23rd December 2021 through 1st January 2022
What better way to spend a winter break than to visit the Tropical Wonder, that is the State of Hawaii! Ten days of December was blissfully spent at the islands of Maui and Big Island with plenty sunshine, clear blue waters, lush green forests, vast volcanic landscape and splendid mountainous summits. In this post, I have tried my best to summarize my voyage at this versatile destination that offers indefinite things to do.
The Hawaiian Islands comprise of 8 archipelago volcanic islands: Oahu, Maui, Big Island, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe. The first 4 are the biggest and most commonly visited. While Oahu is widely known for Honululu, it was my least favorite. I had the opportunity to visit the place years ago and I really didn’t care much for its crowded areas, its scenery or its commercial feel. On the other hand, visiting Maui and Big Island were heavenly! Given how different the Hawaiian islands are from each other, planning this trip was not simple and required hours of research for multiple days by 2-3 people. Besides, you have got to start early and by early I would say 10-12 months prior to your travel especially if you plan to visit during peak time. We started to make reservations end of August for our December trip and we had a very hard time finding desired places for accommodations at affordable prices. Speaking of which, be prepared to splurge if you plan to visit this state coz it does not come cheap unless perhaps you only plan to camp through the wilderness. If you truly want to experience the plethora of activities Hawaiian islands have to offer in addition to pampering yourself a little, you may want to start saving for it now.
Best Time to Visit: Hawaii boasts perennially warm weather and therefore can be visited year-round. The temperatures in the winter months range from 78-82 degrees and 83-88 degrees in the summer months. However, the most crowded months are June and December given the school holidays and therefore airfare, accommodations, car rentals and other expenses are costliest during these months. The last week of April and first week of May also tend to be expensive as many Japanese flock to Hawaii due to the Golden Week in Japan. On the other hand, costs will be cheapest for January, February, September and October. November through March are the months for rain although we didn’t have much except for light showers occasionally during our trip. Travelling between December and March may allow you to witness some snow-capped volcanic peaks as well as take advantage of the whale-watching season.
Getting there: It is needless to say that the only way to get to the state of Hawaii from Mainland, US is via air travel. While most common airlines will fly to Honolulu,Oahu (Honolulu International, HNL), many airlines will also directly fly to Maui and Big Island from Mainland, US. Maui has one airport (Kahului Airport, OGG) and Big Island has two airports: Kona International (KOA) and Hilo International (ITO) with KOA being more popular than HNL to fly from Mainland. As you can imagine, flying to Hawaii can be long, with total travel time ranging from 5-15 hours, depending on the itinerary and your starting location. Flight fares vary significantly depending on the season with differences in fares between peak season and off season being as high as 300%.
Commute between islands within the state of Hawaii is also mostly via air travel with Hawaiian Airlines offering frequent short flights between islands throughout the day. Our 40 min flight from OGG to KOA was reasonably priced, comfortable, on time and provided refreshments like water and passionfruit/orange juice. Other competitor airlines to fly inter-island Hawaii are Southwest Airlines and Mokulele Airlines.
An Alternative to flying to Hawaiian islands is taking a cruise via The Disney Cruise Line or The Norwegian Cruise Line that offer several itineraries to the four main islands of Hawaii. Day trips to Lanai can be made via an hour long one-way journey on a ferry that can be booked with The Expeditions Lanai Passenger Ferry.
Renting a car within an island is highly recommended to be able to conveniently and efficiently get around. Most rental car companies will provide cars of all sizes from the airports. However, renting a car in Hawaii can be significantly more expensive than anywhere in the US. Moreover, if travelling during the peak season, rental cars are all booked out way ahead of time. Therefore, it is suggested that you reserve cars 8, 10 or even 12 months ahead of time if possible as most companies will allow for free cancellations. To obtain better deals on car rentals, check out Discount Hawaiiain Car Rental.
Another very viable option for car rentals is the Turo service. Many aren’t aware that Turo is ‘Airbnb for cars’ where locals are able to rent out their cars to tourists. The advantages of Turo are 1) it is available to you when traditional rentals aren’t available, 2) they tend to run cheaper than commercial companies, 3) have a variety of cars to choose from including luxury cars like Porsha, Mercedes, BMW and the like, as well as electric cars such as Teslas and, 4) don’t have to pay additional fees for additional drivers. Most will also offer free cancellation and insurance plans, just like the companies, although your personal auto-insurance should also work with Turo rentals if you choose to go that route. I do suggest confirming this with your auto-insurance company just for your peace of mind.
The disadvantages of renting with Turo are 1) some my charge you a delivery fee for airport pick-ups, 2) many also will charge cleaning fees or will expect the car to be returned with very little mess in it, which means you might need to clean the car prior to turning it in or maintain it well throughout the rental period, 3) cars can be older with significant miles on them, and 4) may run into a challenge of getting a replacement car of the same kind in case a breakdown occurs during your drive time. However, I am happy to report that while we were able to rent with Thrifty in Maui, we had to try Turo for the very first time for our Big Island trip, and our overall experience was not bad at all. We did run into the situation where the AC of the car stopped working a day and half after we received the car but we were fortunate enough that the owner of the car was receptive enough to offer us a replacement of the same size and dropped it off to us at our convenient time and place. She even waived the gas price required to fill the tank when turning it back in.
There are numerous housing options on Hawaiiain Islands ranging from vacation rentals, resorts and free-standing hotels or motels, with wide range of amenities, facilities and scenic appeal. Like I mentioned above, lodging in Hawaii is quite expensive especially during peak seasons and if you have specific requirements that you’d like to meet with reasonable pricing, you will need to book 8-12 months ahead of time. This is easily feasible as most places (even airbnbs) will offer free cancellation until at least a month or two before your trip.
Stay in Maui: While there are lodging options all over the island, West Maui remains to be the most popular side for lodging and boarding as it is highly bustling with several beaches, restaurants, bars, stores and shops. The side is further divided into several towns such as Kaanapali, Kihei, Lahaina and Wailea, all of which offer abundant options for accommodations. We stayed at Kaanapali Plantation Condominiums that is a very quiet property, situated on a hill in Kaanapali, along the North Kaanapali Golf Course. It offers extremely pleasing and refreshing views of the property plantations, the overlooking ocean as well as the islands of Lanai and Molokai. The property also features a pool, BBQ grills, tennis courts, shuffleboard, cabana and free parking. The condos itself were older, but clean, comfortable and reasonably priced. We rented a 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo with a living space, kitchen, washer/dryer and a private lanai (patio). Importantly, the condos are centrally air-conditioned which is not the norm in Hawaii, although contrary to popular belief, I didn’t think one could do without it. Both bedrooms were of similar size featuring a comfortable king bed and linens, en-suite bathroom and a television. The lanai was spacious enough with sufficient patio furniture for you to relax and enjoy your morning coffee while taking in the scenic views. Moreover, the space also included a closet full of accessories including boogie boards, beach chairs, beach towels, umbrella, beach mats, tennis racquets and balls. Complimentary Wi-Fi worked well. While our stay was quite pleasant, I noted a few downsides: 1) Because of the condos being older, there were some sticking doors of the bathroom and bedroom, making it real hard to open/close and 2) the kitchen was very limited for coffee cups, dishes, coffee, sugar, paper towels, and other basic supplies. However, overall, I thought that Kanapaali Plantation Condominiums were functional, clean and an attractive option for lodging in Maui, especially if you don’t plan on spending most of your days in your room.
No matter which island/s you choose,the state of Hawaii has so much to do that I had to break this post into two parts. At first, in finding some island-hopping itineraries on the web over 10-15 days, I thought, perhaps we might be able to visit and cover primary attractions of 3 islands on a 10-day trip. Little did I know, until I dug deeper into each island, that each of the 4 main islands can be a vacation of its own for as long as 10-14 days! For the first time in my travel planning, I had a hard time prioritizing among all the things this destination has to offer!
Things to do in Maui
- Beaches and Snorkeling:
There are plethora of fantastic beaches all around Maui for a range of beach activities and none will let you down. However, it is suggested to check on the safety for swimming for your desired beach on the day of, as some may have higher water currents than others, especially during the winter times. Details of the many beaches in Maui can be found here. Similarly, there are also several options for snorkeling close to the shores, even for families and beginners. Snorkeling options nicely described here. All you need is to rent a snorkeling gear that comes as a kit from any beach-store nearby. While we didn’t get a chance to snorkel on our trip, we had a blast swimming the Kaanapali Beach and Homoa Beach. Kaanapali Beach is on Western Maui and is the one of the most popular beaches in Maui as several resorts lineup on it making it easily accessible. The Homoa Beach is situated on the Road to Hana Drive on the East Side of Maui. Both are family-friendly, white-sand beaches and had the right amount of water currents to be able to snorkel, back-float, boogie-board, swim freestyle or simply play against the waves. I suggest you carry good water shoes as the ocean floor is rocky of the Kaanapali Beach and is not pleasant to spend extended time in the water barefoot. The sand on the shores was just the right temperature to lay on for some sun-tan or make all the creative sandcastles you desire.
2. Haleakala Volcanic National Park: The best part about the Hawaiian Islands is that in one place you can experience the sunny tropical oceanic backdrop on one end, the coolness and freshness of the rainforests on another as well as the enormity of the volcanic and mountainous summits standing tall somewhere in the middle. The Haleakala Volcanic National Park is the prime volcanic attraction of Maui, situated in a southeastern part of Maui featuring a dormant volcano that erupted 300-400 years ago. It takes about 1.5-2 hours from west Maui and is big enough to require at least 2-3 days to explore the entire park. However, a day trip that can cover the primary sites within the park can be made if you opt to return back to the tropics and the insatiable ocean. I’d suggest though that if you have the time, perhaps plan on staying on the East side of Maui for at least 3-4 days and another 3-4 days on the west side of the island to be able to maximize your trip and attend to the surplus attractions this island encompasses without spending significant time in commute.
The drive to Haleakala National park from West Maui is very scenic with its winding roads and change of landscape from the oceanic vistas to the marvelous volcanic and mountainous topography. It takes about another 45 minutes from the park entry to get to the summit that is above 10000 feet in elevation and the drive is absolutely incredible looking down upon the ocean, eventually taking you above the clouds. There are several lookout points along the entire drive to the park and summit for you to stop and take in the views and rejuvenating air. It costs 30 USD per vehicle to enter through the park, however if you expect to visit more than one national park in Hawaii, I suggest you purchase the Hawaii Tripark Annual Pass which is for 55 USD that gives you access to three parks (Haleakala, Hawaii Volcanoes Natl Park and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park) for a period of one year from the date of purchase. The Sunrise at the Haleakala summit is the most popular attraction of the park and requires you to make prior reservations and pay a nominal fee at least 60 days before your trip. Typically the sun rises between 530am and 645am in that area and the place gets very crowded during this time. If you aren’t an early riser, consider catching the sunset instead that does not require reservations or additional fees. There is an observatory at the summit which is typically closed but that is where most crowds will line up to perceive the fiery skies and the glowing sun underneath the lava formations. Keep in mind that you will need to carry warm attire as it get very, very cold and windy at the top.
In addition to the summit, there are several trails within the park that are highly recommended for some good hikes through the wilderness as well as witness the breathtaking views of the volcano.
- Leleiwi Overlook: It is only a 0.3mile roundtrip through a rugged trail that takes you to an overlook for panoramic views of the crater floor with several small cinder cones.
- Halemau’u Trial: This is a 10mile trial that takes you down to the crater floor dropping nearly 1000 feet and also starts at the same point as the Leleiwi Overlook. The hike is rated as intermediate to difficult.
- Pā Ka’oao Trailhead: its a 0.6 mile trial rocky uphill climb just right to the visitor’s center that overlooks the red haleakala crater floor and views of the Sliding Sands trail.
- Hosmer Grove Loop Trail: It is a short 0.5mile easy stroll through the greenery and vegetation of the cedar, spruce, pine and eucalyptus trees.
- Keoneheehee Trail or Sliding Sands Trail: This is a 11-mile round trip taking you all the way down into the crater. If you don’t have time to do all of it, you can even go down as long a 20-30mins just to experience the vastness of a volcanic crater upclose.
There are also nearby towns of Kula and Makawao before you enter the park, that can be explored for a feel of Upcountry Maui. Also, there aren’t any food options within the park, so stopping at these towns to grab a bite or shop for some snacks for the day is advised. The Kula Lodge is quite recognized and its garden terrace restaurant is very popular for lunch and dinner with panoramic views.
3. Road to Hana:
This drive is legendary in Maui and cannot be missed. The entire drive is stunning with its rainforests, curvy roads, numerous waterfalls and so many things to do on the way. Its impossible to attend to all of its attractions in one day. If possible, you want to stay closer to East Maui so as to cut driving time as the drive is very lengthy. You may also consider spending the night in Hana to be able to continue further the next day and visit most of its sites. Below is the gist of the common stops on the drive, although I highly recommend going through the links posted below it for you to pick your spots and optimally plan this drive. Needless to say that if you only have a day, that you will need to start your day early.
- Paia town: An Upcountry town for you to visit for shopping of local items and food. Fill up on gas, food and drinks for the rest of the way as there aren’t many options later.
- Hoopika Beach: Can stop here briefly for a pic. Great stop for experienced surfers in the summer.
- Twin falls: A very popular stop. Its just a short walk to the falls but you can spend significant time strolling around the area if you desire or simply sit by the falls and enjoy the mist. Don’t forgot to stop at the Farm Stand here to try some freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, coconut candy, coconut water, locally grown fruit and other local goodies.
- Garden of Eden Arboretum: It comes with a fee but I hear its worth paying to enjoy walking the grounds, which are immaculately kept up and offer all kinds of photo opportunities. Here you can see an 100 year-old mango tree, bamboo, ocean views and Puohokamoa Falls.
- Kaumahina State Wayside Park: has a lookout point and restrooms and picnic area
- Honomanu Bay: Another beautiful lookout point of the ocean but you can drive down if you need, although the path is quite muddy. Will need a 4WD drive vehicle.
- Ke’anae Arboretum: Witness the rainbow eucalyptus. From Here, drive to Keanae peninsula for a gorgeous view and photos. On the way you will also pass Aunt Sandys banana Bread. Make sure you get some.
- Halfway to Hana Stand : This is a snack and lunch shop. Should also find some banana bread in addition to shave ice, lunch items like burgers and sandwiches and small bites like fruits and chips.
- Wailua Valley State Wayside: Wailua valley state wayside park is not much of a park but more like an overlook. Here you can get an excellent view of little Wailua Town and a famous church called the “coral miracle church”. When you get to the overlook you will see the Haleakala Volcano behind you. You may even get lucky and see a waterfall or two cascading down in the distance.
- Pua’a Ka’a Falls: Great stop for pictures, swimming, restrooms and picnic area.
- Hanawi Falls: Can stop here for a quick photo.
- Nahiku Marketplace: its a cluster of gift shops, art galleries and food shops.
- Hana lava Tube:This is a self-guided tour that takes approximately 40 minutes. You’ll need good grip shoes and a flashlight. The cost is $11.95 per person, but I hear its pretty popular.
- Waiʻānapanapa State Park: This park can get crowded and therefore requires prior reservations to the park and there is fee for parking and per person entry fee. It is one of Maui’s only black sand beaches. The beach is unlike any others on the Road to Hana. While you’re there, look out for the freshwater cave that leads to the ocean, a blowhole that shoots water into the air and a sea arch formed from erosion. This is a great spot to spend some time, stretch your legs, lay in the sun, and even have a picnic.
- Hana town: Stop for food if needed.
- Hamoa Beach: Family friendly beach, great for swimming and boogie boarding.
- Venue Pool or Waioka Pond: This is a less busy pool compared to the Seven Sacred pools and is great for swimming, jumping off cliffs in stunning blue waters. The pool is visible after a 10-15min walk through sugarcane and other green fields.
- Oheo Gulch aka Pools of ‘Ohe’o aka Seven Sacred Pools: Most popular stop on the drive. The Seven Sacred Pools are a chain of waterfalls that cascade from one to the other, surrounded by lush vegetation. Its park of the Haleakala national park. Access to the pools is really easy, through a 0.6 mile loop trail. There is always heavy traffic on this trail and is often closed in wet weather.
- Pipiwai Trail: this is also part of the Haleakala national park very close to the seven poo.ls. here’s a three- and-a-half mile rainforest trail that offers beautiful views of two waterfalls and a bamboo forest. The hike is rated moderate and takes about 2 hours to complete, if you’re short on time, or looking for a family-friendly option, hike to the first lookout point where you can see Waimoku Falls.
- Back Road of Hana. You can drive back as most do or continue on the back side of Hana and Haleakala National Park for some remote driving. I wouldn’t recommend driving this route in the dark but I think it will be very exciting to explore a different side of the island with the barren landscape and expanded views of the Pacific Ocean, where you may only find yourself in between nature’s vastness and splendor.
4. Other Hikes
There is no dearth of hiking options in Maui. If the trails listed above aren’t enough, here are some more recommended hikes for you to pick from:
- Waihee Ridge Trail: 4miles RT moderate.
- Iao Needle Lookout Trail at Iao Valley State Park: 0.4mi RT Easy.
- La Perouse Bay: 5.5mile, moderate.
- Nakalele Blowhole: 1.5mile easy.
- Waihou Spring Trail Loop: 2.5 mile easy
- Lahaina Pali Trail: 5-10miles moderate
- Mahana Ridge Trail: 10 miles difficult.
- Kaupo Gap: 16-17 miles difficult
Description of these trails can be found on alltrails.com or in the following posts:
5. Northwest Maui Scenic Drive: I read that the drive along route 30 on the northwest side of Maui is also very relaxing and offers some additional sightseeing options. Details of the drive and stops along the way are nicely described here.
6. Whale Watching Tours: Hawaii is one of the breeding grounds for humpback whales during the wintertime. Therefore, thousands of whales migrate from Alaska making December to March the peak season for whale watching. Several companies offer whale watching tours in Maui as well as Big Island that guarantee whales to be seen during the tour. They also offer a free additional ride in any case you don’t get to see them on your reserved ride. Tours can be taken on a big cruise or a smaller catamarans, although the latter in my opinion is lot more comfortable and feasible to move around the boat to see the whales coming out in different directions. We booked with Sail Trilogy that took us on catamaran that had seating areas arranged on the periphery of the boat for families or groups to sit together and enjoy the ocean and whale views right from their seats. Most are guided 2 hours long tours and run three times a day (early morning, mid-morning and afternoon). Tickets are reasonably priced with discounted fares for kids and include complimentary drinks including alcohol as well as some food. Our tour offered turkey sliders, cookies and fresh local fruit. We saw plenty of whales splashing through their blowhole near and far as well up close views of some that surface on the water to catch a breadth.
7. Helicopter Rides: The Helicopter Ride in Maui was absolutely magical and divine. It was my first ever helicopter tour of a scenic landscape and I was in utter awe of it! Granted that these tours are expensive but I think you will not regret setting a little cash aside for these. The experience was so surreal that its effect stayed with me throughout the rest of my trip. In fact, I can still vividly remember how awe-struck I was with the entire experience. The ride took us through some of the hidden secrets of legendary Maui. Its jaw-dropping scenery has attracted many movie productions including Jurassic Park and Lost. You will witness nature’s unimaginable surprises as the aircraft takes you through soaring valleys, rainforest covered lava formations, cascading waterfalls, and towering sea cliffs. I never expected to get so close to some 4000 feet waterfalls cutting through the volcanic mountains covered with lush green vegetation. There are several tour options available of varying duration and routes offered by several companies. Check out this list (https://travel.usnews.com/features/the-best-maui-helicopter-tours) of best Heli-Tours in Maui. The most popular route is the West Maui and Molokai. We reserved with Maverick Helicopters for a 55 min journey in an Eco-star Helicopter. Typically, Eco-star Helicopters are newer and quieter than A-star helicopters and seat 6-passengers plus the pilot. Seats are assigned randomly by the computer, and we got very lucky to be seated in front with the pilot. I believe that may have enhanced my experience dramatically, although I am not sure how I would ensure a front seat the next time, unless I sign up for a private tour which of course raises the price significantly. Thrill-seekers can also opt for doors-off private rides.
8. Luau in Maui: A Hawaiiain Luau is a grand party featuring a huge spread of Hawaiiain food and drinks accompanied by entertainment featuring Hawaiiain and Polynesian Culture. While Luau’s are offered all around the Hawaiiain islands, the best Luau’s in Maui are listed here.
Day 1: Fly from San Antonio to Maui. Dinner in Maui, walk around town. Check-into Kaanapali Condominiums.
Day 2: Visit Kanapaali Beach, Lunch. Drive to Haleakala National Park. Dinner
Day 3: Hike and Drive Road to Hana. Beach Time at Homoa Beach. Head back for Dinner.
Day 4: Whale Watching Cruise Lunch. Helicopter Ride. Beachtime at Black Rock Beach. Dinner.
Day 5: Fly from Maui to Kona. Drive to Hilo. Check into hotel. Beach time at Coconut Island.
For Food information and Packing list for Hawaii, refer to Part 2 of this post.
Thank you to my sister Niki for letting me borrow a couple of her pictures for this post