Things to Do in Maui
Makena has the notorious distinction of being the first place where a Western explorer set foot on the island of Maui. When Jean Francois de La Perouse first “discovered” the island of Maui in 1786, he found a thriving population of Native Hawaiians living along this volcanic shoreline. Unlike areas of South Maui such as Kihei and Wailea which are so developed today, Makena was the population center for South Maui’s original inhabitants, and consequently, it’s an area which is heavily steeped in ancient history and culture.
Although much of modern Makena has been developed with resorts and homes, this history is still evident at places such as Keawala’i Church—a Congregational Church established in 1832—where sermons are still held in the Hawaiian language. Similarly, at the end of the paved road in Keone’o’io Bay, the trailhead begins for the ancient King’s Highway, a rocky path commissioned by King Pi’ilani which once wrapped its way around the entire island.
For a look at what Maui's agricultural life once looked like, visit Maui Tropical Plantation – a sort of plantation theme park that's also still a working plantation.
Maui Tropical Plantation covers about 60 acres, and was originally designed to turn the island's rich agricultural history into a tourist attraction. There is a tram ride you can take, which includes a narrated tour of the plantation and historic information. You'll learn about crops for which Maui is famous – sugar cane, pineapple, coffee, bananas, and macadamia nuts, among other things. You can even try your hand at husking a coconut.
In addition to the crops themselves, the plantation also features the Maui Country Store, which is full of products made on the island of Maui. There's an on-site restaurant, too, where you can sample some of the fresh fruits you see growing in the fields all around you.
When you can't get enough of sea life in the waters around Maui, then head for the Maui Ocean Center in the town of Wailuku.
Opened in 1998, Maui Ocean Center is an aquarium featuring only sea life that lives around the Hawaiian islands. It's the largest tropical aquarium in the western hemisphere, and features an enormous Open Ocean tank. There's an acrylic tunnel through the tank, giving visitors the feeling of truly being underwater. Among the diverse array of sea life in the 60 exhibits at the aquarium, you'll see octopuses, stingrays, turtles, sea horses, moray eels, jellies, and sharks, and you'll learn about dolphins, whales, and monk seals – not to mention thousands of fish. Maui Ocean Center also has the largest collection of live corals in the country.
Situated on Maui’s northern tip past the sweltering shores of Lahaina, Kapalua is a luxurious enclave of beaches, golf, tennis and resorts. The signature beach—Kapalua Bay—has been voted America’s best, and the Plantation Golf Course regularly hosts the best in professional golf. Snorkel with sea turtles and colorful reef fish at hidden Namalu Bay, or hike the Village Walking Trails that climb their way up the ridge. Wherever you stand in Kapalua, the island of Moloka’i dramatically sits on the not-too-distant horizon, and whitecaps fleck the Pailolo Channel that separates the two islands. In winter, locals flock to Fleming Beach Park for the bodysurfing and waves, and secret, white sand Oneloa Bay is a sanctuary of footprints and silence. And, even though tony Kapalua is only 20 minutes from Lahaina, its exposure to the trade winds means it’s always cooler just a few minutes up the road.
The town of Wailea is located on Maui's southwestern coast, known as a beach resort with spectacular beaches and luxury resort hotels. Wailea itself is relatively small, with a population under 6,000, but it's home to no less than five resort hotels – including two huge luxury properties. There are a number of really excellent beaches, such as Ulua Beach, Polo Beach and Wailea Beach, and there are three golf courses that make Wailea a popular draw for golfing vacations, too.
Even if you're not staying in one of the fancy beachfront hotels, you can still enjoy Wailea's gorgeous scenery. Put on your walking shoes and head for the coastal nature trail that winds along the water. It's paved, so it's easy going, and it'll give you an up-close look at an abundance of unique Hawaiian plants. In the morning, the trail is full of joggers, and in the evening, it's an ideal spot to watch the sunset.
The town of Kahului on Maui is often just the starting point for vacations on the island, but if you've got a bit of spare time there are some good reasons to explore Kahului before moving on.
Kahului is one of the main shopping destinations for Maui residents, and it's home to one of Hawaii's largest airports. Besides shopping, however, you can also check out the Kanaha Beach Park and Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary. The former is a relatively hidden beach (behind the airport), and the latter is a bird sanctuary with some endangered Hawaiian bird species. There's also a botanical gardens featuring solely native Hawaiian flora. The town's history is closely tied to the sugar industry, which you can trace at Kahului's Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum. Many visitors to Kahului know it as the starting point for the scenic Hana Highway (also known as the Road to Hana), which winds more than 50 miles along the northern shore of the island from Kahului to Hana.
Lanai Island may be dwarfed by Maui, but it’s the sixth largest of the Hawaiian islands. Pineapples rule on Lanai, but resort hotels are springing up to make the most of the island’s beachfront.
You’ll find a golf course and a hotel built by the famous pineapple mogul James Dole. However, you won't find any traffic lights, department stores, paved roads or big-city bustle of any kind.
Get around off-road by 4x4, take a stroll through laid-back Lanai City, go horseback riding or play a round of golf.
Although the Wailea resort complex is graced with numerous beaches, the epicenter of the beach scene will forever be Wailea Beach. Voted as the #1 beach in America in 1999, this stretch of golden sand which fronts the Grand Wailea and Four Seasons resorts offers everything from snorkeling and standup paddling to outrigger canoe paddling and playful bodyboarding. Fun-loving yet undeniably luxurious, Wailea Beach is the postcard of luxury you would expect from a Maui resort complex.
Even though private cabanas line the shoreline (and there is a great chance of spotting a celebrity), Wailea Beach is a public beach and is open to anyone in the community. Public parking lots are found at neighboring Ulua Beach as well as next to the Four Seasons, and a two-mile coastal path connects Wailea Beach with Polo beaches, which is a similar island favorite.
More Things to Do in Maui
Little Beach is smaller and more sheltered than many of the beaches on Maui. It is accessed by walking from the neighboring Big Beach, though the two are separated by a large lava rock wall and a five-minute hike. Its fine, white stretch of sand is only slightly more difficult to access than the average beach, but crowds are reduced here. Conditions are often good for both surfing and boogie boarding, and lava rock trails around the beach area lead to some smaller coves and viewpoints of the beaches of Makena State Park.
Also known as "Puʻu Olai,” the beach attracts a free-spirited crowd, with drum circles and fire dancing every Sunday evening. Aside from the blue waters and fine sands, it is a great spot to do some snorkeling (pending current conditions) and watch a famous Hawaiian sunset away from the crowds.
The city of Wailuku sits on the northern coast of Maui, once a major tourist destination on the island and now a commercial and governmental center. As the Maui County seat, Wailuku is home to the county government and was historically home to some of the Kingdom of Hawaii's most esteemed leaders. It was also a major center of the sugar cane industry in Hawaii in the 19th century.
The town is situated on the coast, but at its back is the mouth of the Iao Valley, a gorgeous and lush state park that was sacred to the old Hawaiian gods and a burial ground for Hawaiian royalty. The valley was also the setting for a legendary 18th century battle in the fight to unify the islands as one kingdom. Visitors to Wailuku today can explore the city's historic monuments, browse its unique local shops and restaurants, and use it as a base for visiting the Iao Valley.
The Bailey House is a historical house and museum operated by the Maui Historical Society. It houses the largest collection of Hawaiian artifacts on Maui, many dating back to the 19th century when the house was built. The home was constructed as a mission in 1833 on what was then the royal compound of Kahekili, the last ruling chief of Maui, and the second story contains many of the koa wood furniture that belonged to the missionary Edward Bailey, who lived in the house. The first floor contains remnants of native Hawaiian life, from wooden bowls and utensils to spears and shark teeth used in battle. The museum also houses a private collection of Edward Bailey’s paintings of Maui along with the oldest surviving photographs of the island.
Outside you can view dozens of native Hawaiian plants in the house gardens. There is a 100-year-old outrigger canoe and a historic surfboard that belonged to Duke Kahanamoku in an outdoor gallery beside the entrance to the house.
The second largest of the islands, Maui is known for its legendary Road to Hana (aka the Hana Highway). This scenic route past waterfalls and beaches is one of the most popular attractions on the island and makes a great shore excursion. Other shore excursions include snorkeling and trips to the Haleakala Crater, a well-known sunset spot.
Maui has great beaches, including white-sand Kaanapali Beach near Lahaina, so don’t be afraid to spend your whole day in port on the sand.
Ships dock in Kahului Harbor on the north coast or anchor off Lahaina on the west coast. If you’re not taking an organized tour, you’ll want a rental car to get around the island. Most of the rental companies have shuttles from each port to take you to one of the airports to pick up your car.
Just off Maui’s shore on the island of Molokai, Kalaupapa National Historic Park is the former site of two leper colonies. People living with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) have been quarantined here since the days of King Kamehameha, and a community of cured patients still inhabits the Kalaupapa Settlement, scenically surrounded by steep Pali cliffs. The park is dedicated to preserving the experiences of the past so that they might be learned from in the present and future.
Father Damien, a Belgian missionary, first came to Molokai in the 19th century and cared for the afflicted until his death. In doing so, he brought awareness of the disease to the rest of the world. Once completely isolated, the peaceful area is now a center for education and reflection. Historic churches, homes, and cemeteries can still be seen. Out of respect for the residents, the number of visitors is limited to 100 per day.
Makawao is a town in Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country beside the slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano. The Paniolo culture of horseback riding and cattle wrangling has been present here since the 19th century, with green hillside pastures and ranches throughout the area. The Paniolo influence can still be felt — with horse-hitching posts in the streets and with the unique architectural style of the downtown buildings. Rodeos take place some weekends here, the largest of which is held annually during Fourth of July.
In the past, plantations covered this densely forested area. The name ‘Makawao’ means “eye of the forest.” The higher elevation in this area makes it especially conducive to agriculture, including pineapples and the Maui onion. Today, the town of Makawao is known for its thriving art scene. As such, there are dozens of art galleries, shops, small restaurants and boutiques to explore along the town’s main street.