Maui No Ka Oi

Hawaii’s second-largest island is, as the locals say ‘the best.’ It offers striking beauty, a range of activities for all ages, cultural history and a peaceful vibe.

On a map, the island of Maui looks like the torso of a broad-shouldered man leaning forward. When I pointed this out to the 4-year-old girl sitting next to me on the plane, she said he was probably just looking at the water. Probably.

Maui is about more than just pretty beaches, though it has them in droves. It’s also a place with deep history and culture that, thankfully, hasn’t been obscured by its status as one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. In fact, locals have a strong drive to preserve their culture—and that’s good for everyone, visitors and locals alike. As the locals say, Maui No Ka Oi—Maui is the best.

It’s an outdoor destination: Surfers, snorkelers, hikers and golfers routinely make the pilgrimage, and there are also opportunities (for all ages) to learn a native art, such as lei making or hula, take a cooking class or sample local wine (read our Maui activities article).

And Maui is bigger than you think it is. The second largest of the Hawaiian Islands is 728 square miles, most of it accessible by car. It’s essential to have at least a week to explore if you want to see the whole island. Even if your plan is to just park yourself at a resort and forget the world—and there are innumerable places to do this—your immediate environs will beckon you “off-campus.”

Your most difficult decision is where to set up your base. The island has many distinct microclimates, ranging from rainforest (North Shore) to desert (the remote East Shore). The west and south sides of the island are leeward, so the water tends to be somewhat calmer (with exceptions) and the weather drier. The North Shore is the windward side, which gets a lot of weather drama and has potentially high waves, especially in winter.

West Maui

The west side of the island is where most of the affordable hotels are, and the main resort town—with the island’s longest stretch of beach—is Ka’anapali. One of the best spots to settle in is the Westin Maui. It’s smack on the beach and has grand views of neighboring islands Lanai and Molokai. It’s a hotel that will make the kids especially happy. The Keiki (kids) Club is one of the best on this side of Maui, and it’s a bargain at $75 per day for ages 5 to 12. Highlights include a moonlit search for geckos and toads that populate the property.

You’ll want to check out nearby Lahaina (about a 20-minute drive), which is the closest thing Maui has to a downtown. The 1.5–mile stretch is always crowded, but if you don’t mind walking (it’s very flat) you can typically park just once. Have lunch at Aloha Mixed Plate, where you’ll find teriyaki chicken, lomi lomi salmon and kalua pig (Hawaii’s version of barbecue, pit-roasted whole pig).

And don’t miss the famous banyan tree, the largest in the United States, planted in 1873 when it was a mere eight feet tall. Now it encompasses almost the entirety of a city park—and, while it has many offshoots, it’s all one tree!

South Shore

The most upscale part of the island is home to the resort town of Wailea. Volcanic rock lines the shore, punctuated by small sandy coves that serve as the beaches for each of the hotels on the strip (although all beaches on Maui are public). You can’t go wrong when choosing a hotel, but the Fairmont Kea Lani and the Grand Wailea offer the most variety and the best amenities for kids (again, read our Maui activities article). The Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa also recently completed a $60 million renovation, adding an adults-only serenity pool and the Mala Wailea restaurant under chef Mark Ellman, in addition to upgrades throughout the resort.

Five beaches are linked by a paved walking path up above the shore, just under two miles long and planted with tropical flowers and shrubs. Keep in mind that mornings tend to be the best time to swim. Afternoons bring trade winds—which mean high waves—and often rain.

The best places to eat on the South Shore, aside from the resorts in Wailea, are a few miles north in Kihei, where you’ll find lots of condos and vacation rentals. One of the best choices is Sansei, D.K. Kodoma’s sushi place that got its start in Kapalua. Now that it’s in the bustling hub of Kihei, it’s a happening spot. The sushi is both super-fresh and creative, and often completely original (think seared foie gras nigiri and mango-crab salad rice paper roll). Anyone in your party raw-fish averse? No worries. More than half the menu is cooked Japanese and Japanese-Hawaiian food. Other good restaurant choices include Alexander’s, a downscale, fast, fresh fish joint (have lunch in your swimsuit and flip-flops) and Sarento’s on the Beach, a quiet Italian place.


Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Maui’s beauty is centered on the water. Some of the most gorgeous scenery is in the inland area known as Upcountry. If you tire of looking at the shoreline views, which is doubtful, take a look behind you: That lush green hillside is where you’ll find Ulupalakua and Kula, towns in Upcountry Maui that are known for their farming (vegetables, wine grapes) as well as horseback riding. If it were possible to drive straight up, you could be there in 10 minutes. But the land in between is private property, so you have to go all the way back to Kahului (near the airport) and around, at least a 45-minute drive. Save this for the day you visit Haleakala, Maui’s volcano, which, at 10,000 feet, appears in and out of view behind the clouds.

Haleakala National Park

One of the most thrilling sights on the island, Maui’s volcano has been dormant since 1790, but knowing that does nothing to abate the drama that is the slow, windy drive to the summit—and the summit itself!

You’ll hear of the famed, almost mythical, sunrises on Haleakala. And sometimes you will catch the peak on a perfect day when the clouds part and you can see into infinity from this 10,000-foot peak. But more often than not, there’s a significant cloud cover—below the summit—with prevents you from seeing the full vista. In either case, the sunrise is always beautiful, and the park offers many opportunities for hiking, bird watching and camping. Just be prepared for very cold or very hot weather. At this altitude, the weather is completely different from that of the beaches far below. (Read our Haleakala article for more info.)

Most people see this area only on their way up to Haleakala, but Kula and Ulupalakua are worth a stop on your way down the volcano.

Kula and Ulupalakua

You’ll come to Kula first. It’s the town you’ll hit at the base of the windy road to the crater. It might not seem like there’s much to do here, but, in fact, there’s the gorgeous Kula Botanical Garden, which has lots of educational displays; Ali’i Kula Lavender Garden (great gift shop); and Sun Yat-Sen Park, a perfect place for a picnic, and a must-see for local history buffs, who will remember that the park’s namesake overthrew the Emperor of China in 1912.

Ulupalakua is further along on Hwy. 37 (the road you’re already on), and it’s a short drive along spectacular countryside to Maui’s only commercial winery. (Yes, Maui has a winery!) Tedeschi Vineyards is fun even for kids. It offers free guided tours of its winemaking facilities, including details of farming the grapes and the process of transforming them into wine. It’s a fun mini science lesson.

North Shore

The North Shore of the island is all about Hana. Well, not so much the destination, lovely though it is, as the journey along the deservedly famous Hana Highway. (For more information, read our Hana Highway article.)

Destinations: Hawaii, Maui

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Hiking, Bird Watching, Camping, Eat, Horseback Riding, Sightseeing, Sleep