Updated: Oct 7, 2020
So you’re docked on Maui for the day and wondering what to do… Fortunately, it’s not a matter of what, but how much you can do in those 24 hours. The very nature of an island is its ocean boundary, its limits. But the thing about Maui as a destination is that the sky is truly the limit. You can cram quite a bit on your jam-packed day of leave on shore, so let’s make it count.
Docked at Kahului Harbor, you’ll find yourself in central Maui, a low-lying area sandwiched between two great mountains – Haleakala on your left, and the West Maui Mountains on your right. You’ll see for yourself why they call it The Valley Isle.
There’s plenty of room on the docket for sight-seeing because, well, everything about Maui is a sight to see.
First Things First
A popular go-to attraction is Iao Valley State Park, a straight shot from the harbor that takes you up the nearby ranges of Wailuku. A display of the island’s natural wonder, Iao Valley overlooks the Iao stream, and there’s a paved walkway to guide you across the park. The ridge-top lookout of the Iao Needle is an epic way to start your journey on Maui— an appetizer for the rest of the island’s natural beauty that awaits.
Who am I kidding, you’re here for the gorgeous beaches and all-out fun in the sun. Maui’s got you covered. Head south to Kihei and you’ll stumble across a take-your-pick selection of beach parks. There’s no need to rush, either. Go for a laid-back stroll along South Kihei Road and see what it’s like to call this place home.
Any of the Kamaole beach parks are great places to have a pow-wow with the family, as these beaches are snorkel and boogie-board friendly. Across Kalama Park lies a surf shop where you can take surfing lessons and are guaranteed to catch waves. That’s something to brag about when you hop back on your cruise.
I myself have spent many a day with friends cruising along South Kihei Road on foot, hopping from one beach to another, grabbing a plate lunch at Da Kitchen in between, maybe see a movie at Kukui Mall afterward, or fill our sweet tooth with some shave ice. With a rental car, you can easily breeze through South Maui by lunch.
Past Kihei lies the luxury stretch of hotels known as Wailea. It’s the kind of scenic drive you do with the top down— one that, even after all my years of living on this island, remains my favorite drive to embark on. Rolling green hills on one side and lavish hotels on the other; the greatest agony you’ll soon find is having to leave Wailea at some point. Park at the Shops and you and yours can merrily wander the best vacation resorts South Maui has to offer.
If The Grand Wailea or the neighboring Fairmont Kea Lani don’t make you want to stay, then I don’t know what will. The sunshine pink aesthetic of the Grand, or the white marble decadence of the Kea Lani will easily beckon you to spend a night or two, or five.
Polo Beach sits near the end of this hotel stretch, or, if you wish to go deeper into South Maui, you’ll stumble upon this writer’s favorite spot on the island at Maluaka Beach. It’s a little ways off the beaten path, but I can assure you it’s worth the detour.
Related | 5 Most romantic beaches in Maui
I’ve spent many a beach day here, toes in the sand, kicking back with friends and a cooler between us. Those days are reserved strictly for weekends and days off, so if I were you, I’d jump at the chance. (I’d live at that beach if I could, but that would be illegal.)
If you can believe it, my friends and I often complained that there wasn’t much to do on Maui. I can safely admit we were dismissive and naïve. We were teenagers then, and for teenagers, boredom feels like the end of the world. So the travesty of not having anything to do at times carried an extra melodramatic weight. Teen grief or teen angst, or what have you, can feel rather pronounced at the beach— the edge of the world for all we knew.
Endings and new beginnings tend to resemble the other in the reflection of the ocean. If before I fretted over filling the contents of the day, now I fret over not having enough time in the day. I’m sure you’ll discover that grief for yourself as you explore Maui.
Kicking Back in Paradise
The coastal drive to Lahaina will assuage those woes. Islands, by very definition, end. But, as you round the corner and discover a newer, wider expanse of land and majesty, Maui somehow manages to feel like it’s beginning again.
Lahaina’s famed Front Street might make you feel like you're back at the harbor. The street’s drydock and boardwalk-scheme is as authentic as it is transporting. With the abundance of restaurants and stores, along with the Lahaina Outlets at Front Street’s end, you can spend a solid afternoon eating and shopping. I can attest to the eating part.
If you’re not venturing out to West Maui for a bite at Teddy’s Bigger Burgers (guilty), then you’re likely headed for Kaanapali. Renowned for its one-stop shop appeal, Kaanapali is the center of all your vacation desires – swimming in luxury, featuring non-stop activity while sporting a taste of fine island living.
Any water sport you’ve been hesitant to try, now is the time to go full-throttle. Never went jet skiing? How about parasailing? Heck, you can even hop aboard a spur-of-the-moment whale-watch or sunset cruise. Once, my friends and I did all of Kaanapali’s ocean excursions in a day. With the exception of whale watching, it was an afternoon of firsts for me: jet skiing, parasailing, banana boating. I had sunburn afterwards because in my haste to live a little, I forgot about skincare. I wore that sunburn like a badge of honor. (Honor, as it turns out, requires a dab of aloe vera 2-3 times a day.)
If you prefer to keep your feet dry, pop by any one of the luxury resorts across Kaanapali’s stretch of opulence. The Hyatt Regency’s got penguins and a garden pool of swans, not to mention an award-winning luau to boot. The Westin, too, has a magnificent pool that rivals The Grand Wailea. Don’t forget to grab some souvenirs at Whalers Village. You’ll need a trinket or two to commemorate your time on Maui.
Needless to say, a day in Maui is more than a day well spent. I made the mistake once of believing there was nothing to do on the island. We all make mistakes, I suppose. You don’t have to. You chose Maui as your destination. Do your inner traveler a favor and explore. A day is plenty of time for adventure. Imagine what you could do with a week…
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