Editor's note: We encourage our readers to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for up-to-date information on how to safely travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic brought international travel to a standstill, American eyes suddenly turned toward what many say feels like an international destination, no passport needed: Hawaii. As is the case with islands during a pandemic, the local population is more vulnerable due to limited space and fewer options for evacuation. But like many tropical locales, Hawaii’s economy depends heavily on tourism. As a result, the pandemic created a complex situation for a state that normally receives close to a million visitors annually.
Today, Hawaii is open to both domestic and international travelers, but with some restrictions in place—and incentives to be more intentional with our vacations. Through a new statewide initiative called Malama Hawaii, visitors are encouraged to think more thoughtfully about sustainable travel practices and give back to the islands. By volunteering in activities that pay it forward, such as beach cleanups, Hawaiian quilting, native tree planting, clearing weeds, and harvesting produce, visitors can qualify for special hotel discounts or free night stays.
The Aloha State welcomes responsible travelers to enjoy its pristine beaches, parks and trails. Known as the Valley Isle, Maui stands out as a popular vacation destination for mainlanders, with daily direct flights from several west coast cities. While idyllic beaches are a given here, there's so much more to delight in. Follow this Instagram guide to discover Maui’s best sites, activities, and foods to indulge in on your next visit to the island.
Visit Haleakalā National Park
Haleakalā, or “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, is a dormant volcano sitting more than 10,000 feet above sea level. The crater is touted as one of the best spots to watch the sun rise or set, drawing in most visitors between 3 to 7 a.m. daily for sunrise tours. Since temperatures are about 30 degrees cooler at the summit than at sea level, it’s important to pack warm clothes. Be sure to bring snacks and fuel up before making the drive, since you won’t find any businesses aside from the visitor center facilities.
Currently, advanced reservations are required for sunrise, available online up to 60 days in advance. Biking down Haleakalā is another popular way to experience the volcano, but its steep curves are not for the faint of heart. Several hiking trails run through the park, with Keonehe'ehe'e (a.k.a. Sliding Sands) and Halemau'u being the most frequented. Don’t be surprised if you happen to witness a marriage proposal while spending time at this picturesque hotspot.
Paddle in a Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe
Spend a day on the water with a guided tour from Hawaiian Outrigger Experience, during which you’ll not only learn about the ancient practice of outrigger canoeing and its important role in Hawaiian history and culture, but will also likely spot whales (if you visit between December and April) or sea turtles. Owner Kevin Hoke has a wealth of knowledge, and will educate you on celestial navigation, indigenous ocean life, and even teach some Hawaiian words and chants. Hour-long daily tours depart from Wailea Beach in South Maui.
Paia, the small hippie town on Maui’s North Shore known for its excellent windsurfing, is definitely worth a visit if you're in the mood for shopping, island food, and local color. Stroll the main drag along Baldwin Avenue and Hana Highway to stock up on souvenirs and treats. In the neighboring cowboy town of Makawao, you’ll find art galleries and old-timey saloons. Coexisting within this artist community are Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolos, who wrangle cattle from nearby fields while on horseback.
Stay at a Dreamy Resort
The majority of hotels and resorts are located within West Maui and South Maui, where you’ll find a large concentration of beachfront accommodations. For a luxury stay in South Maui, Wailea Beach Resort offers one-of-a-kind experiences—think sunrise massages overlooking the ocean, followed by an exclusive breakfast (known as the Awaken in Wailea experience); private candlelit dinners at sunset along the sea bluffs; and floating cabanas situated within their infinity pool. The resort is flanked by two beaches, houses three pools and a long waterside, and runs parallel to a beachfront boardwalk trail that makes a great walking or running path. Its onsite restaurants include Roy Yamaguchi’s popular Humble Market Kitchin, which serves contemporary Asian food, and a more casual dining option, KAPA Bar & Grill.
Located on West Maui’s Ka'anapali Beach, The Westin Maui Resort & Spa is the most lively resort along this desirable stretch of beach, and includes six pools, two waterslides, and several beachfront cabanas. It’s worth the splurge to stay in its new Hokupa‘a Tower, which comes with exclusive all-day access to The Lanai. Here, you can nosh on complimentary bites, order from a private bar, and participate in cultural activities such as lei making, coconut weaving, and taro pounding, or just simply watch the sunset over the Pacific. You’ll find traditional Hawaiian cuisine at its two beachfront restaurants, Waicoco and Hale Moʻolelo, where crowds gather for nightly live music from talented local artists.
Enjoy Island Eats
Luaus are a great way for those who enjoy dinner with a show to sample island cuisine. Local menus are chock-full of beef, pork, and fish (don’t skip the poké and sushi), but there are other specialties that should not be missed such as malasadas and shave ice. Malasadas are Portuguese donuts—without a hole—covered in sugar, best served warm. Head to Maui’s Ultimate Donut, a no-frills food truck where you can customize the filling flavor and type of sugar coating, for the island’s best malasadas.
Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice also stands out thanks to its razor-thin ice shavings and syrups made from cane sugar. Try a cup with up to three flavors, plus toppings like mochi (tapioca balls) or haupia (coconut cream).
Arguably the most sought-after reservation on the island, Mama’s Fish House in Paia is currently booked out about three to six months in advance due to high demand following COVID-19 shutdowns. This family-owned restaurant has an incredible location overlooking Ku'au Bay, and serves pricey but delicious seafood dishes such as fish curry, bouillabaisse, and Mahi-Mahi stuffed with lobster and crab.
At Asian fusion favorite Star Noodle, you’ll find handmade ramen, saimin, and udon, plus specialties like pad thai and Singapore noodles. Go early to enjoy the sunset over the water from the restaurant's sizable patio. Nearby, Down the Hatch in Lahaina is a casual outdoor spot for fish tacos, burgers, and salads, served alongside live music.
Island-Hop to Lana'i
Make the most of your trip to Hawaii with a visit to multiple islands. Maui is a mere 38 miles from neighboring Lana'i, which is accessible by ferry (45 minutes one way) or flight (30 minutes one way). With a total population of about 3,000 people, Lana'i is where tourists go for a relaxing getaway without any crowds.
The Four Seasons Resort Lanai is a destination hotel that rightfully attracts people from around the globe to its oceanfront utopia. Here, you can enjoy poolside cabanas, plus beach loungers and complimentary snorkel gear for use on Hulopo'e Beach. The expansive property is home to botanical gardens, koi ponds, and four restaurants, including steak and seafood restaurant One Forty, upscale sushi bar Nobu, farm-to-table SoCal favorite Malibu Farm, and casual all-day cafe The Break.
The resort can also coordinate excursions like a two-hour sunset sail; cruise along the coastline with cocktails and appetizers in hand. When you want to venture out from the resort, free shuttles into the tiny town of Lana'i City run every hour. Many are surprised to find that Lana'i City is much chillier than the surrounding beach areas due to its elevation of nearly 1,700 feet. You’ll find a couple small grocery stores, eateries, and shops here, but not much beyond that. The town square surrounds Dole Park, a grassy area with huge pine trees that provides a clue into Lana'i’s nickname as "The Pineapple Island."
If you've fallen in love with Maui, book a trip here.
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Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering travel, dining and lifestyle. As her Hawaiian name might suggest, she’s most happy while bobbing in the ocean.
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