I didn’t want to go to Maui.
I pictured hotel packages, annoying tourists, condoplexes, and Hard Rock Cafes. I tried to get my wife to consider alternatives like Croatia, Greece, Central America, or New Zealand. But they were all too far away, too hot, too dirty, or had other downsides. Especially considering that it was our first vacation with a new companion:
When traveling, it’s easy to fall into a trap of trying to force a place to be what you want it to be, rather than letting it be what it is. For example, one might go to New York City and complain about the lack of quality mexican food and the terrible traffic, while completely missing out on some of the world’s best delis, culture, and urban walking.
I thought I had long ago learned to avoid this, but I fell right into the same trap with Maui. It was our first time traveling with Abigail, and I wanted it to go well. I made a list of the attributes we were looking for in a place to stay: good food, swimming, walkability, almost like a mediterranean town.
But there’s no place like that on Maui. Because it’s not in the mediterranean, and because, like other US towns built out in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it’s very car-centric.
Anyway, trying to force Maui to be something other than Maui is dumb. Because Maui is pretty great, if you just accept it for what it is.
I think it starts with the weather. The weather is just amazingly perfect.
You know The Margarita-Salsa Cycle? The one where each bite of salsa makes you thirsty for margarita, and each sip of margarita makes you hungry for salsa? And hours later, you’ve gone through a pitcher of margarita, three baskets of chips, and still haven’t ordered dinner?
Maui weather is that way. It would be just a touch too hot if there was no wind. But there’s a reliable intermittent breeze. So you spend a lot of time basting in the warmth, and just when you start to get too warm, a beautiful fragrant breeze blows. And right as it’s starting to get cool, the breeze lets up. And you sit there staring at the water or the mountains, letting the sun warm you and the breeze cool you, and a few hours later you think “hmm, maybe we ought to do something today…” But then the breeze picks up and you think “maybe another mai tai first”.
There are two main places stay on Maui: the West (Lahaina and surroundings), and the South (Kihei and surroundings).
The first time we drove through Lahaina, I could barely contain my scorn. There actually was a Hard Rock Cafe. It was like Fisherman’s Wharf in Hawaii. But later, when we slowed down and looked more carefully, we found a bunch of interesting independent restaurants, shops, a few lovely shaded neighborhoods, and of course beautiful beaches. Not to mention the best shaved ice I’ve had since I was a kid. So I can see the draw of Lahaina.
But for me, Kihei is perfect.
I grew up in Southern California and spent a good chunk of my childhood going to San Clemente beach every day. Kihei is nothing if not a bigger San Clemente. It’s basically a middle-class, 80s-era US beach town. Think strip malls, parking lots, 6-story condoplexes, dying lawns, and yellowing linoleum.
Sounds awful right? That’s what I saw too the first time we drove through. But like San Clemente (and Lahaina), it has a charm once you slow down.
People are happy in Kihei. You can feel it everywhere you go. And why not? It’s one of the cheapest beach areas on Maui. The weather is perfect. The water is beautiful. We went for a snorkel the first day and ran into two big sea turtles.
Those ugly strip malls? They are filled with funky little eateries staffed by happy hawaiians, who squeeze your daughter’s cheeks every time they walk by. And every single night, there’s a jaw-dropping sunset.
We fell into a rhythm in Kihei of waking up early, having a coffee and a light breakfast, then heading out to the beach snorkeling or swimming. Then back to the condo for lunch, a nap, and then out for dinner. I think I could have easily done it for two weeks straight.
If you do manage to break free of The Beach-Lunch-Nap-Dinner Cycle, there are a ton of other beautiful things to see and do on the island. The Hana Highway is rightfully famous — full of lush scenery, waterfalls, and hiking.
You should plan on spending several days working your way through this part of the island. It’s too stressful to try and do in one day.
Maui Revealed seems to be the gold standard guidebook for this area, but it’s also useful to relax and wander. Some of my best experiences in this part of the island weren’t even in the book. And some things that were in the book have changed since it was written.
In my opinion the area past the Ohe’o pools, called Kipahulu, is far more beautiful than the Hana highway. But it won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s much drier, and almost completely empty. It’s also stuffed to the brim with jaw-dropping views.
Upcountry (lovely, Napa-esque climate, great food), the northwest coast (desolate, beautiful, slightly sketchy driving), the north coast, and the south coast are also all ridiculously great. In any other context besides Maui, they would each warrant many more paragraphs.
Basically, you can’t go wrong by picking a direction and driving.
I think that’s the thing with Maui: it is touristy. But it’s also so naturally blessed with beauty, that even 50 years of tourism can’t destroy the profound sense of peace and appreciation it instills.
I’m a bit heartbroken knowing I will likely never go there again. Sure, we could go back, but there are so many other places waiting to be explored. Why waste a trip on a repeat?
I guess that’s why we travel: it’s a way to try a different lifestyle on for size — a way to stop, look around, and reflect on the path behind, the paths not taken, and the paths that lie ahead still.
And maybe, to make a turn.