How to Get Off the Tourist Trail in Maui

Now, more than ever, Maui needs visitors who tread lightly and compassionately and who support local businesses.

Two storefronts in an older, wooden building in Makawao, with a patron sitting on porch

Show some support for Upcountry by heading to the charming town of Makawao while in Maui.

Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock

Maui is the second most popular Hawaiian island for visitors, after the island of O‘ahu, with travelers descending in droves to experience a sunrise viewing atop the dormant volcano at Haleakala National Park, drive the winding road to Hāna, and head to the island’s idyllic beaches, perfect for surfing, snorkeling, and sunbathing.

But in August 2023, tragedy struck in paradise when wildfires devastated Lahaina in West Maui and also scorched areas of Upcountry in and around Kula. A little more than eight months later, recovery efforts are still underway, and now, more than ever, Maui needs visitors who tread lightly and compassionately. One way to do that is to go beyond the typical tourist trail, to get off the resort compound and eat, shop, and explore more locally, and to support businesses that may have been affected by the fires.

Right now, “responsible travel is really important,” says Britney Alejo-Fishell, owner of Haku Maui in Makawao, a small business in Maui’s Upcountry that makes traditional Hawaiian leis and teaches lei making workshops. “You cannot only take. When you come, you give as well. Whether you give your time, your resources, or support local.”

She adds, “Big box retailers, they will always be there. But if you go and buy a plate lunch [at a family-run restaurant], if you go and purchase a lei, that family will be able to keep its doors open for one more day.” Ekolu Lindsey of Maui Cultural Lands, a nonprofit land trust organization working to preserve and restore Hawaiian cultural resources, echoes the importance of supporting local businesses and adds that Maui residents need travelers to “use good manners and be an ethical traveler. Like going to grandma’s house. Help without being asked.”

In addition to supporting local businesses, Hawai‘i officials remind visitors not to enter any restricted areas of Lahaina and not to take photos of the area, even from a distance.

“The area is restricted because conditions can be hazardous to your health,” authorities stated in official guidelines on how to visit Maui responsibly that were released in the aftermath of the fires. The fires completed devastated areas of Lahaina, reducing buildings to rubble in some cases, and leaving mangled cars, trees, and numerous other objects in their wake. It will take years for Lahaina to rebuild. “Respect the privacy of survivors and the dignity of those who lost their lives. If you come across a memorial service or other private gathering, leave the area immediately. Respect the gathered survivors and residents—do not take photos or videos.”

It’s worth noting that parts of Lahaina are open, including numerous businesses—the entire city was not destroyed. It is impossible to travel to and through West Maui without passing along Lahaina and likely catching glimpses of the wreckage. What authorities and residents are asking is that when you do, you behave respectfully and avoid gawking.

Chef Zach Laidlaw of Maui’s Hua Momona Farms chats with a few volunteers who are prepping food for meals in white tent

Chef Zach Laidlaw of Maui’s Hua Momona Farms chats with volunteers who are prepping food for meals.

Photo by Michelle Baran

Volunteer with a local aid group

There is no better way to connect with the local community and to help Maui recover (and to have some honest-to-goodness fun doing manual labor) than to volunteer at one of any number of organizations that have mobilized throughout the island to assist residents. There are numerous volunteer opportunities in Maui for visitors. They include Feed My Sheep, a mobile food distribution program that is making around 69,000 meals per month and needs help with packing and handing out food. You can sign up for volunteer shifts through HandsOn Maui, which also lists other opportunities with organizations throughout the island.

Additionally, you can volunteer at Hua Momona Farms, a microgreens farm in West Maui that, through its charitable arm Hua Momona Foundation, became an essential Lahaina recovery operation following the wildfires. Residents and visitors alike can help with tasks like sorting and preparing nutritious meals for residents in need of aid.

On a recent visit this past February, I volunteered at Hua Momona Farms, and it was by far the most rewarding part of my time spent in Maui. Not only was it a truly fun and meaningful experience, but volunteering also presents an amazing opportunity to connect with locals on a deeper level and get insights and recommendations directly from the source. While I was shredding carrots and chopping cabbage, I received some of the best advice on what to see and do while in Maui from the residents and regular visitors I was working alongside. (This is where I found out about Papi’s Ohana, listed in the restaurant section below, for instance, in addition to tips for how best to avoid some of the inevitable traffic and congestion in West Maui as debris cleanup continues in Lahaina.)

For those who want to help out in Kula, link up with Mālama Kula, an organization working with volunteers to provide relief and aid to Upcountry communities, including debris cleanup efforts and invasive species management. You can assist Maui Cultural Lands with reforestation and archaeological stabilization projects or Kipuka Olowalu to work on preservation efforts at the Native Hawaiian cultural site, Olowalu Valley.

Lesley Cummings, owner of Aloha Missions, which creates customized give-back experiences in Maui, says that her organization can make connections between support efforts and visitors who want to reach out to local communities and volunteer or provide services and resources while they are in Maui.

A waterfall and pond surrounded by greenery at the Seven Sacred Pools, or ‘O'heo Gulch, in Maui

When visiting the Seven Sacred Pools, or ‘O’heo Gulch, in Maui, stay on the marked trails and be aware of slippery rocks.

Photo by David Shao/Shutterstock

When it comes to hikes and beaches, you should actually stay on the tourist trail

Maui is full of beautiful hiking paths and beaches to explore, from the Kapalua Coastal Trail in West Maui that follows the cliffs along the stunning Kapalua shore, to the Seven Sacred Pools Trail (or ‘Ohe‘o Gulch) near Hāna. But wherever you go, locals and tourism authorities alike ask that travelers stay on the marked trails rather than wander into areas that could be potentially dangerous or that is private property. If you’re looking to escape the crowds, head to Hamoa Beach off the road to Hāna, or the wilder beach at Mākena State Park. Another way to avoid the crowds is to travel during the off season. While Maui has amazing weather year-round, it’s an especially popular destination during the Christmas and New Year holiday stretch, and during school breaks such as spring break and summer—these would be good times to avoid if you want the hikes and beaches more to yourself.

“I would encourage travelers to use life-guarded beaches, and stick with the popular hikes. Be aware of nature and use common sense,” says Lindsey of Maui Cultural Lands.

Lindsey advises visitors to think wisely and stay safe when exploring Maui’s natural wonders. For instance, if it has “been raining heavy in the mountains, don’t go hiking along a stream. If you do go along a stream, make sure you know how to escape in 30 seconds. That’s how much time you’ll have should a flash flood occur.”

On hikes along the coast, “Stay away from the wet rocks. There may be some heavy wave action that can sweep you into the ocean. If you get caught, don’t panic. Wait for help. If you try to climb out, you may get seriously injured,” says Lindsey. And make sure you are properly prepared with adequate food, water, a full charge on your phone, and a back-up battery.

As for the famed road to Hāna, consider booking a vetted tour operator. As the popularity of this scenic drive has grown in recent years, so, too has the traffic and problems with overtourism along the increasingly snarled road. Day-trippers will often drive a rented car to navigate the winding road, but with limited knowledge of what there is to see and do along the way, tourists are known to stop and park illegally simply because they see other cars have stopped, just to check out a hiking trail or scenic overlook.

Rather than contribute to the congestion, book a tour with a local outfit. Hana Highway Regulation, a group that was created to help establish some oversight and management of the road to Hāna, has developed a list of certified tour operators who will bring visitors to places that are safe and legal to visit, to avoid problems with trespassing and explore natural areas responsibly. For instance, Hāna & Beyond brings guests to “hidden gems” along the road to Hāna, providing the locals’ perspective to the sights along the way.

Fries and a mahi mahi gyro sandwich at Mala Ocean Tavern on the Lahaina waterfront in Maui

Support Mala Ocean Tavern on the Lahaina waterfront and the bonus will be a delicious seafood-forward meal.

Photo by Michelle Baran

Support local restaurants and chefs

Many businesses were destroyed last August, and some are finally getting back on their feet, either by relocating or rebuilding. Everywhere you turn in Maui, there’s an opportunity to support a business that was directly or indirectly affected or that is doing its part to help.

One of those businesses is Mala Ocean Tavern, one of the first establishments on the Lahaina waterfront that reopened in February. It’s a spot that Michelle King, volunteer coordinator at Hua Momona Farms, highly recommends that visitors support to help get Lahaina businesses back up and running. My family and I visited soon after it reopened, and the service was so warm and welcoming despite everything the community has been through. Our meals were absolutely delicious—my mahi mahi gyro plate was particularly noteworthy.

After being forced to closed in the immediate aftermath of the fires, Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop in Olowalu, adjacent to Lahaina, reopened in December, making its delicious lime, coconut cream, banana cream, chocolate macnut, and apple crumble pies available once again. The menu also includes sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, and fries.

Another local eatery that came up repeatedly during my time in Maui was Papi’s Ohana. You “must get a cinnamon roll!” says King, of the family-owned bakery. Papi’s serves up the aforementioned cinnamon rolls and a variety of croissants, scones, and cookies; it operates as a pizzeria from 4 p.m. with a limited number of pies, including a fully loaded option and an Aloha HI Spice pie with Canadian bacon, jalapeño, and pineapple—available until they sell out.

For an elevated interpretation of Hawaiian regional cuisine, head to Merriman’s, one of the few oceanfront venues in West Maui’s resort enclave of Kapalua overlooking Kapalua Bay with epic sunset views. Chef and owner Peter Merriman, together with his team, prepared and served thousands of meals daily in the aftermath of the wildfires, offering free, hot meals to anyone who needed them. Today, the restaurant, like the rest of Kapalua, is fully up and running, serving Hawaiian ahi poke, house-made Molokai sweet potato chips, chilled Kona lobster, and the Merriman’s Mai Tai topped with lilikoi foam, with a backdrop of priceless ocean scenery.

Aerial view of Merriman's in Kapalua on Maui situated on a rocky coastal ridge

It doesn’t get more iconic than the location and sunset views at Merriman’s in Kapalua.

Photo by Randy Jay Braun

Spend time in Upcountry

While a lot of attention has focused on West Maui and the recovery efforts in and around Lahaina, it’s worth heading to Upcountry to show support there as well. The region is also recovering after wildfires in and around Kula. Spend time in the adorable town of Makawao, after returning from a hike in nearby Haleakalā National Park. Fill up on grilled mahi mahi burritos at Polli’s Mexican Restaurant in Makawao and bop into local shops like Haku Maui for handmade leis, Droplets for kids clothes and gifts, Tribe Maui for curated fashion and accessories, and the Monarch Collective for jewelry and home goods.

Invest in local artists by heading into Maui Hands, a locally owned trio of art galleries (the two other locations are in Paia and Wailea) featuring everything from handcrafted furnishings to ceramics and paintings. Then head off to Maui Gold to see how pineapples are grown and to learn the important role the juicy fruit plays in Maui’s history.

If you happen to be in Upcountry on a Friday or Sunday, see if you can catch dinner or brunch on the farm at Moku Roots, a farm-to-table operation that relocated to Kula after the Lahaina fire. On Saturdays, you can load up on delicious fresh produce at the Upcountry Farmers’ Market. While at the farmers’ market, be sure to get a cortado, Haleakalā Rising, or Maple Bulletproof latte, in the white trolley nearby that is Crema.

Crema coffee shop inside a trolley in Makawao in Upcountry

There really isn’t a cuter spot to get coffee than in the locally run Crema coffee trolley in Makawao in Upcountry.

Photo by Michelle Baran

Opt for a local tour, cultural event, or surfing experience

So much of the tour and experiences industry in Maui is run by smaller, mom-and-pop businesses—and each one has a story. By booking with these smaller outfits, you’re supporting local entrepreneurs, their employees, and their families.

Tim Lara of Hawaiian Paddle Sports, a certified B Corp in Maui that offers surf lessons, kayak tours, canoe tours, and stand-up paddleboard lessons, for instance, lives in Kula in Maui’s Upcountry. He had to briefly put business on hold following the fires in order to help neighbors extinguish new hot spots and clear trees that had fallen onto properties. Hawaiian Paddle Sports is back online now offering surf, kayak, and whale-watching tours in less crowded coastal destinations throughout the island.

Trilogy Excursions offers sunset sailings, whale-watching tours, snorkel excursions, and more on its fleet of catamarans. One of Trilogy’s boats was destroyed during the fires, and this third-generation-owned outfitter used its boats to assist with fire recovery efforts. Now, you can assist Trilogy.

This is also your chance to take a deeper and more meaningful look at Maui’s culture and history and support the people working tirelessly to honor and preserve it. You can do so at the Maui Historical Society, also known as Hale Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House, which is located in Wailuku and open Monday through Friday. The venue houses 2,000 artifacts, a vast archive, and 8,000 historic photographs. There are also gardens that feature native Hawaiian plants.

The open-air lobby lanai at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, with firepit and views of pools and Pacific Ocean

The open-air lobby lanai at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, commands spectacular views.

Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

Stay in a hotel, not a vacation rental

With many displaced families still looking for longer-term housing, Hawai‘i’s tourism board suggests that visitors consider staying in a hotel instead of an Airbnb or vacation rental for the time being in order to not put further pressure on an already limited housing stock. Many workers in Maui hotels, especially those in West Maui, were either personally affected or know someone who was.

In West Maui, the Kapalua and Kāʻanapali coastal areas were among the last areas to open following the fires in nearby Lahaina. There are no shortage of incredible options, including Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, a gorgeous luxury hotel (one of our top 10 favorite resorts in Hawai‘i) that was recently refreshed with renovated guest rooms (the residential suites with kitchenettes are perfect for groups) and public areas. Another wonderful accommodation in West Maui is the nearby Montage Kapalua Bay, located on an ocean-facing cliff with 70 residential-style accommodations complete with kitchens.

A little further south, Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea represents the epitome of island luxury, with cultural programming that is at the forefront of the Native Hawaiian cultural renaissance movement, led by Wendy Tuivaioge, director of Hawaiian programs and cultural ambassador at the resort. The resort’s complimentary Kids for All Seasons program (for ages 5–12) is infused with educational elements.

Of course, staying at a resort isn’t necessarily how to get off the tourist trail. But right now, it’s all about how to balance contributions to Maui’s travel economy, which is very reliant on a steady flow of visitors, without putting too much strain on resources—such as housing—that local residents need. So, stay at the resort, but then get out and explore the towns, shops, restaurants, and cultural and natural sites beyond the hotel compound.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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