I was lucky enough to spend a week on the island of Maui, Hawaii this January. Far from being (just!) a lazy holiday lounging in the sun, this trip was full of adventures, activities, and learning about local cultures.
Traveling to Hawaii has been firmly on my bucket list for many years. As a three times Geography graduate, spending time on actively volcanic islands with unique wildlife and a fascinating melting pot of cultural influences, was my nerdy dream come true! While many people choose to visit the island of Oahu and party in Honolulu, instead my trip included a week on the more laid-back island of Maui, followed by a week of volcano tourism on the Big Island.
In this first article, I’ll talk about my top 5 experiences on the beautiful island of Maui, known for a chilled vibe; heavy on the water sports and nature appreciation, and light on the nightlife. As a warm up, I’ve made a little accompanying video on my YouTube channel, which includes a bonus 6th highlight (it’s a good one, promise!!):
My top 5 Maui experiences:
1. Snorkelling with tropical fish and green sea turtles
While getting up at 6am and piling onto a raft isn’t usually something I’d relish, it was impossible not to be ridiculously excited as we bounced over the ocean towards the Molokini crater, watching the sun rise over the Haleakalā volcano. We were beginning our half-day snorkeling adventure with Redline Rafting. The first stop was inside a partly submerged volcanic crater located in the shallow sea channel between Maui and the unpopulated island of Kahoʻolawe (once used for missile testing by the US navy, now home to many nervous sheep).
This was my first time snorkeling and to be honest, I was freaking out quite a bit. We’d just sailed out to the middle of the ocean, put on weird masks that covered our noses (an essential breathing hole), donned cumbersome flippers, and then been told, casually: “Now, off you go: jump over the side and swim calmly, face down, with wild animals, while remembering to breathe only through your mouth, oh and watch out for the killer motor on the back of the other boats around…”. Yep, OK, seems totally reasonable to me!?!
After several minutes of swallowing sea water and thrashing about with my now giant flappy feet, I did get used to it though. Once I was happily biting down on the side tabs of the snorkel (top tip!!), I was able to calm the “f” down and actually take a sustained look down into the water. A peaceful and elegant world opened up beneath me. It was amazing! Colourful fishes darted this way, then that. Flat ones with eyes on their sides and ones with long pointy noses, and decadent ones with flashy fins that I’ve seen only in documentaries or cartoons. Impressively, they were very close and not easily spooked by us freaks with masks splashing around them and pointing excitedly.
Next we moved to the back wall of the crater which had very deep water and potholes in the steep cliff face from where the US navy had used it for target practice in the 1950s. There were even more fish here, and wearing my rash guard and SPF50 leggings and top with a yellow buoyancy aid around my waist, I particularly identified with my fashion twins: the stripey black, white, and yellow fishes *fin bump*
Back in the boat again and we were shooting our way along the beautiful south Maui coast. We occasionally saw spurts of water in the distance and our boat slowed to a stop. These were from humpback whales, who migrate from Alaska with their new calfs to the calm, warm waters over winter. We saw several tails flash into the air as the whales took a breath before diving down to the depths, and we could even hear their song as we snorkeled – a truly magical experience!
Finally we arrived at our eagerly awaited highlight, Turtle Town!! This was an area of coral near to the coast where a large population of green sea turtles gather. They were so chilled and effortlessly floated around with the currents, munching on the seaweed and coming to the surface for a breath of air.
We were careful to stay a respectful distance away- touching them is illegal and I found myself swimming backwards to stay away as they didn’t seem bothered by our presence! I admired their uniquely chunky grace and surfer dude attitude. Some were more mature and had algae growing on their shells and scratches from run-ins with sharp lava rock, while others had brighter green markings on their mottled skin. It was a great honour to visit their town and float with them!
Grudgingly, we climbed back on the boat and embarked on our journey back to dry land, eating a well-earned lunch in the midday sun on the way.
2. Open-side helicopter tour
If snorkeling was the “sublime”, then our next adventure of an open side helicopter ride over West Maui and Moloka’i was certainly the “ridiculous”! This was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life and definitely the most windy…
We arrived at the airport and got into our gear- a windproof jacket zipped all the way up, and our mobile phones firmly strapped in to special holders around our necks. We filed out onto the airstrip, and one-by-one climbed into the helicopter, dipping down under the whirling blades. Once fitted with our headsets, we could hear our pilot announce that we would be taking off soon and that he’d prepared a playlist of songs and would give us some commentary along our journey.
This was my first time in a helicopter, let alone one without any sides, but I didn’t find it scary- the ride was very smooth, helped by the excellent weather conditions, and despite the extreme winds contorting our faces, it all felt very secure with no risk of falling out! The scenery was definitely our focus as we toured over the beaches and turquoise blue sea along the West Maui coast. We turned inland into a valley, only accessible by helicopter, and hovered just below the cloud layer to marvel at the Wall of Tears, where 17 waterfalls cascade down the valley walls.
Next we headed out over the ocean to the island of Moloka’i. This island is covered by lush rainforest, with deep valleys, waterfalls, and the tallest sea cliffs in the world. We flew down the coast taking in the incredible views of this remote island with no human activity in site, feeling dwarfed by the giant scale of the landscape. Then we swooped in for a closer look at Oloʻupena Falls, the fourth tallest in the world. The soundtrack in our headphones shifted to play the theme from Jurassic Park and our pilot told us that this was the filming location for the establishing shots of the island in the movie!
On our way back, we toured the West Maui coastline once more, taking in the beaches with famous surfing breaks like Pe’ahi AKA “Jaws” (made famous in Point Break!). As we arrived back to the airport and civilization, we saw a cruise ship in the harbour and I noted how many homes had solar panels on their roofs (because I’m a nerd!).
This was a spendy treat, but I absolutely recommend doing it- I loved how close I felt to the landscape with the no-doors option, and enjoyed the informative commentary and music from our excellent pilot. Just do it!
3.The Hāna Highway
While spending a whole day travelling the length of a Highway might not sound that exciting, this highway is very special: it is a two lane road that hugs the shoreline around the north, east, and south of Maui, almost circumnavigating the Haleakalā volcano. This was one of my favourite days and I loved it for the huge variety of landscapes we encountered in just several hours, and the sense of adventure of not knowing what was coming next!
To make this journey in one day, we were up at 6.30am when the sun rose, and picked up breakfast sandwiches and coffee in the surfing spot of Paia. Past this point, the adventure really begins as we motored along roads carved into the side of mountains, with lush vegetation dripping overhead. The landscape is one of deep rainforested valleys and over 50 waterfalls, each of which has a ridge in the road and a stopping area so you can explore.
We did a series of quick pit stops to have a look at the waterfalls, and they only got more impressive as the day went along! Our favourite had a gorgeous plunge pool suitable for swimming and deep enough to jump down off the rocks. The water was absolutely freezing cold, so I opted for lounging on a comfy rock enjoying the sun and lush surroundings like a fabulous goddess. Occasionally I dangled my legs in for a cool-off and offered words of encouragement to my cold-immune Candian partner who was happily swimming about (the absolute nutter!).
As we motored towards Hāna, we picked up some fresh fruit from one of the many stalls by the side of the road. This was manned by a young dreadlocked chap with a broad Scouse accent- the first English person I’d encountered there! We had a passion fruit, an eggfruit (the texture and colour of a cooked egg yolk, but very sweet), and a star fruit that was a juicy and sweet pickmeup. I also bought two handmade silver rings from a stall next door, one depicting a wave, the other a deep “V” shape representing the volcano- my favourite souvenirs.
We arrived in Hāna itself in the early afternoon and visited some beaches: first up was a black sand beach (we were on a volcano after all!), this one with a blowhole in the lava cliffs which created dramatic splashes as waves were funneled upwards. The colours here were so vivid: the green of the vegetation, black sand, blue sea and sky, and white crashing wave tips. Next up was something more unusual: a red sand beach. This involved a little scramble along a narrow path hugging the coastline and a climb down to the dark burgundy beach. The sand was a fascinating mix of black and dark red particles- very Goth!
At Hāna, some choose to turn around and return as beyond this point, the road narrows to a single lane dirt track for some sections, with hairpin bends (some were so extreme we tooted the car horn to alert anyone coming the other way!). We decided to stay on course and really pleased we made that decision, as the south side was equally stunning!
The vegetation, scenery, and climate began to shift dramatically. We moved out of the rainforest and sea cliffs and into grass steppe with grazing cows on the leeward side of the volcano. It was wonderful to see the long sweeping slopes of the volcano extending down gently into the ocean as the sun set. We visited a roadside Gulch, the scale of which was something out of Lord of the Rings, and ended our day with dinner at a restaurant up in the mountains. A brilliant, if tiring, day!
4. Surfing lesson
Once again, we were up early, but this time for a surfing lesson with Maui Wave Riders in Kihei! We were lucky enough to be staying near the beach, so jogged to the surf school and headed out in a group of five for our lesson with charismatic teacher, Mr Boobie Shack himself!
The surfing was excellent: the shore was shallow enough that we could walk out past the break, which helped us not get super tired arms from paddling too much. Then, with help from our teacher giving us a little push to catch the wave correctly, we were all standing up and enjoying the gentle waves all the way into shore. This was quite a contrast to my first surfing experience in Newquay, Cornwall last September, getting battered and constantly wiping out in the angry and freezing Atlantic ocean! Here, it was soothing to spend time in the ocean in the early morning, and I also enjoyed sitting on my board during the lull between waves, pretending I was cool.
Some actually cool things happened though: there were sea turtles right by where we were surfing and I surfed over one as it chilled out on the ocean floor! Our teacher was also ambitious for our group, and my partner and I tried some tricks: we headed off on our broads at the same time and got our balance, then we held hands, and then I stepped onto his board… We clung to each other and managed to stay upright until the wave gave out near the shore! We can now say we have surfed on the same board – a very cool experience!
I can’t possibly talk about my top experiences on holiday and not include food. Maui is particularly known for growing coffee, macadamia nuts, papaya and of course, pineapple, but there are also local dishes to sample. Here are some of my favourites:
Shaved Ice: instead of gelato or ice cream, it’s traditional to have delicious shaved ice with flavoured sauces to substantially enhance the “sin” level. I had mango, coconut, and passionfruit with added coconut cream- it was so nice and smooth! On recommendation, we went to Ululani’s Shave Ice, known for milling their ice very finely.
Haupia Pie: The traditional chocolate haupia pie from Maui Pie was a real treat, consisting of chocolate cream pie with coconut jelly-like layer and cream on top. This was as delicious as the description sounds!
Pio: this is a thick lavender coloured paste made from mashed taro root. This is often served as part of a plate with pork cooked in taro leaves, macaroni salad (with tuna), rice, and pico de galo. This is a very traditional dish and worth a try if you want to sample something properly “Hawaiian”.
Sushi: There is a strong Japanese influence in Hawaii, and as a result there are some great sushi restaurants! We went to one with my all time favourite name: Miso Phat!
American breakfast: We are in the US after all, so I had to have a giant breakfast with french toast, bacon, eggs, and syrup! We had our favourite at the Kihei Caffe, right by the beach.
Luxury dining at The Mill House: this was by far my favourite meal of the entire trip, and one of the best I’ve ever had! The Mill House is a farm to table concept, growing produce on-site and offering small plates so you can try different flavours. We had cod sashimi, aubergine marinated in miso, pork sushi, and little mushroom balls of heaven. The setting is also spectacular – by a small lake on the side of the lush green mountains in West Maui. A top tip is to pick up a coffee at the little shop in the complex on your way out- they grow and mill their own beans on site!
This trip to Maui was definitely one of my favourite holidays. The variety of activities, stunning natural landscapes, seeing humpback whales, turtles, and tropical fishes for the first time, eating fabulous foods, and the wonderfully chilled vibe of the place, all made this truly magical. Next time, I’ll talk about the second week of the trip on the Big Island- this includes active volcanoes, nudist beaches, and giant manta rays!