Picking a place to stay while visiting Maui can be daunting. Different regions have very different characteristics. The main choices are West Maui, South Maui, Central Maui and Hana. Each has pluses and minuses. Below we sum up the different towns and regions.
West Maui—playground of the rich and famous? Those are the words that could have described this area hundreds of years ago when Hawaiian royalty spent considerable time frolicking in West Maui waters and sampling its delights. Today, West Maui serves as a playground for the rest of us. Calm waters, some great beaches, limitless activities and an exciting, dynamic town: West Maui delivers on its legacy of fun.
Lahaina is the only town in all of leeward Maui with a real downtown. If someone told you to meet them in downtown Kihei, you wouldn’t have any idea where they meant. Same goes for Wailea, Kapalua, Ka‘anapali or Napili. Though it’s only 1.5 miles long, downtown Lahaina is well-defined and bursting with things to see and do. The biggest problem with Lahaina is that it’s crowded. And even when it’s not crowded… it’s crowded. A secluded stroll along Front Street is about as likely as a snowy day in Miami. But Front Street has an electricity that defies explanation. No matter how much you curse its popularity, you can’t deny Lahaina’s charm. It’s busy, tacky, weird and wonderful. It’s full of old world character and new world annoyances. It manages to energize and relax at the same time. If you visit West Maui without strolling along Front Street (abiding by that old Yogi Berra axiom, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”), then you missed out on more than you think. Because for all its faults, Lahaina works.
Lahaina should be viewed as an event, not a place. You do Lahaina. You go there to eat, shop, walk and gawk. Lots of activities, especially boating-related, are centered around Lahaina. (This was, after all, an old whaling port.)
Ironically, as a place to stay, Lahaina lacks many of the things that make West Maui special. Namely good, clean beaches, cool breezes and a slow pace. Plus, there are relatively few places to stay in town. (Nearly all West Maui accommodations are north of Lahaina, in Ka‘anapali, Honokowai, Kahana, Napili and Kapalua.) Of course, what it lacks in some areas, it makes up for by having a better nightlife, tons of restaurants and a more happenin’ feel.
Ka‘anapali was part of a large sugar plantation when the sugar company’s board met in 1956 and hatched a plan that would soon be repeated around the globe—the master planned destination resort, the first in Hawai‘i. The large landowners had their pick of where to put the resort, and they chose the fantastic Ka‘anapali Beach as their showcase to the world. (If you’d owned the entire island back then, you too, probably would have chosen this beach.) It opened in 1962 and has been admired ever since.
Half a dozen fancy resorts line the beach. There’s a wonderful paved beachside path that runs along all the resorts. It’s an excellent place to stroll at sunset and can take an hour or more. You can also park at the Whalers Village Shopping Center. Any shop will validate if you spend around $20. (Heck, you can practically knock that out with a scoop from Häagen-Daz.)
Separating the two halves of the great beach is Black Rock. Hawaiian volcanoes fall asleep for up to a million years before awakening for a last series of eruptions. West Maui had only four small eruptions during its final days. Black Rock was one. (Another is the rock where the Olowalu Petroglyphs are located.)
The ancient Hawaiians believed Black Rock, which they called Pu‘u Keka‘a, was the jumping off point for their spirits or souls, called ‘uhane, leaving this world. Each island had such a point. When Hawaiians died, it was here that their souls would leave this life and join their ancestors forever. If there were no ‘aumakua, or family spirits, to receive them, they would wander around the area, attaching themselves to rocks and generally causing mischief. That’s why it’s considered unwise to take any rocks from this area. You may bring back a spirit itching to get back home.
Farther north, Kapalua is an incredibly manicured oasis of green in this wind-swept part of the island. The gardening bill must be immense because no dead leaf goes unpunished.
Expensive is the operative word at these resorts. Some of the beaches, such as Kapalua Beach, are excellent. The wind tends to be strong here, and it’s also more prone to drizzle than any other leeward resort area.
Until the mid-1900s, there were few people living in South Maui. Lack of water made it difficult to grow things, and, after all, what else was land good for? Today we know it’s good for growing Hawai‘i’s most important cash crop—visitors! South Maui gets so little rain (many years it may only rain three or four times), and its beaches are so extraordinary that it’s a mecca for anyone looking for a dreamy, dependable tropical vacation.
If you look at the graphic above, the first thing you notice is that the term South Maui is not very geographically correct. South Central Maui seems more accurate. But South Maui is what the region has been historically called, so who are we to quibble?
Kihei is the unplanned outcome of South Maui’s explosion of popularity during the 1970s and ’80s. It’s a linear collection of condos and strip malls. While it certainly lacks the old world charm of Lahaina, Kihei doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is—a beach town—where everything is water-related. As for downtown Kihei, there is no such animal. The closest you could come to defining the town center is the Triangle, north of Auhana Street, south of Kihei Town Center. And that’s a stretch.
This is the premier resort area on the island (Kapalua’s and Ka‘anapali’s claims notwithstanding). Expensive resorts line its heavenly beaches. Some, like the Fairmont Kea Lani, are so posh and exotic, you’ll weep when you finally have to go back to the real world. While Kihei was every man for himself development, the Wailea area had a single owner with a single vision: grand, green, groomed and golf. With splendid weather (cooler than Kihei and with lighter afternoon winds), phenomenal beaches, clean water and kickin’ views of Molokini and Kaho‘olawe, Wailea is a grand success.
Many of the best beaches on the island are found right here. In addition to its beaches, Wailea has a glorious beachside path. Though not as long or as well known as Ka‘anapali’s path, it stretches between Mokapu and Polo Beaches and is a perfect way for visitors at one Wailea resort to dine at another without messing with cars. It also makes a great place for a sunset stroll or a sunrise jogging path.
At the intersection of Hwys 30 and 31, Ma‘alaea was feared and despised by early airborne visitors. Because it was here, where the Kealia Pond now exists, that clueless aviation officials chose to place Maui’s first airport in 1929. (It looked geographically convenient on a map to early planners.) It didn’t last long because this is the windiest spot in Hawai‘i. The scouring wind ensured that the inbound flight experience would be as terrifying as possible. There are cows born and raised on the slopes north of Ma‘alaea. If the winds stopped, they’d probably fall over.
Ma‘alaea is still a transportation hub, only now it’s for boats. If you take a snorkel or whale watching trip, odds are very good you’ll leave from here.
Ma‘alaea’s greatest natural asset is its 3-mile-long Ma‘alaea Beach, stretching all the way to north Kihei. If you’re looking for a great walking or jogging beach, this is the one. Early mornings and early evenings are best, as winds punish the area during the day. You won’t have it to yourself, but you will have an amazingly peaceful stroll.
There is a string of condos that line the beach though few restaurants. People tend to nest either in South Maui or West Maui. Because of its location between the two, Ma‘alaea itself is a good place to stay only if you want to have equal access to both regions.
Central Maui is your introduction to the island. You’ll land here. You’ll shop here. You’ll also come through here when you head to Hana, up to the top of Haleakala or after circling West Maui. But with all that exposure, few people come to Central Maui just to see Central Maui. It’s like the Denver Airport of Maui. Everyone passes through, yet few look around. But don’t blow it off completely. Central Maui does have some reasons to stop and stay a while.
People who live on Maui find themselves coming to Kahului all the time. What do they come for? Malls, movies, restaurants and—most important on an island where things cost a lot—Costco.
Kahului is where people come to take care of business. The biggest mall, Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center on Hwy 32, is a big draw and has the small but well-done Story of Hawaii Museum. And Maui Marketplace on Dairy Road is where you’ll find the island’s biggest sporting goods store. Maui Mall has the island’s giant Whole Foods Market.
Finding a location in Kahului is easy if you know one thing: Midas Mufflers is on Wakea and Hukilike. Why in the heck are we telling you this? Because every small town has a place like this. The thing that everything is relative to. Call up a business in Kahului and ask where they are, and, if it’s not on a main street, invariably the response will be, “You know where Midas is? Well, you take a left…” We don’t know why; it’s just the way it is.
Kahului is nearly always windy. And on those few occasions that it’s not windy—it’s real breezy. If you rent a large vehicle, like a minivan, it’ll often feel like someone’s outside rocking your car.
There are a few good beaches and plenty of good restaurants. With a few hotels near the harbor and one near the airport, Kahului as a place to stay is more popular with people doing business on Maui, not here for vacation.
If you’re heading in the direction of Hana, the last town you’ll visit is Pa‘ia. This town has accomplished something few Hawai‘i towns can claim: It has become an attraction without any attractions other than itself. No great views, no waterfalls, no scenery, no big institutions like an aquarium. Pa‘ia’s sights lie in its character—and characters. The odd and bizarre add color to Pa‘ia like no other Maui town. An example—one morning we saw the following: a guy with a feather stuck in the top of his head (not his hat), a 90-year-old couple on a Harley (she was driving), a woman whose entire body was covered with tattoos, one gentleman with more dirt in his dreadlocks than a medium-sized canefield, a guy having a serious argument with himself (and losing), and a man in a hard hat carrying a full-sized cross. (Unfortunately, we just missed the naked woman painted green doing her Christmas shopping at the various shops.) Welcome to Pa‘ia, where it’s still the Age of Aquarius, and shoes are always optional in the streets. It’s not a quiet town (even the name means noisy in Hawaiian), but it’s unique.
There are several inns and plenty of B&Bs in Pa‘ia.
Hana doesn’t hit you, it seeps into you. Living on Maui, we had driven through Hana many times and thought we knew it well. But it wasn’t until the first time we spent a week in Hana that we truly connected with it. The peace that Hana exudes can only penetrate when you’re here at leisure, not on a mission. Today, Hana is one of our favorite places to go to get away from the hellacious rigors of guidebook writing. (You have no idea how hard it was to write that last sentence with a straight face.) If you’re on Maui for a week or more, we strongly suggest you consider spending the last couple of days in Hana.
The road to Hana is without question the most famous and desired drive in all Hawai‘i, the crown jewel of driving. It’s been compared to driving through the garden of Eden: a slow, winding road through a lush paradise that you always knew existed—somewhere.
If you’re in a hurry to get to Hana, you’re missing the point. Unless you’re staying the night in Hana, you probably won’t spend much time there. You’re heading somewhere else. (Those who spend the night in Hana will have more time to sample its delights.) At the risk of sounding like a Chinese fortune cookie, fulfillment lies in the journey, not the destination. The whole reason to drive this route is to see the Hawai‘i of your dreams, the tropical fantasy that becomes reality along the way. This is a drive through wonderland, and the only thing at the end—is the end of your discovery. As you drive, don’t feel the need to hurry up to get “there,” because you may find that it’s not there.
There is a fairly large resort, a small one and numerous inns and vacation rentals in and near Hana.
Detailed Resort & Condo Reviews
Maui has it all, accommodation-wise, and as you consider where you want to stay—hotel or condo, by the beach or with a mountain view—you might find it intimidating to wade through the vast number of choices.
So here’s what we did. We have personally reviewed every resort on Maui. We have exhaustively cataloged all the amenities, formed opinions on what different properties have to offer and created comprehensive reviews. Sure, you can go online and look at reviews by people who have been to one or maybe two resorts. But none of those sources knows them all and can compare one to the other.
Because this information is so exhaustive, there isn’t enough room in our book to include it all. So we have put all of our reviews in our smartphone app, Hawaii Revealed, and made that portion available for free. There you can sort and sift through the resorts in a matter of minutes using our special filters. We also include our own aerial photos, so you’ll know if oceanfront really means oceanfront.
For instance, you might say, I want a hotel in West Maui, on a beach, that’s good for families, has an outdoor lanai, a children’s pool, and takes service animals. Oh, and a swim-up bar would be nice. With the filters in our app, you can cut through the 135 or so resorts and get to exactly what you want by reading our in-depth, brutally honest review. How’s that for cutting through the noise?
More things to reveal in the app:
- Reviews on Hawaii Resorts with their locations
- Reviews on every single beach on the islands
- Interactive maps of Kauai, Maui, Oahu and the Big Island
- Details to help plan your visit to Hawaii’s best sights, tours, activities and more