Many people have remarked upon the verdant Valley Isles resemblance to a woman. Whether you see it or not, this island certainly nurtures plenty of men, women and children from various parts of the world. However, much of the island is completely uninhabited. The West Maui Mountains and Haleakala National Park are bleak, forbidding areas, suitable for scientific research, cattle ranching and little else. In the valley between them lies Mauis major industrial area, populated by middle-income local families. If, from the center, one drives along the Haleakala Highway, one will reach the cooler farmlands known as Upcountry, while the road that travels eastward leads eventually, after much twisting and turning, to the overgrown rainforest of Hana.
Maui's two major tourist regions are located on the southern and western coasts. Both regions have had their stunning natural beauty further amplified and augmented by billion-dollar, world-class commercial development. Banks of tropical flowers and rolling green lawns border the roads, while megalithic "fantasy hotels" feature breathtaking atriums and indoor waterfalls. In the coastal towns of Kihei and Lahaina, stores and restaurants are practically shoulder-to-shoulder. Pedestrians choke the sidewalks, and the gorgeous Pacific Ocean is always within sight. While these areas have some similarities, each district of Maui has its own personality and its own appeal.
The port town of Lahaina was the first to be colonized by Americans and other Westerners, and by the latter half of the 19th century it was a regular stop for whalers and other sailors. When the whaling trade began to taper off, the tourism trade quickly picked up, as Hollywood stars and adventurous world travelers began to spread the word about this gorgeous island getaway. These days it is a jolly, busy resort town that resembles Main Street Disneyland in many ways. Front Street, the main drag area, is wall-to-wall art galleries and fine restaurants. Dozens of pleasure cruisers and fishing boats set sail from the harbor daily, carrying vacationers to nearby coves and reefs. Lahaina is also the hot spot for shopping and nightlife.
About ten minutes' driving distance from Lahaina is the resort community of Ka'anapali, famed for its golf courses, beaches and fantasy hotels. The golf courses are easy to spot; as you drive down the Honoapi'ilani Highway, the rolling greens stretch for acres along the landbound side. The coast side is bordered by famous Ka'anapali Beach. While its golden glory has been much diminished by over-enthusiastic land developers who built hotels as near to the shorebreak as possible, the beach is still quite lovely. The water is warm and clear, and landmark Black Rock dominates the skyline. One positive effect of the Ka'anapali development is that if one is hungry or thirsty, refreshment is available at any of the waterfront resorts or at Whalers Village, less than two minutes' walking distance away.
Further down the coastal highway one will find the resort towns of Kahana, Kapalua and Napili. While not the family vacation paradise that Ka'anapali and Lahaina are, these communities feature some of the best restaurants and hotels in the state--if not in the country. The golf courses of Kapalua are also widely renowned; serious golfers may choose to fly into the Kapalua airport, stay at the Kapalua Bay Hotel or the Ritz, and completely bypass the rest of the Maui experience.
Approximately 30 minutes from West Maui is the other most popular tourist destination, known as South Maui even though its actually further west than south. The uppermost segment of South Maui is Kihei, site of many of mid-priced hotels, condominiums, strip malls and swimming beaches. This is a very popular spot with families; its affordable, safe, and offers all kinds of diversions. Locals also frequent the South Kihei strip. One can see them dining in the many inexpensive restaurants, picnicking on the Kamaole beaches, or getting a groove on at Hapas or Pizazz.
After South Kihei Road and the Pi'ilani Highway give way to Wailea Alanui, the true glory of South Maui begins to show itself. This is Wailea; one of the most breathtaking resort communities in the world. The air is perfumed with island blossoms, the beaches (all of them public-access) are white sand, and the resorts are architectural wonders. Marvel at the palatial Eastern-themed Kea Lani, the understated elegance at the Four Seasons, and the resort of resorts: the Grand Wailea. The last hotel on Alanui is the Westin Maui Prince. After that, the road travels along through a few miles of dry underbrush and weeds that give some indication of what South Kihei looked like before it was developed. About five minutes down the road are the Makena State Park turn-offs. All three of them lead to spacious parking lots from which visitors walk down to Makena Beach, thought by many to be the worlds best swimming beach.
The tiny towns in Upcountry Maui are the opposite of Wailea and Lahaina in every way. Laid-back, local, simple and friendly, they are populated by an odd mix of islanders, white locals, eccentric recluses and passionate nature lovers. Protea farms, cattle ranches and botanical gardens thrive on most of the land, while the "towns" are usually comprised of a few streets with a handful of stores and a couple of restaurants. Makawao and Pukalani are the two largest upcountry towns. Makawao is known best for Casanova Lounge, while Pukalani has a decent country club. Nestled in the mountains is the town of Kula. Most Haleakala downhill bike rides begin or end in Kula, as do many roadtrips to Hana. Olinda and Haiku are "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" towns, worth visiting only if one prefers birdsong to human conversation.
One thing to keep in mind when visiting Upcountry is that as the elevation rises, the temperature drops. Its fine to wear jeans and a tanktop, but make sure to bring a sweatshirt--in the winter months, a coat might be better.
While Haleakala and Hana are two of Mauis major tourist attractions, almost no tourists stay in either of the areas. In fact, although Hana has a couple of hotels, its impossible to lodge at Haleakala; most of it is volcanic crater or scientific research zone. These regions are undeveloped and somewhat dangerous. Its fine to drive the main roads or to explore backroads with a guide, but venturing off alone into the Hana rainforest or the Haleakala crater is one of the silliest things a person can do.
Still, no trip to Maui is complete without a Hana or Haleakala experience. The twisty road to Hana is as famous as the epic waterfalls at journeys end. The sunrise over Haleakala is truly inspirational--as any fan of Jimi Hendrixs "Purple Haze" knows. People who can't get enough of Hanas beauty might opt to stay in the tiny jungle town. In that case the lodging options range from the inexpensive Aloha Rainbow Cottage to the world-class Hotel Hana Maui.
While the adorable seaside town of Paia is not in Hana--or anywhere near it, it is probably the town that is most often passed through on the way to the rainforest. This town is a destination in itself. It is argueably the worlds top windsurfing location. Its also home to some fabulous art galleries, clothing boutiques and restaurants. Anyone who wonders what ever happened to the '60s should visit Pa'ia--it seems to be stuck in them.
While some travelwriters rave about the untouched-by-tourists appeal of Hana, the truth is that Hana's main industry is tourism. As ramshackle as the stores and restaurants appear to be, they see hundreds of tourists every day. Central Maui is the place that offers authentic local color.
Compared with the rest of the island, its decidedly un-lovely. Even semi-touristy Kahului is choked with asphalt and chain link, while Wailuku is, at first glance, a cluster of dilapidated buildings that seem to be under a constant black cloud. However, Kahului is the closest thing to a city that Maui has. Wailuku is the county seat. Between the two of them, the towns hold the major airport, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the county courthouse, the only major performing arts venue and the largest shopping mall. The other districts are fine for shopping and sunning, but any serious business must be conducted in Central Maui.
Waiehu and Happy Valley are strictly residential. Happy Valley is for low-income families, while Waiehu is quite suburban in appearance. Pu'unene is the crossroad point and the home of the sugar mill; its scent wafts for miles. Across the Mokulele Highway is Ma'alaea, known for its picturesque harbor and its near-constant winds.
Perhaps the main appeal of Maui is the way it manages to have a little bit of everything. It is an undeveloped jungle and a bustling town. Its a favorite tourist destination--yet the locals dominate the scene almost everywhere. Its a beach paradise bordered by mountains. By offering the perfect combination of secluded natural beauty and sophisticated commercial appeal, this little island manages to touch a special place in everyones heart.