Updated: Aug 11
I envy travelers who get to experience Maui for the first time. That starry-eyed glint in your eyes as you drive past coasts, cliffs, and valleys you’ve never seen before; it’s like a first date I’ll never get back. That’s something you, fortunately, have in spades should you come visit the Valley Isle for a week or two. Living here your whole life is another story.
I know what you’re thinking. What could I possibly complain about living on Maui? Who in their right minds would take paradise for granted?
It’s true that I live on a renowned vacation destination, but, take it from me, not every day is a day at the beach. Even if it were, all the sunscreen in the world couldn’t save me. (PSA: Apply sunscreen every time you go back in the water. You’re welcome.)
A local perspective
Take away the luxury hotels, villas, and vacation rentals and Maui is like any other place filled with people trying to make a living. Responsibilities don’t change because of our geographic affiliations to the equator or because of our easy access to the beach.
Islands have limits. Square footage is finite; islands end. If you compared Maui’s speck against the landmass of the mainland, suddenly, everything else but Maui feels infinite.
That’s the particular kind of grief that accompanies island living. Everyone comes here to escape, while some of us can only dream of escape. I live in Kihei, Maui’s southern coastal town boasting all kinds of Instagram-worthy hotels and action-packed ocean excursions.
But a night at a 4-star hotel isn’t a thing an adolescent can regularly enjoy, no more than visitors who come to Maui once a year. The Hawaiian Islands might seem far to a traveler booking their stay months in advance, but as a kid riding past huge swaths of luxury and excellence every single day, it, too, feels out of reach.
You Can Take the Boy Out of Kihei…
If visiting Maui is like a first date, then living here feels a lot like an enduring relationship replete with its ups and downs. A marriage, if you will.
I grew up in Kihei. By the time I was 13, I knew Kihei as intimately as I knew my household. I could tell you my favorite beach was Kamaole II, and that, when the beach park was packed or the surf was lame, my cousins and I carted our boogie boards under one arm and walked to the next beach over.
I could tell you about walking over to Pizza Hut when we were sun-dried, lining our boards at the side of the building like an unofficial parking stall and pitching in for 2 large orders of cheesy goodness to share amongst us. I could tell you that South Kihei Road is always your best bet when Piilani Highway is jammed. That unless you go to restaurants like Fred’s Mexican Café, or Hawaii’s famous Da Kitchen during odd hours, you’ll probably never find a table. Or if you wanted to host a weekend birthday party at the beach parks, you have to be there as early as 5am to reserve a spot otherwise it’s not happening.
I knew where every street led to. I had neighborhood blocks committed to memory; mental pictures of condos, vacation rentals, and hotels for no reason other than simply because I rode or walked past them so many times. Kihei, at a certain point, stopped surprising me because it felt like I was surrounded by luxury I could not reach, which is to say Maui as a whole stopped surprising me for a time.
Ironically enough, it was Maui’s own tucked away corners that made this island feel big again. The openness of Makena – an outcropping beyond Kihei and well past Wailea’s stretch of luxury hotels – had opened my eyes truly.
Onto Greener Pastures
Growing up, me and my fellow aspiring boogie-boarding cousins were beholden to our parents or the bus system which never went past the entrance of Wailea. When my eldest cousin got his own truck, it was as if we had truck. Makena was now open for us to explore, and so we packed our trusty boogie boards (along with bags armed with sunscreen) and set off for the rare unknown.
What makes Makena markedly different is its untouched natural beauty. The resorts and condominiums strip away, the land becoming more open, the green becoming that much greener. Kihei is a coastal town; Wailea is vacationer paradise; Makena is all the more mysterious for its off-the-beaten-path appeal. If you didn’t know any better, Makena doesn’t feel like a destination, but on the way to one.
It’s the escape I never knew I needed. My naïve adolescent mind thought I had seen all that South Maui had to offer. Being the last stretch of area before Maui’s southern roads end at La Perouse Bay, it appeared Maui was saving the best for last.
My first experience in Makena was its famous, or infamous, Big Beach. (Believe me, the name holds up.) Not only is it a massive white sand, crescent moon-shaped beach, it also sports the biggest surf in all of South Maui. That being said, Big Beach is NOT for inexperienced swimmers.
My amateur boogie boarding skills were no match for Big Beach’s barrels and endless, enormous sets. One could say that my boogie boarding days ended at Big Beach. No hard feelings; I’ve since traded in my boogie boards for a laptop.
Prior to Big Beach lies the curious Little Beach. (I promise the names get more creative after this.) Little Beach bears mentioning because it’s, well, a nudist beach. I say this as a formal heads up. It’s just before the entrance to Big Beach, so one wrong turn and you’re in for a surprise.
Makena boasts many a secret, including the aptly named “Secret Beach.” Whether it’s a best kept one is debatable, but it’s no less a secret whispered among budding romantics. Secret Beach (or Makena Cove, it’s formal name) is renowned for its privacy and seclusion, drawing countless wedding ceremonies. Stumbling upon here is no accident. If you do, you’d better be there to witness holy matrimony, or to pop the big question to your one and only. Otherwise, you’re going to have some explaining to do. (NOT a recommended first-date locale.)
A Naturally-Formed Reverie
The reason why Makena holds a special place in my heart is Maluaka Beach. I can’t tell you what it is specifically that made me swoon over this beach, because to describe it would make it sound like every other beach. I can only describe the sensation of seeing it for the first time, like I had fallen in love again. Where Maui once seemed like it couldn’t get any smaller, at Maluaka Beach – with Kahoolawe and Molokini in firm view – it felt as if the world had opened up just for me.
The same could be said of La Perouse Bay, where the French explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse made landfall. The bay itself is the site of Maui’s most recent volcanic activity, evidenced by its jagged lava-rock coastline.
You probably won’t be laying a blanket down on the rugged surface, but nevertheless La Perouse is excellent front-row seating to the pods of Hawaiian spinner dolphins that make their presence known at magic hour. Since La Perouse is part of the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Preserve, no boats or vessels are allowed within proximity, which often invites humpback whales to come perusing the waters of La Perouse.
Standing at the edge of the razor-sharp coastline, it didn’t feel like I was on the same island anymore, but like I had transported back in time to someplace dreamier, mysterious, and too good to be true. But it was true and it was the same island, and that only lent to Makena’s tucked away majesty. Stumbling upon Maluaka Beach going onto La Perouse – in a corner of Maui that I called home – it was as if my periphery expanded; as if this small island in the Pacific felt inexorably infinite again. My home had much and more to show me, and what a wonderful feeling that is.
That’s what Makena represents to me and why, for anyone visiting Maui, I urge you to take this drive off-the-beaten-path. It’s easy to get consumed with the high-end luxuries and amenities that the resort life can provide, but it’s equally rejuvenating to lose yourself in nature for a day. You never know what you might find. A new favorite spot, or a keen sense of belonging.
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