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Just the word — Maui — is for most folks enough to get the fantasies flowing. And it’s all here, from a sweet, flower-kissed climate to perfect waves, perfect beaches and scenery so lush it won’t give your eyes a break even for a minute. The surprises lie in what most photographs don’t show: steep mountain roads, otherworldly volcanic landscapes, waving fields of sugar cane (though not so many as in the past), the sweet scent of plumeria and an ozone-infused atmosphere that washes the island in a mellow glow.
Butterfly-shaped Maui has something for everyone, from the high-rise resort hotels and manicured landscapes of Ka’anapali, Hawaii’s first master-planned resort; to the rugged hiking trails on 10,023-foot Mount Haleakala, centerpiece of Haleakala National Park; to lush, green, waterfall-washed Hana and the south coast. Maui’s economy is geared to showing its visitors a good time. And while island culture can seem lost or nonexistent under the veneer of commercialism, don’t be fooled. If Hawaiian culture is what you seek, it’s not so difficult to find.
The main resort areas on Maui are on the west shore and include, north to south, Kahului, Kaanapali, Lahaina, Kehei and Wailea-Makena. Kahului is on the east side of the island’s narrow waist, just a quick cross-island trip from Lahaina.
With no language barrier to hinder communication, Maui is easy to explore on your own. Renting a car lets you make your own spontaneous discoveries, while organized excursions provide access to activities and insight into the island’s cultural and natural history that you likely wouldn’t get on your own.
Ships visiting Maui call at either Lahaina or Kahului, with Lahaina, a former whaling port, being by far the more interesting. It’s hip, artsy, historic and walkable, with plenty of vendors offering day-trip options for cruise passengers. Follow the self-guided Lahaina Trail to visit landmarks within the 55-acre historic district.
Along Front Street in downtown Lahaina you’ll find pop art pieces as well as prints from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries at its numerous art galleries.
Just five miles north of Lahaina is Kaanapali Beach and Hawaii’s first planned resort development. Visitors can walk for three miles along a paved esplanade running between the sandy beach and a long string of beautifully landscaped hotels. It’s clean and pretty, with dozens of restaurant choices and swim spots along the way. At the far end of the beach you'll find Black Rock, with fearless souls doing dives and cannon balls into the water below.
From mid-December through mid-April, naturalist-led whale-watching excursions sail out of Lahaina and offer close-up views of humpback whales that migrate by the thousands through the islands each year. (If you're lucky, you may catch them as early as October and as late as mid-May.)
Haleakala National Park, encompassing a massive volcano taking up almost half the butterfly-shaped island, is another popular option. The views from the crater are other-worldly, but it’s an all-day endeavor to go there and back.
Ditto the famous road to Hana, a serpentine, 50-mile beauty trip along the coast. Word of warning: During holiday seasons or when ships are in port, the road can be bumper-to-bumper cars. Those prone to motion sickness should avoid group excursions in vans.
Water sports reign on Maui. In addition to Kaanapali Beach, head to the crescent-shaped islet of Molokini, a partially submerged volcanic crater reached by boat, where you'll find excellent scuba diving and snorkeling.
Almost everything about Maui is family-friendly, but get some local input before taking your toddlers to the beach. Many resort hotels have elaborate swimming-pool complexes, while even the simplest condos will have a fresh-water place for getting wet.
Swoop over waterfalls, valleys, coastlines and volcanic craters on a helicopter tour. They’re choreographed to music and offer an unforgettable experience, especially if it’s your first time to ride in a chopper.
There’s lots to do and take in on a half-day or full-day drive around the island:
For budget eats, seek out a “plate lunch” or “mixed plate” meal at a food truck, beach stand or one of the simple restaurants serving locals all around the island. Standard fare includes an Asian-style meat (teriyaki, chicken katsu, Korean ribs or the like) plus rice, macaroni salad and perhaps some pickled vegetables. Ramen-based saimin and Portuguese bean soup are other another island staples. A good place to try them is Aloha Mixed Plate in Lahaina, run by the same folks who put on the Old Lahiana Luau.
Whaler’s Village on Kaanapali Beach is home to many popular lunch spots, among them Leilani’s on the Beach, a fab spot for sunset watching. Down the coast at the Shops at Wailea, Cheeseburger Island Style mixes burgers with mai tais and rock ‘n’ roll for a lively combination. All of Maui’s resort hotels have upscale restaurants with stunning décor. Among the embarrassment of upscale riches are the The Banyan Tree at the Ritz-Carlton and Tepanyaki Don at the Kaanaplali Sheraton. In Lahiana, Kimo's on the waterfront, Cheeseburger in Paradise, Duke's Beach House and Lahaina Grill are solid and well established choices.
If you're so inclined, choose an excursion to Molokai or Lanai, two smaller islands off the coast of Maui. These islands are less populated, and less developed, giving you a taste of Hawaiian life of the past. If these islands are not part of your cruise itinerary, it is best to book these excursions prior to arriving on Maui.
A good time to go? Any time you can get away. The end-of-year holidays and the summer months, particularly July and August, constitute the high season. Precipitation varies more according to where on the island you are (the mountainous interior gets the most) than by season. Daytime temperatures average in the 70s year-round. Trade winds keep the temperature down and humidity tolerable.
You’ll be fine with casual wear all over Hawaii. A few finer restaurants might require jackets for dinner. Men will love this: An aloha or “Hawaiian” shirt is the perfect outfit (casual buttoned down or collared shirt) and can be worn at almost any event and occasion.
In Lahaina, ships anchor out in the harbor and passengers are tendered to Banyan Tree Park in the city center. In Kahului, ships dock in an industrial area and passengers are shuttled to various locations around the island.
Rental cars are plentiful and rates reasonable.
Taxis are available at the pier in Kahului. You'll find that the pier is in an industrial area and there's not much to see within a short walking distance. Taxis are also available throughout Lahaina.
The Lahaina-Lanai Ferry is a deluxe form of transportation between Maui and Lanai.
Documents: You'll need a driver’s license if you plan to rent a car. And a passport if your ship will call in Canada, Mexico or another foreign country en route to Hawaii.
Tipping: A 10% to 15% tip on the restaurant/taxi bill is customary. Sometimes a tip is automatically added to your bill; check your credit card slip before adding additional tip.
Language: English, but you’ll hear many others spoken.
Currency: U.S. dollar.
Safety: Lahaina and Kahului are considered safe places. But as always don’t flash cash around and stay in well-lit areas at night.
ShoreFox contributed to this guide.
Have you been to Maui? Please share a story, tip or discovery. Have you been to the other islands? How does Maui compare? What was the highlight for you?
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“In the annual Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards that selects the Top 25 Islands in the World, Maui has come out on top for 20 consecutive years."
“ ‘I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five,’ wrote Mark Twain in 1866. Whether it’s lazing on warm sugary sand or snorkeling with humpback whales, visitors to Maui today would be likely to do the same, if they had the means.”
“Maui boasts world-class conditions for anything that involves a wave. Yet each of its shores has a different temperament. You can ride monster breaks if you’re a pro or learn to surf in gentle waves if you’re not. Snorkel with sea turtles. Kayak with dolphins. Pin a sail to your board and fly with the wind.”
“D.T. Fleming Beach Park on Maui’s west side is a beautiful crescent that boasts one thing many of Maui’s beaches lack: lifeguards. The beach serves as the sunbathing spot for guests at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, so fine dining is a short stroll away.”