We live in a world where first impressions are extremely important and seldom do we ever get a second chance at one. Whether you’re the new kid at school, first day at the dream job making your way around the cubicles or on a date during a pandemic sitting six feet away from the other person with facemasks on they matter. It also matters greatly whenever I’m traveling to wherever I might be going. A new destination is like all the above scenarios, it could leave you with a wonderful experience like crushing your first day at a new job, or relegating you to cower in hiding because you spilled juice all over your fresh kicks at school. Oh do they matter, first impressions.
When my sister told us late in 2019 that her upcoming wedding would be nothing short of a destination one in hurling comes Maui. I don’t have many great first impressions of the Hawai’ian islands, I find them too touristy, full of hype and the soul long stripped from its body decades ago. This was all conceived without actually ever stepping foot on the island, any island. Without ever going social media has forced any and all things down my throat. Not once in my head the thought “hell, let’s all go to Hawai’i for a week,” ever crossed my mind. But when your older sister ask you to walk her down the aisle you book your damn ticket, for family.
Right off the bat I didn’t want to do this trip how everyone else in my family were going to. That meant: no hotels or resort, Jeep rentals or convertibles for this guy. My plan had always been to rent a rig with a rooftop tent and traverse the island while camping out each night. This not only saved on lodging as that can be at a premium, but also doubled as my rental car to get around in, which you definitely needed. Also, let’s talk about that million dollar night view when you go camping.
Two of my brothers would be joining me in the rig for the five days we’ll be on this island. It’ll be the first trip we’ve taken together so we’re already in unknown waters, but the adventure was welcomed. Five days in paradise you say? Certainly not enough time, and later this proved to be true, considering it was all I could afford (figuratively) to be away from my new job. Sometimes you have to make do with what you got.
With one brother on a completely different flight, and another missing our first stint out of Logan International entirely, we reunited outside Kahului Airport (OGG) 14 hours later. Leaving the airport you’re hit with a warm, but sweet scent, unlike Boston’s cold February morning. Already I was taken aback by the scenery, lush green mountain ranges surrounded us and the airport with rows of coconut trees. Frank, our AirBnB/car rental host, picked us up in his bugged out gray Tacoma that seemed ready for a zombie apocalypse from the arrivals gate and we’re off.
Packed like sardines in the cab we stopped over at Safeway where he gave us the lowdown on the rig. The rig’s fitted with camping essentials; gas cook top, ample coolers, chairs, plates and bowls, etc. along with a fresh water tank to shower off in and the pièce de résistance was the rooftop tent. We shot the shit with him for a bit about where to go and things to do while on the island as one does. After we realized he actually lived in Worcester, a town in middle-MA, in a past life. We parted ways, him back home to his paradise bungalow, us inside Safeway to get supplies for the next few days.
DRIVING AROUND THE ISLAND
I will be the first to tell you without any hesitation that driving around Maui is both EXHILARATING and a goddamn NIGHTMARE. First let’s start with why it’s a good and worthwhile drive:
- Amazing scenery: the backdrop is simply too gorgeous to put into words. From the over hanging cliffs, to the waterfall lined roads, even the occasional sprinkle lends itself to plenty of rainbows in the sky, worth it.
- Well maintained: the crews here do a fantastic job of maintaining the roads and plenty of markers everywhere you go.
- Winding roads: never a bore to drive down but definitely do be careful. One false move here and it’s cliff sides for lunch.
- Change of weather: it can be bright and sunny on one part of the island and cloudy, wet on the other. Don’t like the weather? Just get in and drive elsewhere!
The downside of driving:
- Tourist littered roads: OK I too am a tourist but hear me out, on these roads you won’t ever find a shortage of convertibles, Jeeps with no doors, or the 10 passenger minivan (land boats out here) all vying for a piece of pavement. I get it, everyone is on vacation and want to live their best life, but stopping in the middle of the road to snap a photo of your SO posing is not safe or considerate to other drivers. Also, seems like no one knows how to drive when they visit the island. The roads are narrow and wide enough for 1.5 cars width AT BEST. These people are just hauling ass up and down the island with no qualms for other’s safety.
- Plan hours to get anywhere: speaking of narrow, twisty roads do plan at least an hour to drive about twelve miles. It takes a long time to get anywhere here because it’s still an island at the end of the day, not flat earth Florida. For instance if you wanted to circumnavigate the island on the coast roads and start in Makena Cove -> King Kekaulike for example it will take about six hours to do 159 miles!
Full disclosure this is where I fucked up on our trip, sorry brothers! Our game plan was to camp out as much as possible bar the night post-wedding. What I didn’t anticipate at the time of planning was that these campsites has limited spots. How did I find out? Once it came to plotting campsites and visiting their websites I found out most of them were already FULL two weeks ahead of liftoff! Heed my warning and plan this part maybe two or even three months in advance! My last minute decision making didn’t fare well here.
Fortunately for us we did find a campsite with ample spots for a few of the nights we were out there. On the downside they were all on the other side of the island which meant long drives even if it was a mere twenty miles away. I didn’t have such happy campers with me that’s for sure. Though waking up at the first glimmer of light from a tent with your siblings to the cool morning air was worth all that extra driving. No one is going to complain about campsite breakfast with a sunrise cliff views, trust me on this one.
Here’s some helpful spots for camping on the island:
- YMCA Camp Keanae: Privately owned campground in the small town of Keanae, often booked out in full by large groups. $25 per person or $40 per family. Where we stayed for a few nights.
- Waianapanapa State Park: Camper rates are $18 per night for up to six persons. You must make online or in-person reservations and print them out ahead of time. Do not arrive without these or you can be denied access (in which case, drive onward to Kipahulu.)
- Kipahulu Campground: There is no charge for camping however entering the National Park costs $25 per vehicle. Camping is first-come, first-serve for a maximum of one hundred people.
- Papalua Wayside Park: Camping is $10 per adult per night on weekdays and $20 per adult per night on weekends. It’s oceanfront, which is incredible, but it’s also backed by a busy highway, which is less so. There’s a three or four night consecutive night maximum (information on official website conflicts itself and no camping on Wednesday or Thursday. Permits must be acquired ahead of time through any of Department of Parks and Recreation district permit offices.
- Camp Olowalu: Camper van rates are $20 per person per night and pets are welcome for $3 per pet per night. A private campground that also offers car camping, tent, cabins and glamping. Make reservations ahead of time.
- Wild Camping (anywhere): is something I’m sure many consider when exploring Maui. Camping on the beach for the purpose of fishing is technically legal in Maui, however pretending to fish while camping probably won’t go far with the locals.
GOT TO EAT PLACES
Biggest question on any trip is what and where to eat? Everyone always throws into Google “best places to eat at destination,” and granted I am super guilty of that too. I always find talking to the locals to be a tremendous help in finding the good grub. I didn’t fly all this way to eat at a Tommy Bahama or attend a generic luau (of which I didn’t on this trip.) Give me a food truck, or a hole in the wall joint with plates as heavy as my head. “Where is the best poke?” I shouted with fervor.
Beef is EXPENSIVE here. If you’re a meat eater be prepared to shell out copious amounts of deniros. You’re on an island 24 times smaller than California, and that’s the entire ISLAND CHAIN! Cow (non-native to the islands) grazing lands are at a premium and so will be their cuts.
With that said let’s get down to some of the places we ate at that I think you’d enjoy on your trip, without breaking the wallet of course:
- Da Kitchen (CLOSED NOW DUE TO THE PANDEMIC 😢): now closed I still wanted to mention this spot as it was recommended to us by Frank after we picked up our rig. Known to locals for over 20 years this was the place to go if you were hungry and needed a local fixing. Spam musubi, huge bowls of rice laced with fried eggs and sausages, this place SLAPPED. Everything was served in huge portions to make sure you didn’t leave hungry. I was in a food comatose by the time the mains came out. The Phan brothers totally approved of this spot, but sadly COVID takes another good business out for the count. If you’re the one of the lucky ones to have eaten here you know what’s good already!
- Geste Shrimp Truck: a cash only food truck specializing in many different variations of shrimp, yum. It was hard to find this place using Google Maps but after a bit of back and forth we spotted the black truck and it was game on! When in doubt grab a Shrimp Plate in Hot & Spicy and Hawaiian Scampi, you’ll thank me later. Oh they come shell on for maximum flavor, don’t be a wimp.
- Ono Tacos: After a long day of chasing blowholes and waterfalls definitely swing by this unassuming taco truck. My appetite was voracious when we arrived so I ordered up a lengua (yummy), pescado and cameron taco. The flavors were all there and the lengua was soft, which is hard when it comes to tongue. Fish flaked and shrimp plump. Not to mention it was spicy, the sauce, which was awesome. Add in a bottled Coke for good measure.
- 808 Deli: Another one of those spots that is hyped up online, but was worth the visit? Hell fucking yes. Post wedding hangover worthy? You betcha. Located off the busy strip in Kihei you can find it always open (doors properly sticker bombed) and welcoming smiles. We grabbed a couple of paninis to munch on, the Hot Hawaiian (ham, pepper jack, Maui pineapple, honey mustard) and Spicy Tuna (tuna salad, pepper jack, Anaheim peppers, jalapenos), that satiated the palate, but left room for more. Their pasta sides was a solid sidekick to the above.
- Foodland’s Poke: I’m going out on a limb and say that Foodland’s poke, pound for pound, is the best poke I’ve had! Definitely not ever, because obviously the locals will fight me on this and I’m ok with that. Come here, spend the $6.99 for a poke bowl of your dreams (better than the stuff I can get on the mainland!) and enjoy. Once we found out about this joint we came here quite often. Not only was it affordable they also had a hot pre-made musubi and bento boxes. Kevin was in spam musubi heaven.
- Shaved Ice: Because it’s the thing to get when you’re on the islands. Many will have their favorites (Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice, Local Boys Shave Ice, Surfing Monkey Shave Ice, etc.) and all aren’t wrong. Depending on where you are on the island there is always a joint nearby to grab one to cool off with. Reminds me the various SE Asian renditions I had growing up as a kid. You bet we indulged in a few of these on those hot drives. Just don’t forget the condensed milk on top.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
- Twin Falls Hike: close to where we were camping for a few days was Twin Falls Hike. Literally a side of the road hike with a parking lot (gets FULL quickly.) The hike, if we can call it that, is a brisk walk less than a mile inland to where you’re greeted with the falls. They collect into pools that stem off into a pretty quick flowing river on its way out. Definitely worth the check if you’re coming onto or leaving the Road to Hana. Bring some swimming attire for a quick dip.
- ʻĪao Valley State Park: located on the NW side of the island the valley is definitely worth the stop. For non-residents to park inside the gate is about $5 but you can always choose the road leading up to it and stretch your legs. Right away the views were fantastic as you’re deep in the middle of the valley surrounded by green ridge lines on every side. Fortunate enough to have a sunny day while we visited allowed us to see further and greater into the vistas. Word on the street is that there’s a hike past the ‘No-Entrance’ sign at the top of the lookout. My brothers and I managed to get about 45 minutes up the trail before we decided to head back, by we I mean they died. For more epic views I do suggest hopping the railing and seeing for yourself.
- Nakalele Blowhole: the drive to the blowhole is one that offered such serene views of the island. From the steep cliff sides to winding through small pocket dwellings you get a good sense of the place before reaching your destination. Parking is ample, literally side of the road, but proceed with caution. The rocks are UNFORGIVEN if you happen to fall upon them. They are lava rocks after all. Wind gusts on this part of the island I would estimate to be CAT 1 Hurricane levels. OK, they might have been about 40-50mph, but hell it sure felt like it. You will have to wait until the waves start hammering the location of where the blowhole is to see it in action. While here try finding the heart shape rock, because clearly I couldn’t.
- Pāpalaua Wayside Park: a good opportunity if ever to pop off the side of the road, throw it into 4-lo and park on your very own stretch of beach. The sands were fine, and the sunset view was great, but that the ocean bottom is very, very rocky. You can camp on this stretch of beach, with permits of course, or do as we did and go for a quick dip followed by beers in lawn chairs to enjoy the sunset.
- Makena Cove: on the south side of the island this little cove of paradise plays host to many a beach weddings. On this day there was just that going on while we parked it before my sister’s own wedding. Quite lovely and calm, the water that is, being a cove and all. Families were out in full force while sunbathers lounged about. A very nice spot to get away from the more busy beaches of the island.
- Ali’i Kula Lavender: once you’re sick of the beaches, because I know I was, we headed up into the higher altitudes to visit Ali’i Kula Lavender farm. I want to preface by saying the lavenders weren’t in bloom on our visit, sadly. The roads getting here are WINDY and because of the higher altitude the rig struggled a bit with the load of cargo and humans, but the trusty steed got us there. From here you have a great expanse of the island’s western side. The eastern side is blocked by Haleakalā National Park which was even HIGHER in altitude. Take the stroll through their large garden grounds and definitely visit the gift shop for some refreshing cool teas and trinkets. I imagine when the lavenders are in bloom the smell of the air would be amazing, someone let me know.
- Waiʻānapanapa State Park: want to dig your toes into a beach filled with black sand? Then look no further! This state park was one of the things I really wanted to check out, one for the black sands, two because it is quite picturesque. No cost to come here, you can also camp but permits are needed. On this outing (driving the road to Hana) it was quite busy with people vying for a spot on the beach for rays and waves. Eventually we snagged a small nook and toes were quickly dipped into that warm sand. It feels good. You can swim but it’s at your own risk. Those waves are BRUTAL as my younger brother found out. When I jumped in the current was so strong if you weren’t paying attention you can get ripped out to sea. Other than that it’s a lovely place with much to explore. Drop by in the morning hours and have it to yourself!
- Road to Hana: Hands down the activity that everyone wants to do when they get to Maui is trek the 64.4 miles on the road to Hana. From the west point on Route 32 in Kahului to the east end in Route 31 in Haleakalā Nat’l Park this stretch of road provided some JAW DROPPING scenery. Ever wanted to feel like you’re in a Jurassic Park movie then doing this drive is a must. People ask should you go halfway or all the way and in my opinion don’t ever do anything half-assed. Whole ass or no ass. But be warned the road is NARROW and in some spots only one car can pass at a time. It’s also super twister with a lot of blind corners. You have to throw your faith into the world in hopes that around the next bend isn’t a big ass truck, namely my brothers and I in our Tacoma rig. On the road you’ll see a ton of convertibles, Jeeps and clan haulers along with tour shuttles, yes these are the tourists who flock from all over to drive this road. Be weary as people tend to just stop in the middle of the roads to take photos or videos, why I ask. Pull over often (when it is safe to do so!) though because some of the best swimming holes and waterfalls are just beyond what you can see from the road.
NOTE: My brothers and I took about four hours to get from west to east so plan your day accordingly if you want to do the whole and back. Also, don’t expect a sign at the end of the trip or a welcoming committee. The finish is incredibly anti-climatic compared to the drive in though still worth all the hairpins. The town of Hana is very quiet and quaint, a great spot to just sit back and relax on the east side of the island.
- Haleakalā National Park: whether you’re driving or camping Haleakalā National Park is a must stop. We opted to drive up the more than 10,000 foot crater where the dormant volcano lies. The air is thin and much cooler than at sea level, our rig struggling with every switchback just to reach the top. From that high you bet you’ll be flying above the crowds looking down back onto the island and eventually out into the open Pacific. 360 degrees of jaw-dropping vistas makes for a feeling in the pit of your stomach that even I cannot describe. You can view the sunrise(Haleakalā meaning “house of the sun”) from here and who wouldn’t honestly, but special permits must be acquired beforehand!
- Attend a Beach Wedding: the whole reason for my trip to Maui was to walk my older sister down the aisle. I mean what trip to the Hawaiian archipelago would be complete without a beachside wedding? Her ceremony was small, a bit over two dozen friends and family, at Wailea beach front. The backdrop of paradise was present during the whole ceremony and everything went off without a glitch, the winds even held bay during the speeches. There are plenty of other parties vying for their portion of sand do commence their own ceremonies, this is Hawaii of course. The sun set on my family as we pose for a photo-op with a fraction of our clan. Another memory for the books and a great one at that. I can finally check off Hawaiian Destination Wedding from bucket list!
Boarding the red eye home to the mainland via DFW what was the take away from my first impression of Maui I thought to myself? From the locals, to the incredible scenery, the food and the sights. Walking my sister down the aisle, spending time in close quarters with my two brothers, eating poke bowls in parking lots. The few days we were away was chocked full of experiences both good and bad that we still bring up over drinks. But as I sat on the tarmac about to leave Maui with no central air running through the cabin the realization that my idea of Maui was completely wrong.
I had arrived with a predetermined notion that this would be a tourist hell hold, a trap if I ever saw one. In fact I was blown away from what I experienced and whom I got to experience those things with. I have learned a long time ago that I shouldn’t base my ideas on a place off of what others have told me, yes take some of it into consideration, but save the final judgment for yourself.
sharing this trip with my brothers made everything worthwhile
Maui was more than just a paradise set against the sun. It’s warm people with traditions and cultures all their own. It’s a destination on the world map that has people from all over the world pinning it on their own. It’s landscape unique and otherworldly left me wanting more. In the end I found myself loving the island more than I wanted to admit. True, it is paradise, but so can any place be if you go in with open eyes ready for the experience. Bringing a few clan members along doesn’t hurt either. My verdict? You did good, Maui.
A hui hou, aloha!