When our friends and family visit Maui, we not only share the best things to do, but when and how to do them. This includes some touristy things that we definitely think are worth doing, and tips you won’t find in a guidebook. These are activities we enjoy ourselves. So ready for a local tour? Here we go!
Don’t go to Haleakalā for sunrise. Too many times friends drug me out of bed at 3:30am to take the long journey to the top of the volcano for sunrise, only to have the view obscured by fog. In more recent years, the National Park has imposed a hard-to-get reservation system for early arrival hours before 9am. Plus, at 10,000ft. it is REALLY cold at pre-dawn hours. I don’t know about you, but I can be quite cranky for the rest of the day if someone interrupts my sleep (not to mention any kiddos along for the journey).
Do go to Haleakala– it is fantastic, just aim for a civilized 9:30 am, leaving you plenty of the day to explore Upcountry Maui. The views inside the crater are otherworldly, and the bi-coastal views from the mountainside are stunning. Read the exhibits on the history and wildlife of the area for a more enriching experience.
Do go whale-watching. If you are here during the winter- November to May, there is nothing quite like the wildlife display put on by mating Pacific humpback whales, and later in the season, their calves. Imagine how much effort it takes for a whale weighing several thousand pounds to jump out of the water! Scientists believe they do this on porpoise, lol. Reasons may include as a way to communicate or to rid themselves of some of the crustaceans hitching a free ride on their body. Whales do this by diving down to a sufficient depth, and then, using only their tails, swimming toward the surface at around 17 mph, and breaching for the stars.
Local tip- choose a whale watch cruise with a marine naturalist on board. February through early April are the most active months. Don’t like boats? Stop at the Pali overlook between Kihei and Lahaina, or simply hang out on your oceanfront lanai at one of our condos in Kihei, Maalaea or Lahaina during whale season.
Don’t go to a lu’au for the food. Even though lu’au literally means feast in Hawaiian, if you try and justify the cost by the food served, you are missing the whole point of the gathering.
A lu’au is a celebration of Polynesian culture. The best way to experience one is to get there a bit early, walk around and experience any cultural displays (many are interactive), ask questions and talk to the locals. See how the lu’au pig is roasted in the imu, and watch when they take it out. During the main stage performance, listen to the narrator and words in the chants and songs. Feel the drumbeats, and let yourself be mesmerized by the beautiful men and women and authentic dress, as stories unfold with footsteps and hand gestures.
To us, a luau is far more than a performance, it is the roots of what is Hawaii. There is always ample food and drink, with enough variety to please most palettes. If you really want to justify the cost, look at the people on stage and serving you, and understand that you are playing an important role passing along the stories and practices, and keeping Hawaiian culture alive.
In my opinion, everyone should experience a lu’au on Maui at least once.
Eat fresh fish. You may already be familiar with some of our fresh fish species caught in Maui waters, especially since poke bowls and seared ahi have gotten more popular on the mainland. However, tasting fresh caught fish on Maui is amazing. My favorite is raw ahi tuna poke with cabbage and spicy wasbi.
Local tip- Foodland grocery stores on Maui are once place that makes poke from seafood supplied by local fishers.
If you are a die-hard about fishing, can afford it, are not seasick prone and don’t mind getting up super early, there are many great fishing charters that leave out of Lahaina or Maalaea harbors where you have a good chance of catching your own.
If you’ve already been to Hana, skip it. The road to Hana is a wonderfully curvy journey through the rainforest, where you can see waterfalls on one side and ocean views on the other. HOWEVER, this activity is getting “over-loved” by too many visitors, which doesn’t make it pleasant for anyone, including locals who actually use the highway for transportation. Note: you now need reservations to visit Wainapanapa State Park.
Local tips- If you do go, start before 7am to be able to enjoy the drive without too much traffic. Note the official start is about 20 minutes past the town of Paia. Don’t go late in the day thinking you’ll just do part- you be going against the flow of traffic of everyone heading back from Hana. Don’t go there on your way to or from the airport with suitcases in your vehicle (even in the trunk), as many vehicle break-ins occur. There are no places to stay and few options for snacks (other than periodic roadside stands) between the start at Jaws Country Store and Hana town.
Technically you can drive the road to Hana and continue around, ending upcountry, not returning the same way you came. However, I don’t recommend it, and neither does your rental car agency, for good reason. Past the National Park at Kipahulu, the road is rough and even narrower (think one way around a blind corner), and can get washed out causing road closures. The road is “washboard” and ripe with potholes for several miles, and if you disable your vehicle out here, there likely is no cell phone service. When you do get help, the tow truck bill will be enormous.
Please adhere to all “no parking” and “no trespassing” signs on the road to Hana (even if others are not) and pull over for local vehicles trying to pass.
If you have the budget. The one splurge I would recommend if you have the funds in your Maui vacation budget- a helicopter tour. Haven taken many tours doing media production, I can attest the beauty and perspective from the air is unsurpassed. You will see steep cliffs, hidden valleys and waterfalls no one has ever seen from the ground.
The best free activity. As you might guess, hanging out on one of Maui’s beautiful beaches is just the best thing around. But there is one location I’d recommend that is not on the sundrenched side of the island: Ho’okipa.
A couple of miles past Paia town is a small beach park popular with surfers and green sea turtles. There are two parts to this beach park. The upper parking lot is great to get a bird’s eye view of surfers, with the West Maui mountains in the background.
In the lower area, there’s a reef-protected section of beach to the north, perfect for hanging out with the kiddos. On the opposite end the beach is a nesting ground for Hawaiian green sea turtles. There are spots to get great photos, but please mind the barrier and signs and don’t get too close or touch the turtles, it’s dangerous for them and very illegal for you!
Plan a free-wheeling day Upcountry. Finding your spot in the sun is super, but exploring wide open spaces on the verdant mountain slopes in Upcountry Maui is literally a breath of fresh air. Take the road less traveled to Ulupalakua, just a 20 minute drive past Kula on the slopes of Haleakalā. Rolling green hills and ancient stone walls seem like a vision from a European countryside, especially when the purple Jacaranda trees are in bloom. But the views downslope are definitely Maui- you can see coasts on both sides of the island as well as the towering West Maui mountains, and distant islands. And at the end there is a quaint winery with park-like grounds that once was the playground of Hawaiian royalty.