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I remember the moment I knew Maui would become one of my favorite places in the world. It was as we descended towards the island with the sun setting below us, clouds all around. It was a serene moment, and that set the tone for our trip. This Maui Travel Guide for First-Timers is based on my time adventuring around the island, getting to know the people, the food and the landscapes.
Traveling with a baby? Check out my post on Visiting Maui With A Baby
Maui has something for everyone: there are quiet beaches to relax on if you want to unwind and get lost in an enchanting novel, and there are bike rides down an ancient volcano. There are family-friendly tide pools and enormous waves. And there are some of the world’s most beautiful sunsets. Maui has it all!
Day One Maui For First Timers: Paia Beach Day
We arrived in Maui in the early evening on our “first” day, and by the time we got our rental car and made it to our Airbnb we were ready to sleep (Maui is 3 hours behind Seattle time!). I was determined to utilize my jet lag for good and woke up the next morning right before the sun was about to rise. Our Airbnb had a view over the water and I got to view the beginning of the day from a quiet balcony. I would recommend watching sunrises on your first few days, before you acclimate to the time. This makes for an amazing start to a trip to Maui for first-timers!
We chose to start our adventure on the lesser visited North Shore of Maui. Using my Maui Revealed book I chose a few beaches that looked good, and decided we would start with those. Baldwin Beach quickly became my favorite beach on the island, and I now count it as my favorite beach in the world. We arrived to an almost empty beach, walked to the East end to a protected cove, and set up our beach chairs under some trees. I walked down to the beach and was greeted by a sun-bathing sea turtle. It was my first experience seeing one that big!
*Note: Sea turtles in Maui are protected (both Hawksbill and the much more common Green) and you are advised to keep your distance. You can frequently see them on the shore during the day, or in the evenings, and the recommendation by NOAA is to stay at least 10 feet away. You can find more information on Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources website!
The lagoon at this beach is shallow, clear and usually empty. If you’re looking to escape the crowds this is one of the best beaches to do it. Keep in mind this is a local’s beach. If you visit the West side during the day, you will find families hanging out at “Baby Beach”, another protected cove. Baldwin Beach is a beautiful introduction to Maui!
You can read more about Baby Beach and see beautiful pictures in my post about taking a baby to Maui!
Food & Drink
Kahului; Dinner. We visited this Hawaiian fusion restaurant on our first evening. It must have been a busy time of day because everything seemed rushed & not as good as the reviews we had read, but it was a decent meal after a long day and flight to get to Maui.
Paia; Snack. Maui for first-timers involves trying shave ice, at least once! It’s exactly what it sounds like: shaved ice drizzled in all sorts of syrups. Probably not the healthiest, but also a sweet relief on days in the hot Maui sun. Yum!
Paia; Lunch & dinner. Paia Fish Market is one of my favorite places to eat in Maui; specifically this location. We ordered veggie quesadillas and then fish quesadillas (vegetarian life!) and neither disappointed. The quesadillas come with cajun rice, home fried potatoes and freshly made coleslaw. We loved our lunch so much that we returned for dinner! Although there is limited seating room and it can get quite busy, it is totally worth it!!!
This day was an easy driving day. From our Airbnb to the beach was about 20 minutes. The beach has a huge parking lot and you can usually park pretty close to the beach. Paia is a bit harder to find parking, as the town is small and gets busy. There is street parking, and a few lots close to the town center. It is not uncommon to drive around for awhile trying to find a spot, and it can sometimes be worth it to park at nearby Paia Bay Beach Park and walk into town.
Drive Time: Approx 50 minutes
Drive Distance: 20 miles/ 32 km
When we travel we prefer to book Airbnbs. It is easy to find something you love, and I make sure to star any potential places early on in my travel planning process!
Learn how to utilize the best travel planning resources!
Our Airbnb for the first two nights was in Wailuku, where we rented a private room that had a private bath. There were other guests our second morning, but it was very quiet. The draw of this Airbnb was the location near the airport, and the view of the ocean from the balcony.
Day Two: South Maui Beach Day
Our second day started off with a trip across the island, to the South beaches. I had read of a secret cove in my guidebook and we decided to check it out first, in the hopes of a quiet start to the morning. Although not the first people there, we got to witness weddings and professional photoshoots. The cove is beautiful, with black lava rock and bright blue water. It is not easy to swim here because of the layout of the rocks and the way the water rushes in and back out quite fast, but it is definitely possible to reset here in the quiet.
Makena Big Beach
Maui is full of opportunities for big waves, and these waves are a must-see for Maui first-timers. We traveled to Big Beach in the same area in the hopes of finding some. Although I am not that big into wave hopping my husband is, so I acted as his personal photographer while he threw himself into some huge waves crashing right onto the shore.
*Note: The on-shore break on this beach can be very dangerous for inexperienced swimmers. You can check out if a beach has been yellow or red flagged online if it is a lifeguard patrolled beach, which Makena Big Beach is. Remember: never turn your back on the ocean!
The beach itself is beautiful: long, golden and ocean as far as the eye can see (with some islands peaking through!) Keep in mind that this beach does not have trees or shade, and the sun can get pretty unrelenting in the middle of the day!
This beach was our last stop on our way to our new Airbnb for the next few days in Haiku. We traveled back to the North Shore of the island and made it there in time for sunset. The goal was to not only catch a beautiful sunset, but to see a unique phenomenon. At this particular beach during sunset, many green sea turtles come ashore for a rest.
The first year I visited Maui there were volunteers who put up ropes around the turtles and kept a watch to make sure no one was getting too close. I saw people getting too close anyways, and was disappointed to hear people disregarding the volunteers, or waiting until they left after sundown to get even closer. Now the barriers are huge.
But the parade of turtles can be amazing! It all depends on your luck: I have been at sunset and seen about 5, and have also been and seen around 50. It is a beautiful sight to see them slowly coming out of the water and “walking” up the beach! Spending an evening at Ho’okipa Beach should be included in your Maui travel guide if you are a first-timer!
Food & Drink
Kihei; Snack. I have so many great things to say about this place to get a quick treat. Not only do they have the most amazing lemonades, they also offer them in biodegradable cups with paper straws! My personal favorite is the Lavender Blackberry, but the Watermelon Basil is also great. They also offer acai bowls. Recently they have expanded outside of the islands, so if you are lucky enough to live in Washington or Arizona you can try it out as well!
Kihei; Lunch. Coconut’s is one of my favorite places to grab lunch in Maui. The staff are always so friendly, it is not usually overly busy and the fish tastes so fresh. The fish tacos are my favorite, but any dish including fish that I have had is always great!
Haiku; Dinner. I am not a sushi aficionado so take my review with a grain of salt here. I thought the seafood in the sushi tasted fresh, but I was not overly impressed. It can get quite busy and the restaurant isn’t that big, but the food does come out very quickly. I have heard other people rave about this restaurant so maybe I caught it on an off day!
Maui is not a huge island, and to get from the airport area to Makena Cove is around 40 minutes. Although we drove from beach to beach, everything was on the way back to Haiku. Makena Cove can be a bit tricky to find, as it is near the literal end of a road. You park on the street and the width of that parking is a little sketchy, but there are usually spots. At Makena Big Beach there is a huge lot, but it does fill up pretty quickly on busy days. And at Ho’okipa there is an upper level and a lower level. If you are going to see the turtles the lower level makes more sense, but if you want a cool view of surfers as the sun sets you can catch a great view from the upper lot!
Drive Time: Approx 1 hour, 40 minutes
Drive Distance: 53 miles/ 85 km
We decided to head further up the mountain, and stayed at an Airbnb located in Haiku. The weather there can be dramatically different than down at the beaches, with frequent cloud cover and surprise rain showers (which were welcomed after a few days of heat!) We again had a private room, which meant we got to meet other travelers passing through!
Day Three Maui For First Timers: Haleakala National Park & Twin Falls
Sunrise at Haleakala
Our third day started at 3 am- yes, you read that correctly. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 3 am and layered up in clothes, jackets and running shoes in preparation for heading up Maui’s tallest volcano (dormant!) We chose to take a tour up Haleakala for sunrise.
*Truthful Travel Tip:
We didn’t know it then, but right before we visited they put into place a reservation system for people wanting to visit on their own. You need to make a reservation in advance, and tickets go on sale 2 months before a certain date. If they sell out (which they do!!!) you have another shot at another round of tickets 2 days before the date.
Our ride up the mountain was long and in the dark, but was made funnier by our guide (shoutout to Billy!) Watching the sun rise below a crater is among the coolest things I’ve seen in my life. It was frigid, but it was worth the early morning and the weather!
Bike ride down Haleakala
Our tour didn’t finish there! Instead of taking a bus back down, we opted to ride bikes all the way to the bottom. Due to safety concerns, we were driven down to 6,500 ft and from there we were on our own. If you’re wondering if we love biking, you couldn’t be further from the truth. As a kid I was an avid bike rider but since then I have only ridden a handful of times. In all honesty, I was terrified to do this ride. Bikes, alone, down a volcano?!
Once I got the hang of the brakes and got used to the bike itself I was really able to take in the views. The ride down was peaceful and lasted just long enough that I wasn’t overly tired.
If you’re looking to do a similar tour in Maui, you have a few options. Bike Maui is my recommendation for the sunrise tour. The guides are amazing, and the bikes and warm gear that they provide are great quality! If you like to sleep in (like me!!!) there is a later tour offered from Activity Authority, the Gravity Assisted Bicycle Adventure!
After our bike ride down the volcano and the early morning we needed a nap. Unwilling to waste the entire rest of the day, we woke up in the early afternoon ready to explore. We thought we would get a head start on The Road to Hana which was on the next day’s itinerary. We headed to Twin Falls, which would come to be one of our best decisions! The sun was just beginning to set when we arrived, and there was hardly anyone in sight. Tired from the day, we didn’t do much hiking, heading only to the first set of falls. There we watched the matching falls rushing with water. It was so nice to have it all to ourselves, and I wondered if maybe this wasn’t a popular attraction! I found out the next morning by the 100’s (literally!) of cars lining the roads that we just picked a lucky time. Want to visit Twin Falls? Go in the evening!
Food & Drink
Haiku; Breakfast. This is my favorite go-to breakfast place in Maui. Although it is out of the way if you’re staying in one of the main resort areas, it is totally worth your time. There are quick bites to grab and go, as well as bigger meal options. The smoothies are a great way to start your day! Many days we sat outdoors eating breakfast with few other people around!
Kula; Snacks. We stopped in for a rest on our way down Haleakala, and had lavender scones and lavender tea. All so yummy! Best part? The entire place smells like lavender, which is always relaxing! If you’re looking for a bigger lavender farm, there is one nearby where you can take tours!
Paia; Dinner. This restaurant in Paia has an interesting menu: a mix of Mediterranean and Indian food. We had one of their vegetarian crepes, which were not super memorable but not bad. My favorite part of this dinner was the Mai Tai, it was strong but it was good!
We were lucky that this day involved almost no car time! We spent about an hour in the morning driving up to Haleakala in the bus, and it took us about 2 hours to make it all the way back down on our bikes. The drive to Twin Falls was an easy 15 minutes! If you plan on going any time other than early evening, plan to park very far away. The parking lot does not have room for many cars, and it fills up super fast in the mornings!
Car/bus -> 1 hour, 50 minutes
Drive Distance: 48 miles/ 77 km
Same Airbnb as the night before, in Haiku
Day Four: Road to Hana
Looking for an itinerary on must-dos on the Road to Hana? I have the perfect post!
Although I dutifully read my Maui Revealed Guide over and over while planning our day trip on the Road to Hana, this was never on my radar. After a long day biking down Haleakala, I woke up on the morning of our huge drive feeling sick. Really sick. And then it started to pour. I was determined not to let my day be ruined, so I took some Dayquil and we started the drive. This trail could be easily missed, as there is no designated parking. You park alongside the road where there are other cars, enter the trail at a pretty unmarked location and head on your way. After passing a small bamboo forest you come to a river crossing. In rain and unfavorable conditions this can be very dangerous, but we determined it was safe and crossed. From there, there was one waterfall after another. Definitely a must do if you’re chasing waterfalls on The Road to Hana!
Wai’anapanapa State Park
I’m not sure if it’s the black sand, the dark lava rocks or the bright blue water (it is probably all three!) that make this beach seem otherworldly. Apart from the cute weasels all over the parking lots & camping area, there is so much to explore in this park. There is the beach itself, an extensive cave system around it, and a cliffside blowhole. We only got to spend about an hour here on our long drive but I would have loved to spend hours (maybe a few of them sunnier than the weather we had!) exploring this beach.
Food & Drink
Paia; Breakfast. This gem is tucked away from the main street. It is not so much a restaurant as a canopied outdoor area, where you can get great breakfast & coffee, with great service! My favorite is the smoked salmon bagel, which comes with a compostable plate and cutlery! If you are looking to get out of the sun and the crowds, this is the perfect place!
Hana; Snack.I have to admit, since having vegan coconut ice cream here I have bought it so many other times at home! Coconut Glen’s was an amazing treat after a long drive. I decided to look up the story of the place after seeing newspaper articles all over the small hut it is located in. It received an award for “Best Ice Cream In The World” in 2014, which is a pretty big deal! Even if you think you would not care for it give it a try. It really is amazing, and the flavors are simple enough that you won’t have decision anxiety!
Hana; Snack/ Dinner. We happened to drive The Road to Hana on a Sunday, which meant all the smaller farm stands with banana bread and fruit were closed. Not Hana Farms! We had some macaroni salad which was nice, but my favorite part was getting a touristy painted coconut and having it cut open right there to drink the coconut milk. So yummy!
This was by far our longest travel day. Although the Road to Hana is only about 65 miles, there are so many stops that it can easily take an entire day. We started first thing in the morning and only made it to the town of Hana. The road continues past Hana and around the other side of the mountain. Plan ahead which stops you want to make, to ensure you are leave yourself enough daylight time. The road can be pretty scary driving the hairpin turns in the dark! From the Road to Hana we drove across the island to Kihei, where our next Airbnb was.
Drive Time: 10+ hours
Drive Distance: Approx 100 miles/ 160 km
Our next Airbnb was a room within a condo in Kihei. It was close enough to the beach that it was worth it, but the accommodation itself was very basic. We shared a bathroom with another guest in the condo, and the living space was small enough that we didn’t spend much time there. It worked out because we got in late in the evening, and were out early the next morning!
Day 5 Maui For First Timers: Molokini Wild Side Snorkel Adventure
Snorkelling at Molokini
We spent the majority of the day on a snorkel tour, that started bright and early at 7:30 AM. The meeting place was in the plaza where Pacific Whale Foundation is, and we started the day off with lathering on reef-safe sunscreen and having breakfast.
I chose this specific snorkel tour for one main reason: it is one of the smaller excursions, with a cap of 38 people. Maui has many different snorkeling tours to suit your needs: there are boats with waterslides for family four, sailing tours, and even kayak adventures. Check out Activity Authority’s snorkel tours to find the perfect one for you!
We got acquainted with our boat and as the hot morning sun started to shine we headed over to the famed crater located off the coast of Maui. It has received a reputation over the years for its clarity and its abundance of sea creatures. The clarity is said to be up to 50 ft, and it was mesmerizing watching the sun’s rays shine through almost all the way to the the sea floor.
Although the wildlife there was not quite what I expected, because we had a smaller boat than the other tours that congregated at the snorkel spot soon after our tour started, we were able to venture to a different spot. This spot was even clearer, had much more coral and more wildlife. We found an octopus as well as many different kinds of fish!
Meeting turtles at Turtle Arches
From this area we ventured on a tour of the water, that involved huge swells and a little bit of ocean spray. I could not believe the color of the blue water. It was so blue that it looked like it belonged right in a crayon box! We enjoyed lunch as our onboard marine naturalists talked to us about the wildlife that inhabits Maui’s waters.
Our next snorkel stop was a location just offshore, on the Southwest side of the island where the road ends. We jumped off the boat and saw sea turtles almost immediately. Although I had seen many sleeping on the beach since we had arrived, this was my first experience finding them in the water. They are so majestic, gliding around with ease. No matter how close it looked like they were going to get to you, at the last second they veered away and off into the distance. It was such a special experience!
Food & Drink
Lahaina; Dinner. This restaurant gets decent reviews, but we did not have a great experience. We waited almost an hour for our food, and had to ask multiple times for water! The food was great, and I’m sure it may have just been a busy night!
We spent most of our day on a boat, so there was not all that much travel involved. We had a bit of a hard time finding parking for the snorkelling cruise, mainly because we tried to park in the harbor parking lot. It was full, and we didn’t realize we could park in the huge Maui Ocean Center lot, which was empty so early in the morning!
Drive Time: 1 hour
Drive Distance: 30 miles/ 48 km
We stayed that night in a location on the ocean, where campsites and tentalows are offered. We stayed in a tentalow, which was our first glamping adventure!
Interested in the experience? Check out my post on Camp Olowalu glamping!
Day Six: West Maui Beaches & Luau
We purposely chose to avoid the West side of Maui for most of the trip due to how busy it is. We finally ventured over and found that there is a reason these beaches are crowded: they are amazing!
Kapalua Bay won the title of America’s Best Beach in 2018, and it isn’t hard to see why! The waves are gentle, there is plenty of reef to explore just off shore, and there is shade when you want a break from the sun. I loved exploring the clear, mostly calm water. I saw a turtle or two swimming around pretty close to shore, which was a cool experience. We spent most of our day relaxing on the beach, a change from the fast pace of our trip.
Feast at Lele
The highlight of our day was our luau experience. I had heard so many great things about the Old Lahaina Luau but it was booked out months in advance. Truthful Travel tip? Book as far ahead of time as possible, to experience the luau of your dreams!
Our next choice was The Feast at Lele, which was missing some Hawaiian traditions such as the pig roast but added in so many more cultures into their experience.
From check in and being seated, to getting to watch the sun set on the beach and then being treated to performances from Pacific Island nations, I could not have asked for a better first experience at a luau. They were more than willing to cater to our vegetarian diet and I didn’t for a second feel like I was missing out or getting a dish that wasn’t as good. The entire experience is one of my favorite memories of Hawaii, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone!
Food and Drink
Lahaina; Breakfast. We stopped at Whaler’s Village in the morning to grab a bite to eat. The parking was not free but the food and the coffee definitely made up for it. I had another lox bagel, but the acai bowls looked absolutely amazing.
Lahaina; Dinner. This was my favorite meal of the trip, not only because of the food but because of the entire experience. We were served different courses from different Pacific Island nations. While the different courses were being brought out we were treated to entertainment representing the different nations! Being pescatarians we were a bit concerned about missing out on the great food, but our options were so amazing we did not feel like we didn’t get the full experience.
Maalaea; Snack. Although Hula Cookies and Ice Cream is mainly known for its namesake- cookies & ice cream, we had shave ice here that was my favorite while on the island. We got to choose three flavors, and they had options such as “Shark’s Blood” (coconut and strawberry!)
We stuck to West Maui during this day, which meant there was not a lot of drive time involved. Parking was not free in Whaler’s Village which made us not want to stay any longer than it took to get breakfast. We decided to take an Uber to the feast because we knew we both wanted to drink!
Drive Time: 57 minutes
Drive Distance: 28 miles / 45 km
This was one of our favorite Airbnbs of the trip: we stayed at a small cottage in someone’s backyard, but the decor and the outdoor shower made it such a nice place to spend our last night in Maui. Our only regret was that we hadn’t booked it for longer during the trip!
Day Seven Maui for First Timers: Northwest Maui
Although the drive from West Maui up around the Northwestern tip of the island is all beautiful scenery, this is the selling point, especially when visiting Maui as a first-timer. A short hike off of the highway takes you to Nakalele Point, where you can watch a blowhole spout up from the lava rock. There is a hidden heart-shaped hole in one of the rocks in the nearby area! (Update 2020: I have been notified that the heart-shaped rock is no longer there, due to ocean erosion! I’m so happy I got to enjoy its natural beauty!)
You are standing on the edge of cliffs that drop into the ocean, and it is not the calm ocean of South or West Maui. Take caution around the blow hole, as there have been accidents at this site before. With spray that can rise as tall as 100 feet, it is best observed at a safe distance!
Straight out of a scene of Jurassic Park, Iao Valley is one of Maui’s most dramatic landscapes. As your approach it from either the North or the South, you see just how different these mountains are from Haleakala. They seem to rise straight up in clusters. Although much of the landscape is inaccessible, there is a short hike that is perfect for Maui first-timers.
This half a kilometre trail takes you to a viewpoint overlooking ‘Iao Needle, which seems to rise straight up out of the valley floor. It is perfect to do with families, and although it is almost always raining in the mountains it is a misty rain that probably won’t deter your hike!
Food and Drink
This was our last food stop on the West side of the island, and although I am not a coffee drinker (my husband is!) the store smelled so amazing. It is a store as well as a coffee shop, and had a really local vibe to it.
Hawai’i is known for its famous coffee! Check out some other of Maui’s independent coffee shops!
Our last day was spent traveling back towards the airport, which involved driving around the Northwestern tip of the island. This road is equally as thrilling as Road to Hana, and arguably a bit more terrifying to drive. Once you get closer to the ‘Iao mountains, the road becomes extremely windy and very narrow. You have to take turns extremely carefully because oncoming traffic is also sharing the small space with you.
Drive Time: 2 hours
Drive Distance: 48 miles/ 77 km
Maui for first-timers has so much to explore. There are more beaches than you could fit into a vacation, amazing food and adventures in the mountains and within the sea. Whether you visit for a week, two, or even just a few days on an island-hopping vacation, you are sure to have a sun-filled amazing time!
Interested in how I planned this adventure? Using my Truthful Traveler adventure planning method I planned the Maui trip(s) of my dreams!
A hui hou (until we meet again!),
A Truthful Traveler