September 25, 2022

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Maui, Hawaii Travel Guide: Where to Stay, What to Do, & Where to Eat

Welcome to The Weekender, Coveteur’s travel series where seasoned globetrotters share their insider guides to top destinations across the world. Read on for the best spots to eat, stay, and enjoy.

When I ask Clifford Nae’ole, cultural advisor at Ritz-Carlton Kapaula, how he describes the culture in Maui, he answers with a metaphor: “It’s like opening the front door,” he says. “We want you to leave these islands as family and to feel the energy and the culture of this place.” Nae’ole recently hosted the property’s annual Celebration of the Arts—the reason why I flew 11 hours across an ocean and an entire continent to reach this picturesque island.

When you think of Hawaii, palm trees, dramatic waterfalls, and hibiscus come to mind. But beneath that layer lies a rich mosaic of culture that serves as the best lens to view this spiritual place. “Cultural advisors used to be amenities, now they are necessities,” Nae’ole says. “We are never afraid to ask hard questions and that’s good. That’s what this is here for. To learn.” During this weekend event, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, I attended traditional ceremonies led by cultural practitioners, took a hula class, planted Koa trees, watched a documentary about Hawaiian activist George Helm, and attended demonstrations and a falsetto competition. What I was left with is what Nae’ole describes as kuleana (responsibility).

“Become aware, keep an open mind, listen, and observe as if you are on a canoe with no GPS or coast guard,” he says. “Visitors coming to Maui shouldn’t expect an amusement park. Learn our history, so if there is anything that is happening in your realm that may help the plight of the Hawaiian people, you can be part of the solution.” Ahead, a guide to enriching yourself in a deeply-appreciated Hawaiian culture with ideas for where to stay, what to do, and where to eat and drink. Aloha!

Where to Stay

The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

When the Ritz-Carlton broke ground in Maui in 1987, they made a discovery that completely altered their vision. On a 13.6-acre parcel of land the remains of more than 2,000
Hawaiian kupuna (ancestors) dating from A.D. 850 to the early 1800s were unearthed. The
company made the decision to scrap their plans, redesign the hotel, and move it inland; leaving
this resting place undisturbed and accessible only to those performing traditional ceremonies.

Despite being part of a large, globally-recognized brand, this hotel felt deeply spiritual and intimate. The property is located on the Northwest shore of Maui with sweeping views of the Pacific ocean and situated on 54 acres of land. There are several onsite restaurants (the Burger Shack located seaside was my favorite, more on this below) and the spa was a slice of heaven (ask for the LomiLomi massage, a treatment based on Hawaiian concepts that uses techniques to increase circulation and relieve tension).

The emphasis on Hawaiian culture is what stands out to me about my stay here. It can be tough for large, corporate hotels to address it in a way that feels authentic, but they hit the nail on the head by hiring and empowering Nae’ole to lead the property in educating guests about the cultural traditions of the island. I came away from the experience with a newfound understanding and appreciation for this spiritual, sacred place.

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What to Do

Snorkel in Kapalua Bay

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

Confession: I find snorkeling to be a bit disturbing. I’m far more content swimming in the ocean with my nostrils above water. However, if you are a fan of snorkeling like my boyfriend is, then you must pay a visit to Kapalua Bay. He spotted sea turtles (!), technicolor coral, and countless bizarre, beautiful fish. I regret not doing it, so don’t make my mistake and just give it a try. It was a 15-minute walk from the resort and a breathtaking one at that.

Plant a Tree at Pu’u Kukui Watershed

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

One of the activities I did during the Ritz-Carlton’s Celebration of the Arts weekend was volunteer at the Pu’u Kukui Watershed. After hiking up a small mountain in the rain (when in Rome!) my fellow volunteers and I planted around 600 trees total, one of them being the Koa tree, which is used to construct the iconic long distance voyage canoes. If you’re in town and looking for a way to give back to the island, consider reaching out to the watershed. You can also visit the state’s Malama website, which is a useful resource for finding programs where tourists can help restore Hawaii’s natural habitats.

Take a Hula Class

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

As part of the hotel’s Celebration of the Arts, I took a hula class with Mapuana Samonte who explained the origins, history, and cultural context of this style of dance. She holds classes on Sundays in Kahului in the styles of Kahiko, Auana, and Tahitian. No matter your age, gender, or skill level, it’s an immersive activity I couldn’t recommend enough (seriously—I was side stepping and swinging my hips next to a 70-year-old man who was having the time of his life).

Participate in a Sunrise Ceremony

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

The practitioners at The Ritz-Carlton extend an offer to guests to partake in a sunrise ceremony (also referred to as “E Ala E,” which means awakening). When I chatted with Nae’ole, he lovingly referred to it as the Hawaiian confessional booth. “We walk into the water and we think about what we did yesterday, the month before, and the year before. You go there and you come to terms with yourself and you let the waters of Mother take it away.” After this reflection (which entailed swimming in the ocean for about five minutes), myself and my fellow confessors gathered back at the beach and chanted to “rise” the sun.

Watch the Sunset at Haleakalā National Park

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

After a few nights at the Ritz-Carlton, we picked up a rental car and headed for the island’s national park, which is home to a dormant volcano and a completely different landscape than what you’d expect from a tropical climate like Maui. The popular thing to do here is watch the sunrise, but you have to get a permit and if you don’t do that in time (a.k.a. me) then the sunrise is an equally beautiful way to experience this volcanic terrain. A word of caution: Resist the temptation to take one of the volcanic rocks home with you—it’s illegal, culturally inappropriate, and is said to give you bad luck.

Drive the Scenic Road to Hana

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

I am a huge fan of road trips (see here). So when I read that there was an iconic road in Maui with waterfalls, roadside coconut huts, and lush landscapes along the way, it was instantly cemented on the itinerary. The Road to Hana is only 64 miles long but it’s narrow, winding (around 600 turns), and the bridges are one-way—meaning it takes awhile to drive. Plus, if you’re pulling over to discover fresh water to take a dip in or want to make a pitstop at The Garden of Eden where the opening scene of Jurassic Park was filmed, then you should dedicate the whole day to fully experiencing this lush wonderland.

Swim in the Black Sand Beach at Wai’ānapanapa

Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

If the sound of a volcanic coastline punctuated by black sand beaches piques your interest, head to Wai’ānapanapa. My visit here was another reminder of how diverse and unique Maui’s various landscapes are. I was able to snag a camping reservation here, but I suggest making yours early because they go fast. After a dip in the ocean and exploring a few seaside caves, I went for a hike along an ancient volcanic coastal trail that was contrasted by radiantly green plants and trees. In other words, fodder for my camera.

Hike the Pīpīwai Trail

Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

Another highlight of my time in Maui was a hike on the Pīpīwai Trail. It’s a 3.8-mile out-and-back trail that takes you through a diverse landscape—including a bamboo forest—before reaching a lush valley surrounded by dramatic, steep waterfalls known as Waimoku Falls. It was a tad challenging in the beginning (there’s about a 900-foot elevation gain) but manageable for all levels and it only took a couple of hours to complete.

Where to Eat & Drink

Burger Shack at Ritz-Carlton Kapalua

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

Technically speaking, the star restaurant on the hotel property is the Banyan Tree, which I strongly recommend. But if you’re like me and the idea of a perfect meal is a burger and beer alfresco amongst the sound of waves crashing and birds chirping, then you’ll want to head for the Burger Shack. It’s not a bad idea to save some room for dessert because their milkshakes are a work of art (I got the Mai Tai-themed one).

Hana Hou Surf Club

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

Like most, I appreciate a good açaí bowl and the South Side Swell concoction at Hana Hou Surf Club in Paia —despite costing me a hefty $18—was utterly worth it. If you’re doing the Road to Hana, stop here for a coffee and bowl and enjoy it in their outdoor garden. If you have the time, stroll around this sleepy hippie town to appreciate its laidback bohemian vibe.

Roadside Fruit Stands

Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

One of the best things you can do in Maui if you’ve rented a car is stop at the roadside fruitstands stocked with mangos, avocados, and papayas, among many others. We pulled over on the Road to Hana at a farm stand where the owner grabbed a coconut that had fallen from the tree a mere few hours earlier, hacked it open with a machete, and offered it to us sans-straw (the purist approach, apparently). Another necessary stop is for a loaf of banana bread and shaved ice at the Halfway to Hana stand.

Mama’s Fish House

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kliest

My last meal before leaving Maui was at Mama’s Fish House: a family-owned, James Beard Award semifinalist restaurant that, unbeknownst to me, is typically booked three to six months in advance. By some miracle sent from above, we were able to be seated at the bar. My boyfriend and I split the diver-caught Maui octopus (seared and sliced) and the Macadamia nut-crusted Kanpachi (life changing). I’d categorize this as an essential Maui dining experience, hands down.

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