What Not to Miss: Maui
Updated: May 3
So, you’re planning a trip to the Hawaiian islands and you’re either trying to determine which island(s) to visit or you’ve already chosen Maui? While Maui can often be seen as the “touristy” and “expensive” island, it can also have some real hidden gems for people who want to get a bit off the beaten path or who want to travel more frugally. Here, I’ll share my experience and give you some tips that are sure to make your time on Maui enjoyable.
If you want to see more than one island during your visit, island hopping is pretty easy on Hawaiian Airlines. Flights leave between islands all the time, so you can catch one pretty easily. They're usually in the $100 USD range, one-way. Know though, that this requires you to go to the airport and spend a good chunk of your day in that airport. It’s not a small, regional airport where you can arrive 10 minutes before your flight and be fine. This is a full airport commitment. If you’ve only got one week to explore, I recommend sticking to one island. Each island has its own vibe and you can find plenty to fill your time between beach relaxation and activities. Trying to split a week between two islands may not result in a relaxing vacation.
Renting a Car
No matter which island you visit, I have some standard recommendations. If you want to do anything besides lay on the beach, you're going to want to rent a car.
Before you leave home, you should download the GyPSy Guide app for whichever island you're going to. It's one of our favorite things to use in the islands and on the mainland. The company has tours for lots of US national parks, famous drives, and many tours through Canada, as well. We first used the app in Hawaii, but have since used it all over North America. GyPSy is a GPS-guided tour that works through the Bluetooth in your car. It gives history, points out sights worth visiting, and even some restaurants, and gives turn-by-turn directions for the entire tour. For the Hawaii tours, it will take you to every part of the island you should see and give you the details on every place you should stop. It is well worth the cost (less than $15 USD). It does not use cellular data, so no need to worry about having enough. Just make sure you have a way to charge your phone on the go, throughout your trip, as it does drain your battery pretty quick.
If you’ve never been to Hawaii before, you may not realize that lots of the sunscreens we use on the mainland are illegal to use in the water in Hawaii. If you’re planning on getting in the water at all, you should only be wearing reef-safe sunscreen. It can be difficult to find on the mainland, but it's widely available in stores in the islands, but be aware, not all sunscreens sold in Hawaii are reef-safe. Be sure you pick a bottle that specifically says “Reef-Safe” on the label, or you could be facing a hefty fine for using the wrong thing. Hawaii.com has a great guide for finding a brand that is safe to use. One thing to note when buying reef-safe sunscreen is that most brands are made with zinc, which tends to be a little hard to rub in. You may be a little “ghostly” while you’re covered in reef-safe sunscreen, but don’t let that deter you from having a great time.
Hawaiian History and Culture
Please, please, please, do not visit the Hawaiian islands without dedicating time to learning a bit about the history of the native population and the culture they still celebrate today. If you download and use the GyPSy Guide, you will learn a great deal about the islands while you drive, but please plan to visit a cultural center on whichever island you visit and spend some time embracing the culture. Native Hawaiians are proud of their home and as visitors, we should respect it and learn all we can to be good stewards of the land and our time there.
Now that the general recommendations are out of the way, let’s talk about Maui.
When you’re looking for places to stay on Maui, you have MANY options. I can personally recommend the Kihei area, as it’s relatively close to the airport and a bit of a central hub for all things on the island. You’re relatively close to Haleakala, as well as Lahaina, and you can easily hop on the Road to Hana. When we were on Maui, we stayed in a vacation rental property that was perfect for two people. It was located right on Sugar Beach, and adjacent to the Maui Canoe Club, which was pretty cool to watch. This property includes beach gear for you to use for the duration of your stay. It included chairs, boogie boards, and snorkel gear, as well as several other items.
If you’re into watching sunsets, this place was fantastic for it. You can either go down to the beach with your beach chairs or you can watch from the patio furniture on your 3rd floor balcony (don’t worry, there’s a nice elevator).
Eating on Maui
It seems as though everyone’s number one recommendation for dining on Maui is Mama's Fish House. Everyone isn’t wrong. This was, hands down, one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. They are well-known for their fish curry and their amazing Polynesian Black Pearl dessert. Make sure you get reservations here EARLY, as they book up 3 to 6 months in advance and your chances of getting a seat at the bar at lunch time are slim and not worth risking it. This won’t be an inexpensive meal, but if you can save up for one splurge meal on Maui, this is the one you want to do.
Coconut's Fish Cafe has two locations on Maui, one on Kauai, and several on the Mainland. We ate here our first night on Maui and weren’t disappointed. There is easy parking, an extensive menu and friendly staff. When you’re in Hawaii, you should eat fish, and Coconut’s is a great place to do that in a casual and reasonably priced atmosphere.
If you’re looking for an incredible sandwich in the Kihei/South Maui area, look no further than 808 Deli. It comes highly recommended by locals and their banana pudding is absolutely incredible. The “Porkie” is a staple here and comes on rye bread with Hawaiian pork, mango salsa, pepper jack cheese, and sweet chili dipping sauce. If sandwiches aren’t your thing, 808 also offers salads, gourmet hot dogs, breakfast items, a kids (keiki) menu, and desserts.
If you’re visiting or staying in Lahaina, consider Kimo’s Maui for lunch or dinner. It’s right along Front street in historic Lahaina town and there are many public parking lots nearby so you won’t have to hunt for parking. After dinner, take a stroll to the Old Lahaina Courthouse grounds to stroll through the park and admire the giant banyan tree. Kimo’s has a great sunset view and many nights, they host live music. It’s a great spot to start your afternoon or wind down your evening.
If you decide to do sunrise at Haleakala, I recommend stopping for breakfast or brunch on the way back down at Kula Lodge. We happened upon this spot after an amazing sunrise and we’re SO glad we did. The food we ordered was incredible and the view was amazing. If you see it on the menu, I can recommend the quiche and banana bread French toast, as well as the banana macadamia nut pancakes topped with haupia (coconut) syrup. It’s definitely worth a stop on your way to or from the National Park, even if you miss breakfast. If you get the opportunity to eat on the garden terrace, don’t pass it up!
We were on Maui during the pandemic, but after things had started to reopen. Sadly, when we visited Hana, options were very limited as far as dining went, but we were fortunate to find The Restaurant at Hana Maui Resort. The view from the covered patio was stunning and the hotel grounds were beautiful. After lunch, we stopped at the local art gallery that was on-site and browsed. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in Hana looking for something to eat with a great view. If you’re lucky enough to finish dinner after dark, carefully visit the beach behind the restaurant to see if you can find any sea turtles.
If you’re into beer, definitely make a point to visit Maui Brewing Company while you’re visiting Maui. We enjoyed a great pizza and fun atmosphere when we visited. The brewing facility has a restaurant attached, which means it’s in a location that’s a bit off the beaten path. Definitely worth a stop to grab a cold one and some food when you’re in the area though.
If you decide to drive the Road to Hana, don’t miss a stop on the Ke’anae Peninsula for Aunty Sandy’s Banana Bread. If you go at a popular time, you’re likely to find a line, but your time waiting will be well worth it when you get to taste some of Aunty Sandy’s banana bread. While you’re in the area, catch some amazing views along the rocky coastline!
Things to do
Being at the summit of Haleakala for sunrise is one of those experiences you will never forget. I recommend arriving a minimum 2 hours before sunrise and enjoying the stars while you stake out the best view for one of the most magical moments of your life. You have to make a reservation ($1 fee) to enter the park and the park costs $30 per vehicle to enter. Make your reservation as soon as they open so that you’re sure to get a spot. If you don’t arrive to the summit parking lot in time, you risk it being closed, as they barricade parking lots as they fill up, so leave your hotel or vacation rental early this day so that you don’t miss a thing!
The Road to Hana is another can’t miss experience when you’re visiting Maui. I recommend having the most experienced driver take the wheel both ways for this drive, and if you can, spend one night in Hana so you have plenty of time to see all of the recommended stops and hike some of the recommended trails. Begin the drive no later than 7am if you want to see everything in one day. Even earlier is better. There are over 600 switchbacks and 50+ one-lane bridges along this drive, so be prepared for a bit of an exhausting day of driving, but it's worth it.
Be sure you’re being courteous to locals throughout the drive. They know these roads very well and may want to drive faster than you are comfortable. If that’s the case, please find the nearest safe pullout and allow them to pass you. Yes, this will happen many times throughout your drive, but please allow them to pass as many times as it takes. This will allow for a much safer drive along the Road to Hana for everyone!
Along the drive, stop to see:
Black sand beach at Wai'anapanapa State Park - timed reservations required
Winter surf at Ho'okipa Beach Park - stop at the upper lot just to watch the surf
Rainbow Eucalyptus at Ke’anae Arboretum
Banana Bread at Aunty Sandy's - they close at 2:30, so plan accordingly
There are other hikes you can do if you have extra time, but be on your way back to central Maui by about 3pm if you’re not planning to spend the night in Hana. No one wants to drive all those switchbacks in the dark.
While you’re visiting Maui, you have a great opportunity to spend an afternoon on one of the lesser-visited islands in the Hawaiian island chain, Lana’i. If you’re visiting in winter, you will, no doubt, be lucky enough to see many humpback whales along the catamaran journey between Lahaina and Lana’i. Trilogy is a highly recommended company and if you book the morning tour, you’ll likely get to enjoy sunrise and breakfast on the water. Snorkeling in the Hulopoe Bay Marine Reserve is spectacular and the Trilogy Guides take very good care of you.
If you’re looking for something “other-worldly” to experience while you’re visiting Maui, you should drive to La Perouse Bay. This will take you through an ancient lava flow that looks like it formed just yesterday. The area is stunning and really allows you to experience what lava can do to everything it encounters. It’s difficult to describe and I recommend everyone experience it for themselves.
The Iao Valley is accessed through a part of Maui that isn’t necessarily touristy. It’s a quick trip and you'll feel like you're driving through Jurassic Park. You can hike when you arrive at the end of the road or you can just stand and admire the Iao Needle. Either way, it’s worth driving to this out-of-the way spot.
Now that you have a feel for many things to occupy your time in Maui, I’d love to hear about anything you think I’ve missed. Hawaii is a favorite travel destination and if there’s something you think I need to add to my list, I’d love to visit it on our next trip and amend my recommendations. Until our next island! Aloha!