To be honest, my first impressions of Maui were — one — overrated, and — two — overpriced. After two days holed up in Kā'anapali, chasing my kids through an intricate system of pools at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, I felt like I was squandering my time in paradise.
Sure, the Hyatt has all requisite creature comforts — luxury rooms with modern décor, resident-style amenities and activities galore, starting with sunrise yoga and a satisfying breakfast buffet at Swan Court, where lanai seating overlooks a swan-filled pond preceding the white sands of Kā'anapali Beach.
The days were pleasant; the meals were satisfying — but we’d flown 12 hours to get to Maui, and I suspected we could have been having a similar vacation in Mexico for a fraction of the time, effort and cash.
Frantic, I booked an expensive offshore dive with our resort’s diving instructor, an Ohio transplant with a ponytail. After failing several “pool tests,” my guide swam me through some big waves, into a cloudy sea, where I used up my oxygen in “record time,” he said, pointing out that I’m very bad at scuba.
The Hawaiian misadventures continued at the Maui Ocean Center, Maui’s top-rated aquarium, another disappointing tourist trap. Burned by the sun and attractions, I returned to my cabana where I met Leko, the 20-something-year-old Hawaiian serving drinks beachside.
It’s not what you’re thinking. Leko — whose girlfriend is from St. Louis, of all places — schooled me on Hawaiian culture, saving my vacation, which really got going on night three, at Drums of the Pacific Luau.
Leko dances hula and recommend Drums of the Pacific for its authentic dance and old Pacific sounds. “Hula is ancient,” Leko explains. While it might be the beautiful women who catch your eye, the dance stretches back to Hawaiian men — warriors, actually — who danced to tell their stories from battle.
From the trumpeting of the conch shell and the sand-baked pig up until the last bits of chanting, the luau changed my perspective on Maui. Make sure to reserve a spot in advance, and pay extra for VIP seating to get dibs on the buffet, plus front-row seating.
A real luau, I learned, is just a family party; the Hawaiian version of a backyard barbecue. If you can’t get invited into somebody’s home, Leko recommends town parties held in Wailuku, Lāhainā, and Makawao, every first, second and third Friday, respectively. Another stellar luau is the Old Lāhainā Luau, keyed specifically to Hawaiian lore.
“Most people come to Hawaii, and never actually experience the island,” Leko says. One luau later, I was hooked on Hawaii, and ready to venture off the resort.
Unless you’re certified, skip scuba, and view corals, sunken ships and sharks on a submarine dive instead; Atlantis Adventures is a reputable provider. Sail with Island Star Excursions, a private charter luxury crewed yacht carrier, and snorkel around Molokini Crater. The folks at Pacific Whale Foundation in Lāhainā will help you enjoy the ocean, which has always anchored Hawaiian culture.
Lāhainā is a key stop for history buffs, with a series of museums laid out along Wharf and Front streets on the Lāhainā Historic Trail. Discover Maui’s agricultural heritage, too, touring one or more of the following: Maui Tropical Plantation, Maui Dragon Fruit Farm, Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, Surfing Goat Dairy and O’o Farm, offering a gourmet lunch and farm tour that won’t disappoint. Local Tastes of Maui dishes out fabulous culinary walking tours through key cities.
Ready to eat like a local? Try the sweet onions at Hali’imaile General Store, order poi a la carte at Poi by the Pound, have breakfast all day at Kihei Caffe and eat shaved ice at Ululani’s. The majority of the ingredients used at Merriman’s are locally sourced; Merriman’s sister restaurant, Monkeypod Kitchen, is a laid-back spot for wood-fired pizza and craft beer. Spago at the Four Seasons Resort Maui is prime for a romantic dinner, and for sushi your best bet is the bar at Japengo, voted Best Asian Cuisine on Maui.
A destination for nature lovers, Maui houses plenty of trails to enjoy year-round, thanks to consistent weather that peaks May through October. Hike the Village Walking Trails at Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, where a footpath on an abandoned golf course takes explorers up to a hidden lake with panoramic ocean views. Golf the Ritz-Carlton, too, and one of the courses at Wailea Resort: Wailea Blue, Wailea Emerald, or Wailea Gold, all rated among the best in the country.
A few beaches to visit are Kapalua Bay Beach, Makena Beach, Pu'u Keka'a (known as Black Rock Beach), and, near the charming town of Paia, Ho'okipa Beach Park, where you can watch the surfers before having dinner at Mama’s Fish House, a Maui must that deserves every bit of its hype.
Spanning 33,000 acres of wilderness that shelters churning waterfalls, volcanic rock and heavenly thickets of bamboo, Haleakalā National Park will have you feeling like you’ve walked into a dream. Hike the Waimoku Falls Trail, cycle down Crater Road, or sign up for a Haleakalā Sunrise Tour to see a natural wonder at dawn; Maui Astronomy Tours will take you into the park after dark.
Now that you’ve experienced the real Maui, you have our permission to indulge in a few spa treatments at Ho'omana Spa Maui, the Lumeria Maui (a wellness retreat) and Fairmont Kea Lani’s Willow Stream Spa, recently recognized as a one of the world’s best hotel spas. Mahalo, Maui, for an unforgettable adventure.