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  • Shannon Wianecki

36 Hours in Maui

The laidback Hawaiian island is welcoming back visitors after the 2023 fires. A long weekend is the perfect primer on its diverse charms, from soaring volcanos to tiki bars, rare birds to deliciously chilled halo-halo. By Shannon Wianecki. Photographs by Michelle Mishina Kunz

Sunset over Kamaole Beach in Kihei, on the island of Maui.

A visitor to Haleakala National Park watches the sun rise over the clouds in Kihei.

Maui is Hawaii’s Goldilocks island: it is neither too big nor too small, and for its three million annual visitors, its perfect year-round temperature, rainbow-splashed summits and sugary beaches are just right. But last August, Maui’s equilibrium met disaster. Catastrophic wildfires reduced the historic town of Lahaina to ash, claiming more than 100 lives. Conflicting messages urged visitors to stay away and let the island heal but also come and help sustain the economy. Ten months later, the message is more unified that Maui is ready to greet tourists again. Housing remains a critical need for displaced residents. Lahaina will take years to rebuild. But Maui’s inherent beauty and hospitality remain as vibrant as ever. It’s a great time to explore Central and South Maui, where new cocktail bars, outrigger canoe tours and Indigenous art exhibits reveal the island’s creativity and resilience.



Visitors stroll along the Wailea Beach Path, near the resorts on the southern coast.

Friday

5:30pm: Catch the setting sun

The Wailea Beach Path, which meanders along the island’s southern coast, reflects Maui’s almost contradictory personas: on one side, opulent resorts flaunt swim-up bars and nightly torch-lighting ceremonies. A subtler drama unfolds on the other side, where native flora like honey-scented naio bushes, spiky hala trees and hibiscus blossoms flourish along the rocky shoreline. Sit and listen to the sea rush through the lava rocks as the sun drops between three islands: Lāna‘i, Kahoolawe and tiny Molokini. In the 1970s, nine Native Hawaiians occupied Kahoolawe in defiance of the US military, which had been using the island as a bombing range for decades. Their daring protest sparked what is now known as the Hawaiian Renaissance — a revival of Indigenous culture that continues today.


6.30pm: Try beautiful sushi

Head to Oao Sushi Bar & Grill in the Wailea area for beautifully prepared Japanese fare. The owner and head chef, J R Oao, sharpened his knife at Maui’s best sushi bars (including a stint at Nobu Lāna‘i) before opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant last year (he also has a food truck in Kihei, a few kilometres north). His signature rolls are balanced and inventive: try the baked California roll ($US22; about $33), served hot and loaded with prawns and scallops. Juicy seared lamb chops rest on a smear of umami-rich red miso ($US42; about $63). Even the salads impress — bright coriander vinaigrette with a hint of horseradish enlivens a simple mix of Maui-grown greens, roasted corn and goat cheese ($US16; about $24). For dessert, the ube pot de crème ($US14; about $21), made from purple sweet potato, is luscious, light and almost cartoonishly bright.


Bartender DJ Villa shakes a drink at Tikehau Lounge, a new tiki-themed cocktail bar in Wailea.

8.30pm: Sample local spirits

The name of Tikehau, a new lounge in Wailea, means “peaceful landing”. The bar, which opened in November and is quietly raising the standard for craft cocktails statewide, was true to its name for Mari Howe, its manager, and other staff who came to work here after losing jobs or homes to the Lahaina fire. Everything is thoughtfully selected, from the gold-leaf wallpaper to the crystal stemware. Garnishes are coveted souvenirs; a tiny surfboard floats atop the Thousand Peaks ($US19; about $29) and a lagoon-blue Paloma is topped with jasmine-tea “sea foam”. The Hawaiian Samurai ($US50; about $75), a top-shelf-whiskey libation, comes with a miniature katana sword. Howe’s seasonal menu incorporates local spirits and mixers: fresh pineapple juice, Ko Hana rum and okolehao, a moonshine made from Hawaiian ti plants. Upscale snacks include poisson cru, a raw-fish dish ($US25; about $38), and smoked taro hummus ($US15; about $23).


Saturday

4am: Greet the day on high

This morning mission requires preparation. First, book a sunrise reservation at Haleakala National Park well in advance ($US1 [$1.50] permit, $US30 [$45] park entrance). Then pack really warm clothes. In the darkness, drive slowly up the 3,048-metre volcano; fog often obscures cattle and native geese loitering in hairpin turns. Your efforts will be rewarded at the peak — first by the velvet sky awash with stars, then by the sun’s rays spilling across the fire-forged mountain. Notice how the silverswords (hedgehoglike plants that grow only here) sparkle in the golden light. As you descend, stop at Hosmer Grove, where a short hike leads to a forest full of Hawaiian honeycreepers, birds that are among some of the planet’s rarest.


9am: Shop a farmers’ market

Midway down Haleakala, stop at the Upcountry Farmers Market. Every Saturday morning, the Kulamalu Town Center carpark turns into a miniature street fair with live music and vendors offering a dizzying array of Maui-grown produce and prepared foods. You’ll find things to eat immediately — fresh coconut, vegan sweet-potato cheesecake and Venezuelan arepas — as well as things to stash for later, like passionfruit butter and macadamia nuts. Don’t miss the ‘Oko‘a Farm Store, which migrated from the market into an adjacent shopfront. The store’s 19-hectare farm supplies a cornucopia of tropical fruits and vegetables; its shelves teem with jars of pickled, powdered and freeze-dried treats and tonics.


10am: Peek at a rural heritage

Take the scenic drive back to sea level through historic Makawao and Paia towns. Bordered by a rodeo arena and a polo field, Makawao is the charming headquarters of the paniolo, Hawaiian cowboys who continue to rope and ride across the island’s lush ranchlands. On the corner of Makawao and Baldwin avenues you’ll see T Komoda Store and Bakery; this beloved family-run business, which has served the community since 1916, sells out of its cream puffs and butter rolls daily. Follow Baldwin past the defunct sugar mill to Paia. Once a busy sugar plantation hub surrounded by green cane fields, it’s now home to surfers and artists. As you pass Baldwin Beach, admire the view of the rain-carved West Maui Mountains. The morning light often reveals the hidden interior of ‘Iao Valley, your next destination.



The Wailuku River, which flows through the ‘Iao Valley.

11am: Picnic by a waterfall

Head to Kaohu Store in Wailuku for lunch to go. This family grocery offers the island’s best poke — raw fish mixed with traditional seasonings such as ground kukui nuts and seaweed (from $US18 [about $27] a half-kilogram). Add two scoops of rice and crunchy fern salad for a truly local meal. If you prefer a cooked lunch, visit Tails Up Maui for a classy fish sandwich ($US19) or mochiko (rice flour) fried chicken ($US17; about $26). Take your picnic to Kepaniwai Park, where model houses commemorate the diverse cultures of Hawaii’s sugar plantation era, and dip your feet into the Wailuku River. Continue to ‘Iao Valley State Monument (out-of-state visitors need reservations; $US5 [about $7.50] entrance fee, $US10 [about $15] parking). Paved walkways wind through a traditional lo‘i kalo (taro patch), past multiple waterfalls and up to a stunning lookout.


A boy jumps into a pool created by the Wailuku River in Kepaniwai Park, in the ‘Iao Valley.

2pm: See Hawaiian artefacts

Peruse the art and artefacts at Hale Ho‘ike‘ike, a captivating repository of Hawaiian culture in the former home of missionary-artist Edward Bailey. Exhibits showcase Hawaiian feather work and quilts, carved deities and paintings depicting 19th-century Maui. Imagine trying to paddle legendary swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku’s redwood plank surfboard into the waves (entry, $US10). From there, stroll through Wailuku, Maui’s somewhat sleepy seat of local government. Narrow side streets yield many treasures: see enormous street murals (use the online map by Small Town Big Art, a public art project), admire the colour-saturated paintings at Sabado Art Gallery and find refreshment at Wailuku Coffee Co or Esters Fair Prospect, a cocktail bar. After shopping for Hawaiian books and clothing at Native Intelligence, buy yourself a fragrant flower lei to wear for the duration of your trip.


6pm: Enjoy a Filipino feast

At Balai Pata, a new Filipino restaurant in Kahului, a celebration of the flavours that chef and owner Joey Macadangdang grew up with is a welcome addition to Maui’s restaurant scene. Plump Kauai prawns sautéed in garlicky fish sauce ($US17) set the stage for savoury sinigang ($US30) — tamarind broth loaded with long beans, okra and fish. For dessert, two can share the halo-halo ($US18) — crushed ice topped with avocado, ube ice cream, coconut cream and fruit jellies, served in a coconut shell. The decor reflects a bright, homespun aesthetic. Once a month, local families fill the restaurant for late-night happy hour and karaoke battles; check @balaipata on Instagram for dates.


The rugged Kanaio Coast, with windmills and Haleakala National Park in the background, which offers hidden coves and sea caves, in Kihei.

Gabe Casamassa, a captain for Blue Water Rafting, which offers rafting and snorkel tours, in Kihei.

Sunday

6.30am: Snorkel off the coast

A trip to Maui isn’t complete without ducking underwater to spy on clouds of striped manini fish, eagle rays and turtles. While most snorkel tours start at Ma‘alaea Harbor, Blue Water Rafting boards at the Kihei boatramp — offering easier access and one of the only tours of Kanaio Coast’s hidden coves and sea caves ($US179 [about $270], four hours). Climb into the rigid-hulled raft beside two dozen other passengers (fewer than the big tour boats) and watch for dolphins. In winter, close encounters with whales are common. As you peer into the pristine bay formed by Maui’s youngest lava flow, imagine the Polynesian wayfinders sailing here centuries ago, followed by French explorer La Pérouse in 1786. The ride is exhilarating but bumpy.


Midday: Indulge in a fish lunch

Don’t be shy: wear your flower lei to lunch at Mama’s Fish House. Old-style hospitality reigns at this celebrated restaurant on a sheltered lagoon. Servers greet you in vintage aloha wear and offer complimentary bowls of poi (pounded taro — a staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet). The menu is pricey but worthy; long before it was fashionable, Mama’s listed who caught each fish and where. A recent menu featured sea bass hooked by Ivan Ventura in Hana ($US68; about $102). If you ordered only dessert, you’d still leave happy; the Polynesian Black Pearl ($US24; about $36) is an edible version of “The Birth of Venus”: chocolate mousse and passionfruit ensconced in a biscuit seashell. Tables can book up a year ahead. After lunch, drive two minutes east to Ho‘okipa Beach Park, where surfers carve waves and sea turtles bask on the sand. 



Diners at Balai Pata, a Filipino restaurant in Kahului.

Key stops

The 3,048-metre summit of Haleakala National Park has a view of the rising sun, volcanic vistas and some of the planet’s rarest plants and birds.


The Hale Ho‘ike‘ike museum showcases Hawaiian artwork, carved deities and a redwood plank surfboard owned by Duke Kahanamoku.


Balai Pata celebrates Filipino flavours with savoury soups, desserts big enough for two and monthly karaoke nights.


Where to eat

Oao Sushi Bar & Grill offers inventive sushi rolls and purple sweet potato pot de crème in a Wailea shopping centre.


Tikehau Lounge serves craft cocktails made with local spirits and coveted garnishes.


Kaohu Store produces the island’s best poke, raw fish mixed with traditional seasonings such as ground kukui nuts and seaweed.


Tails Up Maui serves excellent fish sandwiches and chicken plates.


Wailuku Coffee Co is the place to stop for Maui-grown coffee or espresso while exploring Wailuku.


Esters Fair Prospect, a charming tropical bar on Wailuku’s Main Street, serves daiquiris made with a choice of three dozen rums and appetisers featuring fresh marlin.


Mama’s Fish House, a restaurant on a secluded lagoon, lists the names of the fishermen who caught the snapper and octopus on its menu.


Where to stay

Four Seasons Resort Maui sets the standard for service with poolside spritzes and a terrific free kids’ camp. Guests can book spa treatments in oceanfront huts and outrigger canoe excursions that launch from the resort’s adjoining beach. Rooms start at $US1,095 (about $1,650) a night.


Hotel Wailea is an adults-only boutique hotel overlooking South Maui. While not on the beach, it’s a shuttle ride away. Elegant suites are spacious (230 square metres with kitchenettes) and the Birdcage lounge is a prime spot for toasting the sunset. Rooms start at $US799 (about $1,204).


Maui Kamaole is a condo complex across the street from Kama‘ole Beach Park III, between Wailea and Kihei. One- and two-bedroom units feature full kitchens, laundry facilities and lush landscaping. Rooms start at $US500 (about $754).


© The New York Times


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 152 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “36 Hours in Maui”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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