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Hawaii post-fire: 9 great reasons to visit Maui now — and help the locals too

Hawaii post-fire: 9 great reasons to visit Maui now — and help the locals too

As the island of Maui heals from the tragic wildfires that destroyed most of Lahaina this summer, the island’s tourism-dependent economy needs visitors more than ever to help stay afloat.

Hawaii’s state and local officials are asking visitors to make regions unaffected by the fires their destinations of choice, places like the sublime beaches and luxe resorts of Wailea and the beach and-shop-lined town of Kihei in south Maui, the colorful surf town of Paia, the rural upcountry around Makawao and Kula and remote, serene Hana.

We’ve curated nine great reasons to visit Maui right now (and take advantage of recently discounted airfares too).

These are trying times for many of Maui’s islanders, many of whom lost their homes, businesses and jobs in the August fires. As travelers, it’s important to tread lightly, be respectful, tip generously when you can and live each moment of your Maui vacation with the aloha spirit. The locals will give you a big mahalo (thank you) for doing so.

Maui for foodies

Whether you savor culinary treats like seared ahi over garlic rice or hearty local-style plate lunches with scoops of rice and mac salad from food trucks in Kihei and Kahului, Maui is a foodie’s dream destination. Many Hawaiian-style meals, snacks and plate lunches evolved from the communal dishes served in the multiethnic work camps of the plantation era.

You’ll find some of my favorite food trucks in the two food truck parks located across from Costco in Kahului — try Geste Shrimp, Thai Mee Up, Poa Pulehu Maui and Like Poke? — and behind the Azeka Shopping center in Kihei, where standouts include Oao Sushi Go, Vidad’s Local Kine Grindz and Sol Brothers Southern BBQ.

For authentic local dishes, such as saimin, dry mein, loco moco, kalua pork, and lima bean manju, head to Sam Sato’s and Tiffany’s, both in Wailuku.

Refined takes on Hawaiian regional cuisine, including plantation era-influenced dishes, can be found at fine-dining restaurants such as Kō at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea. Ko elevates old family recipes with ingredients sourced from 16 island farms, plus local fishermen and ranchers. On the menu: A sear-it-yourself “ahi on the rock” starter melts in
your mouth, there’s a Molokai sweet potato mash and a tasty lobster tempura served with
asparagus, tempura shiso, jasmine rice and three delicious housemade sauces.

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Ko is the creation of esteemed Maui chef Tylun Pang, who died in 2022 — the restaurant is helmed by his protege, executive chef Jonathan Pasion. “We believe the cultures of the island are what we are made of,” Pang told me in a 2019 interview, “and we want to showcase them. We grew up with this food. It’s a sharing of our (Hawaiian) culture.”

Haleakala hiking

Mighty Mount Haleakala is Maui’s crowning glory. The national park is a sacred Native Hawaiian site and a popular destination for sunrise and sunset watching high above the clouds. Several hiking trails lace the volcano’s rugged terrain near its 10,023-foot peak, including routes from the visitor center that explore the crater’s lunarlike volcanic landscapes. Sunrise visitors will need to book an advance reservation before driving to the top. Details: www.nps.gov/hale

From the top of Maui’s Mount Haleakala, the view includes clouds far below. (Ben Davidson Photography) 

Heavenly Hana

With the downturn in tourism, the famous road to Hana has been less crowded than usual, making the popular all-day driving experience as enticing as ever. The winding 64-mile route from Kahului to remote Hana town brings you through a dreamy tropical landscape to towering waterfalls, rushing streams, hidden beaches and food and fruit shacks and stands, such as Aunty Sandy’s (mile marker 16), the Halfway to Hana stand (17) and Hana Farms (31), where you can buy banana bread and other local treats. Tip: Download the Shaka app  for easier guidance along the route, which has more than 600 turns and 59 bridges.

Plunging Maui tourism means that the legendary 64-mile road from Kahului to Hana is less crowded than usual, making this a perfect time to explore the tropical landscape with all its waterfalls, stunning views and roadside food stands. (Getty Images) 

Upcountry explorations

Take a break from beach time and drive up the slopes of Haleakala to the charming farms of Maui’s upcountry. Start with cream puffs and guava-filled malasadas at the Komoda Store and Bakery at 3674 Baldwin Ave. in the former plantation town of Makawao. Makawao is the base for Maui Gold tours of pineapple fields. Head to Surfing Goat Dairy to see goats while enjoying a farm picnic with goat cheese sandwiches. Finish with a scented stroll around the Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm. Details: mauigold.com, www.surfinggoatdairy.com and www.aliikulalavender.com

Maui-made craft sips

Ocean Vodka’s 80-acre sugarcane farm and distillery in the upcountry near Kula transforms organic sugarcane into fine vodka and rum. This family-owned venture grows 30 species of Polynesian sugarcane on the slopes of Haleakala. You can schedule tastings of their spirits and dine in their new Cafe at The Point, where the seasonal menu features locally grown produce, pizza-like “farmbreads” and pupus paired with cocktails served farm-to-glass.

A visit to Maui Brewing offers weekend brewery tours and sips of such memorable brews as Bikini Blonde Lager, Big Swell IPA and Mana Wheat. (Ben Davidson Photography) 

In South Maui, in the hills above Kihei, a visit to Maui Brewing is guaranteed to satisfy any hop head on holiday. Join a weekend brewery tour ($20) for an up-close look at the craft brewery behind such memorable brews as a Bikini Blonde Lager, Big Swell IPA, the Double Overhead Double IPA and Mana Wheat, an unfiltered beer infused with Maui Gold pineapple. The brewery’s indoor/outdoor restaurant has 36 craft and specialty beers on tap and an excellent happy hour (3:30 to 4:30 p.m. weekdays) with $12 pizzas, discounted pupus and pints.

You’ll find MauiWine on the Ulupalakua Ranch high on the slopes of Haleakala. Established in 1974, the winery has become known for its estate-grown and sparkling wines, as well as its pineapple wines. Tastings ($12-$15 per flight) are available Tuesday-Sunday in the King’s Cottage tasting room.

Details: oceanvodka.com, mauibrewingco.com and mauiwine.com

Discover Grand Wailea’s art bonanza

One of Maui’s biggest cultural secrets can be found at the Grand Wailea Resort, where more than 80 museum-quality pieces are set throughout the property like a huge open-air museum. Near the lobby, nine recently restored monumental bronzes by Colombian artist Fernando Botero surround the new Botero Lounge. Sculptures by famed Modernist Fernand Leger and other notable artwork can be seen in the resort’s main building. Don’t miss the striking sculpture of the Hawaiian demigod Maui created by Maui-born artist Shige Yamada and the figures of hula dancers sculpted by Jan Fisher. Details: 3850 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea;
www.grandwailea.com

Maui’s sensational spas

Some of Maui’s most decadent spas can be found in Wailea’s resorts. At The Fairmont Kea Lani’s Willow Stream Spa, the 60 or 90-minute lomilomi massage treament is a Hawaiian tradition, dispersing muscle tension through long, rhythmic strokes that enhance circulation and create a deep sense of kaulike (balance). Details: www.fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui

At the Grand Wailea resort, the new Mohalu Healing Garden and Beauty Lab offers a range of customized beauty programs including a half-day “Hawaiian Healing” experience that includes lomilomi massage, a warm pohaku stone foot treatment, a hydrating coconut scalp massage and a facial using lotions infused with Hawaiian superfoods to brighten and tighten the skin. The resort plans to open a new indoor spa called Kilolani in early 2024.

Find a secret cove or a grand strand

West Maui’s beaches, including those at Kaanapalai, Kapalua and Napili, are not accessible now, but South Maui boasts gorgeous strands. It’s hard to beat Wailea Beach for swimming, snorkeling and body boarding. Snorkelers are drawn to the fish-rich, shallow reefs of Mokapu Beach, while scuba devotees gravitate to the deeper Ulua reefs to watch honu or sea turtles.

Makena Beach is actually two beaches. Big Beach stretches more than a mile long and more than 100 feet wide, providing plenty of space for sunbathing, picnics and relaxing strolls. (Caveat: Be cautious when playing in the water here. The shorebreak is notoriously powerful and serious injuries have occurred.) A short hike away is scenic Little Beach, which appeals
to au naturel sunbathers.

South of Wailea, Makena Cove is one of Maui’s best secrets. A narrow opening in a stone wall leads you to a hidden pocket of sand and gentle waves ringed by jagged lava rock. (Ben Davidson Photography) 

Makena Cove (aka Secret Cove) is a 10-minute drive south of Wailea. A narrow opening in a stone wall leads you to this picture-perfect, hidden pocket of sand ringed by jagged lava rock. The cove’s gentle waves are perfect for younger ages.

Take a sunset stroll

There’s nothing like a Maui sunrise or sunset. The light paints the ocean and skies in a kaleidoscope of super saturated colors, as unforgettable as it is ephemeral. Experience that at the South Maui beaches of Wailea, Makena and Kihei, which are easy to access in the early morning and evening hours. Sunrise seekers who head south to the rugged lava fields and coral-colored beaches of La Perouse Bay may be treated to the spectacle of spinner dolphins just offshore.

It’s Maui magic at its best.

Considering a contribution for Maui wildfire victims? Find information on the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund at  www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org and on World Central Kitchen’s efforts in Hawaii and elsewhere at wck.org.