Updated: Mar 24, 2021
If I’m being honest, the way to Lahaina is more memorable to me than Lahaina’s Front Street boardwalk, or Kaanapali’s parkway hotel extravagance. As cliché as it is to say, for me it’s all about the journey, not the destination. I say that knowing full well Maui is an epic island destination to lose yourself in. Driving along West Maui’s gorgeously expansive coastline, you’ll find that sometimes the road is its own private getaway.
What about traffic?
To be able to enjoy the drive on Maui is part of the island’s appeal. You can take in the sweeping views of valleys, stare in wonderment at the high cursive ridgelines, or have the vastness of the Pacific as an idle passenger. Mind you, traffic is traffic, and traffic sucks. Being on an island dulls the agony a bit.
The single-lane access of Honoapiilani Highway will surely test that. The drive to Lahaina is as enchanting as it can be headache-inducing. It is perhaps the most accessible scenic drive on Maui, taking you along the coast as you pass by the might and majesty of the West Maui Mountains. But the traffic buildup often doubles the usual commute time from a nice 30 to 40-minute beach-side drive to a 2-hour snail crawl.
Turn that pit stop into a surf break
Luckily, the road to West Maui provides ample opportunity for detours waiting to become full-day excursions. Past the pali (or cliff-side road) lies Olowalu – a vast coastal stretch that invites casual surfing, picnics, potlucks, and weekend camping. Spring Break, Fourth of July, Labor Day, or any three-day weekend off of work and you’re likely to see rows of cars and cul-de-sacs of tents along the mile markers to Lahaina.
A sweet beginner snorkeling and surfing spot can be found past the camp grounds, dubbed, “Thousand Peaks.” Its formal name is Papalaua State Park, a place often overlooked since most are eager (perhaps too eager) to make their way to Kaanapali.
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Fun fact about Thousand Peaks: it’s where I had my first wipe. As in wipeout. They say you always remember your first wipe. I was 15.
If North Shore Maui is where all the pros go, then anywhere along West Maui is where the beginners go to break in their surf. Since the beach parks are so spread out along Olowalu, it affords the luxury to wipeout in the privacy of your own group, on-lookers be damned.
There were plenty of on-lookers that day at Thousand Peaks and I still don’t know what was more painful, slipping off a longboard and getting barreled, or realizing I had a shoreline audience who saw me slip off a board and get barreled. The pain like the shame still lingers, so while I still ache passing by Thousand Peaks, I can otherwise recommend it as a surf spot. Just try not to show off like I did.
Surfing lessons are frequently taught at Ukumehame Beach Park. It’s perhaps what I should’ve done, but when it’s hot and it’s summer, committing yourself to the life of an amateur surfer is a most excellent way to spend those months off from school.
More than Lahaina, Olowalu broadened my horizons as a South Maui kid. It’s not that I was bound to my roots in Kihei, it’s just that traffic in Lahaina provides less incentive for a West-side trip, especially when you’re a teenager who can’t sit still. The world can get very small sticking to one side of an island. It helps to push the boundary every now and then.
Past Papalaua sits Ukumehame Beach Park. Unless you pay attention to the sign posts and mile markers, you won’t realize you’re on a different beach. You’d be forgiven if you thought the entirety of Olowalu was one expansive beach. It’s among the most accessible beaches you could stop by in the sense that you could literally pull up to the beach and set down a beach chair as soon as you step out of the car.
In the heat of summer, cars line all along Ukumehame as beachgoers cool themselves off with a couple of cold ones while absent-mindedly fishing. Snorkelers and paddle-boarders wade in and out of the waters here as casual surfing instruction takes place on shore. The surf can get perilously flat at times, which perhaps adds to Ukumehame’s laid back vibe.
Long ago, Olowalu was considered a place of refuge for the then tiny coastal community. Olowalu today still offers plenty of refuge. The overhead branch canopies above the Olowalu General Store provide a nice reprieve from the killer Hawaiian sun. There’s certainly reason for a stopover with the farmer’s market in the area, a mouth-watering juice stand, along with some delectable treats at Leoda’s Pie Shop if you’re not careful. (Even when I’m passing through I am NEVER careful.)
The Olowalu Plantation House sits across the street – a magnificent and swooning wedding venue that’ll pull all sorts of heartstrings. If you’re not careful here either, you just might finalize those wedding plans.
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The coastal stretch leading the rest of the way to Lahaina doesn’t have a formal name (but shows up on Google Maps as “Launiupoko Point”). That doesn’t mean it’s not a place to kick back. Like Ukumehame, you’ll see fishing poles mounted along its rocky shore, and boarders trying their hand at intermediate surf.
Launiupoko is the most formal beach park this side of West Maui, replete with parking spaces, bathrooms and shower stalls. The spacious lawn clearing makes it an ideal place to throw birthday parties and other decadent occasions, but keep in mind it is first come first serve (which, frankly, is the motto of any beach in Hawaii.)
One summer, my cousins and I had an entire day planned at Canoe Beach in Kaanapali. We packed boards, kayaks, fishing poles, tables, coolers – everything we needed for a day in the sun. The day, however, had other plans for us.
We set out on the road at 9AM and were stalled on the highway for 3 hours due to traffic. A third of our beach day was spent getting there and we weren’t even halfway. We snailed it to the stoplight at Launiupoko. My cousin in the lead car valiantly made the turning into Launiupoko Beach Park. The rest of us followed suit and our day changed for the better.
Surfing conditions were perfect that day. Not that I did any surfing; my pride was still wounded from Thousand Peaks. It was my first time breaking out the kayak and I damn near paddled it to Lanai. Back on shore, we played volleyball (I NEVER play volleyball); we grilled, had lunch twice (you read that right), jumped back in the water and broke out the fishing poles at dusk. We didn’t notice that traffic had cleared up somewhere in the middle. We had forgotten about Kaanapali altogether. Launiupoko has since become a favorite venue for our family functions.
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It’s amazing how often we made the drive to Lahaina and never stopped here before. I know you’ll groan at that seeing as we live here and thus can visit these places anytime we want. But when the destination is predetermined, as destinations often are, it’s easy to pass right on by.
Beach parks, thankfully, are always there even when you’re not. Beaches are patient. They’ll wait for you. (The same cannot be said of the surf.) Which is perhaps what made the detour at Launiupoko all the more sweeter. It was unplanned, spontaneous, and everything we needed. After years of driving past, finally, we had arrived.
Find Your Refuge
“We go cruise!” is a common local refrain, short for “let’s go wherever life takes us.” There’s ample opportunity to cruise in Olowalu— provided that you’re open to the possibilities. Growing up, I stuck to the popular places where all the crowds went. Of course, a place is popular for a reason. But when that becomes your guiding principle, you won’t realize what you’ve been missing.
There are places you pass by, others you wander. Every traveler in Hawaii come summer time will fall into the usual tourist flow. It’s only natural to want to go where the crowds are because popular is often synonymous with reliable. Take it from me, it’s perfectly okay to change or veer off course; improvise a little. Sometimes it’s better if you do.
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