A Guide to Maui, Hawaii | 13 Best Things to Do
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Beach bums and adventure lovers alike will be in paradise on Maui, Hawaii’s second-largest island. You can find humpback whales, black sand or pristine white sand beaches, volcanos, renowned snorkeling, tropical forests, and so much more. A must-visit destination for all travelers. Start planning your trip to Maui now with this list of the 13 best things to do.
1. Road to Hana
The scenic Road to Hana is without a doubt the top attraction on Maui. Devote one full day to driving along the picturesque coastline, with time for many stops.
The road is winding. Sharp curves, hairpin turns, and one-lane bridges abound. If you are not accustomed to this type of driving… well, get ready. Whether you are the one behind the wheel or just the passenger, it is quite the experience. You will feel a bit tense, might even get a bit nauseous. Occasionally, on the very narrow roads, locals who live or work along the route will speed past you – be sure to give way. If you do not feel comfortable driving yourself, there are tours that are available.
While this driving route is called the Road to Hana, Hana is not actually the end stop. Nor is Hana that exciting of a place. The real value comes from all of the small stops along the way. There are waterfalls, black sand beaches, bamboo forests, lava rocks, surfing beaches, and plenty of road-side food stalls.
What made our road trip was downloading and following along to the Road to Hana GyPSy Guide. This app plays audio automatically based on your GPS, telling stories and giving directions as you drive. It tells you when to pull over or what to look out for. Even if you don’t have data, just download the app when you have wifi back at your hotel, and it works offline while on the road. At the end of the drive, the narrator felt like a friend. A nerdy but lovable friend who always has your back.
The next three things on this list are places you can (and should) visit while doing the Road to Hana.
2. Garden of Eden
Found at mile marker 10.5 on the Hana Highway, Garden of Eden is one of the few private paid attractions on the Road to Hana. This lush garden is 26 acres of tropical beauty. There are many winding nature trails that take you through the extensive collection of native plants. From the garden, you can also see the large rock from the opening sequence of Jurassic Park. There is also a large waterfall, bamboo forest, and a 100-year-old mango tree.
If you are already feeling a bit nauseous from the drive, this is a great stop to spend some time walking around. There are picnic tables throughout the gardens where you can enjoy lunch. Since it does cost money, it is less crowded than all of the other sights along the Road to Hana.
Admission costs $15 for adults and $5 for children over five (5 and under are free).
3. Wai'anapanapa State Park
Wai’anapanapa State Park (say that 3 times fast) has the amazing Pa’iloa Beach, a black sand beach, and freshwater caves. The breathtaking black sand beach is such a beautiful contrast between the glistening blue water. The beach itself is rather small, but you can walk down on the beach or the lava rock trails around the area. To get to the freshwater caves, there is a loop trail that goes to the two caves. The caves were also the scene of a gruesome murder by Chief Ka’akea.
Depending on how late you get here, it will likely be quite crowded. The whole park is 120-acres, and there are several longer trails to follow if you have more time.
4. Ohe'o Gulch
Ohe’o Gulch is also known as the Seven Sacred Pools. There are actually dozens of pools of water that are filled from many waterfalls that flow through the Ohe’o Gulch. If you have time, there are many great hikes in this area that range from a quarter mile to 4 miles. The most popular short trail is the Kuloa Point trail that leads to a viewing of the pools. The best long trail is the 4-mile Pipiwai trail that takes you to waterfalls, a huge bamboo forest, and streams.
Ohe’o Gulch is part of the Haleakala National Park. Admission into the park costs $25 per vehicle. If you are going up to Haleakala crater (#8 on this list), this is the same pass you need and is valid for 3 days. After the Ohe’o Gulch we turned around and drove the 3 hours back to our resort.
Lahaina town is a historical village on the western side of the island. It is home to art galleries and loads of unique shops and restaurants. Once a lively whaling village, it is now a popular spot to embark on whale watching tours. Walking down the popular Front street gives you a bit of that Old Lahaina feel. This is a great place to eat dinner, grab drinks, or do some souvenir shopping.
Among Lahaina’s attractions is a 145-year-old Banyan Tree right in the middle of the Courthouse Square. Banyan trees have an unusual growth pattern. Rather than roots first growing from underground, Banyan trees generate roots from the main tree truck branches that descend down and then form new trunks. These trees grow into tall and wide mazes of many trunks all connected together. The one in Lahaina has 16 major trunks and has a circumference of one-fourth of a mile.
6. Whale Watching Tour
The whales swim back down to Hawaii to enjoy the warmth from December to May. If you are visiting Maui during the winter, you are in for a treat. Humpback Whales, coming from Alaska, give birth to their calves in Hawaii each year. If you look hard enough, you will probably see whales breaching from the beach or on your hotel balcony. Maui is the best place in Hawaii to see these gentle giants right on the shoreline.
If you want to get closer to the whales and see them slapping their tails feet from you, book a whale watching boat tour. We have been burned in the past with unsuccessful whale watching tours (read about our experience in Iceland). However, whale watching in Maui was unbelievable. Where else can you see whales in warm weather and on calm waters? Most companies have a whale sighting guarantee, meaning if are among the small percentage of groups that don’t see whales, they will give you free tickets to another tour.
If you go later in the season, you will probably see the baby whales following alongside their mothers. We went at the very beginning of whale season but saw 20+ whales, including a few one-year-old whales that were born in Hawaii last winter.
A trip to any island in Hawaii has to include at least one iconic Luau. Luaus are traditional Hawaiian feasts complete with music and dancing. Traditionally, luaus were held to celebrate a victory in battle or a large harvest. Nowadays, in Hawaiian culture, they are used to commemorate all sorts of events including weddings, anniversaries, graduations, or birthdays.
The center of the feast is the kalua pig, which is cooked in an underground oven. Served buffet-style, luaus typically also include other traditional Hawaiian food like Poi (steamed Taro), Poke (raw fish), Laulau (pork wrapped in Taro leaves), Lomi Salmon (raw salmon), Taro Leaf Stew, fried rice, Moa (chicken marinated in guava), chicken long rice, and tropical fruit.
You will be greeted at the Luau with a fresh flower lei and the fun begins. Before dinner, you can watch the pig be unearthed, get a drink, or learn how to hula. After enjoying the meal, the dancers come out telling the history of Hawaii and the importance of their dance through the music and their movements. If you are lucky, the luau will end with a mesmerizing fire knife dance.
While in Maui, we chose the Old Lahaina Luau, which is known for being the most authentic Hawaiian Luaus. However, it does not include fire dancers, if you just can’t miss out, Maui Nui Luau is the one for you.
8. Sunrise or Sunset at Haleakala
Haleakala is a massive volcano in East Maui, in the upcountry. About 75% of the island of Maui is Haleakala. At the peak of the mountain, 10,000 feet up, is a crater known its sunrises. The sun rises on the other side of the crater from the visitor center.
It is said to be one of the most incredible sunrises in the world. We wouldn’t know. We woke up early, drove for 2 hours up the mountain, only to find the top covered in clouds. We didn’t give up, we stood staring out at nothing, while being rained on, waiting for a small break in the clouds to see the sun. It never came. Since our park pass was valid for a couple more days, we went again at sunset and we were successful! The sunset is not as remarkable because of the direction you are facing, but it was still worth the drive up. If you stay around a bit longer past sunset, you will see the brightest night sky on the island.
Let’s talk about the drive up – because that in and of itself is incredible. It is a bit frightening if you are afraid of heights or mountain switchbacks. However, you get incredible views of the whole island.
Because of limited parking, you must reserve a spot in advance. The reservation costs $1.50 per vehicle. You will need to pay another $25 per vehicle as an entrance fee to the national park once you arrive. It is valid for 3 days, so you can visit again after watching the sunrise. It is also the same park as the Ohe’o Gulch (#4), so visit both within 3 days to save on the park entrance fees.
This is the coldest part of the island, with temperatures around 40ºF at sunrise/sunset. You’ll probably be shivering in your beach-wear, so bring a jacket. There are hiking trails that lead down into the crater from the parking lot. After watching the sunrise, head down as far as you wish into the crater. Due to the higher altitude, it might leave you out of breath faster than you’d think.
9. Snorkeling off the beach
Snorkeling is one of the most popular activities to do in Maui, and for good reason. Right off many of the beaches, you can see coral reefs and beautiful colorful fish. Maui is also home to the beloved Hawaiian green sea turtle.
Some of Maui’s best snorkel beaches are in the west: Kaanapali Beach/Black Rock, Honolulu Bay, and Kapalua Bay; and south: Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, Coral Gardens, and Ulua Beach. On Kaanapali Beach is an especially popular place to stay due to the great snorkeling and the beautiful beach.
If you want a greater chance of seeing sea turtles or a higher fish and coral density, you’ll have to take a boat to Molokini Crater and Turtle Town in South Maui. While it is not necessary to do one of these tours, swimming with turtles is an unforgettable experience.
One of the main goals of any trip to Maui is to experience nature. Starting in Costa Rica as part of their eco-tourism efforts, Zip lining is a way for people to get up close to forest canopies without harming the tropical forests. It provides a perfect combination of adventure and views. And it is just the right amount of thrill for most people, fitting somewhere in between sitting on the couch and skydiving.
Maui is one of the safest places to go zip lining. Ziplining didn’t come to the United States until 2002. The first company (Skyline Eco-Adventures) setting up on Maui!
11. Iao Valley State Park
If are you are looking for something other than a beach, Iao Valley State Park is where to go to enjoy the tropical forests in the interior of Maui. One of the wettest places in the world, it receives about an inch of rain per day. It might not rain on you while you visit, but you will see the effects of all this water in the stream the cuts through the park and the lush green everywhere.
The main attraction of the park is the ‘Iao needle, which is a phallic rock which can be seen from an observation deck on the trail in the park. The park has nice paved paths that take you along the steam or along the trees. The paths are fairly short and there are not many side trails, so your visit likely won’t take too long.
There is a parking fee to visit this park ($5 per car), which is waved for Hawaii residents.
12. Relaxing at the Beaches & Pools
Exploring Maui’s incredible forests, volcano, and wildlife is a must, but Maui is also known for their pristine beaches. It would be amiss to skip out on chilling on the beach or by the pool. Right?
We are not big sit by the pool and do nothing type people. However, it is nice, every so often, to just relax in paradise. Depending on where on the island you are, expect pretty consistent sunshine and warm weather your entire trip.
13. Helicopter Tour
If you really want to make your trip to Maui a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, consider booking a Helicopter tour around the island. Most of Maui’s nature is not accessible by car and has to be viewed by air. There are countless picturesque valleys and waterfalls completely unbeknownst to most. Striking ridgelines and sea cliffs.
There are only a handful of places where a scenic Helicopter flight is worth it and Maui definitely makes it on that list. A helicopter tour in Maui is more than just looking out the window. The guide also teaches you about the history, geology, and nature of Maui that can be seen from the air. While this experience might not work for everyone’s budget, but if you can make it work, do it!