This flat, often windy corridor between Maui's two volcanoes is where you'll most likely arrive -- it's the site of the main airport. It's also home to the majority of the island's population, the heart of the business community, and the local government (courts, cops, and county/state government agencies). You'll find good shopping and dining bargains here but very little in the way of accommodations.
Kahului -- This is "Dream City," home to thousands of former sugar-cane workers whose dream in life was to own their own homes away from the sugar plantations. There's wonderful shopping here (especially at discount stores), and a couple of small hotels near the airport are convenient for 1-night stays if you have a late arrival or early departure, but this is not a place to spend your entire vacation.
Wailuku -- Wailuku is like a time capsule, with its faded wooden storefronts, old plantation homes, shops straight out of the 1940s and 1950s, and relaxed way of life. While most people race through on their way to see the natural beauty of Iao Valley, this quaint little town is worth a brief visit, if only to see a real place where real people actually appear to be working at something other than a suntan. This is the county seat, so you'll see people in suits on important missions in the tropical heat. Beaches surrounding Wailuku are not great for swimming, but the town has a spectacular view of Haleakala Crater, great budget restaurants, some interesting bungalow architecture, a Frank Lloyd Wright building, a wonderful historic B&B, and the always-endearing Bailey House Museum.
This is the fabled Maui you see on postcards. Jagged peaks, green velvet valleys, a wilderness full of native species -- the majestic West Maui Mountains are the epitome of earthly paradise. The beaches here are some of Hawaii's best. And it's no secret: This stretch of coastline along Maui's "forehead," from Kapalua to the historic port of Lahaina, is the island's most bustling resort area (with south Maui close behind). Expect a few mainland-style traffic jams.
If you want to book a resort or condo on this coast, first consider what community you'd like to base yourself in. Starting at the southern end of west Maui and moving northward, the coastal communities look like this:
Lahaina -- This old seaport is a tame version of its former self, a raucous whaling town where sailors swaggered ashore in search of women and grog. Today, the vintage village teems with restaurants, T-shirt shops, and a gallery on nearly every block; parts of it are downright tacky, but there's still a lot of real history to be found amid the tourist development. Lahaina makes a great base for visitors: A few old hotels (such as the restored 1901 Pioneer Inn on the harbor), quaint bed-and-breakfasts, and a handful of oceanfront condos offer a variety of choices. This is the place to stay if you want to be in the center of things -- restaurants, shops, and nightlife -- but parking can be a problem.
Kaanapali -- Farther north along the west Maui coast is Hawaii's first master-planned family resort. Pricey midrise hotels line nearly 3 miles of lovely gold-sand beach; they're linked by a landscaped parkway and a walking path along the sand. Golf greens wrap around the slope between beachfront and hillside properties. Whalers Village -- a seaside mall with 48 shops and restaurants, plus the best little whale museum in Hawaii -- and other restaurants are easy to reach on foot along the oceanfront walkway or by resort shuttle, which also serves the small West Maui Airport just to the north. Shuttles also go to Lahaina , 3 miles to the south, for shopping, dining, entertainment, and boat tours. Kaanapali is popular with convention groups and families -- especially those with teenagers, who like all the action.
Honokowai, Kahana & Napili -- During the building binge of the 1970s, condominiums sprouted along this gorgeous coastline like mushrooms after a rain. Today, these older ocean-side units offer excellent bargains for astute travelers. The great location -- along sandy beaches, within minutes of both the Kapalua and Kaanapali resort areas, and close enough to the goings-on in Lahaina -- makes this area a great place to stay for value-conscious travelers. It feels more peaceful and residential than either Kaanapali or Lahaina.
In Honokowai and Mahinahina, you'll find mostly older units that tend to be cheaper. There's not much shopping here (mostly convenience stores), but you'll have easy access to the shops and restaurants of Kaanapali.
Kahana is a little more upscale than Honokowai and Mahinahina. Most of its condos are big high-rise types, newer than those immediately to the south. You'll find a nice selection of shops and restaurants (including the Maui branch of Roy's) in the area, and Kapalua-West Maui Airport is nearby.
Napili is a much-sought-after area for condo seekers: It's quiet; has great beaches, restaurants, and shops; and is close to Kapalua. Units are generally more expensive here (although I've found a few hidden gems at affordable prices).
Kapalua -- North beyond Kaanapali and the shopping centers of Napili and Kahana, the road starts to climb and the vista opens up to fields of golden-green pineapple and manicured golf fairways. A country lane lined with Pacific pines that leads toward the sea brings you to Kapalua. It's the very exclusive domain of the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and expensive condos and villas, set on one of Hawaii's best white-sand beaches, next to two bays that are marine-life preserves (with fabulous surfing in winter).
Even if you don't stay here, you're welcome to come and enjoy Kapalua. The fancy hotel here provides public parking and beach access. The resort has an art school where you can learn local crafts, as well as a golf school, three golf courses, historic features, swanky condos and homes (many available for vacation rental at astronomical prices), and wide-open spaces that include a rainforest preserve -- all open to the general public.
Kapalua is a great place to stay put. However, if you plan to "tour" Maui, know that it's a long drive from here to get to many of the island's highlights. You might want to consider a more central place to stay -- even Lahaina is a 15-minute drive away.
This is the hottest, sunniest, driest, most popular coastline on Maui for sun lovers -- Arizona by the sea. Rain rarely falls here, and temperatures stick around 85°F (29°C) year-round. On this former scrubland from Maalaea to Makena, where cacti once grew wild and cows grazed, there are now four distinctive areas -- Maalaea, Kihei, Wailea, and Makena -- and a surprising amount of traffic.
Maalaea -- If west Maui is the island's head, Maalaea is just under the chin. This windy oceanfront village centers on a small boat harbor (with a general store, a couple of restaurants, and a huge new mall) and the Maui Ocean Center, an aquarium/ocean complex. This quaint region offers several condominium units to choose from, but visitors staying here should be aware that it's almost always very windy. All the wind from the Pacific is funneled between the West Maui Mountains and Haleakala and comes out in Maalaea.
Kihei -- Kihei is less a proper town than a nearly continuous series of condos and minimalls lining South Kihei Road. This is Maui's best vacation bargain: Budget travelers swarm like sun-seeking geckos over the eight sandy beaches along this scalloped, condo-packed 7-mile stretch of coast. Kihei is neither charming nor quaint; what it lacks in aesthetics, though, it more than makes up for in sunshine, affordability, and convenience. If you want a latte in the morning, fine beaches in the afternoon, and Hawaii Regional Cuisine in the evening -- all at reasonable prices -- head to Kihei.
Wailea -- Just 3 decades ago, this was wall-to-wall scrub kiawe trees, but now Wailea is a manicured oasis of multimillion-dollar resort hotels along 2 miles of palm-fringed gold coast. It's like Beverly Hills by the sea, except California never had it so good: Wailea has warm, clear water full of tropical fish; year-round golden sunshine and clear blue skies; and hedonistic pleasure palaces on 1,500 acres of black-lava shore indented by five beautiful beaches. It's amazing what a billion dollars can do.
This is the playground of the stretch-limo set. The planned resort development -- practically a well-heeled town -- has a shopping village, three prized golf courses of its own and three more in close range, and a tennis complex. A growing number of large homes sprawl over the upper hillside, some offering excellent bed-and-breakfast units at reasonable prices. The resorts along this fantasy coast are spectacular, to say the least. Next door to the Four Seasons, the most elegant, is the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa, a public display of ego by Tokyo mogul Takeshi Sekiguchi, who dropped $600 million in 1991 to create his own minicity. Stop in and take a look -- it's so gauche, you've gotta see it.
Appealing natural features include the coastal trail, a 3-mile round-trip path along the oceanfront with pleasing views everywhere you look -- out to sea and to the neighboring islands, or inland to the broad lawns and gardens of the hotels. The trail's south end borders an extensive garden of native coastal plants, as well as the ruins of ancient lava-rock houses juxtaposed with elegant oceanfront condos. But the chief attractions, of course, are those five outstanding beaches (the best is Wailea Beach).
Makena -- After passing through well-groomed Wailea, suddenly the road enters raw wilderness. After Wailea's overdone density and overmanicured development, the thorny landscape is a welcome relief. Although beautiful, this is an end-of-the-road kind of place: It's a long drive from Makena to anywhere on Maui. If you're looking for an activities-filled vacation or you want to tour a lot of the island, you might want to try somewhere else, or you'll spend most of your time in the car. But if you crave a quiet, relaxing respite, where the biggest trip of the day is from your bed to the gorgeous, pristine beach, Makena is the place.
Beyond Makena, you'll discover Haleakala's last lava flow, which ran to the sea in 1790; the bay named for French explorer La Pérouse; and a chunky lava trail known as the King's Highway, which leads around Maui's empty south shore past ruins and fish camps. Puu Olai stands like Oahu's Diamond Head on the shore, where a sunken crater shelters tropical fish and empty gold-sand beaches stand at the end of dirt roads.
After a few days at the beach, you'll probably take notice of the 10,000-foot mountain in the middle of Maui. The slopes of Haleakala (House of the Sun) are home to cowboys, growers, and other country people who wave at you as you drive by. They're all up here enjoying the crisp air, emerald pastures, eucalyptus, and flower farms of this tropical Olympus -- there's even a misty California redwood grove. You can see a thousand tropical sunsets reflected in the windows of houses old and new, strung along a road that runs like a loose hound from Makawao, an old cowboy-turned-New Age village, to Kula, where the road leads up to the crater and Haleakala National Park. The rumpled, two-lane blacktop of Hwy. 37 narrows on the other side of Tedeschi Vineyards and Winery, where wine grapes and wild elk flourish on the Ulupalakua Ranch, the biggest on Maui. A stay upcountry is usually affordable, a chance to commune with nature, and a nice contrast to the sizzling beaches and busy resorts below.
Makawao -- Until recently, this small, two-street upcountry town consisted of little more than a post office, gas station, feed store, bakery, and restaurant/bar serving the cowboys and farmers living in the surrounding community; the hitching posts outside storefronts were really used to tie up horses. As the population of Maui started expanding in the 1970s, a health-food store sprang up, followed by boutiques, a chiropractic clinic, and a host of health-conscious restaurants. The result is an eclectic amalgam of old paniolo (cowboy) Hawaii and the baby-boomer trends of transplanted mainlanders. Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center, Hawaii's premier arts collective, is definitely worth a peek. The only accommodations here are reasonably priced bed-and-breakfasts, perfect for those who enjoy great views and don't mind slightly chilly nights.
Kula -- A feeling of pastoral remoteness prevails in this upcountry community of old flower farms, humble cottages, and newer suburban ranch houses with million-dollar views that take in the ocean, the isthmus, the West Maui Mountains, and, at night, the lights that run along the gold coast like a string of pearls from Maalaea to Puu Olai. Everything flourishes at a cool 3,000 feet (bring a jacket), just below the cloud line, along a winding road on the way up to Haleakala National Park. Everyone here grows something -- Maui onions, carnations, orchids, and proteas (those strange-looking blossoms that look like Star Trek props). The local B&Bs cater to guests seeking cool tropic nights, panoramic views, and a rural upland escape. Here you'll find the true peace and quiet that only rural farming country can offer -- yet you're still just 30 to 40 minutes away from the beach and an hour's drive from Lahaina.
On the Road to Hana -- When old sugar towns die, they usually fade away in rust and red dirt. Not Paia. The tangled spaghetti of electrical, phone, and cable wires hanging overhead symbolizes the town's ability to adapt to the times -- it may look messy, but it works. Here, trendy restaurants, eclectic boutiques, and high-tech windsurf shops stand next door to a ma-and-pa grocery, a fish market, and storefronts that have been serving customers since plantation days. Hippies took over in the 1970s; although their macrobiotic restaurants and old-style artists' co-ops have made way for Hawaii Regional Cuisine and galleries featuring the works of renowned international artists, Paia still manages to maintain a pleasant granola vibe. The town's main attraction, though, is Hookipa Beach Park, where the wind that roars through the isthmus of Maui brings windsurfers from around the world. A few B&Bs are located just outside Paia in the tiny community of Kuau.
Ten minutes down the road from Paia and up the hill from the Hana Highway -- the connector road to the entire east side of Maui -- is Haiku. Once a pineapple-plantation village, complete with a cannery (now a shopping complex), Haiku offers vacation rentals and B&Bs in a quiet, pastoral setting: the perfect base for those who want to get off the beaten path and experience the quieter side of Maui, but don't want to feel too removed (the beach is only 10 min. away).
About 15 to 20 minutes past Haiku is the largely unknown community of Huelo. Every day, thousands of cars whiz by on the road to Hana; most barely glance at the double row of mailboxes overseen by a fading Hawaii Visitors Bureau sign. But if you take the time to stop and head down the gun-metal road, you'll discover a hidden Hawaii -- a Hawaii of an earlier time, where Mother Nature is still sensual and wild, where ocean waves pummel soaring lava cliffs, and where an indescribable sense of serenity prevails. Huelo is not for everyone, but those who hunger for a place still largely untouched by "progress" should check in to a B&B or vacation rental here.
Hana -- Set between an emerald rainforest and the blue Pacific is a village probably best defined by what it lacks: golf courses, shopping malls, and McDonald's. Except for a gas station and a bank with an ATM, you'll find little of what passes for progress here. Instead, you'll discover the simple joys of fragrant tropical flowers, the sweet taste of backyard bananas and papayas, and the easy calm and unabashed small-town aloha spirit of old Hawaii. What saved "Heavenly" Hana from the inevitable march of progress? The 52-mile Hana Highway, which winds around 600 curves and crosses more than 50 one-lane bridges on its way from Kahului. You can go to Hana for the day -- from Kihei and Lahaina, it's a 3-hour drive (and a half century away) -- but 3 days are better. The tiny town has one hotel, a handful of great B&Bs, and some spectacular vacation rentals.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.