In the wake of the devastating fires which destroyed the town of Lahaina, scores of tourists cancelled their trips to the island. Because Maui´s economy mostly runs on tourism, there were pleas for tourists to visit the eastern unaffected side of the island. Airlines and car rental companies offered huge discounts to visit Maui: think sub-$200 roundtrip flights and $30/day for a rental car. This was enough to convince Maisie to join me for a 4-day trip.
Unfortunately, the big discounts did not apply to lodging, which was actually more expensive. While Maui traditionally has the most expensive lodging prices in all of Hawaii, the problem is most likely compounded by fire refugees taking up much of the budget stock. The only options we could find below $400/night or without a $300+ “cleaning fee” was a backpacker hostel. We booked a private room, shared bathroom for $192/night for 2 nights and 2 dorm beds at $65/person for the third night when the private was booked out. For me, these prices have only been topped by Reykjavik, Iceland during the peak of its tourism boom.
September 21, 2023: South Maui
After a surprisingly turbulent landing, we arrived at Maui´s Kahului Airport. The rental car terminal was empty, and we could see hundreds of unused cars parked on a grassy lawn.
We immediately drove south towards Kihei.
Maui has two large volcanos: the 10,023 ft Haleakala in the east and the now eroded and unnamed western volcano which now has a high point of 5,788 ft. Most of the people in Maui lives in the valley between the two volcanos. It is from here that the island gets its nickname The Valley Isle.
Despite the reputation of Hawaii, the valley is not pretty. The vacant land taking up most of the valley used to grow sugar cane until 2016. There are rumors that the land will soon be used grow other crops, but to me this seems like the perfect place to build the desperately needed housing. Scattered throughout the valley are various sprawling towns. They are connected by freeway-equivalents where the speed limit is 45 mph, but everybody is going at least 65.
At the south end of the valley, stretching down the western shore of Haleakala is the region known as South Maui. The largest town in the region is Kihei. We ate lunch at the normally very-popular Kihei Café but due to the fires, there was no line. I ordered a pork fried rice while Maisie got macadamia nut pancakes.
With full stomachs, we drove south past Wailea to Makena State Park. There is a $10 parking fee for non-Hawaii residents, but we got around it by parking for free on the street. The state park is a small peninsula consisting of several beaches. We opted for Big Beach, a wide sandy beach with crystal clear water.
The weather was hot, so I cooled down with a coconut bought from a street vendor. While it cost an outrageous $13, it was a godsend. I appreciate how everybody has incorporated the Hawaiian words “aloha” and “mahalo” into their normal speech regardless of ethnicity.
The ocean was warm – probably 80-82 degrees F (26-27 C) – but not as warm as El Salvador. We lounged here for about 2 hours.
Heading north, we stopped in Wailea, home of the largest and most upscale resorts on the island. When I was a child, my parents took my sister and I twice to the Grand Wailea Resort here. While most of the land is privately owned, there is some public parking to access the beachfront path that connects all the resorts.
I took a little trip down memory lane walking from the Andaz down to the Four Seasons and back. We took some time to explore the Grand Wailea, which looks just as I remembered. Its pool complex still is the most impressive of anywhere in the world (Atlantis in Nassau and Dubai has a much larger waterpark, but I would argue that those are full-fledged open-to-the-public waterparks attached to a hotel as opposed to a resort pool).
Along the beachfront path were many cats. Maisie mentioned that if she could come back in another life, she would love to be one of these cats. Despite looking cute, they are feral. It is estimated that there are 40,000 feral cats on Maui.
After a quick stop for a beer at the Maui Brewing Company, we drove to our hostel in Wailuku, the government center of Maui County which includes the island of Maui and 3 neighboring islands. The town was very quiet; Maisie commented that it reminded her of the small towns in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Despite the quiet of the town, the hostel was buzzing. They were getting ready for Margarita Night where you could get free margaritas for 2 hours. The hostel was great, but one weird part about the stay was that everybody working there was a volunteer (mostly in their early 20´s). This is a win-win because the volunteers get to travel for free and the hostel does not need to hire staff. Because they could not get paid by the hostel as volunteers, everybody had a tip jar out.
Maisie and I walked to a WWII-era diner for dinner. I ordered saimin, a Hawaiian noodle dish.
It was 19:00 when we got back to the hostel and Margarita Night has just kicked off. I sipped my margarita and chatted with fellow travelers. Eventually, an impromptu open mic night started. A girl from Ireland took out a ukulele and played “Riptide” by Vance Joy as the small crowd clapped along. The party reportedly went late into the night.
September 22, 2023: Haleakala and the Upcountry
Today, our plan was to check out Haleakala, the 10,023 ft tall volcano that dominates the eastern side of Maui. The upper reaches of the volcano are a National Park.
We headed out after the free hostel breakfast consisting of chocolate pancakes cooked by a college-aged sleepy volunteer. And yes there was a tip jar out.
The drive up the volcano took 1 hour. Halfway up, we passed by a lady giving out free water to residents. Apparently, the Lahaina fire was not the only disaster to strike Maui: the Upcountry region lost access to clean water due to damage to the water pipes from another fire in Kula.
The weather was rainy, foggy, and cold, but we were told by locals that the island is full of microclimates and the weather at the summit is often clear in these conditions. While the bottom of the mountain was functionally a desert, here we were driving through eucalyptus forests and cattle ranches.
At the 7,000 ft elevation mark, we officially entered Healeakala National Park. The ranger said that the park is “socked in with rain”. Since we had made it this far, we kept driving to the summit.
As we climbed, we occasionally neared the end of the fog, and the sky would lighten. But we never breached. Eventually we reached the parking lot for the very short summit trail.
The terrain on the summit is best described as the surface of Mars. An alpine desert with red rocks, almost no life exists here except for the endemic silversword.
As we climbed the concrete walkway, the clouds swirled and occasionally we were graced by glances of blue skies and the surrounding terrain. Then seconds later, the skies would be foggy again. At the summit itself is a hut currently closed to the public. We stayed for 5 minutes admiring the magical and powerful atmosphere. I understand why the Native Hawaiians have found this place sacred: the freezing weather and surreal terrain make this place quite different from the rest of the island.
After attempting a hike on the crater rim, Maisie felt altitude sickness, so we began our descent.
The lower western slopes of the mountain contain a series of towns and housing communities collectively known as the Upcountry. We pulled into the home of my friend Sidney. Sidney and her husband Brian retired and moved to Maui in 2017. They bought a house in the Upcountry that coincidentally is next door to one of their good friends. They absolutely love the island life and have no intention of ever leaving.
Sidney took Maisie and me to lunch in the town of Makawao, a cute village 10 minutes from their home. Located 1,500 feet above sea level, the weather is noticeably cooler (aka more pleasant) than on the beach. The historic town was full of businesses but very few people due to the fires. Charming and exceedingly outgoing, Sidney seemed to know many of the locals. We ate lunch at a café called Freshies. I ordered a red Thai curry.
Sidney then drove us to a beach called Ho´okipa on the north shore of the island. The beach is very much a locals´ spot and most of the people there were going to surf. The beach also is home to dozens of leatherback sea turtles. I have never seen such large turtles! They lounged on the beach, occasionally scooping sand onto their backs for temperature regulation. The scene was surreal.
After saying goodbye, Maisie and I headed into Kahului for an unusual attraction: the Petco. The store is normal but holds a special place to Maisie. Before moving to LA, Maisie was unhappily living in New York and found a job opportunity as a pet stylist at the Kahului Petco. After taking a multi-hour personality test, she was brutally rejected. Maisie often thinks about what her life could have been had she gotten the job. I, for one, am very thankful to Petco because we would have never met had she moved to Maui.
With emotions running strong, we went back to Kihei for some shave ice at the famous Ululani´s. Shave ice (not shaved ice) is a classic Hawaiian food. Compared to a sno-cone, the ice is far more finely shaved. Ululani´s is considered to be the best shave ice on the island if not in all of Hawaii due to the syrups being made from pure cane sugar. They have many flavors including rare tropical fruits. I opted for mango, coconut and lilikoi (passionfruit) which was described on the menu as “No Ka Oi” aka The Best. While I haven´t had all the flavors, I can say with confidence that this is the best shave ice I have ever had.
For dinner, we headed to the town of Paia, located on the northeast corner of the valley. Paia is home to the famous Paia Fish Market, one of the most popular restaurants on the island. They serve various types of local fish grilled with sides. There is typically a long line out the door to order, but due to the fires and lack of tourists, we only had to wait behind 1 other party. I ordered the ono grilled Cajun style. It was incredible.
Back at the hostel, the big group was out at a sunset ceremony, so we went to bed early to rest up for our big day on the Road to Hana.
This island seems to have it all: desert, jungle, treeless alpine summits, and farmland. The multiple zones allow for “climate arbitrage”. The fancy resorts on the south are in the desert rain shadow but are landscaped like and use water from the lush rainy north side. A large portion of the population lives upcountry where the weather is cooler but can drive downhill and be on the beach in 15 minutes.
As a result of this unbelievable topography (plus being passport-free for 350 million Americans) the demand to be here is sky high. Consequently, the cost to live and stay here is laughable: a chain motel room was $400/night and a single night at a Wailea resort is upwards of $1200/night. Everybody acknowledges that the cost of living is a major problem especially for Native Hawaiians but nobody can agree on a fix. To me, the best solution would be to build lots of new housing on the unattractive vacant farmland in the center of the valley, which would preserve the character of the coastal communities and avoid potential land battles with resort developers. Regardless of the solution, the lack of action will only worsen the problems at hand.
The lodging pricing is so ridiculous on Maui that I would not recommend visiting if you are looking for a tropical beach vacation. For the cost of a single night on Maui, you can probably spend a week in a hotel of similar quality in Central America, which by the way has warmer water and more tourist-friendly locals. Even Caribbean destinations including the also-passport-free Puerto Rico are a fraction of the cost. Heck, it might even be cheaper to fly to Zanzibar or Bali than to go to Maui.
To me, Maui seems like an amazing place to live. Everybody in Sidney’s community seemed exceedingly friendly to each other – even if they did not know each other. There is an infectious aura of chillness and satisfaction because they live in paradise. I get the feeling that Maui is a place where residents help each other out without question.
First things first, Maui needs to recover from the fire, but then the government, people and business leaders need to figure out what type of island they want to be.