I believe it was a sidebar in Maui Revealed (a very detailed and opinionated guidebook, with a helpful app also available) where I read the warning. A local said to be careful about trying to do too much sightseeing, as it’s easy to spend too much time in a car driving around the island instead of actually relaxing and enjoying the island. Instead, he advised, strive to discover the slow joy of “island time.”
As a compulsive food writer who wants to try it all (and as a non-beachgoer), I found my schedule filling fast for my first visit to Maui. Luckily, with help from the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, I found compelling nature, activities, hotels and spas to provide rejuvenation and relaxation. And eventually even a dip in the ocean.
But would I find good food?
Day 1: “Racing” Down Haleakala, Eventually to Relaxation
With a 9:15pm arrival at Kahului Airport and then car rental pick-up, drive, and hotel check-in, it would be about midnight before my wife and I could catch a nap at our room at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa. “Nap” is the key word, as the alarm would wake us only two hours later for the drive back past the airport to Paia, where we’d go to Maui Sunriders for their Sunrise Tour. Given the 3am check-in, the tour operators were smooth and successful in loading vans (people inside, bikes on top) and getting going to the summit of Haleakala at 10,023 feet.
Our guide gave us interesting historical and cultural information (and riding tips) en route to keep us awake at the start of the trip, and then time for some to nod off before reaching the summit. At the summit, we’d have the unique opportunity to witness the sun rise above the cloud-line. It’s a rather stunning experience, albeit a cold one even during warmer months, as it’s dark and temperatures drop low at that elevation. (Some might suggest sneaking out a hotel blanket to keep warm, especially if you’ve only brought warm weather clothes. Definitely layer up.)
As soon as the sun fully broke the clouds, it was back into the vans to reach the staging area for the bicycle departure, getting ahead of the other tour operators. Maui Sunriders offers an unguided tour, allowing riders to go at their own pace, but with desire to stay ahead of the guided tours with accompanying vans that can bottle up the road. The mountain-to-sea ride is an easy one, even if you haven’t been on a bike in years (or decades?). Just don’t call it exercise, as it’s downhill virtually all the way, and therefore more of an exercise in judiciously hitting the brakes while navigating the turns (and traffic) and admiring the views.
As our guide explained, the early tour means passing by some “sites” not yet open (a post-sunrise tour might be better for those wanting frequent visits), but not too early for the first food stop: T Komoda Store and Bakery. It’s a rather sparse store, but visitors should check out the old articles and artifacts inside for the history lesson. In some ways, T Komoda set the tone for my experience of the Maui food scene: somewhat charming and somewhat sweet. With two lunch stops planned, we didn’t want to overindulge, but we had a couple of sweets on the to-do list.
It’s far from a race down the mountain, but with relatively few stops, we made it back to the bike shop fairly quickly, turning in equipment with giving thanks for the exhilarating ride. A quick walk through Paia (including a stop at the local beach to get a first glimpse of the ocean at eye level) enabled us to get land-legs back. We stopped at Mana Foods, a fantastic store that is larger than it seems from the outside, and full of interesting prepared foods and groceries. When asking about seasonal fruit, the friendly folks offered to cut us samples of anything we wanted to try, and we eventually bought some delicious apple bananas and more as snacks the first couple of days.
Then it was on to Kahului for lunch. Part one would be at Da Kitchen Cafe, bustling on a Saturday. We were lucky enough to get the last table upon opening, avoiding a long wait. For me, the restaurant felt a bit too polished, but I enjoyed a first taste of loco moco and, even better, their special deep-fried Spam musubi.
From Da Kitchen, we headed to the harbor with hope of finding the Geste Shrimp Truck—but felt devastated when it wasn’t there. It would be our only chance to try the truck, so after waiting past the expected arrival time, we drove to the nearby flea market to poke around and do reconnaissance. Here we were reminded about island time and encouraged to go back. And there it was—with a line. We gladly waited, and the shrimp would turn out to be one of the best bites of the trip.
After the two-part lunch, we drove back to the Hyatt, getting our first daylight look at the views along the way. The view from the hotel room tempted us to linger, but rest would be just down the road, as we had a spa appointment at Spa Montage at the Montage Kapalua Bay. This resort is less than 20 minutes up the road from the Hyatt, and we got there so quickly that we had time to see the nearby Dragon’s Teeth rock formation at Makalua-puna Point. It’s a gorgeous sight, and a nice place to enjoy the breeze and admire the power of the water.
At the spa, staff greeted us warmly for our Outdoor Couples Massage treatment. Following intake and selection of desired massage oil, we headed to our separate locker rooms, though each “room” was actually a paradise that included a eucalyptus steam room, cedar wood sauna, cascading whirlpool, and bamboo rainfall shower. After enjoying these amenities, my wife and I met up for refreshing beverages before being escorted to the outdoor treatment room, where we enjoyed side-by-side massages as a cooling breeze passed through the area.
Following the treatment, it was just a short stroll to the resort’s Cane & Canoe restaurant. With Kapalua Bay as the backdrop, I relaxed and realized the appeal of outdoor dining in the warm climate. The restaurant architecture is reminiscent of a traditional Hawaiian canoe house, with a guitarist playing mellow versions of classics with Hawaiian interpretations. Cane & Canoe provides higher-end preparations of local ingredients, and while we enjoyed our appetizers and entrees, it would be a side dish of corn that proved most memorable.
Day 2: “Racing” the Road to Hana in Time to Enjoy the Hyatt
The Road to Hana comes with many choices. Drive full-circle or turn back at Hana? What time to start, given factors of traffic, opening times, and light for photography? Exactly where to stop?
We decided to start early, make just a few stops on the way to Hana, and then turn back and make any desired additional stops. The early start enabled us to avoid traffic and not feel rushed (as we had evening plans back at the hotel), and turning back gave us flexibility to hit things we missed on the first half of the drive.
Before hitting the Road to Hana, we stopped at the Port Town Chevron in Kahului. I’d heard that this place has good food (for breakfast and road snacks), but upon arrival we found out that options are limited on Sundays. No bento, but still a variety of musubi (tuna, fried rice and spam, lunchmeat and egg, teri-beef and spicy chicken), some uniquely wrapped entirely in nori.
It’s hard to do justice to the Road to Hana in writing. I can tell you that there are waterfalls and lush greenery and gorgeous flowers and cliffs that plunge to the sea and much more. The trip is really what you make of it, and your itinerary should reflect your interests. Our drive started a bit rainy (the only rain we’d see during our time in Maui), but the skies eventually cleared. Our first stop was in Haiku at Aunty Sandy’s for banana bread (somewhat charming and somewhat sweet) and a look around KeAnae Point.
Our major stop would be at Wai’anapanapa State Park, just before reaching Hana. We spent a considerable amount of time here checking out Black Sand Beach, the blowholes, the sea arches, and the hiking trails. Later we’d reach Hana and scramble along the shore for a glimpse of Red Sand Beach on Kaihalulu Bay. With few lunch options, signs for Huli Huli chicken lured us just past Hana to Koki Beach for a meal with musical accompaniment.
We knew we were missing some of the more spectacular sights past Hana, but satisfied, we enjoyed the return ride with views from the opposite direction. And we were happy to have some of the afternoon to relax and explore the grounds at the Hyatt. The 750,000-gallon pool has a 150-food lava tube water slide. There are six tennis courts and two 18-hold championship golf courses. And you can even take a wildlife tour to learn about the many exotic birds on the grounds, including South African penguins, macaws, flamingos, and African crowned cranes.
Our exploration necessitated a stop at the convenient Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice stand by the pool. Shave ice in the heat of the Hawaiian sun is a good thing.
After taking in the captivating sunset, it was time for dinner at Japengo, right on the grounds of the hotel. I was admittedly a bit leery of the mini-chain, but pleasantly surprised with the meal. The indoor/outdoor patio sports gorgeous views (this has already become a recurring dinner theme!), and there’s a sushi bar for those who prefer that type of seating. On that note, we ate a requisite crazy roll; everything, while sometimes on the sweet side, was well-executed, and I especially enjoyed the chow fun.
One of the unique activities to do at the Hyatt is the “Tour of the Stars.” You’re headed to the roof (be forewarned: some may say otherwise, but you’ll likely want a light sweater or jacket) to take advantage of dark skies and a variety of telescopes, including one that’s computerized and quite high-powered. An astronomical expert is on hand to set the scopes to stars, planets, and galaxies, providing a science lesson that’s actually fun. There’s even a couples-only Romance Tour that includes champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s an enlightening way to end an evening.
Day 3: Ka’anapali to Wailea (Noodles, Poke, and a Tasting Menu)
Finally, an unrushed morning, though time to pack as it was moving day from West Maui to South Maui. And with that, a realization that with all the rushing around, we’d yet to see Lahaina.
The day started at Aloha Mixed Plate, with a friendly vibe and a patio meant for lounging over a slow breakfast. Mixed results on the order: much better loco moco than at Da Kitchen, but disappointment with the saimin. To be fair, as a ramen lover, I’m guessing this has to do more with the dish than the specific preparation at this restaurant. My sense is that saimin generally lacks the richness of ramen that I truly love.
From there, we enjoyed a stroll through Lahaina. We found some food gifts at one of the supermarkets, and more at one of the tourist-oriented souvenir stores. Our primary destination, though, was the famed banyan tree, a marvel at over 60 feet high and over 150 years old.
This noodle lover really looked forward to lunch at Star Noodle, made famous by chef Sheldon Simeon, who was one of the contestants in the Seattle season of Bravo’s Top Chef. The restaurant’s food really reflects my style, with interesting ingredient combinations and bold flavors. This lunch was probably the best meal of my time in Maui, from the pohole salad to the poke and crudo to the two interesting noodle dishes.
As long as you’re at Star Noodle, you should stop in at the local Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors, just a stone’s throw away. You won’t be alone if, like me, you’re not there for the alcohol, but instead for the poke. Tamura’s has a surprisingly large selection of poke, and the workers are generous in providing samples of anything you’d like to taste.
After a 45-minute drive, we arrived at the Fairmont Kea Lani and were immediately in awe of the resort. The lobby, the service, the suite, and the immense balcony were all breathtaking. We couldn’t wait to have time to take it all in.
But, first, a highly anticipated visit to the Grand Wailea Resort for a spa treatment and dinner. “Grande” is an appropriate word for the Spa Grande, the largest spa in Hawaii with 40 treatment rooms in a 50,000 square foot space. It’s most known for its Terme Hydrotherapy Circuit, “a unique haven of water therapies featuring a Roman tub, saunas, cascading waterfalls, Swiss jet showers, a Japanese furo and five specialty baths.” Note that there’s one such circuit on each side of the spa (!), as they’re single-gender only.
It’s actually a little overwhelming at first, but one of the attendants will walk you through the process with bathing circuit suggestions. That person will also summon you for your full-body loofah scrub, and then let you know when it’s time to head for your actual treatment. You have an hour in water paradise before your treatment, so it’s important to budget your time accordingly. Most captivating to me were the colorful salt baths; while you soak, an information sheet lets you learn more about the benefits of each type of salt.
As at Spa Montage, I rendezvoused with my wife in a common area, and then our massage therapists led us to a treatment room for our lomi lomi massages. This traditional Hawaiian-style massage uses a lot of forearm and elbow movement to deploy medium pressure. Soothing and relaxing!
After the relaxing treatment, we navigated our way through the enormous property for dinner at Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Much to our surprise and delight, the restaurant treated us to a semi-secluded huge table on a deck jutting out on the water. The atmosphere was extremely romantic, and the chef sent out a tasting menu of dishes. We were there to simply relax, eat, and relish. As eating is done with all the senses, I wish I could have seen the food as part of the experience (only by touching up the photos do I get an idea of how it all looked), but we enjoyed the seafood-heavy meal regardless. Stuffed, I was tempted to snooze in the chair, but we took the short walk along the water back to our hotel.
Day 4: Early Morning Coffee (Farm), a Mango, and a Final Day at the Fairmont
The fourth and final day, I woke up early to go to Upcountry Maui to visit O’o Farm. This farm has a mission of sustainability and biodynamic cultivation, providing product for its local restaurants. There’s a general farm tour, but I was excited to be part of the coffee tour. Hawaii is the only state in the United States with the ability to grow coffee beans (it’s got the right elevation, temperatures, etc.), and O’o Farm is quite special in offering a bean to cup (or, rather, a “seed to cup”) experience.
The thermometer reading in my car plummeted as I drove from sea level up to the farm, with the cool air quite refreshing. At O’o, farm manager Richard Clark greeting the assembled group and walked us through the coffee trees, explaining the growing and harvesting process, and fielding questions from general to geeky. (The tour also provides some insight into the overall workings of the farm.) Soon it would be time for breakfast, which the on-site chef prepared in the outdoor kitchen using as many farm products as possible, yielding scones, salad, quiche, and of course coffee (French press).
After breakfast, the tour continued and reached its conclusion at the coffee “shop” where we learned more about the beans and the roasting process. Clark then played barista in providing samples of pour-over coffee and then pulled shots of espresso, with steamed milk available for those (how dare they!) who preferred lattes. While I’m not a big fan of Hawaiian coffees, the tour was truly a unique and informative experience, and I really appreciate the farm’s mission.
While Upcountry, food lovers will find opportunities to visit a lavender farm, goat farm (with goat cheese samplings), a winery (pineapple wine, anyone?), and more. While I made a stop at Kula Country Farms to buy some strawberries (u-pick is also available), I was anxious to get back to the hotel to enjoy the Fairmont for the final half-day of my Maui stay. En route, though, I had to make two stops in Kihei.
One would be at Eskimo Candy for some poke to go. Business was bustling at this popular eatery. We would soon enjoy the poke on that enormous balcony of our room at the Fairmont.
The other stop, highly anticipated, was Yee’s Orchard & Fruit Stand. Friends in Seattle raved about the mangos, so this was the must-try. (I got great bananas here as well.) Everyone talks about the Goldenglows being the best, but the vendor encouraged me to try the Alimomis, which I actually liked better. Oh, the Goldenglows were truly sweet, but there was something extra special about the Alimomis—perhaps the depth of flavor.
In the afterglow of the Goldenglows and Alimomis (that’s so fun to say aloud), I was quite content to sit on the balcony and enjoy the view, but my wife said, “You brought your swimsuit, so you really must get into the water.” As she had earlier that morning seen one of the “Seinfeld Four” (this after enjoying complimentary use of snorkel gear and seeing the amazing underwater world), this tempted me to mill about the people. And, yes, to finally enjoy the beach chairs and, indeed, the ocean. Part of the paradise at the Fairmont Kea Lani.
Late afternoon, we did leave the hotel for happy hour at Migrant, which is where Sheldon Simeon is now in the kitchen. With dinner to follow, we sampled four dishes, finding some familiar and favorite flavors. All were delicious, with the hanger steak most memorable. If I had to spend extensive time in Maui, I’m sure that Star Noodle and Migrant would be my most frequented restaurants.
Following happy hour, we slowly strolled the Wailea Coastal Walk back to the Fairmont, eventually settling in for dinner at Ko restaurant, which offers “cuisine inspired by the sugarcane plantation era.” This would be another open-air affair with a (very) friendly server, who helped us navigate an entrée menu that includes sections called “Makai Catch,” “Plantation Traditions,” and “Ko Specialties.” We enjoyed our starters before starting to succumb to full stomachs as the entrees arrived—with the zarzuela better than the Makai Catch. As I ate the dessert sampler, I thought that as with previous meals, the experience was charming and sweet.
Thinking back on the Ko meal and my difficult decision-making about which Makai Catch preparation to try, I realize I probably should have trusted my instincts in getting the “Ginger Steamed” option with its relative simplicity, plus all of its Asian flavors. Instead, I tried to go “local” in selecting the “Macadamia Nut Crust.” Unfortunately, this hid the flavor of the fish, and the accompanying mashed Molokai sweet potatoes made the whole dish a little too sweet (albeit prettily purple!).
My time in Maui reminded of my time in Ireland many years ago. There’s a bounty of excellent product, especially seafood in the surrounding waters and agricultural products from the areas of fertile land. It’s simply about preparation. Ireland was changing when I was there, going beyond fried fish to some finer dining preparations. Maui’s a sweet place to visit, but I’d like the food to be less sweet. Or, I should say, naturally sweet, like that memorable Kula corn at Cane & Canoe, or the mangos from Yee’s Orchard. There’s wonderful potential for food in this fantastic place to visit.
Thanks to the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau and its hotel, restaurant, spa, and attraction members for hosting or partially hosting me in Maui.