There’s a reason Maui continuously gets rated as one of the world’s best islands by readers of various travel publications. Actually, there are multiple reasons for this distinction. Many of them hit home for me on a recent visit to this tropical locale, a place I like to refer to as "Paradise."
Photo by Deborah Stone The Iao Valley, a lush, stream cut valley in West Maui
Our family vacation timed perfectly with the onset of one of the worst winter snowstorms to ever hit the Seattle area. We gladly exchanged our frigid white landscape for palm trees and sunshine. And we reveled in hearing the same, monotonous forecast repeated day after day during our stay.
Yes, the weather is one of the main reasons people head for this 727-square-mile island that lies just below the Tropic of Cancer. Particularly in the winter months, folks need to escape their inhospitable climates and find solace in the sun. Maui’s temperatures remain fairly consistent year round, with usually no more than a 10-degree fluctuation between seasons. You can count on warm, sunny days most of the time and even when it rains, it doesn’t last long. And unlike Seattle, Maui’s liquid sunshine doesn’t chill you to the bone.
Another top draw for this island is its beaches. With 120 miles of coastline, there are more than 80 of these sun-burnished playgrounds. The question is how to pick the one that matches your needs.
If you want to see and be seen, head for Dig Me Beach in Kaanapali.
For good swimming, head for Kapalua Beach at the Kapalua Resort or D.T. Fleming Beach, a few miles north of Lahaina. Both are protected from strong winds and currents and their calm waters are ideal for swimmers of all ages and abilities.
A personal favorite of mine is Big Beach on the southwest part of the island. It’s one of the last major undeveloped beaches in this area and it gets high marks because it’s long and wide and never crowded. Most days it can feel like your own private retreat.
Then there’s Wailea Beach, a gorgeous, golden crescent of sand that’s spacious and protected on both sides by black-lava points.
Both locals and visitors enjoy Kamaole III Beach Park, in the funky seaside town of Kihei, because it’s a series of three very accessible beaches.
If you want to surf or windsurf, or watch others strut their stuff, Ho’okipa Beach is the place to be. Let your mood and energy level dictate your choice and when in doubt, ask a local.
Maui’s beaches and warm weather set the stage for a gentle pace of life. I love that everything moves slowly here. It reminds me to take time to stop and smell the plumeria. This can be a bit of a challenge for some harried urbanites from the mainland, but after a few days, everyone gets accustomed to island time and the Maui mindset. There’s sheer bliss in knowing that you don’t have to hurry for anything or anybody and that your cares have been reduced to simple matters, like making sure you’ve applied enough sunscreen.
But, when you’re ready to move from that lounge chair on your lanai, there are plenty of activities to engage in, on land, in the water and even above ground. The possibilities are endless.
In addition to the typical options you might find on any tropical island, there are a number of unique pursuits.
For an adrenaline rush, I suggest rappelling down a canyon in Makamakaole Valley and ziplining through the treetops on an "Indiana Jones" style adventure.
Or take a heart pumping bike ride down the slopes of Haleakala. You can don hiking shoes and meander the many trails that dot the island, crawl through lava tubes, strap on wings and go paragliding, explore hidden sea caves and try your hand at kitesurfing or stand up paddle surfing, a vintage water sport that’s experiencing a comeback.
Tour a working pineapple plantation, snorkel the sunken crater of Molokini, visit Maui’s famed horse whisperer, Frank Levinson, for a seminar on equine language, make a pilgrimage to Charles Lindbergh’s grave (the legendary aviator is buried on the slopes of Haleakala), check out the Maui Ocean Center with its eye-popping Living Reef exhibit or learn something about island history at the Bailey House Museum, a treasure-trove of Hawaiiana.
To get a memorable bird’s eye view of the island, take a helicopter tour. You’ll be in awe of the landscape, which ranges from the lunar-like surface of Haleakala Crater to the waterfall-laced coastline of the North Shore rainforest. You’ll fly over deep, uninhabitable canyons and past sheer sea cliffs during this mystical, multi-sensory experience.
If you’ve never been to Maui, you’ll want to add two musts to your list: a visit to Haleakala National Park, the site of the world’s largest dormant volcano and a road trip to Hana.
More than 1.3 million people a year go up the 10,023 foot high mountain to peer down into Haleakala Crater, the size of which would hold Manhattan. But, there’s more to do here than stare into a big black abyss. Just going up the mountain is an experience in itself, offering breathtaking views of the isthmus of Maui, the West Maui Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Many folks make the drive up to the summit in predawn darkness to watch the sunrise over Haleakala, a divine treat that defies description.
The road to Hana is also a memorable experience, which, in my opinion, is best savored when you’re not the one in the driver’s seat! You’ll want to take in the spectacular natural beauty outside your windows as you zigzag over 56 one-lane bridges and snake around more than 617 hairpin curves on this narrow coastal road.
Photo by Deborah Stone The best Hawaiian shave ice on Maui is at Ululani’s
Don’t be in a hurry or you’ll miss the sights from both sides of the road. And make sure you stop along the way to stretch your legs and check out the various parks, hidden villages, botanical gardens and dramatic waterfalls. It’s a trip that overwhelms the senses with continuous Kodak moments of lush, verdant rainforests, bucolic rolling hills and magnificent seascapes.
At the end of your journey, you’ll reach Hana, one of the last unspoiled Hawaiian towns on Maui. It’s a small, ingenuous village that contrary to its celebrity status prefers to remain unpretentious and natural.
In the winter months, climb aboard a boat and head for the open ocean to see the humpback whales. These playful, forty-ton creatures swim more than 2,500 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to mate and give birth in the waters around Hawaii. And up to 7,000 of them can pass through Maui.
When I visit the island during this season, I always make a point of cruising whale territory to espy these magnificent, endangered mammals.
This time around, my family opted for a Teralani sunset supper cruise, a three-in-one experience combining whale watching, dinner and the opportunity to take in one of the island’s famous sunsets at sea. We were rewarded with multiple sightings of whales blowing, breaching and slapping their tails. Their amazing feats of marine gymnastics held us spellbound and rendered us speechless.
Maui’s diversity of sea life, flora and fauna allow visitors multiple opportunities to have memorable encounters with nature.
The island is also a cultural mecca. You can learn about Polynesian arts and traditions, which embrace a mix of cultures from Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa. The luau is popular with many first timers, but for a less commercial and more authentic experience, check out the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. It’s the main venue on the island for top notch Hawaiian performance and visual artists.
There’s also the Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert Series, held weekly at the Napili Kai Beach Resort. I happened to catch one of these shows for the first time and I was impressed with the sweet and soulful quality of the music, the intimacy of the experience and the amount of passion the performers had for this traditional art form.
In slack key, some of the strings of the guitar are slacked from the standard tuning, with the thumb playing the bass while the other fingers play the melody and improvise in a finger-picked style. Music is created by the artist’s own characteristic tuning and fingering, inspired by the beauty and spirit of the islands and enriched by personal stories, memories and family traditions.
Then there’s "Picnic with Poki," monthly informal musical performances by local artists in front of the Kaahumanu Church in Wailuku. It doesn’t get any more Maui-style than this!
Courtesy photo For an authentic cultural experience, attend a Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert.
And to enhance your down home island experience, make sure you sample some local foods. Try a plate lunch, Hawaii’s version of fast food. It’s an inexpensive, yet filling dish that includes rice, macaroni or potato salad, a choice of several types of barbecued pork and beef, chicken (braised, breaded and fried or teriyaki style) or lomi-lomi salmon (served salted and chilled).
Plate lunches can be found at lunch wagons, drive-ins, diners and small markets. Manju, a type of pie-snack cake, is a true Maui treasure that also begs indulgence. These addictive buns are filled with everything from pineapple to sweet potato.
And while you’re at it, head for one of the ubiquitous shaved ice stands for another Hawaiian specialty. Ululani’s in Lahaina gets top marks in my family. The ice is so finely shaved it melts in your mouth and they have over 35 delicious flavors to tempt all palates.
You’ll find an ample variety of restaurants from small mom and pop eateries to fancy establishments with drop dead views. Once again, when in doubt, get suggestions from the locals. They’re the best guides when it comes to good food.
As for finding your special home away from home, rest assured, the accommodation selection is on par with the dining options on the island. You have your choice of full service resorts, hotels, condos, inns, cottages, B&Bs and campgrounds. Many families often enjoy staying in a condo, as it allows for the option of cooking and eating in, as well as provides easy access to a washer and drier.
We chose to make Kaanapali our base on the island and stayed at the Outrigger Maui Eldorado in a spacious and comfy two-bedroom condo perched on the golf course with a lovely ocean view.
It was chockfull of amenities and nicely furnished, as well as conveniently located to the beach, shops, restaurants and other activities.Maui is an all-around, ideal vacation destination that appeals to young and old, families and couples, adventure seekers and sedentary, lounge chair potatoes. It’s no wonder that travelers from around the globe return time and time again to this special slice of paradise, unable to resist its lure and promises of rest and rejuvenation.