|| Updated March 2015 ||
Ask anyone who’s been to Hawaii, and they have opinions. Everyone has a favorite island, a favorite beach, a favorite fish taco – and with good reason. There’s just no end of options and opportunities to make Hawaii your own – that’s the magic of it. But whether you’re a resort rat sticking close to the bar at the pool (ahem) or prefer to rent a condo and explore on your own, you’ll need a list to get you started.
For me, the favorite island vote goes to Maui, hands down. It’s more mellow than Oahu, but with more food and shopping options than Kauai. And the people are simply amazing – a living exercise in zen if ever there was one. On Maui, you don’t see locals walking around with their heads buried in their phones. In fact, call a local’s cell and you’re almost guaranteed not to get an answer. It all takes some getting used to – this focus on looking ahead instead of down, of interacting instead of ignoring. But once you sink in, it makes your vacation into something you can’t find anywhere else.
Not long ago, the hubs and I embarked on…oh, this must be our fourth trip to Maui now. And though some of the novelty has worn off, it’s been replaced with a comfortable familiarity, like visiting an old friend. Though new discoveries have become old haunts, there’s always something new to uncover on Maui. And I’m nothing if not an exhaustive researcher. So I ate, shopped and lounged my way through the island to find the cream of the crop. For you, my friends. It’s a dirty job. Whether you have Maui on your agenda or just on your bucket list, get ready for some serious wanderlust.
To Eat. I’ll admit, I’m a foodie first – especially when I travel. Maui offers up so, so many delicious things to nosh on, and you’re already wearing stretchy pants.
- For casual fare, my favorites are Star Noodle (owned by a Top Chef contender), Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop (two words: banana cream), and Honu (a little pricey, but beachfront and with a great laidback vibe you’ll welcome after being at a fancy resort).
- The best sushi on the island? Any local will tell you it’s Sansei, hands-down. And truthfully, I look forward to my dinner there every time I visit. It’s pretty casual, and the prices are remarkably reasonable (especially if you’re a night owl, since everything’s half off after 10 pm Thurs-Sat). The fish is fresher than you’ve ever had, and everything is outstanding. I typically stick with the sushi, but their miso-glazed butterfish is some of the best around.
- For high-end dining, the Fairmont Kea Lani’s newly-remodeled Ko is still an absolute delight. The menu is inspired by all of the many cultures on the island, instead of just being generic Asian fusion like so many other high-end spots on Maui. Service, food and ambiance were impeccable. But I found a new love in the Hyatt’s brand new Japengo, an Asian fusion menu so good, it has singlehandedly ruined me for “mainland” fusion fare. I over-ordered like a good little reviewer, so I can confidently tell you that just about everything on the menu is ridiculously good, including their sushi. (But I can tell you that if you don’t try the Japengo Fried Rice or the Duck Meatballs, we just can’t be friends.)
- Speaking of the Hyatt, even if you do nothing else I suggest, please have brunch at their Swan Court. No matter how many times I go, every time I walk down that staircase and catch my first glimpse of their open-air dining room set on a private little pond with – yes – swans swimming around while you eat (along with flamingoes and all manner of other feathered friends), I fall in love all over again. The buffet’s great, but truly, it’s the vibe you’re after. Take a book, prepare to let them refill your coffee cup all morning long and just relax into the picture-perfect setting. It’s the quintessential Hawaii experience.
To Stay. For me, Maui is all about the resorts. Plant me in a beach chair, bring me a pina colada, and I’ll see you in a week. So, the more lovely the pool and the more attentive the service, the happier I’ll be. My top three resorts:
- Hyatt Maui (Ka’anapali): In case my restaurant recs didn’t give it away, the Hyatt Maui is easily one of my favorite spots on the island. The rooms could maybe do with a little update, but the ambiance at the resort is just completely unrivaled by anything else – not so fancy that you’ll feel out of place, but luxurious enough to feel like you’ve treated yourself. They also have this incredible menagerie of exotic birds everywhere (penguins too!), a soaring open-air courtyard, oceanfront hammocks, swim-up bar…I just love it. If you can, book a package that includes daily breakfast at the Swan Court.
- Fairmont Kea Lani (Wailea). The Fairmont is everything you want in a luxury resort. Every room is a suite, and a gorgeous one at that (for an upgrade, feel free to rent a villa, where they’ll even send a chef to cook you dinner). The pools are divine, particularly the adult-only pool, and the view was spectacular. Service is amazing throughout the resort, and they’ll bring you fresh pineapple while you sunbathe.
- Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Bay. Kapalua is about 15 minutes north of Lahaina, so it feels like a real escape, but you’re still close to town. The Ritz property there was built up on a cliff, so it’s a downhill stroll to head to the beach, but if you’re only in it for the views (as I am), you won’t mind a bit. Service at the Ritz blew my mind – every last person we dealt was above and beyond. The rooms nailed that “upscale island” vibe, which is really tricky to do, and the spa…well, if I’d known how amazing it was, I’d have spent the entire day there. Bonus: You can get surprisingly good rates at the resort if you do a bit of research.
To Buy. Oh, if I must find something not to love about Maui, it’s the shopping. You can only go into so many ABC stores and see the same collection of plastic clip-on plumerias and shell necklaces before you give up and head back to the pool (as you should). But there are a few gems.
- I love the kitsch factor at Sir Wilfred’s, and their coffee is better than anyone’s, whether you’re looking for Kona or something less island-y. (Buy some Maui Upcountry guava butter while you’re there. It’ll change your life.)
- I also loved Village Galleries in Lahaina, an art gallery and a gift shop featuring some really beautiful pieces from actual Maui artisans (unlike the cheap, Made in China fare you’ll find at most tourist traps).
- Maui Hands, inside the Hyatt, has some gems as well – I fell hard for the art by Linda Whittemore and jewelry by Pratima Design.
- If traditional Hawaiian quilts are your thing, the only place you want to go to check them out is Quilts n’ Fabric Land in Lahaina. No website, and the owner is a little bristly at first, but convince her you’re a connoisseur and she’ll soften right up. They have a beautiful selection of quilts, or you can custom order your favorite. They also stock all manner of smaller quilted souvenirs, perfect for toting home to Mom.
- If (and only if!) you’re already headed that way, the gift shop at the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku is a gem of a place, but it’s so out of the way of anything else, I’d hesitate to recommend it. Once we were there, though, we ended up finding nearly all of our souvenirs for friends, and a few things for ourselves.
To Do. Honestly, I’m a complete laze-ball when I’m Maui-bound. But there are a few things most definitely worth doing:
- The whale-watching tour was maybe my all-time favorite Maui experience. I did much too much research on this, and landed on the Hula Girl. They have a kitchen onboard, and the food was actually quite good. Some cruises include an open bar in the price, but Hula Girl did not, which I actually preferred – 40 drunk people on a boat is not my idea of a good time. Hula Girl felt more upscale, and the crowd was more my speed. That said, all of the tours I considered all ended up within 500 feet of each other once we were out to sea, watching the exact same whales (we saw whales!) at the exact same time. So, don’t stress too much.
- If you’re at all interested in astronomy, the view of the night sky in Maui is tough to beat. Head to the Hyatt after dark and check out their rooftop Tour of the Stars – the views from their NASA-grade collection of telescopes are just incredible, and you’ll definitely learn a thing or three from their crazy smart Director of Astronomy (who knew that was a job?).
- Go for a drive. It really doesn’t matter where…you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad view in Maui. I tend to hit Highway 30 and head north until my jaw starts dropping from the incredible coastal views at every turnout. People will tell you to try the Road to Hana, and I have no doubt it’s gorgeous…but I stick closer to home (which also makes it that much easier to get back to the pool in time for lunch).
And that, in a nutshell, is everything I know about Maui – unless you need to know how to pack for that tropical escape, which I happen to have down to a science.
Have any tips to add? Share them in the comments!