When approaching Maui by air, it’s immediately apparent that the island is filled with extreme varieties of landscapes. From the verdant, rolling hillsides to the waves thundering against the hard volcanic cliffs to the roads that weave their way across and around the island. The best way to really see the island, though, is to get onto it!
Driving in Maui can be an adventure in and of itself, especially if you aren’t used to driving on narrow, winding, hill-filled, cliff-hugging roads, like me. Or, when the rental car agency gives you a monstrous Dodge Charger when you regularly drive a Mini Cooper, like me. (Read: Maui for One here on girlsgetaway.com) But it can be fun!
There are two famous drives in Maui – the famed Road to Hana and the West Maui drive. Both are filled with those winding, hilly, cliff-hugging roads, and both offer very different, and very dramatic and breathtaking views. Whichever drive you choose – or even if you choose both – be sure to carve out several hours so that you can really take your time to enjoy all of the stops along the way.
When we drove the Road to Hana, we didn’t have much time so making any stops was impossible. The road is very lush, winding through the hills and valleys of the eastern side of the island with occasional glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the road, and after a slightly perilous 10-minute cliffside hike, we found ourselves at the Red Sand Beach, or Kaihalulu Beach (the Hawaiian name). There’s a swimming area that’s naturally protected from the crashing ocean just beyond, creating a kind of wave pool. A terrific way to spend an afternoon – if you have the time!
The West Maui drive couldn’t be more different than the Road to Hana. Rather than lush and tropical, the west side of the island is arid and pretty much void of any plant life, but still incredibly beautiful in its own right. The twist on this drive is, there comes a point on the north side where the state road ends and an unmaintained road begins. Rental car agencies aren’t too keen that their cars be driven on that road, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Regularly. Of course, with my behemoth of a car, I didn’t even attempt to make the drive, rather stopping at the end of the state road and turning around.
There are plenty of highlights to stop and see along the West Maui drive, including dramatic overlooks, watching surfers and snorkelers far below, and the Nakalele Blow Hole, which requires a small downhill hike and a bit of a sense of adventure; remember, the hike is uphill on the way back to the car!
Of course, there are more ways to explore the lay of the land than via the car. In addition to the hiking spots found along the Road to Hana and the West Maui drive, there’s volcanic Haleakalā National Park. If you’re an early riser – I certainly wasn’t during this trip! – you can drive to the top of the crater and watch the sunrise. It’s supposed to be one of the most spectacular sites ever seen. Once the sun’s up, there are more than 30 miles of hiking trails, ranging from short, 10-minute hikes to overnight trips, including trails to waterfalls. The choice is yours!
Another terrific spot for hiking is 4,000 acre Iao Valley State Park, which, from my understanding, is simply mystical. The focal point of the park is the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, a rock outcropping oftentimes shrouded in clouds.
An ocean lover, I couldn’t wait for my Coastal Walk and Tidepool Exploration with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment, based at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. Our naturalist, Chelsea, led my friend Nancy and I along Maui’s western coastline, pointing out nuances of the landscapes, sharing Hawaiian folklore about flowers and plants found along the path, and telling us bits about the history of the island and Hawaiian culture.
When we got to the tidepools along Kapalua Bay, that’s when I reverted to being a kid again. And it was fantastic! We crept along the volcanic rock, peeking into the flowing pools and the world below where tiny fish and crabs make their homes. Chelsea was fantastic, finding creatures to show us, and then putting them gently back into their environments. The find of the day was a shingle urchin – it didn’t look real! I’d never seen anything like it! Simply incredible!
After our coastal walk and tidepool exploration, Nancy and I walked out to the Dragon’s Teeth on Makalua-puna Point – more incredible volcanic formations, and also sacred Hawaiian ground. Mesmerizing!
Maui is just 727 square miles, but there’s so much to see and do, this is but a very small sampling. I can’t wait to return and explore the island even more!
Susan B. Barnes is a travel writer and photographer. A proud Army brat, she was born on a military base in Belgium and has been on the go ever since. While Susan has traveled across the United States and into Canada, she has also managed to visit such European cultural hot spots as Paris, London, Ireland, Athens and Rome, and has even explored the second largest reef in the world off the coast of Belize and the cloud forest of Venezuela, among many other exotic locales. Having learned to rock climb in Yosemite National Park, surf in La Jolla and swim with whale sharks in Mexico, she’s always looking forward to her next adventure.