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Now known the world over as a "trip of a lifetime" destination, the remote Hawaiian Islands were settled by the Polynesians more than one thousand years ago and were "discovered" by explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state, and to this day, it still retains a sort-of-outsider status. (There's even a small secession movement.) Today, Hawaii clings to its rich history while accepting newcomers and absorbing their unique traditions. Each and every Hawaiian island is imbued with a friendly "aloha" spirit, and most travelers fall in love with the destination the moment orchid leis are draped over their shoulders upon arrival.
Maui, the second-largest island of the archipelago, typifies all that is magical about the Sandwich Islands (as Captain Cook first called the island chain). It's also referred to as the Valley Isle because a verdant, low-lying isthmus connects the two halves of the island. From the air, Maui looks like a butterfly with the 10,000-foot Haleakala volcano on one wing, Pu'u Kukui and the West Maui mountains on the other and the valley in the middle. You'll revel at the stark contrast between the stunning variety of flowering tropical plants and cascading waterfalls and the lunar-like landscape of Haleakala and Maui's other mountain peaks.
With more than 120 miles of coastline, Maui has dozens of beaches for you to discover. Some will be easily accessible, while others will take a bit of elbow grease -- in other words, pull on your hiking boots, or hop in a sea kayak. The ocean is teeming with wildlife and welcomes a large humpback whale population each winter. Maui is also one of the only places on Earth where you can still encounter the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
While more rain falls on the windward sides of the island (north and east, i.e. Paia and Hana) than the leeward (south and west, Wailea and Lahaina), the temperature is just about always an ideal 85 degrees.
Maui offers a multitude of attractions, but there's one additional reason to visit -- the island's people. With a population of just fewer than 118,000, the community is small enough to retain strong, historic ties but is large enough to create the right type of infrastructure to eagerly welcome tourists from around the world. The Hawaiian people will embrace you with friendship and good will -- again, that "spirit of aloha" -- and will make you feel right at home.
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There's just something about a frosty, fruity tropical drink that screams "Hawaii!" You're not officially on vacation until you've sipped a Polynesian cocktail or two. From mai tais (rum, orange liqueur, simple syrup and lime juice) to pina coladas (rum, coconut cream and pineapple) to other libations, featuring fruit juices and rum, you'll find plenty of sweet and strong drinks. Order a glass of "POG" -- a blend of passion fruit, orange and guava juices -- for the kids.
You'll find a plethora of festive Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts to fill your souvenir shopping bag, but if you're looking for a more authentic gift, consider a kokui nut lei. The nuts are the fruit of the ubiquitous kokui tree, the state tree of Hawaii, and the necklace has a special significance in Hawaiian history. The lei was worn by Hawaiian royalty and can be a beautiful (and long-lasting) reminder of your time on the island. Food gifts are also a good bet, from Kona coffee and macadamia nuts -- try them chocolate-covered -- to pineapple. Or, you may prefer some sweet-smelling soaps and body lotions from Ali'I Kula Lavender Farm (aliikulalavender.com).
Everyone speaks English there, but it is fun to learn a few Hawaiian words. "Aloha" can mean many things, but you'll use it most often to denote "hello" and "goodbye," while "mahalo" means "thank you."
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
A variety of bank branches and stand-alone ATM's are located near both cruise ports: Kahului and Lahaina. Most banks handle foreign currency exchanges, or you can head to the only American Express office in Maui at the Westin Hotel (2365 Kaanapali Parkway).
Where You're Docked
Depending on your itinerary, you'll either dock at Kahului Harbor in north Maui or anchor off Lahaina on the island's west side.
Kahului Harbor is an industrial terminal, so there's nothing worth seeing within walking distance. If you anchor off Lahaina, you'll tender to a pier right in front of Pioneer Inn, one of the oldest accommodations in Maui. From there, you can begin exploring Front Street -- a hub for shops, restaurants and activities/tour providers -- on foot. Call a taxi, or rent a car if you wish to explore other parts of the island.
Maui offers very little in the way of public transportation, and while you may call for a cab, it's not an effective way to tour the island. It's best to rent a car to see the island's most visited attractions. If docking at Kahului, take a complimentary car rental shuttle bus to nearby Kahului Airport (OGG) to rent a vehicle from Alamo (alamo.com), Avis (avis.com), Budget (budget.com), Dollar (dollar.com), Enterprise (enterprise.com), Hertz (hertz.com), National (nationalcar.com) or Thrifty (thrifty.com). Your cruise ship may also offer a shuttle (for a fee) to and from Lahaina, convenient if you only want to stay in that area.
If you plan to rent a car in the Lahaina area, be sure to make reservations at one of the agencies at Kapalua's West Maui Airport (JHM) and not the Kahului International Airport (OGG) on the other side of the island. (There's also an Enterprise outlet at the Sheraton on Kaanapali Beach.) Each company will send a shuttle to the pier for pickups. Try Dollar, Hertz, or Thrifty.
Watch Out For
Maui is a very safe place to vacation, and violent crime is rare. However, car break-ins occur regularly. Do not leave anything in your vehicle, especially cameras, shopping bags or other easy-to-grab items.
You've probably heard of the Road to Hana, a narrow twisting road with nearly 50 one-lane bridges, carved into the lush rainforest that's punctuated by breathtaking waterfalls, lava cliffs and sandy beaches. Before you start your drive in Paia on the Hana Highway, arm yourself with the Hana CD guide. Buy the CD and map at the kiosk at the Shell gas station at the intersection of Dairy Road (380) and Hana Highway in Kahului. Play the CD as you drive, and your private tour guide will tell you what's located where. Be on the lookout for the waterfall at Pua'aka'a State Wayside Park, the black-sand beach and lava tube at Wai'anapanapa State Park, the Halfway to Hana snack shop that sells mouth-watering, freshly baked banana bread, Kaihalulu Red-Sand Beach in Hana proper and Ohe'o Gulch Pools, ten miles past town.
Haleakala Crater's lunar-like landscape is the piece de resistance of Haleakala National Park in Maui's upcountry. It's a two-hour drive from sea level to the summit at 10,023 feet, and it's amazing how many ecosystems you'll pass along the way. At 9,000 feet, you'll see the endangered silversword plant before you stop in to the Visitors Center (open sunrise to 3:30 p.m.) for exhibits about the native flora and fauna of the volcano. A trailhead here leads to an easy walk. (More difficult one-, four- and eight-hour hikes may be tackled at Haleakala as well.) Most people visit Puu Ulaula Overlook, the volcano's summit, to watch the sunrise. Check weather conditions before you head out by calling (808) 877-5111. The summit can experience heavy winds, rain and even snow. In fact, it's generally 30 degrees cooler at the summit than in Kahului, so be sure to bring a jacket or blanket. A glass-enclosed outlook offers panoramic views of the valley below, the Big Island, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai and -- sometimes on very clear days -- Oahu.
Maui is a snorkel haven with no shortage of excellent locations for all ability levels. Try Black Rock at Kaanapali Beach; it's not uncommon to run into a sea turtle or two there, and fish huddle along the lava/coral wall below Black Rock itself. Honolua Bay has no sand beach, but snorkelers enter the water from huge, smooth rocks to see the coral formations on either side of the bay. Three miles offshore, Molokini Crater is a Marine Life Conservation District that boasts clear water with visibility of more than 100 feet. You may see monk seals, thousands of tropical fish, manta rays and whale sharks.
Any self-respecting visitor to Maui will attend at least one luau. With their Polynesian dancers in beautiful costumes, beachfront locations, authentic island cuisine and open bars, luaus are the cultural touchstone of the Hawaiian Islands -- and they're a lot of fun! Couples and older families should consider the top-of-the-line Feast at Lele (tel: 866-244-5353; 505 Front St.; feastatlele.com). Old Lahaina Luau (tel: 800-248-5828; 1251 Front St.; oldlahainaluau.com) is best for families. (Both authentic mat seating on the floor and tables are available -- be sure to note your preference when making your reservation.) For something a bit different, try Drums of the Pacific Luau (tel: 808-667-4727; 200 Nohea Kai Dr.; maui.hyatt.com), which features an excellent fire-dancer.
Been There, Done That
For a bird's-eye view of the island, book a helicopter tour that will fly you over the Haleakala Crater, the town of Hana and the nearby rainforest, Ohe'o Gulch, and the rugged northeast shoreline. Viewing these famous landmarks by air is invigorating. Try Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (tel: 808-871-8844; bluehawaiian.com) or Sunshine Helicopters (tel: 808-270-3999; sunshinehelicopters.com).
Although humpback whales call Alaska home during the summer, they spend November to early May in Maui. These majestic creatures hang around close to the shore, so you can whale watch from land, on water or by air. These grayish-black cetaceans often have white markings that help whale-watchers discern them from a distance. Don't miss a whale-watching excursion with your cruise line or through the Pacific Whale Foundation (tel: 800-942-5311; www.pacificwhale.org) or Trilogy Excursions (tel: 888-225-MAUI; sailtrilogy.com).
Try a hike or eco-tour for an up-close-and-personal exploration of Maui's rainforests or Haleakala Crater. There are many easy hikes on the island that culminate with a waterfall viewing; wear your swimsuit, and cool off in the crystalline water at the waterfall's base. Other hikes can be more vigorous and even include a sea kayak component. For a guided adventures, consider Hike Maui (tel: 808-879-5270; hikemaui.com), Maui Eco-Adventures (tel: 808-661-7720; ecomaui.com) or Photo Safari Hawaii (tel: 888-565-3185; photosafarihawaii.com).
While most visitors journey up Haleakala in cars, perhaps daring to bike back down, a more unusual way to explore the volcano is on horseback. Options include descending Sliding Sands Trail to the crater floor or an easier excursion crossing at Haleakala Ranch. Try Pony Express Tours (tel: 808-667-2200, ponyexpresstours.com) or Maui Horse Whisperer Experience (tel: 808-572-6211; mauihorsewhisperer.com).
Maui is home to nearly two dozen world-class golf courses, many overlooking the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounds you may even inspire a better golf game! You can book a round via your cruise ship's shore excursion desk or consider these options: Kapalua Resort (tel: 877-527-2582; kapalua.com), Wailea Golf Club (tel: 888-328-MAUI; www.waileagolf.com) or Kaanapali Golf Resort (tel: 866-454-4653; kaanapali-golf.com).
Highly recommended: Teralani Sailing offers sailing, snorkeling, whale watching and sunset sails along Maui's scenic west coast onboard spacious 65 ft. catamarans. Conveniently, passengers can board directly from Kaanapali Beach.
Maui thrills visitors with more than 30 miles of white-, gold-, green-, red- and black-sand beaches. Don't be intimidated by fancy hotels blocking the waterfront -- all beaches are public and must have public access. But do be careful, as the ocean waters can have a strong undertow.
Best for Active Types: Located just minutes from Lahaina, the three miles of white sand that is Kaanapali Beach welcomes those who wish to swim, snorkel or surf. You can also book a sailboat or catamaran outing from there. Swimmers should watch out for the strong undertow; lifeguards are usually on duty, but be aware of your own safety whenever in the water.
Best for Snorkeling: Black Rock Beach, just a few minutes drive from Lahaina, is located at the northernmost strip of Kaanapali Beach. This is a safe and easy place to snorkel -- just look out for those courageous enough to cliff dive off Black Rock! There's very little shade there, but rental chairs and umbrellas are available.
Best for Families: D.T. Fleming Beach Park, in Kapalua, is a 20- to 30-minute drive from Lahaina. This white-sand beach is perfect for boogie-boarding as well as sunbathing and lounging in the shade of the pine trees lining the shore. There's a lifeguard on duty, restrooms, grills, picnic tables and a small jungle gym for the kids.
Many families also head to H.A. Baldwin Beach Park in Paia (Central Maui, just minutes from Kahului). It's an expansive -- and gorgeous – white-sand beach that's excellent for swimming. Lifeguards are on duty and there are restrooms, picnic areas and a sheltered lagoon that's dubbed "baby beach."
Best for Windsurfing: Even if you don't plan to windsurf yourself, you should definitely check out Ho'okipa Beach Park in Paia. Windsurfers covet the heavy surf, and a terrific viewing area lets you enjoy the action without being down on the beach or in the water yourself. Restrooms and picnic tables are available.
Maui is considered a food lover's paradise, but you'll need deep pockets to enjoy it. In addition to upscale Asian- and French-inspired establishments, Maui has a strong local restaurant scene that serves up tasty Hawaiian/Polynesian cuisine. You shouldn't be surprised to find an abundance of fish and seafood on most menus, as well as various meat dishes from kalua pork to Korean BBQ-style kalbi short ribs.
Dozens of restaurants line Front Street in Lahaina in West Maui. The Shops at Wailea is the place to head for lunch if you're on the southern end of the island, and you'll find a variety of eateries in the town of Paia on the north coast beyond Kahului.
You'll discover the Hawaiian phenomena of the "plate lunch" at Aloha Mixed Plate (tel: 808-661-3322; 1285 Front Street, Lahaina). This meal consists of a scoop of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and various types of meat (beef, pork or chicken) or fish. Go for the popular Hawaiian Plate, and enjoy kalua pork with lomi lomi salmon (like ceviche, it's cured fish in an onion and tomato salad), poi (mashed taro root) and haupia (coconut pudding).
Sometimes you pick a restaurant because of its location, and sometimes you go for the food. Kimo's (tel: 808-661-4811; 845 Front Street, Lahaina; kimosmaui.com) offers both. Situated right on Lahaina's shoreline, this two-story hot spot is the place for spectacular sunsets. The food's excellent as well. Many visitors stop by to enjoy pupus (appetizers) and drinks, but lunch entrees like coconut-crusted fish, beer battered fish 'n' chips and Koloa pork ribs glazed with plum sauce get high marks.
Mama's Fish House (tel: 808-579-8488; 799 Poho Place, Paia; mamasfishhouse.com) is a quick drive from Kahului but is definitely worth the commute, even if you're anchored in Lahaina. The Christenson family has owned Mama's since 1973, although it was just a simple Chinese restaurant back in the day. Now it is one of the finest fish and seafood spots in all of the Hawaiian Islands. The setting, on a coconut tree-studded white-sand beach, is inspiring in and of itself, but the building -- an open concept with Polynesian decor and flowers throughout -- completes the perfect spot for an unforgettable special-occasion lunch or dinner.
Staying in Touch
Many local coffee shops and cafes offer Wi-Fi access, including Livewire Internet Cafe (137 Hana Hwy., Paia, 808-579-6009 or 612 Front St., Lahaina, 808-661-4213) and Swiss Cafe (640 Front St., Lahaina, 808-661-6776), which also has computer terminals for use.
Here are our choices for the best ship-sponsored shore excursions:
Best Overall Excursion: The Road to Hana lets you experience so much of what is alluring about Hawaii -- rainforests, waterfalls, pristine beaches and gorgeous ocean views -- and if you take a ship's tour, you can let an expert take the wheel while you gaze out the windows. As you travel the Hana Highway, your tour guide will explain the history of Hawaii while introducing you to some of the island's hidden beauty. This excursion is not recommended for travelers who get carsick easily, as the road has many sharp twists and turns. Duration: 8.5 hours.
Best Choice for Thrill Seekers: Make the trek through Maui's upcountry to Haleakala Crater, the world's largest dormant volcano. Many cruisers take the opportunity afforded them to visit Haleakala before sunrise. (Sunset excursions may also be offered.) Alternately, you may choose a tour that includes a bike ride down the volcano -- an exhilarating experience! Duration: 4 to 6 hours.
Best Choice for Active Travelers: A Molokini Crater snorkel trip is one of the most popular shore excursions, so book early. You'll board a catamaran and head to this crescent-shaped island just off Maui's southern coast. Once at Molokini, you'll enjoy some of the best snorkeling in the world. Duration: 5 hours.
Best Choice for Families: A favorite excursion for families is the zip line at Piiholo Ranch. This upcountry 800-acre working cattle ranch is perched on Haleakala at 2,000 feet. Upon arrival, you'll traverse a 317-foot-long suspended bridge to the ziplink platform, where you'll get strapped into a seat harness, grab the handlebars and take off to "fly" over a forest of eucalyptus, koa and ohia trees. You'll even see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. (Participants must be 10 years old or older and weigh at least 75 pounds.) Duration: 4 hours.
For More Information
Maui Visitors Bureau (visitmaui.com): 800-525-MAUI (6284)
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (gohawaii.com)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Hawaii
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Hawaii
-- By Andrea M. Rotondo, a New York City-based writer, specializing in luxury cruise travel and romantic vacations. She writes the Luxury Cruise Bible blog at www.luxurycruisebible.com.