3 Ways to Experience Maui's Magic Without the Crowds
Often considered the ultimate destination in the Hawaiian Islands, Maui, with its abundant nature, vibrant culture, and rich history full of sugarcane and cowboys, has earned top marks from Travel + Leisure readers eight years in a row.
Though island visitors tend to make a beeline toward Lahaina and the sprawling hotels of Kaanapali, Maui’s less-trodden outposts reveal faces of the Valley Isle many travelers rarely see. Heading inland delivers a taste of authentic Maui flavor — literally. The pastoral slopes of Haleakala, the island’s 10,023-foot shield volcano, nurture abundance in the form of lavender, goat cheese, craft spirits, honey, wine, and, of course, Maui’s famed cattle. Meanwhile, the windswept east coast and the sunny southern shore offer their own unique brands of allure.
Here are three ways to delve into some hidden Maui magic.
Funky Paia on Maui’s north shore was a thriving plantation hub during king sugar’s heyday, but the industry’s decline hobbled the local economy. Windsurfers breathed new life into town in the late '70s when the epic trade winds and winter swells at Hookipa Beach began attracting hordes of big wave seekers. These days, surf shops and cafés mingle with hip boutiques and galleries in this bohemian beach town.
Greet the day at Paia Bay Coffee & Bar, an eco-eatery that serves island-style breakfasts alongside delicious lattes in a tropical, open-air garden. Afterwards, pop into Heart in Paia, a pocket-sized shop tucked around the corner, for handmade Hawaii-themed jewelry and artwork created by Maui native Lynn Lindell Baldwin.
A short drive south leads to historic Makawao and the scenery along the way — chestnut-colored cattle grazing on rolling green pastures — provides a clue to the town’s backstory. This is paniolo country, the heart of Maui’s proud cowboy legacy, which began in 1793 when British naval captain George Vancouver gifted a herd of longhorns to King Kamehameha I. Get schooled at the tiny Makawao History Museum, where mini-exhibits, ranch-relics, and old fashioned photos share tales of the community’s diverse, plantation-era culture.
Afterwards, explore present day Makawao with a stroll along Baldwin Road. Lined with cool mom and pop shops and unique galleries, the town’s main drag centers around a lively artisan scene. Stop in to visit with Jordanne Weinstein at her studio-meets-gallery where she paints and displays her vibrant landscapes and still lifes. Or follow a winding path behind the town’s plantation-style storefronts to Haku Maui, a snug oasis where owner Britney Texeira weaves gorgeous lei poʻo (head leis), using nothing but fresh flowers and greenery. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with one of Texeira’s workshops, where you can make a fragrant lei poʻo of your own.
For an authentic Upcountry experience, saddle up for a few hours on horseback at Piiholo Ranch. Owned by the Baldwin family for six generations, the 800-acre property sits on the verdant slopes of Halekala. Channel your inner paniolo on the ranch’s “Cowboy for a Day” adventure, driving a herd of Piiholo cattle across open ranchlands from pasture to pasture surrounded by panoramic Pacific views.
No matter where you look in the Upcountry, Haleakala, which means “The House of the Sun,” looms large. Though heading up to the summit for sunrise — and biking back down afterwards — is all the rage, doing so involves advanced reservations, a prohibitive wake-up call, and lots of company. A happy alternative to the sunrise circus? Sunset. Get to the summit parking lot a few hours before dusk to secure a spot and explore this side of Haleakala National Park — most notably, the remarkable Sliding Sands Trail, which leads down into the vast Haleakala Crater. The entire trail is 11 miles, but you can hike in for as long as you want and then turn around. When the air begins to take on a chill, find a westward-facing place to sit, bundle up, and wait for the show. It’s otherworldly.
It’s long been said that the Road to Hana isn’t about Hana. But that’s a myth — one that has led many visitors to treat this sleepy hamlet on Maui’s eastern edge as just another pit stop during marathon, out-and-back jaunts from the island’s big resort areas. But that may not be all bad — Hana remains one of the few havens of old-Hawaii in the entire archipelago and the town’s soulful vibe swiftly envelops those who opt to linger after the day-trippers have disappeared.
In 1946, San Francisco entrepreneur Paul Fagan opened the six-room Kauiki Inn as a way to entice travelers to visit Hana just as the town’s last remaining sugar plantation closed its doors. Those six rooms multiplied through the years and today Travaasa Hana sprawls across 70 lush acres scattered with breezy, ocean-facing bungalows. Staying here feels a bit like being at summer camp — Travaasa prides itself on being an experiential resort, offering multiple exploratory “pathways,” from culture and culinary to wellness and adventure — but with plenty of luxurious creature comforts to polish its semi-rustic edges.
In the morning, grab a flashlight and head across the street for a short-but-spectacular sunrise hike at Fagan’s cross. The 30-foot lava-rock monument was erected in the early '60s in memory of Fagan’s role in Hana’s revival. Afterwards, fuel up for the day with breakfast burritos and cold brew at the Surfing Burro, a bright orange food truck a quick stroll down the Hana Highway.
Options for other Hana adventures are plentiful. About 10 miles south you’ll find the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park and the famous pools at Oheo Gulch. Sometimes called the Seven Sacred Pools — there aren’t seven and the pools, despite being a onetime playground for ancient aliʻi (Hawaiian royalty), aren’t sacred — Oheo is considered a major Maui attraction. Staying overnight in Hana gives you home-court advantage and a morning foray to the pools offers the best shot at solitude.
If the timing works out you’ll be back in town in time for lunch. Grab a table overlooking Koki Beach at Huli Huli chicken and dig into ridiculously good Hawaiian island barbecue. Though Koki is one of Maui’s prettiest beaches, it’s not ideal for swimming. Fortunately, an idyllic dip is just two minutes away at Hamoa Beach. Travaasa offers lounge chairs and towels for guests on the sandy, salt-and-pepper crescent. While away the afternoon bathed in sunlight filtered through the leafy fronds of surrounding Hala trees.
A few days spent wrangling cattle, scrambling over a’a lava, and driving twisty roads through misty rainforest begs for some classic Maui R&R. For the island’s sunniest beaches, head to Wailea, a peaceful resort area on the southwestern coast. The scent of plumeria, a shiny, kukui nut lei, and a glass of fresh guava juice welcomes you to the elegant Fairmont Kea Lani where plush suites and dreamy beachfront villas invite rejuvenation.
Ease into the scene with a stroll along the Wailea Coastal Walk. The paved path, edged with electric green napuka shrubs and swaying coconut palms, begins right in front of the Kea Lani at lovely Polo Beach and winds for about a mile and a half past the golden crescents of Wailea, Ulua, and Mokapu beach parks. For runners, the walk becomes a photo-worthy route for an early morning trot.
Luxurious surroundings don’t mean adventures need to end and an excellent nearby option is the rugged Hoapili Trail. Part of an ancient, 138-mile path known as the King’s Highway, the trail traverses the youngest lava flow on the island and stretches for about five and a half miles along Maui’s secluded, far-southern coastline. Along the way, the brilliant blue Pacific thunders against seemingly endless fields of jagged lava and black feral goats clamber among groves of kiawe trees. The trail begins about six miles south of Wailea at La Perouse Bay — a fabulous place to spot whales in the winter months — and though you can go it alone, a guided excursion with Heather Reck, the Fairmont Kea Lani’s Energy Ambassador, delivers a much richer experience.
Afterwards, explore some of South Maui’s beaches, where you’re more likely to spot coolers and fishing poles than cabanas and cocktails. Just as stunning and far less crowded than their counterparts in Kaanapali, these local favorites offer some of Maui’s best snorkeling as well. One of the most scenic is Poʻolenalena, with soft sand and gentle surf great for boogie boarding. Take your snorkel to the south end of the beach where giant honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles), can be seen munching on algae while psychedelic parrot fish and blue-lipped humu humu nuku nuku apuaʻa — the reef triggerfish that is the state fish of Hawaii — glide among colorful corals.