Maui is the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. It is located between Oahu and Big Island. Perhaps one of the island's greatest attractions is that it is a whale paradise from December to April. More than 10,000 humpback whales come to Maui's shores (all the way from Alaska) every year, as the warm shallow waters off Maui's coast are the perfect place for whales to breed and give birth to their calves.
The island's bustling center is Lāhainā, on the west side of Maui.
Maui's most iconic adventures are the Road to Hana road trip and the sunrise/sunset viewing on top of the Haleakalā volcano.
It takes 5-6 days to explore the island, depending on how many extra tours you book.
Now I'm going to show you our itinerary, which I think covers the whole island and all the main attractions very well.
Just like on the other islands, we explored Maui with a campervan, booked through Outdoorsy. Here, for the first time, we had a small Honda with 4WD. It had a tent box on top and it was super easy to open the tent, took just 1 minute. It is a great invention, especially on the narrow, winding road to Hana you will really appreciate having a smaller car, with which it is easy to navigate, rather than a larger, more compact campervan.
Waihee Ridge Trail
Waiehu Beach Park
Iao Valley Hike, Secret Trail and Needle State Monument
Road to Hana
Bamboo forest hike
Pua'a Ka'a Waterfall
Hana Lava Tube
Waiʻānapanapa State Park, black sand beach
Kaihalulu red sand beach
Changing the plan
Pīpīwai Trail: Banyan tree, ʻOheʻo Gulch, Waimoku Waterfall
Back to the middle of the island
Haleakalā Volcano Crater, sunset
Maui’s (maybe America's) largest Banyan tree
Kapalua Coastal Trail
Kayak tour with the whales
Day 1: Northwest coast
On the first day we arrived at Kahului airport around noon. From here we had to go pick up the car as they didn't drop it off at the airport for us, it was a little extra time, but we got around relatively quickly.
Then to avoid driving too much, we scheduled the nearby Northwest coast for the afternoon of our first day.
Waiehu Beach Park
First we had a picnic on Waiehu beach while watching whales in the distance. As it turned out this little beachfront is located right next to a large golf court, so it's no wonder we found a few golf balls while walking in the sand. The most unusual was a yellow golf ball with SpongeBob on it. 🙂
Waihee Ridge Trail
Then, after some rest and re-energizing, we headed out on our first Maui hike, the Waihee Ridge Trail.
It's a 6,5 km hiking trail that starts with a steep climb, but it's worth persevering because after that, the trail takes you along a very nice green, lushly vegetated ridge. Due to the climate and the proximity of the ocean, there are very often clouds surrounding the summit, so it is worth starting the hike early in the morning, then you have better chances.
The walk offers a beautiful panorama of both the ocean and the valley.
For us, halfway through the hike, the mountain was covered in clouds and it was very interesting because we could see ourselves walking into the clouds. A few meters before we were enjoying the beautiful panorama, and then when we were in the cloud, the visibility narrowed to a few tens of meters. You could also really feel the difference in temperature, I think it was 5-6 degrees colder in the cloud.
The cloud cover was so dense that we didn't see much chance of it clearing, and we talked to hikers coming already back and they said it was cloud cover all the way from there, so we decided to turn back and spend more time on the beach where it was sunny.
We also had to go shopping, as it was our first day on the island, so we had to stock up on food for 5-6 days so that we wouldn't have to worry about shopping in the upcoming days.
Kahului has a wide variety of hypermarkets. There is a Target, a Walmart and a Safeway. We opted for Target by the way and managed to get everything. Obviously we were limited on the perishables because we only had one cooler.
We arrived just before sunset at the Whale Lookout point on the southwest coast of Maui. The name is correct, it is truly a whale watching paradise.
We unloaded our camping table and chairs and had a picnic dinner at sunset amidst a real whale show.
There were whales coming very close to shore and we saw whales further away. We saw everything from whale blows, tails, to jumps.
We've seen whale activity on the other Hawaiian islands, most on Kauai, but what we saw here on Maui far outpaced the other three islands in terms of whale sightings.
As I mentioned in my general information blog post, you can't just pull over and spend the night in a car anywhere in Hawaii. So we tried to find a place to stay through Hipcamp, but unfortunately they canceled our reservation at the last minute, but we finally managed to book the last available campervan place for the first night on Maui at the Olowalu campground. The rest of the nights we found different camping sites and sometimes we went wild camping.
Olowalu campsite was beautiful. It's right at the beach, and looking the other way you can see a beautiful mountain in the background. The campsite itself is very well maintained, and the outdoor roofless shower cabins are very cosy as well. You can gaze at the starry sky while showering and look for shooting stars.
Day 2: Molokini Crater, Iao Valley
We had to get up early on this day because check-in started at 6am at Maalaea Bay for our Molokini Crater snorkel tour, and it was 15-minute drive from the campsite.
It was still dark when we arrived at the meeting place. Everything went smooth. We found a parking place, we managed to check in on time. We were one of the last to board the boat, but we managed to get one of the best seats, at the very front of the open deck.
The boat left at 6:30. After departure, they presented the half-day programme, and then breakfast was handed out. We were served delicious fresh fruit and muffins while we were riding the waves and watched the sunrise behind the volcano, painting the sky pink.
Molokini Crater is a crescent-shaped, partially submerged volcanic crater that is now a small uninhabited island off the coast of Maui. The island has been designated as a Hawaiian Bird Sanctuary.
The island covers an area of only 0,1 square kilometers and the crescent-shaped crater's inner arc is home to beautiful coral reefs and aquatic life.
Whales venture close sometimes to the crater. As we were heading towards it, a whale surfaced next to a small boat at the right-hand corner of the crescent. If you are lucky you can hear the whales singing while snorkeling in the water.
After snorkeling, we continued to Turtle Town, the site of our second dive. This Turtle Town is famous for its underwater lava formations and the coral reefs that form along them, a popular spot for green sea turtles.
This reef is much closer to the coast, much more touristy. It is nowhere near as beautiful and colourful as the reef at Molokini Crater. But it was still a great pleasure to swim with the turtles.
When we got back on the boat, by accident we discovered that one of our tour guides was a Hungarian guy who had been traveling the world for decades and was "stuck" in Hawaii for a couple of years because of Covid... :D And thanks to that he knows whales and reefs inside out.
We only met Hungarians twice in all of Hawaii. The first time was on Oahu at Diamond Head Hike, and the second time was here on the Molokini Crater tour.
After Turtle Town, we headed back to the port. There were huge waves and we saw a lot of whales on the way back. I think this Molokini Crater tour is a great programme. I would recommend it to everyone.
Kepaniwai Park & Iao Valley hike, the Secret Trail and the Needle State Monument
Our afternoon program was the Iao Valley with the Needle State Monument and the Secret Trail.
On the way there, we stopped at Kepaniwai Park, a cute little Japanese garden along the river full of beautiful flowers, plants and various Asian motifs, sculptures and buildings. It is worth stopping at the park for a short walk. Good for warm up.
Then, just a kilometer away, you can do the actual hike. It depends on how much you're willing to walk/hike. The Iao Valley walking trail itself, all the way to the Mount Needle lookout (named for its spiky shape) is well maintained and is an easy section with nice viewpoints and waterfront walks. It is recommended for all ages.
However, behind the Needle Mountain lookout, you can climb over the fence and continue the hike. However, this section is no longer maintained, it leads through a lush forest. This section is only recommended for people who really like hiking and are not afraid of having to use their hands and feet to hold on to something (not during the whole hike, just around the end of it. It's a 4 km hike (round trip) but the end of the trail is quite tiring, but worth the effort as this beautiful panorama awaits the persistent hiker.
What is also special about this route is that there are many koa trees along the way. Koa is a native tree species of Hawaii. The Koa tree represents strength and courage, the word Koa means warrior. In the ancient Hawaiian Islands, the Koa was the wood used to make many ancient canoes, swords and hand weapons - because the Koa is a durable hardwood, designed by nature to withstand the harshest of wear and tear.
Koa trees have crescent-shaped leaves. It is one of the fastest growing species of tree. In the right environment, it can grow up to 6-9 meters in 5 years. It grows to an average height of 15-30 meters and is particularly suited to volcanic soils.
Day 3: Road to Hana first part
"Road to Hana”
The Road to Hana is the most iconic road trip route in all of Hawaii. This more than 100 km road connects Kahului in the north and Hana in the east (actually, the Road to Hana doesn't end right at Hana, but continues all the way to the Kalepa Bridge).
There are about 620 bends and 59 bridges along the road. The road passes through beautiful tropical rainforest and there are several waterfalls directly along the road.
Some people say that it's better to do the trip counter-clockwise because of the crowds, but I think if you start early enough, you'll be fine. We wanted to do the whole thing in one day. Not back and forth on the good road, but all the way around, so continuing clockwise after Hana. That section is not very well developed, most of it is dirt road and many people recommend going there with 4WD only, but we didn't need to engage the 4WD, we could go all the way without it.
We were on the road before 6am to get to the first stop by daylight, because every minute counts on the long Hana loop, especially if you plan to make a lot of stops along the way.
We had calculated that we would finish at the last stop, the Pīpīwai trail at about dusk, but we hadn't factored in the fact that we would have to leave the parking lot at the Kīpahulu Visitor Center around 5-6pm (which was not possible in our case), otherwise we would be fined. We definitely didn't want to miss this hike. Plus after the hike there would have been 2 hours of drive on dirt roads with no lights, so we decided to reschedule. Luckily, we managed to reschedule our whale kayaking from the next morning, so we decided to spend the night in Hana, do the Pīpīwai hike early the next morning, and then drive back during daylight.
So our first stop was the Twin Falls. We got there a little before opening (before 7am), so we had a quick breakfast. There is only a small parking lot here, where they charge a parking fee.
It's an easy walk, first you see a small waterfall, then you have to walk quite a bit further to Twin Falls.
It's pretty nice, but I bet a lot of people just go to the first waterfall.
Bamboo forest, Rainbow trees
There is no designated parking area at the Bamboo Forest hike. The starting point is marked on Google Maps, but you have to be very careful because you can only see a small "hole" in the hedge as the entrance. And the road is so narrow and winding that you can't even stop directly there, but a few hundred meters further there is a bend where you can park on the side of the road, but the number of spots are very limited, so if you're not one of the first ones to arrive you might not have the chance to park your car nearby.
Walking back from the bend to the start of the tour, you can see rainbow trees on the other side of the road.
There are no signs on this hike, and although the trail is pretty much well trodden, there are still many junctions where it is not clear where to go.
Many people come with a guide for the whole Road to Hana, and on this bamboo hike it can be a great help to be around such groups with guides, but it is not impossible without a guide either.
Otherwise, the hike is very varied. Most of the way is through bamboo forest, but there are some river crossings and a rock climbing before the waterfall at the end. It's a super experience and luckily not too touristy, but don't expect to be totally alone either.
The Ke'anae Arboretum is located about halfway down the road to Hana. In the arboretum you can admire a variety of plant species. There are also rainbow trees, flowers, taro, ferns, ... Entrance is free, 20-25 minutes are worthwhile to visit this botanical garden.
After the botanical gardens, it's worth heading down to the beach and making a mini detour to the lookout and the famous Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread vendor. We skipped the banana bread because of the long queue, but it's supposed to be delicious. In 2022, a mini loaf cost $8.
Pua'a Ka'a Waterfall & Hanawai Waterfall
Both waterfalls are right next to the highway, but it's still worth stopping by to admire them for a while.
Hana Lava Tube
I told you about the Lava tubes in my Big Island post.
A lava tube is an underground tunnel formed by a river of lava, with all sides of the tunnel being solidified lava.
This Hana Lava Tube, as it turned out, is located on private property, so there's a hefty entrance fee. It is very touristy, as there are not many Lava Tubes to visit on Maui. The cave is full of instructional signs, everyone gets a flashlight.
There are beautiful formations in the cave. If you don't go to the Big Island, you should check it out, but I think if you go to Big Island and check out the Lava Tubes I recommended there, then you can skip this Hana Lava Tube.
Waiʻānapanapa State Park, black sand beach
Waiʻānapanapa State Park is one of the few parks that requires advance reservations. It's not enough to let them know the day of your arrival, you'll also need to book a time slot. This is an attempt to limit the number of tourists, ensuring that the park remains a peaceful and enjoyable place to visit. If you leave from Kahului at dawn and want to see the sights mentioned above, you will probably arrive at Waiʻānapanapa State Park at around 3-4 pm. Admission is $5 per person, plus $10 for parking.
The name of the park, by the way, means "sparkling waters". Which is no wonder, because the black sand beach and the whole stretch of beach, shaped by the lava, are emphasizing even more the beautiful ocean.
If you're looking to get back to the middle of Maui from Hana in a day, you won't have much time to spend here, but if you decide to spend the night in Hana, it's worth a dip on this beautiful beach.
Kaihalulu red sand beach
As I have mentioned several times, Hawaii is an incredibly diverse archipelago. Maui is no exception, with a red sand beach just three kilometers away from the black sandy lava beach…
There's not much parking possibility here, just a dead end. But you can stop there and it's only a few minutes' walk to the other side of the hill until you see the bay with the red stones.
Continuing on to the Kīpahulu visitor center, stop on the way at the Wailua waterfall on the roadside. Here some people choose to take a dip in the heat. After the waterfall, the road is widened a little and you can stop there comfortably.
As I mentioned above, we had to reschedule our night and next day in order to be able to hike the Pīpīwai Trail, so we looked for a last minute place to stay for the night around Hana, and snagged one of the last available spots at this wonderful campground.
Day 4: Road to Hana second part
The Kīpahulu Valley, where the Pīpīwai Trail is located, and ʻOheʻo Gulch have been part of Haleakalā National Park since 1969. The entrance fee to Haleakalā National Park was $15 per person in 2022. It is very important that you keep the pass and the receipt, because you can also use the same ticket to go up to Haleakalā Volcano (within 3 days).
Pīpīwai Trail: banyan tree, Waimoku waterfall
This was the first day we didn't wake up at dawn, but when the sun was already shining. We had no "other choice" because the park didn't open until 9am, and we were just 5 minutes drive away, so we could get ready in the morning comfortably.
Many people say that the Pīpīwai trail is the best hike of the whole Hana road trip, and I also think it's one of the best. It's very varied, it has everything: forest, bamboo forest, river, bridges, waterfalls... It's an easy hike and it's nicely maintained.
There is also a big banyan tree on the way, which is very spectacular, and a big mango tree. It's some kind of wild mango, the fruit is about a quarter the size of a regular mango, but just as delicious.
The trail ends at Waimoku Falls.
It's an easy hiking trail, easy to do with kids.
ʻOheʻo Gulch - The Seven Sacred Pools
Another attraction of Kīpahulu National Park is the ʻOheʻo Gulch or the Seven Sacred Pools through which the Palikea Stream reaches the ocean. These pools are volcanic in origin, but were very interesting because they were greyish rather than black. During times of high water, there are small mini waterfalls at each step as the water approaches sea level from one basin through another. It's a very short and easy hike, a good cool-down after the Pīpīwai hike.
Back to the middle of the island
By the time we finished our hikes at Kīpahulu Park, it was well past noon. Since we experienced first hand how intense the Road to Hana is: starting at dawn, we were already at the first waterfall at opening, and we didn't finish in Kīpahulu Park until early afternoon the next day. Plus we still had the 2 hour drive ahead of us back to the mid of the island. I can say that the Hana Road trip cannot be done in one day by driving around and visiting all the above mentioned attractions. But it's worth the 1,5 days because the whole road and every stop is beautiful.
So we set off back in the afternoon and as we couldn't book tickets for the Haleakalā volcano sunrise (Tickets sell out months before the chosen date. They do have some tickets that they reserve and make available 1-3 days before the date, but they are not easy to get. The system froze several times and we still couldn't get a ticket, and they won't let us in without one because they have a strict limit on the number of visitors.), so we decided to watch the sunset from Haleakalā volcano instead of the sunrise → no need to book a ticket for that, just a single entry ticket is enough. So this solution fitted well in our rescheduled programme, as we reached the Haleakalā crater in the late afternoon.
The road from Hana to the crater was tiring, but we drove through beautiful scenery. Most people turn around at Hana and take the same asphalt road back to the center of the island, and only a few people take the full circle, which is mostly dirt road for the rest of the way.
Haleakalā Volcano, crater, sunset
Then from Kula to the crater, it's a tough almost hour-long serpentine climb. No wonder, as the volcano is 3055 meters high.
Haleakalā Volcano is a large shield volcano, also known as East Maui Volcano, it formed the entire eastern part of the island, about 75% of the island. Its last eruption was about 500 years ago, leaving behind the Haleakalā Crater, which looks like a lunar landscape.
There are very long hiking trails here, which can be quite strenuous in the heat of the day, as there is no shade on the trails, so it is important to carry adequate amounts of water and sunscreen.
However, for those who don't have time for the longer hikes, I recommend that you take at least an hour to descend into the crater and walk around a bit. It's a very special place, with reddish, yellowish, brownish landscapes, sand in many places, and the sun's rays make the landscape very picturesque. However, as soon as the crater is in shadow (as the sun goes down and the mountain casts a shadow on the crater), it immediately gets chilly. After all, you're at 3000 meters.
It's also a good idea to bring a wind jacket and a scarf, as it can get very windy.
The sunset is best viewed from the observatory above. There is very little parking there, so you will most likely have to walk up from the visitor center car park.
By the time the sun goes down it's very cold, so you'll need warm clothing and it's a good idea to bring something to eat and drink.
Sunsets are spectacular, often there is a layer of cotton candy-like cloud below the peak, and the sun goes down into these clouds.
For those who haven't frozen over completely, it might be a good idea to stay a little longer until it gets completely dark to see the starry sky, but remember that you still have an hour-long serpentine drive down in pitch black ahead of you.
It's a great experience, and I think no one should miss the Haleakalās sunset or sunrise, who is visiting Maui.
Day 5: West Coast
After the intense last few days, we continued with a bit easier terrain. The West Coast is just the perfect place for that.
Our first stop was the largest and busiest town on the west coast, Lāhainā.
Lāhainā was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the early nineteenth century, and in the mid-1800s it was also a significant historic whaling village. Herman Melville captured this era in his classic novel Moby Dick.
Today, there is no longer any whaling, and instead the small town is filled with charming little galleries and vendors. It's very nice to walk around and visit a painter/photographer's gallery with breathtakingly beautiful pictures.
The center of the town is the old courthouse, which is now a museum. I recommend it because it hosts a spectacular exhibition on the history of Hawaii. And it is free to visit, by the way.
Behind the building is the largest banyan tree on Maui (or maybe in the whole of America). There is a pleasant little park around the tree with benches where you can relax in the shade of the big banyan tree.
Honokeana Bay, Honolua Bay
There are many beautiful bays along the coast. Beautiful blue water, coral reefs and if you're lucky you can even spot sea turtles from the land.
Honolua Bay is a surfer's paradise.
You can spend hours in the bay, admiring the surfers. Around this area, (such as around Wailea), there are many hotels and resorts.
Kapalua Coastal trail
The Kapalua Coastal Trail is an easy trail with beautiful ocean views all the way.
Day 6: Wailea Beach
Kayak tour with whales
We started our last day on Maui with a great experience: kayaking with whales.
Not trained whales, but normal whales in the wild. As I mentioned above on Maui the whales come very close to shore, but any interaction with them is strictly forbidden. They cannot be approached even by boat, the engine must be stopped. However, the whales may still decide to venture closer. It's a matter of luck, just like during kayaking.
(This picture was taken elsewhere, but we were about as close to the whales, however we decided to enjoy the moment rather than taking photos.)
On the kayak tour there are two-person kayaks and a group can have about 5-7 kayaks. A lot depends on the guide and the group members in terms of how far the group goes into deep water, but group members can't leave each other, they always need to stay together.
While kayaking, you can see the whale blows, which act as a sort of compass for the kayak groups. And as you paddle a little further in, you might just get lucky enough to see one or more whales alongside your kayak. We once had a mum and her calf within about 10 meters. And we got close to other larger groups later on as well. It was very spectacular, and an incredible experience, especially when the back of a whale a few meters away popped up and we saw how small we, humans, are...
Best beaches in the area: Wailea Beach, Little Beach, Big Beach, Makena Cove, Ahihi Cove
We spent the afternoon exploring the nearby beaches. The best beaches in the area are.
Wailea Beach, Little Beach, Big Beach, Makena Cove and Ahihi Cove. Each one is beautiful, yet a little different.
Wailea Beach is a small beach with a boardwalk.
The Little Beach, Big Beach and Makena Beach are practically grown together. It is a large continuous stretch of sandy beach, perfect for beaching and also for whale watching.
Little Beach is closed in the evenings, but you can walk in and out of Big Beach after sunset.
Continuing along Makena Cove and Ahini Cove, you will reach the very end of the Makena Road, where you can't drive any further, and from here you can only continue hiking on foot.
And that's not only the end of the Makea Road, but the end of our whole Hawaiian adventure.
3 weeks, 4 islands, hundreds of kilometers, lots of hiking, countless experiences which made our Hawaiian adventure one to remember forever.
Our Hawaiian road trip was a very special trip for me. I think there are very few places in the world where you can see such big variety of natural wonders in a concentrated way. It is not easy and cheap to get to the other end of the world, but if someone decides to do it, it is worth organizing the trip in such a way that you take as many vacation days combined as possible. Because a 1-week trip is not really worth it, because just to get there and back takes at least 2 days (but probably even more). And if you're going to Hawaii, it's worth staying longer and visiting several islands.
Also, I think what's also important (but it's a matter of perspective) is that you don't regret spending money on tours and excursions, but you can save a lot on accommodation and restaurants if you don't have extra needs.
I hope you enjoyed my writings and I was able to help you either to feel a little bit that You were in Hawaii, or to contribute with useful tips to organize your own trip. If you don't plan to go that far yet and prefer to move around Europe, I recommend Madeira or the Azores, which is also sometimes named as the European Hawaii.
Stay tuned for lots of new blog posts in the near future about Central America, Africa and many other wonderful places... :)