One of the most popular vacation destinations in North America (particularly in the winter) Hawaii is a tropical paradise where sun, fun and adventure are guaranteed for those lucky enough to afford a getaway to this amazing destination. While Hawaii (the big island, not the state), Oahu, Kauai, Molokai and others all offer amazing vacation options, it is the island of Maui that really seems to steal the hearts of those who visit there. Rare is the person who only visits Maui once, never to return. In most cases those who come to Maui return as often as they can, and with each visit that attachment is only reinforced. Maui is indeed an island that never loses its luster.
Those Maui veterans who’ve been multiple times have likely scoped out the best activities and attractions that Maui has to offer. However, for the first time visitor planning a vacation here – beyond simply relaxing on the beach and sipping Mai Tais (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – can be a challenging endeavor. Don’t worry. We’re here to help! Here are our picks for the best activities on Maui.
Drive the Hana Highway
One thing that is an absolute must when visiting Maui is renting a vehicle. Though Maui is not a huge island it is very spread out and public transit options aren’t very good. By renting a car you will give yourself maximum flexibility to enjoy your stay on Maui to its fullest, and the ability to explore every nook and cranny of the island.
Unless you or one of your family members suffers from car sickness then driving the Hana Highway is a priority for a first time Maui visitor. Featuring over 50 single lane bridges and more than 600 hairpin turns the highway is like few roadways in the world. Though that may sound dangerous experienced drivers who limit their speed to match the conditions should have no problem navigating the twisty 40+ mile long roadway.
The drive begins in the village of Paia. From there you’ll enjoy a short stint of relatively straight highway before you start to hit the twists and turns. The drive itself is an amazing adventure, and the views of the lush jungle on one side and the crashing sea on the other are out of this world. Make sure to drive slowly to enjoy the breathtaking scenery (and also to avoid making your passengers ill).
Though the drive is a spectacle in itself, the road to Hana also features plenty of points of interest including Twin Falls, Wai’anapanapa State Park, O’heo Gulch Seven Sacred Pools, and the Pipiwai Trail. Unless you’ve got a rugged sport utility vehicle the road more or less terminates at a parking lot for both O’heo Gulch and the Pipiwai Trail. From there you’ll have to make your way back the way you came, back across those 50 single lane bridges and around those 600 hairpin curves.
Note: Don’t forget to stop for dinner when back in Paia. The town offers numerous high quality restaurants including Mama’s Fish House and the Paia Fish Market. If you like dark beer don’t forget to grab a pint of Coconut Porter to wash your meal down. The perfect end to a perfect day.
Hike Haleakala Volcano
Though you likely wouldn’t consider waking up well before the crack of dawn on your Hawaiaan vacation an entirely sane idea in this one case you should definitely make the effort. Though you might grumble (or swear) when the alarm goes off at 4:30 AM you’ll find the sacrifice worth it if you can resist throwing the damn thing against the wall, struggle out of bed and make the drive up to the parking lot at the rim of the Haleakala Volcano in time to see the sun rise. Trust us, it is an amazing experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. Just be sure you dress warmly. You’ll be up over 10,000 feet watching the sun peek up over the lip of the horizon, and it is surprisingly chilly, often even icy.
Once you’ve seen the sun rise and you’ve shaken off the last of the cobwebs from your early morning wake-up call it is time for a little more adventure. While most hikes involve climbing up something to be rewarded by an amazing view, Haleakala offers just the opposite. You start at the top, with an amazing view of the massive caldera, and then make the descent into that caldera to see the terrain of the extinct volcano up close and personal.
As you descend you’ll start to feel as though you’ve left your home planet behind and you are now traversing the red sand of the planet Mars. Comprised mainly of rock and dust the slopes of the enormous crater are almost entirely devoid of life. It isn’t until you reach the bottom that you start to see plant and animal life. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a nene (Hawaiian goose).
The park features over 30 miles of trail, including the 11.2 mile Halemauu Trail and the Sliding Sands Trail which descends 2,800 feet into the crater over roughly 4 miles. No matter which trail you take be aware that you are at high elevation and the oxygen-depleted air will make everything more strenuous. Take you time and make sure you bring plenty of water for the hike.
Take a Whale Watching Tour
If you are visiting between the months of December and April then you have timed it perfectly to witness the annual humpback whale migration. During this time thousands of these giant mammals are moving through the waters off the coast of Maui on their annual trip to Alaska for their summer feeding. If you are armed with binoculars you can watch these behemoths breach, or witness their giant flukes smashing the ocean’s surface, from many of the beaches around the island. However, if you really want to get a good look at them then a whale watching tour is your best bet.
There are a number of whale watching outfits on the island, and the area in and around the town of Lahaina is typically where the whale watching tours depart from. You can choose to take a dedicated tour or combine it with a dinner cruise for a more all-inclusive experience.
Once you get close to the whales you will be astonished just how massive these regal creatures are. Seeing them from afar or on TV does not prepare you for the sheer size of the whales and you will find yourself feeling a little tiny and insignificant next to the giant humpbacks. Federal law states that tour boats must cut their engines once within 100 yards of the whales. However, the curious and social animals will often approach of their own volition, even coming so close as to bump the boat.
If you are have a large family then this might not be the most budget-friendly excursion. Still, the cost is definitely worth it, and is one your kids will be talking about for a long time after they return home from Maui.
Visit Oheo Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools) and Hike the Pipiwai Trail
As noted above, both of these Maui attractions can be found at the end of the paved section of the Hana Highway. If you have made the long, twisting drive here you would be doing yourself a disservice if you simply turned around and headed back to Paia without taking the time to experience a pair of Maui’s true gems. If you are feeling energetic then head up the Pipiwai Trail to its terminus at Waimoku Falls. The 1.8 mile (each way) trail climbs gently, winding its way past banyan trees, along boardwalks through clacking bamboo forests and across streams until you reach Waimoku Falls where water cascades down from 200 feet above. It is an awesome hike that is well within the capabilities of anyone of even mediocre fitness.
Once you’ve done the Pipiwai Trail then your next stop is the Seven Sacred Pools of Oheo Gulch. Change into your swim trunks and head down from the parking lot. It is a little bit of a hike, but much shorter than Pipiwai. Once you’ve arrived you’ll be rewarded with a series of terraced pools which offer relaxing, cool waters to wash off the dust and to calm nerves still likely jangled from the twisty Hana Highway drive.
Snorkel the Molokini Crater
Though there are a number of great snorkeling spots in Maui, including Turtle Town, the Coral Gardens and Honolua Bay the best spot on (or rather off) Maui is undoubtedly Molokini Crater. Located roughly 2.5 miles off Maui’s southern shore, Molokini is a partially submerged, crescent-shaped crater – one of only three sheltered calderas on the planet. Obviously, unless you are a world class swimmer, you are going to need to book a tour to get here. Like the whale watching there are numerous tour companies on Maui that offer this particular package. The tour can be combined with Turtle Town snorkeling, or with a whale watching tour for a longer excursion.
When it comes to a bustling atmosphere and providing a large variety of things to do and see Lahaina is undoubtedly the place to be when visiting Maui. In fact, there is a very good chance you will be staying in Lahaina, rendering this suggestion moot. However, if you’ve chosen other areas of Maui like Kihei or Kahului then a day trip to Lahaina is definitely in order.
Not only is Lahaina the best place to join a whale watching tour it also offers a wide range of funky little shops and restaurants, live music and events and its world famous banyan tree in Lahaina Banyan Court Park. The tree has a dozen main trunks and its crown covers over almost 3/4 of an acre!
If history is your thing then take the time to visit Hale Paahao Prison. Tours run from Monday to Saturday between 10:00 – 4:00.
Attend a Luau
Yes, it may be the ultimate touristy activity when visiting Hawaii, but if you are a first-timer than a luau is a rite of passage. There are numerous places around the island where you can take part in the festivities, but the Old Lahaina Luau is probably the best of them. It might be the most authentic luau to be found anywhere is the Hawaiian islands. Enjoy music, hula dancing and other ancient Hawaiian traditions while you feast on pulled pork, pineapple and other bounties from the islands.
Visit the Maui Ocean Center
If you have kids then this activity is a must-do, particularly if you have a day or two of inclement weather. Nothing worse than a bunch of bored kids huddled together in a small hotel room. Instead of waiting for the inevitable sibling war to break out make a preemptive strike and take them to the Maui Ocean Center at Maalaea Harbor. They can see and touch turtles and starfish, check out fearsome tiger sharks and graceful manta rays while standing in a glass tunnel beneath tons of ocean water, or be mesmerized by clouds of jellyfish bobbing hypnotically in the huge cylindrical tank.
Hit the Beach
Let’s face it – Maui offers lots of adventure and opportunities for exploration, but the number one reason most people make the journey is to enjoy its amazing sun, sand and surf. Maui features a multitude of beautiful beaches where you can sunbathe, surf, paddleboard, snorkel and swim. Nothing wears the kids out more than a full day of splashing around in the waves at the beach. Some of the best beaches to be found on Maui include Ka’anapali, Kapalua Bay, D.T. Fleming and Makena. Just be mindful of the power of the ocean. Riptides and powerful waves are common on Maui, and coral and rocks lie hidden beneath the frothy waters.