I recently returned from a girls trip to Maui over New Years. And I loved it so much, I went again on a family trip in March 2021.
Like many of you, I haven’t left my state in nearly a year. There’s really no elegant way to put it, it’s sucked. I used to get on a plane every other month. When I found myself going through the vacation process it felt like learning to ride a bike again.
I forgot so many emotions that come with travel; the excitement of packing my bags and arriving at the airport, making sure I have everything in order, and watching the buildings get smaller and smaller as we lift off toward the sky.
Of course, planning your trip to Hawaii right now takes some extra work. First, you need to decide which island you want to visit. Currently, most of the islands are open, so it’s important to check the requirements for the individual island you’re planning on visiting.
Travel to Maui During COVID-19
Maui is open to US Travelers and some International trans-Pacific travel (check their website for the full listing of countries).
When planning your trip, be sure to first visit the Hawaii Safe Travels Website. They outline the current policies in place to fly.
When we went, we needed to create an account, get our COVID test 72hrs before flying, update travel information on our Hawaii Safe Travels account 24hrs before flying (along with our negative test and QR code), print everything, then we were off!
All of this information and the relevant forms are available on the Hawaii COVID-19 Website. The website is updated frequently, so be sure to review the updated rules when booking your trip. It looks like a lot but it’s really not too bad. Fill out some paperwork, get your negative test within the required time, and print everything out (and make sure you can access your account from your phone).
If you fly Alaska Airlines (some other airlines are also participating) you also get a pre-clear wristband. This allows you to bypass the long line once you arrive!
And if you don’t have an Alaska Airlines card, they offer very generous signup bonuses (40k miles) and you get a companion fare ($99 + taxes) every year. So it may be worth it to sign up just for your trip! Check out their website for all of the details (this is not sponsored, I just love my Alaska card).
Planning Your Trip
When we started planning, my main criteria was to stay at a more secluded island with plenty of socially distant options. I’ve visited Oahu a few times, and personally wanted to explore a new island.
Maui is currently welcoming tourists and had rave reviews from my friends and family. Side Note: I live in Alaska where it seems half the population normally flies to Hawaii each winter to escape the cold, myself included, so I know many people who travel there somewhat regularly (non-COVID times).
Based on their reviews and my limited research, we decided to visit Maui. And I am SO glad we chose this island. I completely fell in love with Maui and found it a great island for socially distant activities.
Booking Tip! When you’re looking at flights and when you want to leave, be sure to plan in 72 hours to get your test. For example, I wouldn’t recommend flying on a Wednesday if there aren’t any approved testing sites open on Sunday. The same goes for holidays too, so be sure to plan your flight date around testing sites and their hours. However, many places do guarantee a turnaround time of 48 hours for travel, so check with your local testing site to see their most up-to-date policies.
Reasons to Visit Maui
To start, if you love whale watching, Maui is the best spot in winter months to see whales. Both times I went I saw whales everywhere, all the time. You couldn’t miss them. They were incredibly active and you could see them breach right from the beach.
Here are the other things I quickly came to love about Maui:
- The food is fantastic – Truly, every meal we had was great. The food was fresh, the seafood was fantastic, and there was not one meal where I felt I’d fallen into a tourist trap.
- The people are friendly – Everyone we met was so kind and genuinely happy we were there. We met people from all over the US while there too.
- There’s a lot to do – If you want to go on a week-long vacation, Maui is packed with things to do. From the popular Road to Hana, watching a crater at 10,000ft at sunrise, checking out the cute towns around the island, whale watching, seeing green sea turtles come to shore to rest, visiting multiple beaches, going to an outdoor aquarium, walking Front Street, snorkeling all over the island, and hiking, there’s something for everyone.
- It’s Beautiful – Inland are stunning tall mountains that look like something out of Jurassic Park, the shores are packed with sandy beaches, there are lush forests and waterfalls all over, and at least once a day you’ll see a rainbow.
- It’s not too populated – Compared to Oahu, Maui felt much more laid back. There are fewer people meaning fewer cars and traffic. It’s also a larger island, so there’s more room to move about.
Costs are always relative, so relatively speaking, Hawaii is an expensive place to visit. Lodging will be your greatest expense. Food can be inexpensive or Michelin star expensive. To save on food costs, I’d recommend checking out the local restaurants and fresh stands on the side of the road. Eating away from the beach will always save money.
Getting breakfast and the basics at the store will save you a lot, although you will find that groceries are more pricey in Maui. It is an island after all.
There are plenty of free activities and also excursions you can book. Free activities include beach time, sneaking into a pool at a resort (kidding!..), hiking, searching for waterfalls, whale watching, watching sea turtles, driving Hana (except gas), driving to Haleakala (also need gas), and really any outdoor activity.
This was our cost breakdown:
Lodging: Our condo on the water was $315/night for a 2 bedroom. This is WAY more than we would ever spend on a place to sleep, but the oceanfront view was worth the splurge. We also justified the price since we hadn’t traveled in a year. The condo had a 20% discount because we booked more than 5 days.
I saw 2 bedroom Airbnb’s for half the price. In general, you can expect to spend $100+ a night unless you can couch surf, rent a room, or camp somewhere.
Food: Since we hadn’t vacationed in a year, we wanted to enjoy ourselves. Lunch was typically $50-65 for three of us and dinner was $60-90. You can spend MUCH less than that. The taco place down the street from us served loaded pork tacos for $4.95 a piece, and there are food trucks and inexpensive meals everywhere. Since we sat down at a restaurant for most meals, we paid more.
Car Rental: I was able to snag a full-size sedan at Budget for $340 for 8 days, which I thought was a decent price. I booked through my Alaska Airlines card which saved me money as well. If you have a credit card, you likely have car rental insurance which will also save you money. Check with them before you go.
Flights: We used one of our companion fares with Alaska Airlines, so essentially one flight was free. The other two flights were about $1000 each ($2000 total), which is more than I wanted to spend. But when you travel and you have exact dates in mind (spring break), and plan to book with a particular airline, then you are stuck with those prices.
If you are new to travel or want to find a better deal, it’s always better if you are flexible with your dates, can avoid weekend travel, and have multiple airlines to choose from.
Best Time of Year to Visit Maui
The temperature year-round doesn’t change too much. It’s about a 10-degree difference in January vs July (an average high of 80 vs 89).
December to March is rainier with lower temperatures. I do not like hot weather (oh hi…Alaskan here) so the winter months are perfect for me. I also don’t mind the occasional rain throughout the day. Winter is also when the whales are in Hawaii. For that reason, it’s personally my favorite time to visit.
No matter when you plan your trip though, there’s really no bad time to visit Maui!
Book Your Excursions Ahead of Time
Maui is picking up again as a popular vacation destination. Between New Years’ and when I visited in March, I could tell there were a lot more visitors than just a few months back. Because of this, Luau’s and popular restaurants are booking out well in advance. We missed out on Mama’s Fish House and a few other things because we didn’t plan accordingly.
The same goes for the Maui Ocean Center (Aquarium) – tickets must be purchased ahead of time and capacity is currently limited. When we arrived we watched a family with small children make that realization once they got there, so plan ahead!
Packing List for Maui
Here is your packing list for Maui. Many snorkels and fins can be rented while there. I bought a snorkel set for $16 at the local ABC store, then rented fins. I found that to be less expensive than renting the entire snorkel set, but if you don’t plan to use snorkel gear again, renting may be a better option. Shops are all over the island.
I would also suggest checking with your hotel or Airbnb to see if they offer beach gear as part of your stay. Our condo came with lounge chairs, kids’ beach toys, and a snorkel set. It was missing an umbrella though, which is nice on a long beach day.
- Water Shoes – I have these ones and get comments on them all the time. They’re small, easy to pack, and inexpensive. I love water shoes for unexpected rocky or volcanic areas in the water or at waterfalls. I really throw them on whenever I am going into the water (except pools, although they would help with the hot tiles).
- Compression Cubes – Pack everything you need with compression cubes. They’re the one packing item I never knew I needed. I love these packing cubes in particular, and the creators behind them have some awesome content on YouTube. The laundry bag also comes in handy!
- Beach Bag – You can pick one up in Maui, but this one from Amazon is inexpensive and really cute. If you’re traveling with kids (like us), having a beach bag on hand saves you from an unnecessary store run full of whining.
- Cooler Bag – A cooler bag comes in really handy at the beach. Don’t worry about lugging an awkward cooler, instead get a cooler bag that you can easily tote around. They also work great beyond vacation i.e. long car rides, camping, holding groceries, etc. This one is only $26.
- A Day Bag – This lightweight compact backpack takes up virtually no room in your suitcase
Maui is known as the resort island. After visiting twice this year, I can see why. It seems every large hotel has a resort beachside in Maui.
If you want a floating river, large pools, and tons of amenities, there’s a resort for you. Most of the resorts are located in two locations; South between Kihei and Wailea, or West starting in Lahaina and going north along the beach.
The Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, tops the list with 9 pools on 6 levels, 5 slides, 6 waterfalls, caves, 3 jacuzzi’s….and that’s the just pool area. You have to be a guest to enjoy these amenities, so it may be worth it to splurge for a night (or two). Now that I’m not there I regret not staying for at least one night.
If dropping $800 a night on a room doesn’t sound appealing, there are much more affordable options. The Westin Maui is on Ka’anapali Beach in West Maui and offers rates around $400-600.
Further north there are smaller resorts such as Valley Isle. You can book studio, 1-bedroom, or 2-bedroom condos. The website is a bit clunky, so I’d recommend booking via booking.com which has free cancellation on most properties. The rates are also really good ($150+/night).
We stayed at the Noelani Condos in West Maui on Lower Honoapi’ilani Rd. Our unit (310) had two beds, two baths and was a corner unit. This meant we had ocean views and views of the pool and mountains to the northwest. I loved it.
But there are MANY choices. I also looked at this one in Kihei and this one in Lahaina. I like the second option because it has a free beach shuttle and is within walking distance of Whalers Village. Booking.com has free cancellation on most properties, which is necessary right now with COVID.
Here are a few others that I highly recommend:
- Napili Shores Maui is North of Lahaina and offers spacious condos with fantastic beachfront views.
- Iao Valley Inn is a unique stay away from the ocean in the Iao Valley.
Things Not to miss in Maui
Sunset at Papawai Scenic Lookout (Whale Lookout Point)
We stopped here MANY times. People would bring camping chairs to sit and watch the sunset. This small parking lot gets packed fast, so arrive early to secure your spot!
We didn’t do a luau, and I know it’s touristy, but it would have been so fun for our son. These book up weeks in advance, so start looking now. They are all over the island, with many located right at the resorts.
Top Luau’s Maui:
Road to Hana
This is pretty much THE thing to do in Maui. There’s an app called Gypsy Guide that will, well, guide you along the road. It ties to your GPS so it’s always up to speed. This is important, as cell reception becomes non-existent in many areas, so don’t skip this step!
This trip could cover an entire post in itself. The main points are that it’s meant to be enjoyed and multiple stops are encouraged. Stop at the waterfalls, stop at the small coffee shop, go to the parks, etc. Plan to spend at least 10-12 hours enjoying the Road to Hana.
Consider your vehicle; a more narrow car will be able to pass more easily. But a Jeep or even sedan can maneuver some of the off road stuff (which isn’t required).
Also note that most people enter from the North and head south, and then go back. At the bottom is about a 5 mile stretch of gravel road, and most car rentals will tell you it’s off limits because of all the potholes and gravel.
Huge Waves in North Maui
North Maui is a famous surf spot for seeing surfers on big waves. Located just before starting the Road to Hana, there are a few good spots to stop. Ho‘okipa has a large parking area and there’s also Peahi, which is known as “Jaws”. This is an easy stop after breakfast in Paia and on the way to Hana.
Front Street – Lahaina
If you want to see beautiful art and do some shopping, you have to visit Front Street. It’s located adjacent to the water and there are many oceanfront restaurants with 180 views. Our 4 year old loved looking at the various art galleries.
Along Front Street is also the largest tree in the US. This Banyan Tree, gifted from India in the 1800’s, covers almost 2 acres and takes up an entire block. The tree is made up of multiple tree trunks that formed from the roots over the years.
It’s definitely worth a stop on the street.
There is free parking behind Waikiki Brewing and the shops. At the other end of Front Street there’s a large gravel parking lot that’s free for 3 hours.
Hike Iao Valley State Park
The Iao Valley is beautiful and a short 30-minute drive from Paia. The highlight of the park is the Iao Needle. It’s not a long trip as the ‘hike’ is .6 miles and beyond that there’s a trail that leads to the river. An hour is plenty of time to explore, although parking is limited to it may take some extra time if you need to wait.
Paia is a cute town with a lot of shops, artwork, and restaurants. We went twice and ate at Milagro’s and Cafe des Amis. We were really impressed with the food at both restaurants.
Paia can easily be combined with waves in North Maui, Iao Valley, and Road to Hana (depending on when you leave).
Parking fills quickly along the street, but there are a few paid parking lots to choose from.
Honolua Bay and Trail
This beautiful area is on West Maui as you head north on Honoapi’ilani Hwy. The trail is short, but the massive trees lining the trail are something you won’t want to miss. At the end of the trail is access to Honolua Bay, a popular snorkeling spot on the island.
If you just walk the trail, this trip will only take about 20-30 minutes. Parking is extremely limited; you can park along the narrow street in a few areas, and there’s a small gravel parking lot at the bottom of the hill, just past the bridge.
Turtle Town or Sea Turtle Viewing
If you visit Maui, sea turtles should be at the top of your list. Maluaka Beach is in the area known as Turtle Town, and a popular spot for snorkeling and viewing sea turtles. It’s south of Wailea, so if you aren’t in the area, there are MANY other places where you can find sea turtles.
On West Maui, we swam with sea turtles at Baby Beach, which isn’t known for sea turtles. When we went in March, the turtles would climb to shore and eat the algae right in front of our condo (Noelani).
Excursions in Maui
Bike Down Haleakala Crater
When traveling with a 4-year old you’re a bit limited with really active activities. So I sat this one out and my husband booked the bike trip. He didn’t do the sunrise tour as they were all booked. But, he was able to find one that started at 7am.
He said it was one of his favorite things from the trip.
They drove him up near the top of Haleakala and he rode all the way down. Because there was recent flooding, he wasn’t able to start at the top but near the top. So they drove him up twice so he could ride longer.
Snorkel Molokini Crater
Molokini crater is about a 5-6 hour trip. The crater is popular for it’s crystal clear water and great sea life viewing. We decided on a FourWinds snorkel tour because it’s highly rated for families. The boat had a sea glass bottom and they had all the gear you could need, including Snuba gear.
For our 4-year old, they had plastic floating boats (about the size of a boogie board) with plexiglass to see the fish while floating. Unfortunately, he was not into it, so he stayed on the boat for the most part.
If you prefer to swim with turtles, skip Molokini and book a sea turtle (typically turtle town) tour.
If you visit between December and April, whale watching is a MUST. There are a bunch of different tours that run daily. We went with SeaMaui and had such a great experience our friend booked another tour with them.
We did this 2-hour tour with SeaMaui. I really liked the boat; it’s a catamaran with a large netting area right above the water. Not all tours have nice boats, so it’s important to take a look at the layout and details of the tour.
Best Restaurants in Maui
You know a place you visited had good food when you’re reminiscing about your favorites dishes weeks later.
Most of our meals were great, and some were REALLY great.
My husband and I like eating good food, and nothing is more frustrating than spending $80 on something you could have cooked better at home. So, I don’t make my recommendations lightly.
I also try to avoid heavy and deep-fried food, and prefer places with fresh ingredients whenever possible.
The high-end restaurants in Maui almost always require a reservation, often booked at least a week in advance. So if food is at the top of your travel list, be sure to do your research beforehand and book accordingly.
Here were some of our favorites:
Fish Market Maui – Located in West Maui on Lower Honoapiilani Rd, this place serves up fantastic fresh Poke and fish, among other things. Fish is caught daily, and once it’s out, it’s out. It’s not really a restaurant but a pick up place. If you are nearby, it’s definitely worth a stop!
Miso Phat Sushi- Just up the road is Miso Phat. If you’re craving sushi this will hit the spot. Admittedly, there’s a local place in Alaska that I prefer, but I would not be upset eating here daily!
Cafe Des Amis – Referred to as soul food, we found this little spot to really hit the spot (heh..). If Mediterranean vegetables, feta & pesto crepe or Maui Grass Fed Beef Curry sounds good, then this is the place to be.
Milagro’s Food Co – Admittedly, I thought this place would be a bit touristy with all the signs and too perfect location in Paia. But their margaritas really were the best on the island, and the food was delicious. The chicken caesar salad was the best I’ve ever had (and the portion was huge). My husband ordered the shrimp fajitas, a dish he orders quite a bit, and said it was the best shrimp fajitas he’d ever had.
Leilani’s on the Beach – This was another place where I didn’t have high expectations. I assumed the food would be subpar since it was in a prime location. Luckily, I was completely wrong. This restaurant at Whaler’s Village in West Maui had delicious and fresh food.
Waikiki Brewing Company – Located on Front Street, this place has some delicious options. The brisket, wings, and sliders were all delicious.
Some of the best restaurants on the island include Mama’s Fish House and Fleetwood’s (owned by famous Mick Fleetwood). These both require reservations at least a week ahead of time.
If you stay on West Maui, many restaurants are at the resorts. If you’re not staying at a resort, just know this can be a little annoying since you have to find parking then walk a bit to find the restaurant.
We stopped by Duke’s one day and found the drinks and food to be really good, albeit a bit pricey.
Best Beaches in Maui
Best for Families – Baby Beach is a nice little local spot in Lahaina on the West side of the island. Plug in “Baby Beach” and you’ll be brought right to it. When you make your final turn, there are two roads that split. Google told us to go right, but if you curve left there is parking by the cemetery. There are usually spots available in the morning and throughout the day.
I love it for small children because there are no waves and the water doesn’t get higher than your knees/mid thigh. We could sit in the sand while our 4 year old ran in and out of the water. It’s also not a super busy beach.
Best for Swimming in the Water – If you want to get a nice swim (and snorkel), I’d recommend Ka’anapali Beach. This beach is in front of all of the resorts in West Maui, so if you’re not staying at one of these resorts you will need to find parking.
The resorts make this a popular beach and the most crowded one we visited. But there are miles of sand to spread out, so you should be able to find a spot. It’s also nice for people watching. There is a large parking garage at The Whalers Village, and it fills early. We went at 9am and there were plenty of spots, but by the time we left at 11:30 it was packed.
Ka’anapali is the same place where you’ll find Black Rock Beach and cliff jumping.
Best for Snorkeling – Snorkeling is pretty good all over the island. At baby beach I swam with sea turtles for hours with my girlfriends. Ka’anapali has a large reef area. Up North, Honolua is known for snorkeling (it’s called ‘Snorkel Honolua’ on Google Maps). It’s a nice bay but parking is limited – there are small spots off Honoapiilani Hwy to get to the access trail.
Best for Whale Watching – The whales can be best viewed almost anywhere on the West and Southern areas of Maui. We were further North but watched them breach from our balcony daily. But the BEST spot for seeing whales was near the Ukumehame Beach Park.
The stretch of Honoapiilani Hwy near Ukumehame beach park is great for seeing whales up close. We drove by the area on three different days in the morning and there were whales really close to the beach. South of there is Papawai Scenic Lookout, or Whale Lookout Point, and you are guaranteed to see whales (but there’s not much for a beach there).
Best Family Activities in Maui
Our 4-year-old had a blast in Maui, although if you ask him about his favorite activity, he will tell you all about the whale movie at the aquarium sphere. I highlighted some of these above as well, but these activities were fun for both him and us.
He even surprised us a few times with what he enjoyed doing, including Front Street in Lahaina. So really, I’d say almost anything can be fun for kids, but these are more family oriented.
Boat Tour – We did a boat tour to Molokini Crater. Since our son is 4 and hasn’t learned to swim here in Alaska (thanks pandemic), the snorkeling was too much for him. But he loved the boat ride and seeing whales breach and swim right next to us. If you have young kids who don’t (won’t) snorkel, I’d recommend skipping the crater and doing a shorter boat tour.
Beach & Snorkel Time – Baby beach in West Maui was the perfect family beach for us. T loved it because there were no waves so he could walk in and out of the water by himself. We loved it because we didn’t have to follow his every move and ensure the ocean didn’t eat him up. It also isn’t as popular so it’s less likely to get crowded. Another good option further north is Napili Bay.
Ka’anapali Beach is a really popular beach. It has big waves and the beach is angled down toward the water. Even though it’s popular, I didn’t think it was great for younger children.
Maui Ocean Center – The aquarium was a big hit. There is a 3-d sphere experience with a pretty cool whale movie. He loved it…so much that he said it was the best part of Maui. The open ocean exhibit is really cool. When we walked through the tunnel the stingrays were swimming above our heads.
The ocean center has a lot of educational information. The aquarium is outdoors with many different buildings and exhibits. So if you go on a rainy day just know you will be in and out.
Reservations are required, so be sure to book your day and time before you go to Maui.
Ulupalakua Ranch Store – If you head south, you will slowly climb the mountain to 2,000ft. As you twist and turn, the foliage becomes greener and it almost feels like you’re on a different island. Soon, you’ll arrive at the famous elk farm in Maui. Here, you can try one of their famous grass-fed elk burgers. Seating is all outdoors, and alcohol consumption isn’t allowed on the premises.
Up here, the air is a bit cooler and crisp, and the views of Molokini Crater and Maui are beautiful. Even if elk isn’t your thing (there are other options), it’s worth a few hours to head up here and enjoy the views and jungle-like scenery.
Book Your Next Trip!
I am a born and raised Alaskan with a passion for travel. I’ve visited over 20 countries and lived in Europe for over 6 years. I have tried many different companies over the years and these are the ones I highly recommend.
Booking.com has not only hotels but also apartments and guest homes for rent. And, you can cancel most bookings close to your trip. Viator and GetYourGuide offer a wide range of tours and have flexible options as well.