When you experience Maui firsthand, it’s hard not to gush about the long, perfect beaches, dramatic cliffs, greener-than-green rain forests, and the fragrance of plumeria that hangs over it all. Add to that the amazing marine life and the culture and history of the Hawaiian people, and it’s easy to see why Maui is so popular. Today the threat of overdevelopment is a concern, which may help protect this special place. The island has very different areas, from the resorts of sunny West Maui and the South Shore to the funky small towns of the North Shore, the ranches and farms of Upcountry, and the remote village of Hana in unspoiled East Maui. Directions on the island are often given as mauka (toward the mountains) and makai (toward the ocean).
Kahului, where you most likely landed when you arrived on Maui, is the industrial and commercial center of the island. The area was developed in the early 1950s to meet the housing needs of the large sugarcane interests here, specifically those of Alexander & Baldwin. The company was tired of playing landlord to its many plantation workers and sold land to a developer who promised to create affordable housing. The scheme worked, and “Dream City,” the first planned city in Hawaii, was born.
West of Kahului is Wailuku. The county seat since 1950, it is the most charming town in Central Maui—though it wasn’t always so. Its name means “Water of Destruction,” after the fateful battle in Iao Valley that pitted King Kamehameha the Great against Maui warriors. Wailuku was a politically important town until the sugar industry began to decline in the 1960s and tourism took hold. Businesses left the cradle of the West Maui Mountains and followed the new market to the shore, where tourists arrived by the boatload. Wailuku still houses the county government but has the feel of a town that’s been asleep for several decades. The shops and offices now inhabiting Main Street’s plantation-style buildings serve as reminders of a bygone era, and continued attempts at “gentrification,” at the very least, open the way for unique eateries, shops, and galleries.
The North Shore
Blasted by winter swells and wind, Maui’s North Shore draws water-sports thrill-seekers from around the world. But there’s much more to this area of Maui than coastline. Inland, a lush, waterfall-fed garden of Eden beckons. In forested pockets, wealthy hermits have carved out a little piece of paradise for themselves.
North Shore action centers around the colorful town of Paia and the windsurfing mecca, Hookipa Beach. It’s a far cry from the more developed resort areas of West Maui and the South Shore. Paia is also a starting point for the one of the most popular excursions in Maui, the Road to Hana. Waterfalls, phenomenal views of the coast and ocean, and lush rain forest are all part of the spectacular 55-mi drive into East Maui.
The South Shore
Blessed by more than its fair share of sun, the southern shore of Haleakala was an undeveloped wilderness until the 1970s. Then the sun-worshippers found it; now restaurants, condos, and luxury resorts line the coast from the world-class aquarium at Maalaea Harbor, through working-class Kihei, to lovely Wailea, a resort community rivaling its counterpart, Kaanapali, on West Maui. Farther south, the road disappears and unspoiled wilderness still has its way.
Because the South Shore includes so many fine beach choices, a trip here (if you’re staying elsewhere on the island) is an all-day excursion—especially if you include a visit to the aquarium. Get active in the morning with exploring and snorkeling, then shower in a beach park, dress up a little, and enjoy the cool luxury of the Wailea resorts. At sunset, settle in for dinner at one of the area’s many fine restaurants.