Tuesday, May 12, 2015

UPDATE: Making the most of Maui

Despite numerous trips to Hawaii since the late 1980s, my first trip to Maui didn't happen until September 2013. Now that I have made my second trip to The Valley Isle, I have updated my original post intended to help first-time visitors make the most of their time on the island.

Visitors will find that, like the other Hawaiian Islands, Maui has its own character. Although each island has its drier leeward side, Maui’s lee side is drier and hotter than many of the other islands in the chain. Further, the popular tourist destinations of Lahaina, Kaanapali, Napili, Kapalua, Kihei and Wailea are on the dry leeward shore, so if “hot and dry” is your thing, then Maui awaits! If it is not, consider another island, or consider visiting during the island’s rainy season of November through April, which is also peak tourist season and the most expensive as a result.

The view from our condo at Kihei
Maui boasts a large number of accommodations ranging from high-end resorts to more modest hotels to condominiums that are privately owned but rented out through services like Vacation Rentals by Owner and Airbnb.

Condos generally have a minimum stay of five days to a week; if you intend to stay that long, they can be an excellent option to hotels, especially for families. However, because most condos are privately owned, they are as individual as their owners. Look carefully to ensure whatever condo you may be considering has the things that are important to you – an on-site swimming pool or air conditioning, for example – before booking.

If you decide to stay in a condo unit and plan to do some of your own cooking – one of their benefits – turn left at Haleakala Highway when leaving the Kahului Airport (OGG) and make your first stop at Costco. Popular with regular visitors to the islands, it’s a good place to grab some of the goodies you’ll want and need for meals and other activities. It is also the least expensive place I found to fill up your rental car’s gas tank, with savings far superior to those I’ve found at Costco stores on the mainland. At the end of my most recent trip, I was able to fill up for $3.09 a gallon at Costco, while the prices at regular gas station were on the order of $3.39 a gallon in May 2014. Obviously, prices fluctuate.

If you indulge in alcoholic beverages, make a second stop farther down Dairy Road at Tamura’s Fine Wines and Liquors. With outlets on Oahu, the location at 199 Dairy was its first Maui location and opened during the summer of 2013. The building is a metal shed with some wood siding attached to soften its industrial appearance, which is deceptive. Inside is a great selection of beer, wine, liquor, and some prepared food items like poke. Staff is knowledgeable, prices are favorable and products are available in smaller sizes as well as full sized bottles, making it a good choice for those who won’t be staying several weeks.

A second Tamura's has opened in an industrial district of Lahaina literally next door to Star Noodle, at 226 Kupuohi St.

If you don’t have GPS, pick up a “free Maui road map” from one of the literature stands that abound in most hotels and condos or from AAA before you go; no need to pay $4.95 at the grocery. It’s said that only about 20 percent of Maui is accessible by car, and there aren’t that many main roads, but a map is helpful because many roads that you’d think would connect somewhere … don’t.

Maui is actually two volcanoes, Puu Kuki and Haleakala, that reach 5,800 feet and more than 10,000 feet respectively. The two are connected by a large isthmus that is at approximately sea level.

Panoramic view from north shore at right to south shore at left.
Your drive to leeward Maui, whether to Kihei or to Lahaina, will likely take you along that isthmus on Highway 311, the Mokulele Highway, or Highway 380, the Kuihelani Highway. Both roads lead through sugar cane fields. While both are divided highways that feel like freeways, their speed limits are 45 mph, and the local police no doubt make a substantial amount of revenue handing out speeding tickets along those stretches of roadway. If you see the vehicles coming toward you flashing their headlights, it’s a warning that police have been spotted just down the road. Take heed.

For me, a Type A personality who believes that speed limits ought to be at least 10 miles an hour above what is actually posted, island driving proved to be what forced me to “get my island on.” You simply cannot be in a hurry on Maui, so relax, bruddah!

Whether staying at a condo or one of the island’s many hotels, there is a wide variety of activities to be enjoyed and a wide variety of vendors in each category.

Snorkeling, for example, is a popular activity and shops that rent snorkel equipment abound, including Snorkel Bob’s, Auntie Snorkel Maui, Boss Frog’s, and others. Renting snorkel gear means you won’t have to pack your own, but it also has some down sides, including the possibility that the shop won’t have exactly the right mask for you. One option is to buy your own mask and snorkel, both to ensure proper fit and for sanitary reasons, then rent the flippers, which are the largest item.

Where to snorkel is another choice. While you can snorkel anywhere there’s water, it’s much more fun if you can see fish or other marine life, which is more abundant around reefs than in open water.

Snorkel tours to Molokini Crater are very popular and tout the volcano crater’s reef. However, locals say the tourism activity over the last 20 years or so has destroyed a fair bit of that reef, and that Molokini’s marine life is now at a depth of 20 feet or more – not ideal for a beginning snorkeler. Locals say better snorkeling – without the expense of a charter trip – can be had along the island’s southern lee shore from Ahihi Bay to La Peruse Bay near the end of Makena Rd. south of Big Beach. Snorkeling there also means you’re not tied to the boat’s schedule and can come and go as you please.

Wherever we travel, my wife insists that we take in a bit of the area’s history, and Maui has plenty to offer in that regard. From the early inhabitants who first landed there to the missionaries who followed to the island’s role as a major sugar producer, there are several attractions and museums to feed one’s history habit.

Four major museums include the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum near Kapalui, the Baldwin Home Museum and the Wo Hing Museum in Lahaina, and the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku. Unlike many museums on the mainland, these are smaller and require much less time to see what each has to offer; we spent no more than ½ hour at any of the four.

At our first stop, the Baldwin Home, the docent recommended a $10 Passport to the Past, which includes admission to all four sites. Most of the museums had an admission charge of $7 per adult, so the additional $3 to see all four was an excellent value. My personal favorite was the Sugar Museum. Choose those that appeal to you and don’t worry about having to rush; the passports are good for a year. Remember, you’re on island time here.

Dancers at the Feast at Lele
Attending a luau is something one should do at least once. If you’ve never attended one before, I recommend the Feast at Lele in Lahaina. At $125 per adult as of May 2016, the price is comparable to similar offerings nearby. The popular Old Lahaina Luau is $110 per person, while the Wailele Polynesian luau at the Westin Hotel is $135 for “premium seating” and $115 for traditional (first come, first served) seating.  However, the Feast at Lele offers several things that make it worthwhile. (See my previous post, Choosing a Luau.)

With a maximum capacity of 190, the Feast at Lele is the smallest and most intimate of the three. The Westin luau can accommodate up to 300 guests, while the Old Lahaina Luau has nearly 500 people per show.

Seating is another difference. The Feast at Lele seats parties at individual tables based on group size, so my wife and I had a table to ourselves, among other couples who also had their own tables. The other luaus seat people at group tables, usually for eight people, which can be good or not so good depending on the others at the table. Old Lahaina assigns seats based on the date of purchase while the Westin luau has “open seating” for standard admission guests.

Finally, all the other luaus have buffet lines, while Lele’s servers bring the food to your table in courses. That approach encourages diners to try a little bit of each item they’re served rather than choosing only what they think they’ll like, making for a more well-rounded experience.

Atlantis Submarine and tugboat
Another popular attraction is submarine rides. However, there is only one such attraction with a submarine that actually submerges: Atlantis Submarines. The others, including an iconic “yellow submarine,” look like submarines but they never actually dip beneath the water, so guests can see only what is viewable from just below the waterline. The Atlantis Submarine actually submerges to a depth of about 130 feet and visits three different reefs and a shipwreck along the way.

There are many other activities on Maui, including many we did not have the opportunity to enjoy during our week-long stay. Those include numerous, beautifully maintained golf courses, whale watching tours, zip lining, hiking and biking trails, and other activities. Pick up some brochures about the things that interest you, and ask a local, whether a store clerk or the person who staffs a municipal information kiosk, which should not be confused with a vendor who sells tickets. They are likely to have a vested interest in steering you to one attraction over another rather than recommending the best attraction in a given category.

Dining, shopping, and golfing opportunities abound

Dining venues run from the ubiquitous Denny’s and a Hard Rock CafĂ© in Lahaina to food trucks and local haunts, to five-star restaurants and even a place run by a Top Chef contestant.

We ate at the five-star Mama’s Fish House near Paia, Polli’s Mexican Food in Makawao, Star Noodle in Lahaina, 5 Palms Restaurant in the Mana Kai hotel in Kihei (good happy hour pupus), and Longhi’s at the Shops at Wailea (good breakfast special), among others. Click on the restaurant names to read more in-depth reviews about each property.

If your shopping taste runs to the extravagant, Whaler’s Village in Lahaina or The Shops at Wailea provide plenty of high-end shopping. Local shops selling Hawaiian clothing are ubiquitous and include Hilo Hattie and the Maui Clothing Company (both inexpensive to moderate), and Tori Richard, (a 57-year-old Hawaiian brand with high-quality clothing). I personally prefer Tori Richard over competitor Tommy Bahama. I have several Tori Richard shirts, which I find of equal quality to Tommy Bahama, but about $30 less per shirt, perhaps because Tori Richard is not as aggressively (and expensively) marketed.

Finally, many general stores and the local chain of ABC Stores carry everything from sarongs to sandals to soda pop.

Driving

In addition to my earlier tips about adhering to the speed limit, getting a map or GPS, and setting your personal clock to island time, here are some other observations.

Many, if not most, of Maui’s more rural roads are one lane in each direction, and posted speed limits can be modest. If you see a line of cars forming behind you, pull over and let them pass. You’ll likely get a horn toot or a shaka (“hang loose”) hand sign from the other drivers as a “thank you.”

One of the most well known roads, if not the most heavily traveled, is the Road to Hana, or Hana Highway, as it is officially named. But do not be fooled; this in no way resembles a highway. It is one lane in each direction most of the way and includes more than 600 switchbacks and curves. Although only about 45 miles, Google Maps estimated a travel time at slightly more than two hours; locals say three is more reasonable.

We made it about five miles from where the switchbacks started before I decided it was too much like work and turned around. Granted, I was driving a Ford Mustang that handled no better than the Taurus we once owned, and I might have felt differently had we been driving a true sports car or on motorcycles. Regardless, driving the Road to Hana requires dedication and, ideally, a full day to get there, see what there is to see, and come back. And bring your own snacks and beverages; there is very little available along the way.

Driving upcountry is much more easily done and yields some of the same benefits: great views, slightly cooler temperatures, and more greenery in the surroundings. A trip to Makawao is fairly quick, and provides a glimpse of a small town that is more Old Hawaiian than 21st century tourist.

From Makawao, one can continue up Highway 377 to Highway 378 and into the Haleakala Crater National Park. At some 10,000 feet elevation, it’s far cooler than the rest of Maui and occasionally even has snow on the ground. But beware: this road too has numerous switchbacks, and you won’t set any speed records.

Local entertainment

In addition to the touristed spots, Maui offers a range of local entertainment. For example, several local musicians gather on Sunday evenings at Kono’s on the Green, the clubhouse at the Elleair Maui Golf Club near Kihei, and offer up three hours of jazz for a $5 cover charge.

We happened upon local musicians and dancers presenting an outdoor show of traditional island music and dance at the Ka’ahumanu Church at Wailuku on our way back to the airport … on a Thursday morning. Ask around!

Island watching

Several of the other Hawaiian Islands are visible from Maui, though for some, weather conditions must be better than for others.

When weather conditions are right, visitors can see the Big Island of Hawaii from the Haleakala Crater area.

From the Kihei, Wailea, Makena, and Big Beach areas, you can see the extinct volcanic crater that is Molokini and the island of Kahoolawe beyond it. During World War II, Kahoolawe was used as a training ground and bombing range by U.S. armed forces. Today, it is an island reserve owned by the State of Hawaii and can be used only for native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual, and subsistence purposes.

From Lahaina, you can see Lanai, known as the Pineapple Isle, to the west. Most of the island’s pineapple production has ceased, however, due to competition from overseas growers. In 2012, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison bought the 98 percent of the island previously owned by the parent company of Dole Foods; the state of Hawaii owns the remaining two percent. Visitors can also catch a glimpse of Moloka’i from this area, or you can drive north to Kapalua. From the D.T. Fleming beach park, you’ll be able to see both Lanai and Molokai clearly and, when weather permits, a portion of Oahu in the distance.

Ferries are available to both Lanai and Molokai and depart from Lahaina’s waterfront at least a couple of times per day, but plan ahead. The Molokai ferry is a 90-minute ride each way, and the schedule means you’ll be up early, then spending virtually the whole day there.

A final word

Unless you’re staying the whole winter or summer, you won’t be able to see and do everything. Pick what’s most important to you, do them in order of importance, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself; hang loose! This is Hawaii, after all, and you’re on vacation.

Aloha!

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
Click on photos to view larger images

This post was originally written in September 2013 and updated as of August 2016.

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