Dreams do come true, if you really work hard at them. My “impossible” dream has always been to travel to Hawaii. When we lived in Illinois all odds were against me. An 8-hour flight to Hawaii cost over $500 per person, while a 2-hour flight to Florida cost less than $200. It was all really about the math. But I did not give up. When several years ago Boarders Bookstores were going bankrupt and were selling all their books at peanuts prices I bought myself 2 guidebooks about Maui. My husband thought it was a waste of $10, I did not agree. I put them on my book shelf at eye level and would pick them up from time to time and study. Then my husband got a job in California. I could not believe my luck: I cut the distance between me and my dream in half (I wish I could say the same about airplane tickets, though). Finally, a year or so ago I participated in a “visualize your dream” workshop. Basically, you get a white sheet of paper and fill it in with images and words that appeal to you which somehow relate to your dreams that you want to materialize (you get the images from any magazines and other printed materials). Then you put the collage on a wall in your home where you can always clearly see it and this helps you stay focused on things you want to achieve. Long story short, three weeks ago I was finally sitting on an airplane bound to Maui. It was an amazing feeling seeing a dream becoming a reality.
And Maui did not disappoint. There are a lot of things I would like to share with you about Maui so I decided to divide my Maui guide in two parts: classic Maui (this itinerary) and Maui off the bitten path together with the island culinary adventures (to be published next week).
Classic Maui is about four main things: rainforest, mountains/volcanoes, beaches and marine life.
Road to Hana
Road to Hana drive covers for the most part the “rainforest” category. It is about 50 miles drive covering part of the North and all East coast of the island which can get up to 300 inches of rainfall per year which in turn results in a lush green forest, multitude of streams and waterfalls. In addition to that the East coast line is very dramatic with coves, cliffs and lava rocks.
It is a breathtaking but extremely difficult and slow drive due to wet, crazy, winding road, with one lane traffic in some parts. Be extremely cautious!!! I strongly suggest you honk slightly when you are approaching those one-lane sections with only 10 ft visibility so that the on-coming traffic knows you are driving there. It was quite sad to see a fair amount of flower memorials on the side of the the roads on Maui for people who died in traffic accidents…
If you are traveling with kids it is quite possible that you will not complete the whole trip to Hana in one go (you may think that you will brave it till the end but don’t forget that once you reach your final destination you will also have to drive the same road back). We were very realistic about the perils of this drive so we decided to only do half of it and leave the second half for next time.
You won’t be able to stop at every single attraction on the road but here is a list of things you should not miss, which are doable with kids (in order as they appear on the road):
- Jaws Country Store. (just before mile marker 15) Here you can grab some food and drinks for the road. Freshly baked goodies are absolutely delicious. “Jaws” is a surfing area on the North side of Maui, where the waves are so huge, they will “chew you up”. You can also book a tour of Jaws on the store’s website.
2. Twin Falls. (mile marker 2 – when the road goes along the East side the miles counting starts again from zero) There are a couple of short and easy hiking trails at this stop leading to waterfalls, through the forest and along the stream. Be on look out for bamboo groves, beautiful tropical flowers and local wildlife (birds and chameleons). Some people swim in the pools next to the waterfalls on the road to Hana. We did not, the approach is rocky and the rocks are sometimes sharp and slippery. You definitely need good water shoes for this adventure. There is also a fruit stand at the beginning of the trail with delicious banana and pineapple popsicles.
3. Ka Haku Smoke Shack. (just before mile marker 10) This is the best BBQ I ever tried. Period. It comes with a salad and a desert of fried banana. Try it on the way to Hana. On the way back nothing will be left (they usually sell out by 12.30). You might think it is crazy to have BBQ at 9.30 am but given the fact that you will be on the road since about 6 am (this is the best way to drive to Hana in order to beat the morning traffic and have enough time for everything) it will feel like lunch time already. Another reason to stop here is to meet people. You will have the meal at big communal tables with folks from all over the world who are sharing this amazing journey with you. It is so much fun to swap stories of adventures, get and share advice.
4. Garden of Eden (mile marker 10) This is a private botanical garden with amazing tropical vegetation and fantastic scenic views from the top of the hill.The best views are of Puohokamoa waterfall and a triangular cliff, which was featured in the opening scenes of Jurassic World movie (they will point it to you on the garden map when you pay admission). You will also encounter ducks and peacocks in the garden freely roaming around. The neat thing is that the garden has a couple of rain shelters if you are caught in heavy rain.
5. Keane Lookout. At around mile marker 17 there is a side road leading to the beach to the area called Keane. Here you can see a dramatic coastline with black volcanic lava. Adults with older kids may go down to the ocean to swim but I would not recommend it for younger kids.
6. Ho’okipa Beach. (mile marker 9 on the North side) At mile marker 17 we turned around and drove back to Ho’okipa Beach on the North coast. Typically, all guidebooks recommend a stop at Ho’okipa to be one of the first ones on the road to Hana, in order of appearance on the road. I would recommend to stop there on the way back. This beach is famous for green turtles and they typically come out on the beach to warm up when it is warmer, i.e. in the afternoon. At the entrance to Ho’okipa we found a great fruit stand. You can buy some mangoes and pineapples there to take to the beach with you, which will be pealed and cut for you by the stand owner and they will be ready to eat. Ho’okipa is also a great place to watch surfers and windsurfers in action.
While travelling to Hana beware of bugs/mosquitoes. They are not plentiful, you don’t see them buzzing all around so you loose your guard. And once you do, they strike hard. Bug spray is a MUST here.
Iao Valley State Park
Iao Valley State Park is located in the Western part of the island. It may not get as much rain as Hana but still, it is the 10th wettest place on Earth. It is easy to get to, compared to road to Hana, the road is normal and straightforward and the entrance to the park is located just on the outskirts of the town on Wailuku. Don’t expect any sort of serious hiking here, the total length of the trails in the park is less than a mile or so. You come here mostly for the views. You can climb 130 steps up to look at the Needle and then go down to the river. It is great for younger kids since it does not require any strenuous activity. We saw the locals swimming in the river and diving from the rocks down into the water but we did not brave the current.
The island of Maui was created by 2 volcanoes, which used to be separate islands but later got connected. The one is at the center of Iao Valley State Park called Puu Kukui. It is an older volcano and hence not as high. You cannot really go and look at its crater as you can’t go beyond the 1 mile of trails at the State Park. The inaccessibility of this area of the island gives it some air of mystery. I would not be surprised to hear one day that dinosaurs were discovered somewhere out there 😉
Haleakala National Park.
Haleakala volcano is the one you can visit and it is the crown jewel of the island. At 10,000 feet high it is quite impressive and it is what really makes Maui – Maui. Without Haleakala there wouldn’t be the rainforest in the East, there wouldn’t be the road to Hana adventures. Haleakala is the weather maker of the island.
The road up the mountain is almost as treacherous as the road to Hana. It has what seems like a million switchbacks and if you are prone to motion sickness it won’t be a fun ride. To mitigate the issue we used two natural remedies at once, just in case, Motion Sickness Patches and Sea Band Wrist Band, and none of us got sick (and I personally usually get very queasy so I finally was very happy that we found remedies that help which are safe for kids too). These are the same remedies we used on the road to Hana.
There are 2 Visitors Centers on the volcano: at 7,000 ft and ~10,000 ft. Stop at both – the views will be different. Make a stop and get out of the car while you can – the weather changes very quickly on the mountain. When we drove up it was sunny and gorgeous, when we drove back a couple hours later it was raining heavily with fog and visibility of not more than 10 ft. So snap that phenomenal photo right there and then, you might not get a second chance.
This time we did not go for a sunrise or sunset, we wanted to make sure we drive this road for the first in plain daylight. We arrived at the crater at about 10 am in time for a short hike and a ranger presentation (at 11.00), which was very informative. You can take a short hike near the visitor’s center or several long ones into the crater. No matter which one you take, the scenery is almost out of this world, it felt like we were on a different planet. Once you are at the top it is quite windy and much colder than on sea level (usually in high fifties – low sixties Fahrenheit) so even if you are lucky and it does not rain you would still need a good weatherproof jacket. You will need it for road to Hana as well.
Most beaches around the island are beautiful. Let’s face it, you are on Maui, it cannot be any other way. However, each beach is famous for a certain water activity and that’s how I tend to categorize them (we did not have a chance to visit all beaches on the island so this is the rating of those that we experienced ourselves, out of about 10):
Best beach for snorkeling – Honolua Bay.
There is no golden sand here, there are only stones and rocks but that’s what the fish like. Water visibility is great for exactly the reason that there is very little sand and there are tons of tropical fish. The best time of the day to snorkel on Maui in summer is in the morning when it is calm but this specific cove is perfectly sheltered so there was almost no waves here at all even in the afternoon. In the best snorkeling places you may need water shoes because of lava rocks.
Best beach for viewing turtles – Ho’okipa
This is one of the few place on the island where they actually come out of the water on the beach.
Best beach for boogie boarding – Maluaka
Even in the morning when in other places the water is calm you would still see some wave action here great fro boogie boarding.
Best beach for tiny tots – fish pond in Kihei next to the whales center (see description of the center below in “Marine Life” section).
The fish pond is surrounded by stone walls on all sides and the water within the pond is shallow and calm even when there are waves everywhere else.
We visited Maui in summer, which is not the prime time for surfing, so we did not have an objective opportunity to evaluate the beaches with regards to surfing.
We were also surprised to find out that the water around Maui is not of the same temperature. Northern and Western beaches were colder, while in the middle of the Southern part the ocean was warmer.
Maui coastal waters are teaming with fish and wildlife. I have already addressed snorkeling and turtles earlier which you can view on your own (in all honesty, take your snorkeling gear everywhere you go, you will probably have a good opportunity to use it, regardless of the beach. In the photo below the fish are swarming around my feet at knee depth). There are also two official marine life centers on Maui where you can study marine life in more details.
Maui Ocean Center is an aquarium and marine center in one. There are several exhibitions there and we loved the mixture of ocean related and Hawaii history/people/life exhibits. It was all very interesting an educational, you learn about tropical fish, turtles, whales, coral reefs and so much more. There are 2 added bonuses: all kids get an activity book to take home (free with admission) and an opportunity for a scavenger hunt (kids need to collect about a dozen images scattered around the Center and if they find all the images they will receive a small prize). Our most favorite exhibits were: coral reef and an interactive exhibit teaching you how to make the best photos of whales’ tails.
This Center is located in Kihei, it is not big but it is full of information about whales: exhibits, videos, hands-on activities. The volunteers are very welcoming and they will tell you a lot about humpbacks and will be glad to answer all your questions. And the best part – the entrance is FREE. Please, note that the prime months for whale watching in Hawaii is from December to April. If you travel outside that window you won’t see any.
One other wildlife related place I have to mention here – Kealia Coastal Broadwalk in North Kihei. The boardwalk goes through a birds sanctuary, where you can see 2 protected local birds and migrating birds too that make a stopover on Maui. It is a beautiful, tranquil place that offers a peaceful walk, especially in the evening (please, note that the boardwalk closes at 7 pm)
- Before starting planning you trip to Maui, the first thing you need to understand is Maui weather. This blog gives the best explanation of the weather on the island: wind, rain and waves. It is a very long blog post, but, boy, if you read it till the need you will be doing yourself a lot of favor – you will be prepared. If you need a really quick summary specifically about summer, then here you go: it is still/no waves in the morning and winds/waves pick up in the afternoon, starting from about 11 am.
2. if you are flying from the U.S. mainland, stay more or less on mainland time – it will pay to get up early. The water visibility is best early in the morning, it is calm and not hot and all parking is gone by the beaches by 9.00 am. Also, some trips, like road to Hana, have to be started early in the morning. We typically got up at 6 am and went to bed at about 9 pm and we never had an issue with jet lag when we arrived there or returned home.
3. You will definitely need a bug spray here (see my recommendation below). I was surprised that even with the wind on the beach you may still get bitten, I have no idea how these bugs are not being blown away by the trade winds.
4. The sun is really strong on Maui. You need to apply and reapply sunscreen very often. Please, use coral friendly sunscreen to protect Maui’s underwater beauty (see my recommendation below).
5. Maui has a rural feel to it, in a good sense of the word. It is laid back, there are chickens running everywhere and though you are technically in the U.S., it does not feel like you are in the U.S. (in a good sense of the word 😉 ) When you are on Maui, stay away from big resort areas. There is no Hawaii there, we checked, just miles of manicured lawns and similar looking soul-less resort buildings. Rent a condo or a house instead in a small town, like Kihei. Walk the streets with the locals, watch fisherman, grab a pineapple or some mangos (preferably both) from a fruit stand, eat breakfast from a “hole in the wall”, which has the best malasadas on the island, fire up the grill and make yourself some shrimp or squid or fish and then it will turn out you are not visiting Hawaii, you are LIVING it.
THINGS YOU WILL DEFINITELY NEED ON MAUI (all images are clickable links):
Some of the things below are self explanatory, like bug spray or tropical fish guide. Two items, however, I feel deserve additional information. If you want your kids to be able to snorkel with you in the best places they will need water shoes because of lava rocks. The same goes for life jacket – indispensable for snorkeling kids who are not strong swimmers. Our youngest son started snorkeling with us when he was a little more than 2 years old, always with this type of a life jacket. We could take him with us into deeper water and not be afraid for him. He has his own tiny mask and he loves looking at fish. This brand of a life jacket is very sturdy and has a long life: our older son grew up in it and now the younger one is using it.
If you found this family trip itinerary useful, please do me a little favor and share this information with others, for there’s a good chance that it will help them with their travel plans. 🙂