As I wander the world, I find the most extraordinary wow moments. Earlier I shared some of those moments I discovered on a visit to Waikiki. As part of that visit to Hawaii, I also spent a few days on Maui. There, I discovered a different kind of magic. Come along as we explore the hidden side of Maui.
A Perfect Time for Whale Watching
We hopped on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Waikiki to Maui’s Kahului Airport. The flight was fast and we picked up a Jeep and headed out on a 45-minute drive to Ka’anapali. We quickly discovered why the drive is so popular. At random spots, you can pull over and watch humpback whales frolicking in the water.
Given all of the great spots to stop and all the traffic on that Sunday afternoon, our 45-minute drive stretched a bit longer, but I realized it didn’t matter. After all, we were now on Maui time.
Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa
We headed for Ka’anapali Beach, a 3-mile stretch of white sand that includes a master planned community and the oceanfront Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, which originally opened in 1963 but recently went through a complete renovation. The hotel sits on top of Black Rock with breathtaking views across the Pacific toward Lanai and Molokai. The hotel offers a variety of accommodations, making it an ideal luxury Hawaiian vacation. Our room was up on the Black Rock with a massive private lanai that left me feeling as if I was in my own paradise. One after, we watched six pods of humpbacks from there.
My husband and I booked a couple’s spa treatment at The Spa at Black Rock. The spa is small with both indoor and outdoor treatment rooms. We opted for outdoor treatments. There is something magical about the long, soothing strokes of Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi while listening to the waves crash against the rocks nearby.
One of the highlights at Sheraton Maui is the cliff divers that perform each evening. According to local legend, Chief Kahekili, who ruled over Maui from 1749 to 1794, was known for climbing to extreme heights and leaping into waters below. One of the places he considered sacred was Pu’u Keka’a, or hill of rolling stones, that was not far from my hotel room.
To honor this tradition, every evening the story of Chief Kahekili is retold at the Cliff Dive Bar. After the story is told, a young warrior in traditional loincloth offers his lei to the ocean below, lesses his ancestors, and dives into the Pacific churning around the rocks below him.
Another Hawaiian tradition I knew I needed to include was the luau. We booked seats for the Maui Nui Lū’au at Sheraton Maui. It was an evening filled with great food and fun. The meal started with the locals explaining the foods as we sat by the shore with the sun casting its shadows over the Pacific.
There was an evening of traditional dance, music, local arts, crafts and more food than I could imagine. After an evening of great food, we strolled under the moon and let the water tickle our toes on Ka’anapali Beach. Definitely a wow moment as we appreciated paradise.
We only had a couple of days to spend on Maui, so we wanted to explore a bit without exhausting ourselves. We new we needed to be realistic and that the drive along the famed Hana Road and hiking the waterfalls would have to wait for another trip. Instead, we decided to check out the area close to Sheraton Maui.
We spent one day exploring the nearby town of Lahaina. The historic whaling village is filled with art galleries, little shops and restaurants. As you wander the streets of the town, now on the National Register of Historic Places, it is intriguing to imagine it in the mid-1800’s when more than 400 ships a day docked there, unloading thousands of sailors on the narrow streets and white beaches.
We decided to take advantage of a whale season and opted for ocean front dining on Front Street. We wandered into Sugar Cane Hawaiian Grill & Rum House by accident. We ventured in specifically for the second floor dining deck and I had no idea that it was home to the amazing Asian Fusion cuisine on James Beard Award-Winning French Master Chef Philippe Chin. Chef Chin brings some great flavors in this fun little eatery. Everything is fresh, from fish caught daily just outside to fresh vegetables and herbs grown across the island.
I recommend the Sweet & Spicy Poke. This isn’t the same tuna poke you find on every menu in Hawaii. It is a delicious blend of spice, but with a cool balance using sweet Maui onions, cool haupia coconut gelee and a spicy kim-chee dressing. And yes, lunch featured a fun rum drink and a few whales frolicking just off the shore.
Driving the Kahekili Highway
Even though we opted not to attempt the longer Hana Road drive, we knew we wanted to get out and explore off road. We had rented a Jeep, so we set out on the North Loop Coastline Highway, more commonly known as the Kahekili Highway. We had a spectacular day driving the coast, but I do need to give you a few caveats before you set out for your own adventures.
The Kahekili Highway encircles the northern part of the island, hugging the coast with the West Maui Forest Reserve at its center. Over the years, I’ve traveled along some impressive roads and this is one of those. I laughed at the comments I read online about the drive before I left. Reviews ranged from “it’s the best drive ever” to “don’t take this road or it will ruin your vacation.” For me, it was a highlight of the trip, but you do have to be careful and know that it is an extremely narrow drive.
After leaving the Sheraton Maui, the road is fairly easy to navigate for the first 15 to 20 miles. About 15 miles after leaving the hotel, your first stop should be at the parking area for the Nakalele Blowhole. Get out of the car and walk a short distance to the overlook. The scenery is breathtaking and the blowhole is one of those wow moments that nature serves up in rare places.
We were there on a perfect day when the sun was shining in between rain storms and the waves were high, making the whoosh of the water through the blowhole pretty spectacular. If you are sure footed, you can hike down the path toward the blowhole, but do heed the warnings and don’t get too close.
If you have an issue with heights and narrow roads, you should turn back here. But, if you are adventurous and want to experience some of the “real” Hawaii, continue on the Kahekili Highway toward Kahakuloa. The road eventually ends up back at Kahului Airport, but if you make the entire circle, it does take a full day. The road is extremely narrow and there are places where you might have to wait in a pull-out for oncoming cars, or even back down the mountain to allow for others to pass. It is completely passable in a passenger car, but for those who have horrors of tumbling over sheer cliffs, this could provide for some interesting white-knuckle moments. If you dare, it’s totally worth the drive. Do keep in mind, however, that highway is a relative term in Hawaii.
I discovered two of my favorite memories of Hawaii that day in Maui. Both were near the remote village of Kahakuloa. You need to make a stop at the bright green roadside stand that is home to Julia’s Best Banana Bread. The jovial Hawaiian behind the counter proclaimed that it was “the best banana bread in the world.” Honestly, I don’t like banana bread. I’m just not a fan. Until I had this banana bread. It smelled amazing as we walked up and not only did I eat one slice of the warm soft bread—I ate two. Both slathered with passion fruit butter. This was a lovely taste of the islands and we even brought home a few loaves for friends. I discovered that many others have tried to figure out how to duplicate this bread and I found a recipe that Bon Appetit ran in 2013.
The other must-see spot while you wander the Kahekili Highway is the Kaukini Gallery and Gift Shop in Kahakuloa. The scenery from the driveway is spectacular. It sits on a high cliff with 360-degree views over the ocean. Everything inside is from more than 100 local artisans, from jewelry and paintings to ceramics and woodwork.
I ended up with a pair of earrings made from coral and sea glass while my husband chose a beautiful handmade quilt for our youngest grandson, who was born just a few weeks after our visit.
Be sure to take time to pull over, smell the salt air, admire the beauty of the mountains and the flowers. We saw gorgeous flowers and the air was fragrant with plumeria. We watched unusual birds and caught sight of whales at every turn. Always in the distance—whether through the windshield or the rear view mirror—was the impressive outline of Kahakuloa Head. There is a reason they call these islands paradise. And I still can’t figure out why it took me so long to get there.
Finding the Real Hawaii
My luxury vacation in Waikiki was filled with elegant spas and gourmet meals. My time in Maui gave me a chance to embrace the land, the people and age-old customs. While Waikiki was more about excitement and nightlife, I found Maui quieter and more subdued.
Mostly, I discovered that there is no “typical” Hawaii. The real Hawaii is the one where you find yourself at that moment. It gave me just enough of a taste of Hawaii’s spas, luxury resorts, white sand beaches, fragrant flowers, and local flavors to know that I need much more time to wander in paradise.