Hawaii photography

What to See and Do in Maui, Hawaii

When the time came to choose a winter travel destination in 2014, Martin and I were stumped. Originally, we had planned to visit the Dominican Republic. However, a sudden mosquito virus outbreak around that time caused us to change plans. At the end of the day, we decided to spend our tropical holiday in Hawaii. We're no strangers to Hawaii. I grew up on Oahu and have visited not only my home island with Martin but also the Big Island in 2013. Of the Hawaiian islands, we really had only a few more to choose from when it came to discovering new areas. We decided to spend our time on Maui. This would be my fourth trip to Maui, and the very first of all for Martin.

Travel Mission: (Re)discover the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Maui Hawaii road trip map itinerary

Our Trip By the Numbers

  • 10 Days
  • 624 Miles driven
  • 69.5 Miles walked
  • 172,079 Steps Walked

Maui Hawaii travel photography

A Personal History with Maui

The second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui has the third-highest population, falling behind Oahu and the Big Island. Growing up on Oahu, it was common for friends to spend weekends or summers over on Maui. We always knew who had recently gone to Maui as they would return with a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, as their only Hawaii location was in Maui. My own maternal grandmother had even been born and raised on a sugar cane plantation in the Maui town of Lahaina.

As a child, I recall making several weekend trips to Maui via family-sized Cessna airplanes flown by my dad, a former F-14 Navy jet pilot. I also visited Maui for high school cross country meets, and once with my grandmother to revisit her childhood home.

Returning to Maui in my late twenties without family definitely proved to be a different experience and a welcome change of pace. The goal of this trip was not to go slow and leisurely enjoy the island, but rather do everything we possibly could in 10 days' time.

Wailuku to Kihei

Our trip began with a red eye direct flight from Seattle to Kahului. We picked up our rental car close to 10:00 pm and jetted to a cheap hostel in Wailuku. Dinner that night was, to my delight, at a local Zippy's restaurant, the most popular local fast food chain in Hawaii. The next day, we woke up early and beelined directly to Kihei, where we would end up spending most of our time.

Staying in a simple yet conveniently located condo we'd found on Airbnb, Kihei was by far our favorite area of Maui. While rather touristy in many ways, we appreciated the calmer waters on this side of the island that allowed for stellar paddle boarding and sailing, as well as the expansive and clean-kept beach parks. We also took a couple of trips down to the famous Grand Wailea hotel.

Maui Hawaii travel photography

Whale Watching in Lahaina

After a couple of nights in Kihei, we ventured north to Lahaina, staying at Kahana Falls resort. The bulk of tourist activity in Lahaina in concentrated on the waterfront, meaning Martin and I took one quick jaunt down it before deciding it wasn't to our taste. We did, however, manage to hop aboard two marine boat tours in the area, including a sunrise whale watching cruise, and a half day snorkeling tour. Maui, I love you deeply, but the snorkeling just isn't up to par with Belize.

What was very impressive about the Lahaina side of the island was the extreme prevalence of breaching humpback whales that you could see from the shore. No matter how many times you've seen whales in the wild, it never gets old seeing these great creatures in their native habitats. The abundance of whales was at one point explained to us by a guide who said it was the result of long-time conservation efforts finally paying off.Maui Hawaii travel photography

Kula and Haleakala

Our time in Lahaina was very leisurely, despite cloudy, rainy weather. From there, we headed inland to the mountainous up-country town of Kula, where we stayed in a cute studio apartment we'd found on Airbnb. Most of Kula's residential areas are between 1,800-3,700 feet in elevation, meaning much cooler temperatures and stunning views. While small in terms of size and dining choices, Kula was the perfect base for ascending the formidable Haleakala.

A now dormant volcano, Haleakala is on the east side of Maui. It forms more than 75% of the entire island of Maui. We did the traditional routine of waking up before dawn and watching the sunrise. However, the tourist pack was quick to leave after sunrise, so we were among the few who did a hike down into the crater and back. If you want to know what Mars looks like, do this hike! It's incredibly desolate yet unique with a very photogenic terrain.

Maui Hawaii travel photography

The Road to Hana

A traditional tourist trip to vacation is not complete without attempting the road to Hana. A 64.4-mile stretch, Hana Highway is enjoyable to some and formidable to others. The road (paved, thankfully) is extremely winding and narrow through lush, wet tropical rainforest terrain. For a sense of driving difficulty, consider that the path includes passage over 59 bridges, 46 of which are only one lane wide. As a result, driving the 52-mile road can take upwards of 2 hours to complete. We were fortunate to not hit a ton of on-coming traffic and enjoyed driving this road's windy twists and turns. For us, the total drive time was in one hour, much less than expected.

One we got to Hana, we discovered it was the one town in probably the whole state of Hawaii without cell phone reception, which seems foreign in this day and age. Located on the eastern end of Maui, Hana is among the most isolated communities in Hawaii, but it is incredibly lush and green. We stayed at a dated but cute Hana Maui Bed and Breakfast we'd found via Google (alas, nothing affordable on Airbnb). Our free time was spent exploring local parks and attractions including Hana Lava Tube, Wai'anapanapa State Park, and Kōkī Beach Park.

Maui Hawaii travel photography

Paia

From Hana, we could either traverse the Hana highway in reverse to reach our next destination. Or we could drive in the opposite direction, down the dirt road to Kaupo and then back through Kula. The problem with this second option was a warning we'd heard from other travelers. This route, while faster in some ways, would require driving a stretch of poorly maintained, unpaved road. Due to the road's condition, it uncovered by our rental car agreement. Despite these warnings, we drove the road anyway without any problems, making it back to Kula; after stopping at Grandma's Maui Coffee Shop for coffee, we went to our final Maui destination: Paia.

A small, "hippie" town of sorts, Paia is known for its surfing and windsurfing spots, including those of Ko'okipa and Spreckelsville. Also located not far from Paia is the Jaws surf break, known for its bumpy, unpaved roads and enormous north shore surf in the winter.

In Paia, we stayed at a modern Airbnb house rental near the famous Mama's Fish House. Much of our time was spent lounging and boogie boarding on the nearby Baldwin Beach Park. We also made frequent trips to Mana Foods for fresh organic foods. It was the perfect chill ending to our 10-day Maui vacation.

Maui Hawaii travel photography

 Maui Travel Photo Gallery

Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

There is certainly no shortage of things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii. During a recent 7 day trip, we started in Hilo, went down to Volcanoes National Park, up to Kailua-Kona, inland to Waimea stopping by Hawi, back to the coast in Waipio Valley and Honokaa, and then back to Hilo. It was a nicely paced trip full of some of the best Airbnb stays we've had. Below are some highlights from the trip. To read about our food adventures, click here. Visit the full photo gallery here.

Mission: Explore and circle the entire Big Island of Hawaii.

  • 7 Days to explore the Big Island
  • 7 Towns we visited
  • 240 Miles driven
  • 3 Airbnb accommodations
  • 2 Hotel accommodations

Where to Stay on the Big Island

Accommodations are plentiful throughout the whole island, but options will vary depending on what area you're in. During our trip, we were able to find 3 Airbnb rentals in Waipio Valley, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and Kailua-Kona. However, we didn't have any choice but hotels in Waimea and Hilo. Generally speaking, accommodations are pricey due to the mandatory hotel-tax. However, there are many affordable hostels in populated areas such as Hilo.

Big Island Hawaii map

Hilo

The largest city on the Big Island, Hilo is home to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation and the annual Merrie Monarch hula festival. It is also one of the least expensive cities in Hawaii to live in. I first visited Hilo almost exactly ten years ago at the age of sixteen to compete in a state canoe racing competition, and remember Hilo being extremely lush, but as a result very wet. Indeed, it was a little on the cloudy and rainy side during our stay in Hilo, but the 80-degree weather made it tolerable. Hilo is rather touristy with lots of small shops and restaurants along the Hilo Bay strip. Being more attracted to outdoor exploration, we didn't find Hilo too appealing beyond the food (ahhh, Cafe Pesto) and a quick sweep through the local Hilo Farmer's Market.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Big Island itself is made up of five volcanoes: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. The last three are still active, and the last two are located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This might be one of the United States' coolest national parks as it has two volcanoes within it: Kilauea, the most active volcano in the world, and Mauna Loa, the most massive volcano in the world. The park is very easy to drive through and makes for a very scenic trip since the whole park has an extremely diverse landscape. From the lush, wet jungles near Thurston lava tube to the dry forest and rocky beaches, there are tons of calderas, crevices, craters, and geothermal vents to be explored. Lava flows can be seen in person, but this is not encouraged by the park and often requires long hikes across hot, dry volcanic rocks.

Most people visiting the Big Island have one thing on their agenda: to see lava from an active volcano. There are two popular yet pricey ways to do this: via a lava boat tour, or from above via a helicopter ride. We initially tried to book a lava boat tour, but the trip was canceled due to rough water. That left us with one final day on the Big Island, which was also my birthday, meaning lava had to be seen somehow. I ended up having my biggest dream fulfilled: I got to ride in a helicopter! And see lava. I admit the helicopter part might have been a little more exciting to me.

Hawaii Big Island lava volcano helicopter

Kailua-Kona

Considered to be the center of commerce and the tourism industry in West Hawaii, Kailua-Kona (aka Kona) is a relatively new town on the Big Island. It is also dry and hot compared to the likes of say Hilo. Besides the world-famous Kona coffee, the town is also known for being the start and finish location of the Ironman World Championship triathlon, which felt all too evident with the masses of cyclists and roadrunners we saw. Cruise through the waterfront to enjoy the tourist shops and restaurants or hele on to the larger chain stores--even Costco, Target, and Ross have arrived in Kona.

Kua Bay

A short drive away from Kona is scenic Kua Bay, also known as Maniniowali beach. With its pristine white sand and clear, glassy blue-green water, you could swear this is the beach said to exist only in dreams. The only con is the lack of shade, so it is recommended to bring your own umbrellas or tents if you plan to stay long.

Kailua Kona Kua Bay Hawaii

Puuhonua o Honaunau

Located just south of Kona is Puuhonua o Honaunau, this national historic park spans 180-acres. Histoically, it was once known as the place of refuge for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers. Very quiet and peaceful, Honaunau has an almost meditative natural quality to it. Also in the park are the Royal Grounds where the ali'i (kings) once lived.

Ka Lae (South Point)

The southernmost point of the 50 United States happens to be on the Big Island of Hawaii. Registered as a National Historic Landmark District under the name South Point Complex, this area is a large rocky cliff with blue ocean below. Wind currents are extremely strong in this area, causing many of the trees to bend and practically grow horizontal. Many fishermen will hang out here to catch the plentiful red snapper and ulua. Occasionally, a brave cliff diver will take the plunge over the edge, although strong winds make it a dangerous sport in this area.

Hawaii Kaena Southern Most Point

Green Sand Beach

Also known as Papakolea or Mahana Beach, Green Sand Beach is in the Ka'u district of the Big Island. It is one of two green sand beaches in the entire world, the other located in the Galapagos Islands. Green sand is so unique that it is illegal to take any away with you. This is a beach that must be hiked to via a nice stretch through dusty sand dunes. Alternatively, you can opt to grab a ride with locals for a fee or take your own four-wheel drive, but it is (supposedly) illegal to do so. On the bright side, the hike is rather short and makes for great photos.

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

One of many black sand beaches on the Big Island is the famous Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. The distinctly darker sand is created by lava bursting as it flowed into the ocean. Although these beaches are popular among tourists, it is dangerous to swim since the surrounding rocks are sharp. On the bright side, turtles love to beach themselves here, so it is common to see Hawksbill or green sea turtle on the shore. Just keep your distance as these turtles are endangered species that are protected by state law.

Hawaii green sea turtle

Waimea

After a couple days of frying ourselves in the intense heat of the Volcanoes National Park and Kona, we sought cooler climates. We retreated to the rainier north end of the Big Island. Located inland, Waimea is known for its ranches and paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture. Characterized by lush rolling hills, the center of town is Parker Ranch.  the largest privately owned cattle ranch in the United States. Beyond visiting the ranch and driving around to view the hills and cattle, there isn't much to be done in Waimea. However, it is a very relaxing town thanks to the lack of touristy activities in the area.

Hawi

The charming town of Hawi is the biggest little town in North Kohala. Full of boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and coffee shops, Hawi is actually quite a small town but we were delighted to find a kava bar here to make for a chill afternoon after running out of things to do in Waimea. Not far from Hawi is the small town of Kapaau where you can find the original statue of King Kamehameha I.

Polulu Valley Lookout

While Ka Lae is the southernmost point of Hawaii, its opposite is North Kohala, the northernmost point of the island. Polulu (meaning 'long spear') Valley is the first of five majestic valleys stretching across the coast. The lookout spot offers a comprehensive view of the cliffs and coastline, but a hike to the bottom of the valley and the black sand beach below is possible. We didn't attempt it this time around, settling for the gorgeous view instead.

Big Island Hawaii vista mountain range

Waipio Valley and Honokaa

From Waimea, we made the short drive over to the Waipio Valley, which was once the capital and permanent residence of the early Hawaiian ali'i (kings). Given the rich beauty of the valley, it isn't hard to see why kings chose to live here. On the downside, getting to the valley is a feat in itself. The road leading to the valley floor gains 800 vertical feet in 0.6 miles with a 25% average grade. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed, but it's a risk to attempt going down the extremely narrow.

Interestingly, Waipio Valley is one of the only places in the United States where wild horses still roam. But a handful of domesticated horses are kept in stables for horseback rides. Much of the inland part of the valley is still occupied by locals who keep taro farms. The beach side is open to the public where visitors can enjoy the majestic black sand beach.

In Conclusion

Of all the islands in Hawaii, the Big Island is one of the best to visit if you're seeking a glimpse into its rustic history. Its large expanse offers a variety of climates and environments to discover without the throngs of tourists and developments that you'll find on other neighboring islands.

Big Island Photo Gallery