and the food is five star-plus incredible. There's nothing quite like eating fresh cooked huli huli chicken outdoors on the beach, gazing out at Alau Island with birds swirling about it. It is absolutely the proper way to prepare yourself for what's to come - the road after Hana.
Huli Huli Chicken and Koki Beach
Fortified, it's time to continue our journey along the road after Hana. The rental car companies will tell you not to go this way. They're just trying to take all the fun out of your vacation (and keep you from destroying their vehicles in a place they don't want to have to go to pick them up). You are, however, on your own if you need a tow or are stranded. The rental car companies will not rescue you.
The road is fine - for a while - and you start thinking, this isn't bad at all. And really, it's not. Until a Toyota Tacoma whips around a blind curve on a gravel stretch of the road at blinding speed, and you're not quite sure if both of you will fit as he passes, and he's definitely going to try to pass because he's not slowing down. There are times when you may wonder what you're thinking by not listening to the rental car companies, but as you wind along, you traverse the jungles of Kipahulu, grasslands, volcanic landscapes, and rainforest, you realize, despite the occasional cliffside vertigo, that this is one incredible drive.
You pass across the slopes of Haleakala, Maui's enormous volcano, and the Seven Sacred Pools, and on to a surprise you hadn't expected to find - Lindbergh's grave. Yes, on the makai side of the road, you can find the grave of the legendary aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Nearby, you'll also find the graves of Sam Pryor and his gibbons. Pryor was friends with Lindbergh and gave him five acres of land near here.
There's also the funky historic Kaupo General Store, in operation since 1925 (and the woman running the place when we stopped acted like she had been working there since 1925 - 24/7 - and couldn't wait to get off work), and St. Joseph's Catholic Church, now in decay. This is also the bathroom stop you may have been waiting for, and if so, expect to pay. You'll start noticing a lot of lava - luckily hardened and cooled - around here. That's the product of the Kaupo Gap, at the summit of Haleakala. If Hawaii has more of something than it does tourists, that must be lava.
If you've done this drive as a day trip - the whole Road to Hana and after Hana experience - then you may be nearing sunset, and sunset along this coastline is magnificent. Just don't get hungry, because the restaurants along this stretch of the Piilani Highway close early. We arrived at Maui Wine's winery just too late for a tasting. They were open, and conducting a tasting, and could have accommodated us easily, but chose not to do so. Maybe we looked more like beer drinkers. Or organic vodka and rum drinkers?
Now, it would be easy to get back over to the coast from where the highway turns north, but no. It cannot be. Evidently, the only easy route at this point to get you back to the coast and into Wailea and on into Kihei, goes through Oprah's property, and she's not letting tourists or locals drive through her place. So, instead, we turn north and inland, for a very long drive back to Kihei.
The Road AFTER Hana
Maui became one of my favorite destinations after only nine very packed, very special days. There's so much more to explore and experience on this one island that it begs for another trip. When we travel to Hawaii, we try to support local businesses as much as possible, and we try to be as respectful as possible. We're guests, not tourists. The locals put up with a lot from visitors, and I try to add as little to that load as possible.
This is, by no means, the ultimate travel guide to Maui. I almost always only write about destinations and attractions I have personally experienced, so if we didn't get a chance to do something this trip, it's not here. I've seen so many atrociously awful internet "ultimate guide to" stories that were written by someone googling things, that I strongly recommend doing your own research prior to embarking on your journeys.
I also highly recommend the "Maui Revealed" guidebook by Andrew Doughty for a place to begin. It's more fun than the internet, and has a ton of good information to get you excited about an upcoming island vacation.
Hawaiian Airlines often offers great value vacation packages that include airfare, lodging, and rental car. That is what we used for this trip, and what we had planned to use for our Oahu trip, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic taking a wrecking ball to our plans. However, as Hawaiian Airlines would only refund our lodging and rental car portion of the package, it appears we will be forced to return to Hawaii in the near future, or we will lose our airfare payment. We will wait until it's clearly safe, and not a strain on locals, before we plan that return visit.
Best place to grab some awesome poke to go: Foodland Kihei
Best place to grab a beer: Maui Brewing Co.
Best place for fish tacos, curry fish, ceviche and more: South Maui Fish Company
Best place to grab some fresh smoked Marlin: Along the roadside of the Honoapiilani Highway from fishermen
Best chicken: Huli Huli Chicken, Koki Beach
Best shave ice: Ululani's