Lei of the Land

Go beyond the beach in Maui, Hawaii

Our past trips to Maui — one, a family vacation where the kids learned to snorkel, and the second, a romantic getaway once they were off to college — were confined to the Hawaiian island’s west shore resorts. Each time my wife and I pondered leaving to visit pineapple plantations, drive to Haleakala Crater, or brave the road to Hana, the beach sand acted like a powerful glue, freezing us in our flip-flops. Why seek out paradise, we shrugged, when we’re already there? But this time we vowed to see the rest of Maui, which proved to be as exhilarating as the beaches are calming. By sandwiching adventurous outings between respites at a beach resort, it felt like we’d truly earned our mai tais.
 
Life’s a Beach
But before we stepped out of our comfort zone and into “the real Maui,” we stuck with what we knew and spent our first couple of days at a West Maui resort. 
 
It’s simply too hard to resist when beach activities, restaurants, and bars are all within strolling distance of the hotel room. West Maui’s Kaanapali Beach and the quieter and more posh Wailea in South Maui each offer all you could want for a relaxing time: sand, surf, swimming pools, and umbrella drinks.

Compared to the bedlam of Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, Kaanapali is a big step up and Wailea is an additional step beyond that. Kaanapali impresses with sprawling resorts like the Hyatt Regency, Sheraton, and Westin; Wailea surpasses it with the Wailea Beach Villas, the Fairmont, and the AAA Five Diamond Four Seasons. Still, you can find hotel and condo rooms in the spring and fall for under $150 per night in both resort areas. Each area has a paved beach path popular with morning walkers and runners that threads the line between the resorts and the public beach for miles, and each has opportunities to snorkel, kayak, try outrigger canoeing, or watch for whales.
 
When you tire of the resort scene, you can head to town — Lahaina for Kaanapali visitors and Kihei for Wailea visitors. We splurged one night on dinner at the Lahaina Grill, a fine-dining jewel surrounded by beach promenade restaurants, bars, galleries, shaved-ice stands, and a gelateria (Ono Gelato), where bits of tropical fruit are embedded in the scoops. In Kihei, we chose Sarento’s on the Beach, which proved ideal for feasting our eyes on the sunset and our appetites on Maui’s superior stand-in for pizza and beer: grilled ahi and mai tais.

Maui-caught mahi-mahi is a staple at most luaus, too. Like seeing the Grand Canyon, a sunset luau at a Maui beach resort is something you must experience at least once, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Sure it’s corny, but the pulsating Hawaiian and South Pacific music and dances performed by locals in traditional garb are authentic and fun. We chose the Polynesian Luau at the Westin Maui, one of seven luaus at Maui resorts. Upon arrival, we admired the resort’s $2 million Asian art collection and maze of pools, including a koi pond with five flamingos and a black swan. “Hello,” we greet a macaw at the pond’s edge. “Ha-wo,” he parroted back, barely audible over the less-articulate mynahs in the ficus tree above.
 
Heading Up To Upcountry
Upcountry is a swath of Maui highlands blessed with abundant sunshine, rain, and fertile volcanic soil perfect for farming and ranching. Everything from asparagus to zucchinis are grown there, but because it’s Hawaii, the Maui Pineapple Tour caught our eye. As tour guide Steve Potter was quick to point out, we were about to tour the farm that grows the gold standard of pineapples — Maui Golds — on one of America’s last pineapple farms (Costa Rica has replaced it as the hemisphere’s pineapple king).

Following a tour of the long sheds where the pineapples are sorted, acidity-tested, and boxed, we took a ride in a pineapple-colored minibus onto the fields. They are green and gold with ripening fruit — 31,000 per acre — and Potter regales us with juicy tidbits about pineapples, such as how they earned their name (“looks like a pinecone, tastes like an apple”) and how they can only be planted and picked by hand. The tour concludes with a group tasting in the fields, then he sends us off with two boxed pineapples and a lunch voucher to redeem next-door at Hali’imaile General Store.

Another stop, the Surfing Goat Dairy, turned out to be as whimsical as its name  — from the goofy grins on the goats’ bearded faces to the surfboards used around the farm as fences and milking platforms. Yet it’s also serious business, as milk from the dairy’s 103 goats is turned into award-winning cheeses. On the half-hourly tour, we’re given hay to feed the “kids” and treated to a cheese tasting.

Heading further into Upcountry, we reached Maui’s only winery, Tedeschi, to enjoy a free tasting of sweet pineapple wines. An adjacent museum tells the story of the land where the grapes are grown, a nearby 18,000-acre Ulupalakua cattle ranch.
It was on even larger Haleakala Ranch where I would clatter over cattle guards the next day on a bike. My wife stayed at the beach resort this time, joking that biking down a volcano sounded like a good way to cash in my life insurance. It turned out to be quite tame. Said Kimo, the Haleakala Bike Co. driver who zigzagged me and 24 other adventurers up the mountain: “You can do this even if you’re old or out of shape.” (I don’t think he was talking about me.) “I took an 83-year-old man up here who hadn’t been on a bike since he was 13 and he was fine.”
 
Similar to itineraries offered by other bike-the-volcano companies, the tour started with a drive to the Haleakala National Park Visitor Center at 9,740 feet. Here, we peered into the massive crater before the drop-off at 6,500 feet. We were given a map, a wraparound helmet, and a bike with fat tires and disc brakes before coasting almost to the coast for 23 downhill miles. The cruise down the mountain was a cheap thrill as I carved the curves above the clouds, a flock of hang gliders, the green hills, and distant beaches far below.
 
Eventually the route reached an old rodeo arena, where a paniolo (cowboy) strode through the front gate in full chaps. Still farther down, I was serenaded by the tinkling of wind chimes that drape the front porch of a shop called Goodies in Makawao. Then, finally, I finished in poetically named Haiku. The sense of accomplishment wasn’t the same as if I’d pedaled up the volcano, but I’ll take it.
 
Driving to Hana (Because We Wanna)
The Road to Hana, with its 620 curves and 59 narrow bridges, has a reputation that scares off many Maui visitors. Yet the surface is good, there are no scary cliffs, and your rewards for negotiating the 36-mile-long asphalt snake are as bountiful as the vegetation at the Keanae Arboretum (one of two rainforest walks we took en route from roadside pullouts).
 
Paia is the last town and nearby Hookipa Beach is the last beach before the real curves commence on the Hana Highway. In Paia, a former sugar plantation town now sweetened by craft galleries and coffeehouses, we ordered banana-mango-pineapple smoothies at Café des Amis. We slurped them while watching scores of surfers, windsurfers, and kiteboarders sculpting the waves at Hookipa from a grassy bluff that juts seaward from the beach. This perspective gives you a close-up side view of the surfers, so the bluff is packed with fellow spectators and picnickers.
 
There’s either a waterfall, a trailhead, or a fruit stand around almost every hairpin on the Road to Hana — and all three at the Twin Falls Farm Stand, which sells punctured coconuts with straws for the short hike to the falls. The walk through a tropical-flower-perfumed rainforest led us to two 40-foot ribbons of water that tumble into a shallow pond. Fellow hikers in swimsuits took turns getting soaked under the natural shower. We did another short, magical hike a few miles up the road at the Keanae Arboretum, where a grove of towering gum trees sport slender trunks that are seemingly painted in watercolors.
 
We soon realized as we drew closer to Hana that the whole northeastern corner of Maui is like one big botanical garden, with flora that originated on every continent but Antarctica. Eighty annual inches of rainfall lets everything grow here, with so many banana, guava, passionfruit, breadfruit, and coconut palm trees growing wild that most of the fruit goes uneaten. The weather is just as copious, changing almost hourly from sunshine to puffy clouds to cloudbursts.
 
Among Hana’s four beaches, we decided our favorites were palm-fringed Hamoa and Wai’anapanapa State Park’s black sand beach, with its adjacent trails, caves, and a blowhole. These small, tranquil beaches bear no resemblance to West Maui’s resort beaches, just as Hana (population 1,200) is worlds apart with its century-old general store, no stoplights, and just one low-rise resort (the AAA Four Diamond Travaasa). In this small town, honor stands — fruit, flowers, and crafts are left unattended outside many homes and locals trust you will leave the right amount and take only what you paid for.
 
“We all trust each other,” said Doug Hill, a Hana resident since age 10, who follows the local custom of waving to everyone who walks or drives past during the bike tour he leads. “That drove my wife crazy when we visited LA,” he said with a laugh. “People thought there was something wrong with me.” If we’d stayed in Hana much longer, we might have seemed a little crazy ourselves — waving to strangers, foraging wild fruit for breakfast, and hula dancing at dusk. On second thought, maybe crazy isn’t so bad.