A visit to the Hawaiian island of Maui is a must-do for many reasons.
If you think this destination is all golf resorts and honeymoon packages, think again. Hawaii’s second-largest island is as much about rugged mountains, ranging cattle ranches and historic towns as it is about dreamy beaches, swaying palm trees and icy Mai Tais. The island is easily accessible from travel hub Oahu, with a flying time of just 25 minutes.
Here are ten top things to do in Maui.
Turn back time in Lahaina
The atmosphere of a 19th-century seaport lives on in the former whaling town of Lahaina, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In Front Street — a great spot to catch sunsets over the ocean — restaurants, boutiques and more than forty art galleries rub shoulders with buildings dating back to the 1830s. Don’t miss seeing the gigantic 145-year-old banyan tree next to the Old Courthouse building (which houses the town’s heritage museum). Just past the historic lighthouse is a small harbour filled with boats offering whale-watching cruises and snorkelling adventures.
Drive the Hana Highway
The 85-kilometre twisting road along the coastline from Paia in the island’s north to Hana in the east is one of the world’s great scenic routes and one that will challenge your driving skills! There are no resorts here — just ocean, rainforest, waterfalls, old single-lane bridges suspended over deep gulches, and an estimated 600 sharp turns. Stop on the way at the tropical Ke’anae Arboretum or to pick up an organic and vegan ice cream at Coconut Glen’s. At the end of the journey, discover Maui’s windswept east coast with its black sand beaches, sea caves, lava tubes and the mystical Pi’ilanihale Heiau — a massive Hawaiian temple that is the state’s most significant archaeological site.
Windsurf the North Shore
Strong and reliable trade winds make Maui’s North Shore a magnet for wind-and-water sporting enthusiasts. For experienced windsurfers, Ho’okipa Beach Park is the holy grail, and the site of several international competitions. If you’re not skilled enough to take on the huge swells yourself, it’s a great place to watch the experts in action. Beginners and casual windsurfers will enjoy the more forgiving conditions down the shoreline at Kanaha Beach. There are plenty of opportunities to hire equipment or get lessons. You can also try your hand at kitesurfing and wavesailing.
Salute the sun at Haleakala
The name Haleakala means ‘house of the sun’. It was bestowed by ancient Hawaiians on this huge mountain, which is the world’s largest dormant (not extinct) volcano. The drive to the summit through the Haleakala National Park starts in farmland, continues through moors reminiscent of Yorkshire or Scotland, and ends in a lunar landscape of mineral colours and big sky.
The extraordinary cloud structures that hug the sides of the mountain are spectacular at any time of day, but sunrises are so popular that an advance booking is needed to enter the summit district between 3am and 7am. Be warned: at an altitude of over 3,000 metres, the air temperature at the summit is cold!
Find peace in the Iao Valley
Ten minutes’ drive from the town of Wailuku in Central Maui, the Iao Valley State Park feels a world away from modern Hawaii. An epic battle fought here in 1790 was decisive in the unification of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The rocky stream that was said to be clogged with the bodies of slain warriors, now winds peacefully through a verdant landscape of dramatic mountain peaks. Admire the spire-like geological formation called the Iao Needle, visit the heritage gardens commemorating Maui’s multi-cultural history, follow one of the many short and easy walking trails that are ideal for families, or just enjoy this oasis of greenery and stillness.
Experience cowboy culture at Makawao
Almost 200 years of cattle ranching on Maui has left a proud legacy in the culture of the paniolos — the local cowboys whose way of life uniquely blended Mexican and Hawaiian traditions. In the heart of up-country Maui, the historic paniolo town of Makawao has reinvented itself as a creative arts-and-lifestyle hub without sacrificing its cowboy heritage. Browse the galleries and shops, enjoy locally grown coffee and organic treats at Sip Me, and don’t leave town without visiting the fascinating (and free) Makawao History Museum.
Visit a ranch
Before tourists discovered Maui in the 1970s, the island’s economy was solidly agricultural, and even today, farming and cattle raising are vital to the livelihoods of many of the population. Stop in at the Ulupalakua Ranch — one of Maui’s oldest and largest cattle ranches. It’s a peaceful place with a winery, restaurant and horse-riding, as well as rolling hills, jacaranda trees and grazing cattle. For a different rural experience, visit the Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm or the Surfing Goat Dairy.
Laze on the beaches of Makena
The Makena district on Maui’s south coast is home to the island’s most scenic swimming beaches. Big Beach (aka Oneloa) offers nearly a kilometre of pale golden sand edging vibrant turquoise water. Scramble over black volcanic rocks at the northern end to reach Little Beach — a perfect small cove popular with nude sunbathers (official illegal but tacitly accepted in this secluded spot). Wherever you choose to swim, take note of the surf conditions. As at all Maui’s beaches, they can be unpredictable and often dangerous. Lifeguards are on hand at Big Beach, so follow their direction on where to swim safely.
Snorkel Molokini Crater
While you’re on the south coast, take a boat trip to Molokini Crater for superb snorkelling and bird-watching. Tours to the submerged volcanic crater depart from Makena Resort in Kihei Town, or Maalaea Harbour. Molokini’s distinctive crescent shape and high rock walls protect its marine sanctuary from waves and currents, ensuring incredibly good underwater visibility. Some tours will take you turtle, dolphin or whale-spotting, while others offer snuba and scuba diving options behind the crater’s more exposed back wall.
Walk the Waihee Ridge Trail
This spectacular hike in the West Maui Mountains is for reasonably fit and well-equipped walkers. Although the trail is only 6.5 kilometres out and back, it quickly climbs 500 metres in altitude via a combination of steep stairways and switchbacks. The reward? Stunning outlooks on plunging green valleys, tropical forests, waterfalls, and (eventually) the ocean. Bring a rain jacket as you may find yourself walking through clouds. Plan to hike early in the day for the clearest views.
For further information, please visit www.gohawaii.com/islands/maui.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Maui? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.