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Known the world over as a "trip of a lifetime" destination, the remote Hawaiian Islands were settled by the Polynesians more than 1,000 years ago and were "discovered" by explorer Capt. James Cook in 1778. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state, and to this day, it retains a sort-of-outsider status. Hawaii clings to its rich history while accepting newcomers and absorbing their unique traditions. 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 Capt. 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 160,000, 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 goodwill -- again, that "spirit of aloha" -- and will make you feel right at home.
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Other Hawaii Cruise Ports:
Fanning Island • Hilo • Honolulu • Kauai • Kona • Maui
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, food items make great souvenirs. Drop by a grocery store and pick up Maui Potato Chips, still made by the original Kahului family, or coffee from a farm in Kaanapali. (Kona isn't the only place on Hawaii with signature coffee.) Or, you might prefer some sweet-smelling soaps and body lotions from Alii Kula Lavender Farm.
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 standalone ATMs are located near both cruise ports: Kahului and Lahaina. In Lahaina, there's a Bank of Hawaii ATM at the Wharf Cinema Center (also public toilets); in Kahului, try the Maui Mall or Long's Drugs. 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, and the city is not a touristy one. A circuitous pedestrian path takes you out of the port, where you can walk across the street to Maui Mall, which houses a Whole Foods, Long's Drugs, movie theater and other shops. With a little scrambling, you can also hoof it to the beach near the port that you can see from the ship (just be careful where you swim because sharks are near).
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, rent a car or take a tour if you wish to explore other parts of the island.
Maui offers 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; try Discount Hawaii Car Rental for the best rates.
If docking at Kahului, take a complimentary car rental shuttle bus to nearby Kahului Airport (about a five-minute ride) to rent a vehicle from Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National or Thrifty. If your cruise ship overnights there and you'd like to keep your car, there's free parking right across from the tour bus pickup area outside the terminal, but it's small and will be filled up if you get back late. Other options include airport parking for a fee or leaving your car in the Maui Mall parking lot overnight.
Your cruise ship may also offer a shuttle (for a fee) to and from Lahaina (look for tours called "Lahaina on Your Own"), which is convenient if you only want to stay in that area. Free shuttles to the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center (with typical mall stores, free Wi-Fi and a kids' play area) depart from the port; from there, you can catch the Maui Bus to select destinations, including Wailea, Kihei, Lahaina and Paia.
If you plan to rent a car in the Lahaina area, 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.) Some companies will send a shuttle to the pier for pickups; others require you to take a cab to their office. The Maui Bus also offers service from Lahaina to Kaanapali.
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.
Road to Hana: You've probably heard of the Road to Hana, a narrow twisting road with nearly 50 one-lane bridges, carved into the lush rainforest and punctuated by breathtaking waterfalls, lava cliffs and sandy beaches. Before you start your drive in the town of Paia on the Hana Highway, arm yourself with the Hana CD guide. You can order the CD and map online in advance or buy it at one of many locations in Maui. 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'a Ka'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, 10 miles past town.
Haleakala National Park: 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 visitor center at 9,740 feet (open sunrise to 3 p.m.) for exhibits about the native flora and fauna of the volcano. A trailhead there leads to an easy walk to an overlook. (More difficult hikes may be tackled at Haleakala, as well, from the trailhead there and another down at 7,990 feet.) Most people visit Puu Ulaula Overlook, the volcano's summit, to watch the sunrise. Check weather conditions before you head out. 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, warm hat and gloves. A glass-enclosed outlook offers panoramic views of the valley below, the Big Island, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai and -- sometimes on very clear days -- Oahu.
Water Sports: 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 sea turtles there, and fish huddle along the lava/coral wall below Black Rock itself. Three miles offshore, Molokini Crater is a Marine Life Conservation District that boasts clear water with visibility of more than 100 feet. You might see monk seals, thousands of tropical fish, manta rays and whale sharks. If you'd like to try your hand at surfing or stand-up paddleboarding, you can book a lesson in Maui's waves.
Whale-watching: Although humpback whales call Alaska home during the summer, they spend November to mid-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. If you're visiting in season, don't miss a whale-watching excursion with your cruise line or through an independent operator. Many of these providers also offer snorkel or sunset boat trips.
Luaus: 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! Old Lahaina Luau is one of the best, set at the ocean's edge and wonderful for families. Choose either authentic mat seating on the floor or a seat at a table -- be sure to note your preference when making your reservation. (1251 Front Street, Lahaina; 800-248-5828; shows start at 5:15 p.m. in winter and 5:45 p.m. in summer). Couples and older families should consider the more upscale The Feast at Lele. It's a served dinner, rather than a buffet, with a mix of performances and dishes from a variety of Polynesian cultures. (505 Front Street, Lahaina; 866-244-5353) For something a bit different, try Ulalena's Luau at the Makena Beach & Golf Resort. Instead of typical Polynesian dances, Maui's Ulalena theater company (in the Cirque du Soleil tradition) introduces you to Hawaiian mythology and culture in a unique way with storytelling, music and dance. (5400 Makena Alanui, Kihei; 808-856-7900; shows from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday)
Maui Ocean Center: You can still get up close and personal with Hawaii's marine life, even if you don't want to snorkel or scuba. The Maui Ocean Center is an aquarium with indoor and outdoor exhibits, including a turtle lagoon, shark pool, hands-on tide pool and a 54-foot-long clear acrylic tunnel you can walk through to see eye to eye with stingrays, sharks and close to 2,000 fish. The center also offers an ocean-friendly restaurant serving burgers, sandwiches and salads, and an excellent gift shop selling a variety of local products and crafts, as well as sealife-themed souvenirs. (192 Ma'alaea Road, Wailuku; 808-270-7000; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and until 6 p.m. in July and August).
Been There, Done That
Golf: Maui is home to world-class golf courses, many overlooking the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounds you might 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 (877-527-2582) or Wailea Golf Club (888-328-MAUI).
Iao Valley State Park: This heritage site is home to the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, a rock outcropping covered in greenery set in the lush green Iao Valley. Paved trails take you to the viewpoint. After you've snapped your photos, you can learn from interactive exhibits in the visitor center or take a walk in the rainforest. (Located at the end of Iao Valley Road/Highway 32 in central Maui; open d7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily).
Helicopter Tour: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.
Hiking and Eco-Tours: 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 guided adventures, consider Hike Maui (808-879-5270 or 866-324-6284), or for scenic tours with a photography focus, try Photo Safari Hawaii (888-565-3185). Piiholo Ranch (808-270-8750) offers zip-line and canopy tours for a bit more adrenaline.
Horseback Riding: 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 (808-667-2200). If you're just prefer a country ride with views of Haleakala, check out Piiholo Ranch (808-270-8750).
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. Public parking is available, too; look for signs. But 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 or snorkel. The northernmost strip of the beach is called Black Rock, and this is a safe and easy place to snorkel -- just look out for those courageous enough to cliff dive off Black Rock! You can also book a sailboat or catamaran outing from Kaanapali -- and less-active types will love the people watching. 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 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 and picnic tables.
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 and Surfing: Even if you don't plan to surf, you should definitely check out Ho'okipa Beach Park in Paia. Windsurfers and surfers covet the heavy surf, and a terrific viewing area lets you enjoy the action without being down on the beach or in the water. The biggest waves occur during the winter months. Restrooms and picnic tables are available. If you're a novice and want to learn to surf, head for less-intimidating beaches in Kaanapali, Lahaina and Kihei (and book a lesson).
Best for a Luxurious Day in the Sun: Wailea Beach, on Maui's southwestern coast, is lined with luxury resorts, but you can pretend you're a VIP when you set up your towel on its golden sands. It's a great place to swim, boogie board or spot whales in season -- or you might want to wander about and try to spot someone famous. Restrooms and equipment rentals are available, and a paved beach walk leads to the upscale restaurants and shops attached to the hotels.
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 Kahlua pork to Korean barbecue-style kalbi short ribs. A typical Hawaiian meal is the "plate lunch," composed of two scoops of rice, one scoop of macaroni salad and various types of meat (beef, pork or chicken) or fish. The local dessert, great for a hot day, is shave ice -- Hawaii's version of the snow cone -- where ice is shaved off a large block then topped with flavored syrups. You can even order them with a scoop of ice cream in the center of the ice.
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. There's also a growing food truck scene -- look for them on the opposite side of Kahului Harbor from your cruise ship.
Aloha Mixed Plate: You'll discover the Hawaiian phenomena of the "plate lunch" at Aloha Mixed Plate. Go for the traditional Alii 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). The restaurant is a few blocks beyond the heart of downtown Lahaina. (1285 Front Street, Lahaina; 808-661-3322; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily)
Kimo's: Sometimes you pick a restaurant because of its location, and sometimes you go for the food. Kimo's is great for 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 a mixed-plate lunch of teriyaki chicken and pork ribs get high marks. Aloha hour, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily, features pupu specials and draft beers, house wine, margaritas and mai tais from $4 to $6. (845 Front Street, Lahaina; 808-661-4811; open 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily, food service ends at 10 p.m.)
Sugar Cane Maui: If you're looking for more of a gastro-pub experience, Sugar Cane Maui is for you. Pub fare like fish and chips, sliders and even edamame pupus are delivered with more sophisticated flavors than at your typical beachfront joint. Don't miss the thirst-quenching craft sodas. The decor is open and airy with beach views on one side and TVs showing the games on the other. (736 Front Street, Lahaina; 808-214-6662; open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily)
Mama's Fish House: This fine-dining establishment 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 (your credit card will feel the burn, however). 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. (799 Poho Place, Paia; 808-579-8488; open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily and dinner 4:15 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
Many local coffee shops and cafes offer Wi-Fi access, as does Kahului's Queen Ka'ahumanu Center. Swiss Cafe (640 Front Street, Lahaina; 808-661-6776; open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) has computer terminals for use, as well as Wi-Fi.
Best Overall: 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 for Thrill-Seekers: Make the trek through Maui's upcountry to Haleakala Crater, the world's largest dormant volcano. Many cruisers take the opportunity to visit Haleakala before sunrise. (Sunset excursions may also be offered.) Alternatively, you may choose a tour that includes a bike ride down the volcano -- an exhilarating experience! Duration: 4 to 6 hours.
Best 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 -- more than 250 fish species hang out here. Some tours may make an additional stop to see Hawaii's famous green sea turtles. Breakfast and lunch are included. Duration: 6 hours.
Best for Animal-Lovers: Offered only December through April, whale-watching excursions are a must for anyone who wants to view Maui's seasonal marine residents. One-third of all North Pacific whales winter in Hawaii, so you have an excellent chance of seeing a whale (or 10) on a day cruise. Choose from daytime or sunset tours; some excursions for Kahului-based ships combine the cruise with free time in Lahaina. Duration: 2 to 6 hours.
For More Information
On the Web: Maui Visitors Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Hawaii
IndependentTraveler.com: Hawaii Travel Guide
--by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor