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17 Unexpected Experiences on Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii is America, just a 5-hour flight from the West Coast, but in some ways feel so foreign. Each island is unique and has its own character. Maui, the “valley isle”, is considered one of the best places to visit in the US.  And while certain areas of Maui can feel overcrowded, the island’s diverse terrain and 30 miles of gold, white, red, and black sand beaches make for a perfect vacation for exploration and relaxation. Haleakala, Maui’s famous volcano, is the largest dormant volcano in the world, large enough to hold the island of Manhattan. It’s no surprise that tourists seek out the well-known attractions when they visit Maui, but on my third visit to the second largest Hawaiian island, I found so much more than just an Aloha state-of-mind. Here are my favorite new discoveries in 2018 that I didn’t expect to experience in Maui.

A cowboy (paniolo) town called Makawao

Who knew the oldest Hawaiians were ranchers and cowboys who wrangled cattle in the late 19thcentury? Located on the mid-slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano, the soulful eclectic cowboy town of Makawao filled with boutiques, cafes, and galleries is thought to have one foot in the plantation past and another in its thriving arts community. This small town makes a nice place to explore. You may just spot a Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) since the rodeo is just up the road. Browse the Rodeo General Store or the 100+ year old T Komoda Bakery to try a sugary malasada plump with guava. Today many people in Makawao still raise animals like goats, horses, and cattle.

Pro-tip: Makawao is centrally located and is easily combined with other destinations, like Upcountry, Paia, the Road to Hana, or on the way to/from the airport.

Lavender fields in Upcountry

Walk the Ali’i Kula Lavender farm to view not only the lavender that is in season (6 different varieties are grown) but the orchids and special majestic protea flowers that I’ve only seen in fancy wedding bouquets. This breathtaking and beautiful oasis in the middle of Maui is 20 degrees cooler than the coast. Pay a small fee to enjoy the property and from the top of the lawn gaze in amazement at the sweeping views that lead straight to the ocean and showcase a large section of the island. Breathe in the lavender air and check out their lavender gift shop offering every imaginable lavender treat from lavender scones, lavender tea, lavender honey, lavender lotion, lavender salt, and beyond. The drive to the lavender farm is a peaceful bucolic road with rustic homes and cattle fields. Tours, private estate weddings, and tea parties can also be booked at Ali’I Kula Lavender.

Pro-tip: Check out the Kula Farmer’s Market nearby every Saturday morning.

A nude beach next to Makena Beach

Since we heard Makena Beach known as “Big Beach” was one of the best beaches south of Wailea with 1.5 miles of golden sand and less crowded than most, we decided to spend some time there. We walked along the beach and climbed up over the rocky remains of a lava flow to discover to our surprise a small nude beach called Little Beach on the other side. We happened to be visiting during a holiday weekend so it was pretty packed full of gay men, older couples, and local islanders. Before you know it, I placed my towel down and turned around to find my husband fully naked running towards the sea. In a flash, my top was off and we enjoyed a lovely afternoon sunbathing and swimming in the warm pristine water admiring more than just the islands of Molokini and Kahoolawe.

Pro-tip: Bring water, lunch, towels, sunscreen, and maybe a change of clothes if you end up somewhere else later.

Swimming with grand sea turtles daily

Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles make their home in Hawaii’s waters. The complimentary snorkeling gear at Fairmont Kea Lani or the Andaz Maui resort (both in Wailea) made it easy to swim right offshore to the nearby reefs. Daily I swam with majestic soaring green sea turtles and vivid colored fish and I even spotted an octopus on a rock. You really don’t need to go far to experience these slow gliding turtles underwater. Often you will see their snake-like heads pop up for air. I saw more sea turtles snorkeling right off the beaches in Wailea than Molokini Crater or Turtle Town years ago. Next time I will head to Ho’okipa Beach on the north shore since turtles show up there every afternoon to rest.

Pro-tip: Do not pet the turtles. They are in their natural habitat for you to admire.

A rainy day (No problem). Absorb nature in the lush green Iao Valley

The drive into the valley is otherworldly as the lush green stream-cut landscape enveloped our car on both sides arching towards the sky as we switched back and forth to arrive at a small parking lot. We ascended the steps to the observation deck to view the Iao Needle, the peak known as the Hawaiian God of the Ocean, apparently bigger than the Empire State Building. The sacred valley with its inaccessible cliffs were used as a burial site for Hawaii’s royalty for centuries. Afterward, head down towards the stream for a short nature walk, doable for kids or older folks. The dramatic landscape feels like a scene from a movie. Pay attention to the Hawaiian flora and from the footbridge, you may see kids doing daredevil backflips into a small pool from the stream. In 1972 the Iao Valley was designated a National Natural Landmark.

Pro-tip: Do not leave valuables in the car. As we were leaving, many cops arrived due to a car’s rear window being smashed. People park cars along the length of the road to avoid paying the parking fee and thus it seems easier for a quick crime.

Petting goats at Surfing Goat Dairy

Pop in this rustic 42-acre dairy farm in the lower slopes of Haleakala Crater in Kula to pet goats and watch them hop on and slide down old surfboards. More than two dozen cheeses are produced here. There is a small shop/café to take home their award-winning cheeses, goat cheese truffles, goat milk soaps, and more. We saw many young children with their parents on a 2-hour tour ready to feed and milk goats.

Pro-tip: Tours are offered daily but book in advance to ensure a spot.

Miles of lava fields

If you drive south past Makena, you will eventually hit a narrow one lane road that takes you through miles of rugged and beautiful lava fields that looks like soft crumbly brown and black rock, but you will soon realize how rough and jagged the landscape is once you stop or take a walk. The lava fields are a result of Maui’s last volcanic eruption around 1790 from Haleakala. The land makes you feel like you have been transported back in time. Once you get to the end called La Perouse Bay, check out the lava-lined water’s edge and hike through the lava trails along the coast.

Pro-tip: Wear sturdy shoes, even closed-toe shoes may be a better idea. Bring water. Go during daylight.

A classy intimate luau called the Feast of Mokapu

Most luaus are slightly traumatizing with long lines and screaming children. This authentic classy luxury luau at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort is a special experience on the grassy lawn and sandy shores of Mokapu Beach. The intimate luau – just a few months old – blends culture, culinary, and cocktails! An exceptional plated 14 course ‘ohana style meal introduced us to many new foods while the interactive storytelling and beautiful performances took us through the historical journey of the Polynesian ancestors arriving to Maui and settling in our ahupua’a (land division) while giving insight and life to Hawaiian values that focus on the love of, connection to, and kuleana (responsibility) to the land. Hawaiian activities started the night with lei making and washable tattoo inking during craft cocktail hour. A photographer captured the evening with a couples photo to take home. We couldn’t believe our eyes as the band’s ukulele played and the sunset glow washed the land.

Pro-tip: The Feast of Mokapu is open to anyone, not just guests of the Andaz.

World class art at the Grand Wailea

If you are not staying at the Grand Wailea, you can still witness the expansive and extensive art collection that dons the impressive Grand Wailea resort grounds. In 1991, a $30 million dollar art budget brought in massive rotund Botero sculptures from Colombia (before the artist became well-known). At the Botero Bar, sit and take in the Botero bronzes. Also, other masterworks from the leaders of modern art in the 1920’s can be viewed. Near the coffee shop, find the 18 Fernand Leger bronze sculptures – the largest collection outside of France. Considered the largest collection of corporate art, admire over 81 works of original paintings, sculpture, graphics, murals, and artifacts throughout the property and in the Na Pua Gallery. Someday, this art collection may be worth more than the resort itself!

Staying at the resort? Make sure to join one of the complimentary resort art collection tours given by Michael Gilbert, a 30-year hotel veteran who dealt with most of the artists personally. His entertaining stories of the history of the hotel, the history of the acceptance of the bold Botero sculptures in Hawaii, and the evolution of the art now there is fascinating. Want to turn your kids on to art? Mr. Gilbert designed an art treasure hunt for kids.

Pro-tip: Admiring the expansive artwork collections is free of charge.

POG, coconut, and coffee beer at Maui Brewing Co

Although Maui Brewing Co is not allowed to offer you a flight of beers, you can order 4oz pours to sample all of the incredible brews, many that are just on Maui. You can sit outside, in the open-air brewing facility, or just stand at one of the bars to sample Hawaii’s island brewed ales and lagers. You may know the Bikini Blond Lager, Waimea Red Ale, or the Coconut Hiwa Porter, but have you tried the Pineapple Mana Wheat or POG IPA? The POG IPA is a tropical pale ale brewed with locally sourced passion fruit, orange and guava. Other favorites include the Barefoot Brew, an ale brewed with local honey, and Shifting Winds, a Belgian Indian Pale Ale. Experience a brewery tour or sit outside to absorb the sunshine or sunset hues with a frosty tasty beer in hand.

Pro-tip: Happy Hour specials on drinks and food from 3:30pm-5:30pm & 9:30pm-11pm daily.

Sushi so fresh

The pieces of fresh sushi served at Sansei in Kihei are three times bigger than tuna, hamachi, and kampachi sashimi I’ve sampled in LA. Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar is a place I was happy to return ten years later to still find outstanding quality sushi. Since Maui is an island and closer to Japan, one would expect the fish to be beyond fresh, but you just never know! We rolled in without a reservation and sat at the sushi bar. Share my favorites - the Panko-Crusted Ahi Sashimi wrapped with arugula and spinach, the Sansei Mango Crab Salad Hand Roll, and the Crab Ramen with Asian Truffle Broth.

Pro-tip: Drinks and food are discounted from 5:15 – 6:00 pm and half off after 10 pm.

Portuguese, Asian, Polynesian, Filipino influences in the cuisine

Everywhere we dined there seemed to be influences of multi-ethnic cuisine. Quickly I learned that almost 16,000 Portuguese had arrived by 1911 as laborers on sugarcane plantations along with the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipinos in various years. Many stayed to create Hawaii’s rainbow of cultures that influence the food today.

Ko Restaurant at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel showcases this plantation inspired cuisine from this era. Ko translates to sugarcane. The plantation workers brought recipes and cooking techniques from their homes and used ingredients available to them in the islands. This culinary evolution of blending their past and present locations developed into what is considered modern Hawaiian cuisine. At Ko Restaurant we seared tuna on a rock and watched as our server unwrapped a banana leaf to reveal the steamed catch with coconut broth, sweet potato, and mango salsa. We devoured coconut macadamia nut shrimp with lavender honey sauce, lobster tempura with pineapple sweet chili garlic, brown butter banana bread, and fried Portuguese sweet bread stuffed with coconut gelato and kula black raspberry jam.

Romantic oceanside Humu Restaurant with spectacular sunset views from the Grand Wailea Hotel is another excellent option for Polynesian and Hawaiian influences. The Polynesian thatch roof restaurant floats on a saltwater lagoon filled with tropical fish. Book a table near the ocean to watch the sunset glow magic over their fresh caught Fish of the Day, Seasonal “ulu” Risotta with butternut squash, breadfruit, and pecorino, Ahi Poke, and Crispy Mahi Mahi with forbidden rice.

Ka’ana Kitchen at the Andaz Maui also does a wonderful job delighting guests with an entire counter filled with cultural selections for breakfast. Some of our favorites included locally Smoked Fish, Bao Buns, Steamed Dumplings, Kimchee Fried Rice, Malasadas with Lilikoi Curd, Mochi Waffles (made with mochi flour) drizzled with coconut syrup, Portuguese Sausage, Local Style Dry Mein with Kamaboko and Shrimp (Stir-fried egg noodles with fish cake and shrimp) and the Makaweli Ranch “Loco Moco” with Grass Fed Kauai Beef and Vegetable Fried Rice. For lunch and dinner, you can also expect similar cultural fusion.

Pro-tip: Wherever you choose to eat, don’t be afraid of trying the different flavor combinations.

Sunflower farm created by Pacific Biodiesel

Once sugar cane fields, sunflower fields now dot the land thanks to two-year-old Pacific Biodiesel who became the first certified sustainable biodiesel producer. The Maui sunflowers or “blooms of sustainability” as the company likes to call them creates cooking oil, massage oil, and all-natural skincare products made with locally sourced ingredients. Their sunflower oil is used in all spa treatments at the Andaz Maui. Frolic in the sunflowers and take a farm tour to learn more about Pacific Biodiesel’s diversified agriculture and renewable energy operation. The company’s plans seem to be leaning on rotating fuel and food crops.

Pro-tip: The sunflower fields should be in bloom every spring and fall on a 6-month rotating harvest.

High-tech wellness features in hotels

At the Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Kea Lani guests can lay inside a state of the art wave table almost like a heated water bed with various sprays as your masseuse scrubs you down with sea salt gathered from dry pools along the island’s coastline and coconut oil with locally grown green papaya and lemongrass. The unique treatment table moves with soft, rhythmic motions to create a weightless sensation. The Vichy shower with infra-red light therapy from above helps firm and tighten skin. Afterward, pick various healing volcanic and taro clays to put on your body while relaxing on a heated stone bench. Refresh in several tech-friendly showers where you push a button like “Rainforest” and various water mists along with hot and cold sprays with different pressures shoot out at different times from the shower walls to give you that “rainforest” shower feeling. Pure bliss!

At the Andaz Maui, guests can stay in a Nanea Wellness Suite complete with aromatherapy diffuser bedside and your own Philip Stein sleep bracelets to wear to bed. The bracelets channel nature’s healthy frequencies to you to encourage deep uninterrupted sleep and help you awaken rejuvenated. I awoke super rested but had long vivid dreams. This wearable sleep technology was new to me.

Pro-tip: Whichever spa you choose, allow time before and after to relax and indulge in the complimentary water features, saunas, steam rooms, and baths.

Sunset Golf Cart Ride

If you would like to have a romantic sunrise experience without any crowds, this is an unforgettable venture in a golf cart without the clubs. Discover the finest views of Maui from vantage points around the Wailea Blue Golf Course.

Pro-tip: You can add beer or wine to your vista journey too and gives you portable spill-proof cups.

Viewing Haleakala Crater from the airplane

Most people enjoy Maui’s extinct Haleakala Crater at sunrise or sunset. Some hike inside or even bike down the dormant volcano for 26 miles of sensational views, from bucolic pastoral hills to sweeping green vistas right to the ocean. The gateway to the crater is somewhat of a nature sensory overload too, but what shocked me was flying out of Maui on a small plane to look out the window and marvel at this 10,000-foot crater popping far out of the clouds. Also, this is where the US practiced for the moon landing.

Pro-tip: Sunrise entry to the park is reservation-only and can be made up to 2 months in advance. The $1.50 reservation fee is in addition to the regular entrance fee.

The Bamboo Forest and secret beaches along the Road to Hana

There are endless adventure opportunities on the winding, narrow snake-like Road to Hanna that is 45 miles long. Expect lush tropical rainforest, about 50 one-lane bridges, and cars parked along the road to let you know there is a waterfall, hike, or other attraction nearby. We found a small opening off the side of the road (mile marker 6 or 6.5) to enter the Bamboo Forest. Immediately, I tripped over a wire cutting both my ankles and fell into the slippery mud. Mud was everywhere and wearing flip flops was an awful idea. Pretty soon hiking barefoot and hanging on to bamboo reeds 4 times my size seemed like the only way to hike safely to the waterfalls. Be ready to cross a stream or two and climb rocks. Our return route included hopping barefoot on the river rocks. I left muddy, happy, and covered in bruises. Make sure to wear durable shoes and have both hands available.

The are several dramatic secret beaches in hidden coves with Kool-Aid blue water that are semi-accessible by way of harrowing hazardous hikes along cliffs and narrow dirt trails cutting through private property. Apparently, the trail to the red sand beach was lost to a landslide at one point. Rust red lava cinder cliffs supply the beach with red sand, but the vertical cliffs remain intact. The super dangerous hike is breathtaking and heart-stopping, especially if you have a fear of heights. Accessing these beaches is legitimately dangerous and highly controversial, but many are willing to accept the risks to gain the rewards.

By the time we got to Hanna, not much was available for food since the food trucks sold out or were not open. We felt lucky to find two trucks still open with one still serving satisfying cheese and spicy beef quesadillas. The other served generous portions of real coconut flake ice cream.

Pro-tip: Rent a jeep. Instead of racing back to your hotel on the Road to Hana in the dark, book a hotel near Hanna to explore more. Take the road slow and let the locals pass you. Wear a bathing suit under your clothes. Bring water and a change of clothes. Make a list of stops ahead of time. Fill your gas tank before leaving.

Melissa Curtin

Written by Melissa Curtin

Melissa Curtin McDavitt is a Los Angeles based writer who left her childhood hometown in Connecticut and a decade in Washington, DC to move to the Wild West. Melissa is the Founder of LaLaScoop, an online hub that shares the beauty and vibrancy of Los Angeles life through a plethora of reviews on the City of Angel’s hottest trends, places, products, and people. As an educator and travel writer, her passion for globetrotting and learning about new cultures was fueled when she traveled around the world at age 20 on Semester at Sea. In 2006 she taught in England thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. Her desire for exploration hasn’t subsided as she truly feels, “To travel is to live.” Her favorite destinations include Myanmar, Tulum, Croatia, Thailand, Formentera Island off of Ibiza, Costa Rica, Krakow, Greece, Sicily, Prague, Belgium, Vietnam, and Morocco. Since 2012 she has been documenting her adventures in print and online.

Read more posts by Melissa Curtin

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