Maui Has Become a Go-to Destination for Pandemic-era Travelers — Here's How to Experience It Beyond the Beaches

And learn what 'Aloha' is really all about.

Photo: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

As strict rules regarding travel during the COVID-19 pandemic have been implemented, venturing to Hawaii has been seen as a viable option for travelers who have been craving a bit of island paradise — and lucky for me, I was able to experience it firsthand.

Earlier this summer I found myself standing atop a cliff in Maui, with a glass of rosé Champagne in hand, staring out at the ocean as the early evening sun began to cast a golden glow. With a bite-size mochi doughnut in my other hand — just one of several pupus, or appetizers, the chef made as part of our Kiawe Outdoor dinner — I was enjoying open-air dining and Hawaiian cuisine at its best.

"I could eat like 20 of these," I declared.

"Good, I have 20 more," the chef laughed.

Courtesy of Alison Fox

For years, tourists have been drawn to Hawaii's buttery sand beaches, incredible hiking, and slower pace of life, but never has that been more true after a year that stymied travel in a way like never before due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, more than 791,000 visitors arrived in the state, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, only 16.5% less than June 2019, which included both air and cruise passengers.

In fact, the demand for Hawaii has picked up so dramatically within the past few months, United Airlines started increasing service to the state. The carrier introduced three new routes, including a direct flight from Chicago to Kona and one from Newark to Maui.

United passengers heading to Hawaii have the option to participate in a pre-clearance program, allowing them to verify their documents before boarding rather than when they land. Additionally, the airline allows customers to check travel restrictions and schedule any required testing right through the company's app.

And travelers don't just want to get to Hawaii, they want to do it in comfort, Patrick Quayle, the airline's vice president of international network and alliances, told me — just before I took full advantage of a lie-flat bed on the nearly 11-hour flight in the plane's Polaris business class.

"People are looking at Hawaii as an outlet and people are willing to pay for what they value," Quayle said. "We can move the airplanes wherever there is demand [and] there's more demand to Hawaii now during a pandemic than there ever was to Hawaii pre-pandemic."

Currently, Hawaii requires visitors to either show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken by a "Trusted Testing and Travel Partner" within 72 hours of their trip. Travelers must also apply for a quarantine waiver through the state's Safe Travels platform.

However, while tourists have been increasingly flocking to Hawaii, the state's Gov. David Ige asked visitors to limit travel in August. As of this week, due to a downward trend in COVID-19 cases, Ige is officially welcoming travelers back to the island on Nov. 1. Capacity restrictions and indoor mask mandates are still in place.

The order includes capacity restrictions on restaurants and bars, and an indoor mask mandate.

Waikiki Beach
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty

Despite the uncertainty, whenever travelers do decide to plan a responsible trip to Maui, visitors will be greeted by more than just its plentiful beaches and family-friendly fun: There's a unique cultural identity that grounds the island, and digging down to learn more only enhances the experience.

Earlier that day, I had walked through paddies of taro and helped prune land with Maui Cultural Lands, an organization that offers volunteer initiatives aimed at helping visitors understand the true meaning of "aloha." And as I watched the sunset lower and lower over the sea, fronds of palm trees outlined against the darkening sky, I finally understood why people can't get enough of the islands.

Hawaii Cultural Lands
Courtesy of Alison Fox

Travelers come to Maui for the plentiful beaches and family-friendly fun, but there's also a unique cultural identity that grounds the island, and digging down to learn more about it only enhances the experience.

"You can't just share 'aloha,' you have to understand what it is. And to understand it, you have to go through a process," Ekolu Lindsay, the president of Maui Cultural Lands, told me as we waded through a canopy of trees, mountains rising up in front of us. Lindsay's project connects visitors with volunteer efforts, allowing them to connect with the land through the concept of mālama, or "to take care of."

"It's not just 'eat, stay, and play,' it's... to give back," he told me, adding, "By connecting to all of that, you create better visitors, better people, and then they get to take that home and do that wherever they're from. So by doing that, I think you can create a better world."

Lindsay's words rattled around in my brain as I plucked weeds from the ground and surveyed taro paddies, and they stuck with me as I later watched powerful waves cresting over the beach.

Days later as I headed home, passing over jagged mountains jutting out over deep blue water, I continued to think about Maui's many sides. There's paragliding and incredible surf, poke and small-batch chocolate. But if travelers look beyond the beaches, Mai Tai's, and crowds, they'll find an island rich in cultural history, and it's ready to share.

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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