Traveling Lightly on Maui



To help recover from the horrible wildfires, Maui needs tourism, but it needs thoughtful tourism.

The images were horrifying: Raging wildfires, fed by climate change and invasive species. A historic town reduced to ashes. Hundreds dead. In the immediate aftermath, the message was clear: Maui needs time to recover. Fun seemed disrespectful to the immensity of the tragedy.

But living in a place with a lot of tourism like San Diego, you understand the trade-offs of tourism. Tourists, like all people, consume resources. In exchange, they support livelihoods. It’s a balance, and there are examples of “good” visitors and “bad.” Much of it comes down to whether a visitor fits in with, or is at least respectful of, the culture of the place they visit. Even in wilderness, there is a “leave no trace” ethic of respect.

On a visit to Maui before the fires, this balance was already top of mind. Maui has been so fiercely touristed that the travel company Fodor’s recently suggested people reconsider traveling there at all. A tropical paradise with incredibly rich biological and cultural resources, Maui is also dominated by upscale resorts and a broad range of shopping opportunities. This has led to species extinction, native displacement, and an average home sale price of $1.7 million. How can one be a responsible traveler?

The answer comes down to the resources one consumes, where one’s dollars are spent. This is true everywhere, but on Maui, and especially now, the stakes are higher.

To start with, Maui is open for business. Beginning Oct. 8, all travel restrictions ended and West Maui, with the exception of Lahaina, is open to visitors again. The island is eager to accept tourists, as the economy of the island is dependent on tourism, and the dollars spent are needed to help Maui rebuild.

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Recognizing the importance of tourists giving back, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority has developed the Malama Hawai’i program. Visitors can participate in volunteer activities to malama (give back or nurture) the delicate islands. But beyond spending a few hours giving back, it’s important to consider how you consume on vacation.

Are you supporting a small local business or a multinational company? Are you engaging in an activity that uses a lot of resources versus one with less impact? Are you adding to overcrowding at attractions, or visiting places and at times when there’s room for everyone to enjoy? On vacation, as in life, every decision you make has an impact, and while it’s important to have fun, you can minimize unwelcome impacts with a little understanding and intentional planning. 

Maui's coastline can be rugged with volcanic rock along the lush Road to Hana. —Photo by Nicki Miller

Malama Maui

The Maui Official Travel Site is now a call to donate to relief efforts and the best source for travel updates, but it is also where you can learn about opportunities to volunteer and give back through about fifteen different Malama Maui activities. 

Learning about Hawaiian culture dovetails so beautifully with learning about protecting the natural resources, because the native Hawaiian culture is deeply connected with nature and emphasizes respect for plants and animals. Learning about Maui’s nature IS learning about Hawaii’s first people.

This connection was put into sharp relief on our visit to Kipuka Olowalu, a cultural reserve where the mission is “to cultivate cultural and environmental connectivity for all.” There we met cultural practitioner Ua Aloha Maji, a burly Native Hawaiian adorned with a ti leaf haku (crown) who described the seventy-four-acre Olowalu Cultural Reserve where volunteers come to help restore the land and engage in cultural learning. We spent a couple hours walking in the valley and talking with Ua, and would have happily spent many more. He began with native protocol, blowing his conch shell and explaining to us the cultural and biological importance of basically everything in sight. Kipuka Olowalu has seen over 1.1 million volunteer hours since reorganizing in 2020, with everyone from local school groups to wealthy tourists learning about taro farming, endemic forestry, and Hawaiian traditions. They host open volunteer hours on Wednesday and Thursday mornings and usually the third Sunday of the month, and we cannot recommend this experience highly enough. Unfortunately, the Kipuka is located in West Maui, so check the volunteer page to see when they will be welcoming volunteers again.

We also participated in the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Coastal Marine Debris Monitoring Program. This was a simple way to get involved, where we just picked up a used grain bag (donated by the Maui Brewing Company) to collect any beach garbage we saw and filled out a simple tracking sheet. You can get details online on how to participate without even picking up a bag. With the help of the public, more than 50,000 pieces of marine debris aren’t littering shores or in the ocean, and the database helps them work toward a cleaner future.

Getting to and Around Maui

Unless you’re booking a voyage on a tramp steamer, it’s largely impossible to avoid flying to visit Maui. And it’s five-plus hours from the West Coast, eleven or so from the East Coast. A heavy carbon emissions load to ponder.

On Maui, the main mode of transportation is the private car, and most visitors rent cars. There is bus service on Maui, but no one we spoke with had any first-hand knowledge of it. Traffic jams are common, and parking in many of the more popular towns like Paia is hard to come by (though usually free, which is of course why it’s hard to come by). The severely twisting, slow-roll Road to Hana features lovely scenery and waterfalls (and many, many one-lane bridges). Once West Maui reopens, the road around the east side of West Maui (route 30) has better scenery than the Hana Highway (route 360), if a few more white-knuckle driving moments. One advantage of staying in a resort area is less need to drive, and tour companies offer trips to all parts of the Island, especially to Hana, which can reduce your need to drive at all and your carbon footprint.

You can choose to get around by bicycle, though distances between different parts of Maui are bigger than most non-Lycra cyclists would be comfortable with. If you are a serious cyclist, Maui offers a lot of great riding. The Upcountry roads are low speed and relatively low traffic, and Maui also offers many great mountain biking trails. For the very hardiest riders, you can even tackle the 36-mile, 10,000-foot climb up Haleakala (less ambitious souls can choose a tour that coasts down most of that same route). Krank Cycles by the Kahului airport (they also have an Upcountry location) offers top-notch service and equipment (not always the case in touristy areas), and every person we mentioned Krank Cycles to remarked on how great and supportive of the community they are. Support local!

Where to Stay on Maui

Options for accommodations range from camping to White Lotus-style mega-luxury. Lumeria Maui hits the middle ground — not a hotel per se, but an educational retreat center where guests commit to taking classes (everything from yoga to ukulele lessons) and may enjoy an onsite spa and farm-to-table restaurant (breakfast included). The classes are taught by locals, and Maui residents can attend for a modest drop-in fee. The historic structure features lush grounds of native flora, great views, but no TVs or air conditioning. The “Upcounty” location is also far from the teeming resort centers, and the overall vibe is delightfully relaxing.

Once West Maui reopens, consider the OUTRIGGER Kā‘anapali Beach Resort in the Kā‘anapali resort area on the northwest coast. While offering the general feel of any nice beachfront resort, the hotel bills itself as “Hawai’i’s Most Hawaiian Hotel,” and thoughtfully educates guests on native Hawaiian culture. Every detail of the décor and landscaping takes cues from local culture, and before departing every guest is treated to a traditional lei ceremony, a surprisingly touching welcome to the ’ohana (family) with a kukui nut lei. The hotel offers many traditional cultural activities and sustainability initiatives, and outperforms most similar resorts on energy use. Bonus: It’s a short walk to the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Discovery Center in Whaler’s Village, a small, adult- and kid-friendly place to begin exploring Hawaii’s natural gifts.

Wherever you choose to stay, make sure you’re mindful of your water use, and ask if your hosts do the same. In 2022, many Maui residents faced severe water restrictions (and hefty fines) while resorts, golf courses, and hotels faced no such limits.

What to Do on Maui

First, we recommend planning some Malama Maui activities (see above). Whether you’re volunteering or enjoying some me-time, nature is the main attraction, with amazing scenery, plants, and wildlife. 

Haleakalā National Park features camping and hiking near the 10,000-foot summit. There are zip-lining and horseback tours in many spots. But the ocean is really the essence of the island. Warm waters and abundant sea life make Maui a snorkeling superstar. (Hot tip: Bring reef-friendly sunscreen, buy it while you’re there, or use it from public dispensers, because it’s required to help protect coral reefs.) Pacific Whale Foundation offers trips with a certified marine naturalist (weather sadly canceled our scheduled trip). Sea turtles are abundant, and during the winter months, thousands of humpback whales converge on the waters off Maui to breed in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, resulting in an amazing display of spouts and breaching easily visible from most of Maui’s south and west coast. 

You can learn all about sea life at the Maui Ocean Center, a modest but entertaining aquarium with a strong emphasis on Hawaiian culture and traditions — don’t miss the really eye-popping 3D film about humpbacks. And while you’re there or another day, plan a lunch at the on-site restaurant.

While Upcountry, consider a visit to Mahalo Aleworks, which uses local, native, and foraged ingredients, including wild Maui yeast, wrangled from the slopes of Haleakalā.  The island’s “terroir” comes through in the beer, and you can toast with locals while you’re there.

Dining on Maui

After a long day exploring, refuel Upcountry at Flatbread Company in Paia. Flatbread Company has a few locations, mostly in New England, but the Paia outpost shares the same philosophy of partnering with local farms and vendors (organic, when possible) to create wood-fired pizzas that do more than satisfy your hunger.

Another Upcounty recommendation for a more-upscale evening is The Wooden Crate at Lumeria Maui. Reservations are necessary for specific seatings and there are some options with a price fixe menu to suit different tastes. Much of the food is grown onsite for farm-to-table meals that feature fresh and tropical flavors, and the outdoor seating is within a lush landscape that is as transporting as relaxing.

Seascape is a terrific lunch spot attached to the Maui Ocean Center Aquarium for sustainable and local seafood (it’s platinum certified by the Surfrider Foundation) as well as other options, including vegan and vegetarian. As you overlook the Pacific, watch humpbacks while munching kalo (taro) poke nachos. While it’s a great break during an aquarium visit, you do not need to have an aquarium ticket to dine there.

A farm at Lumeria Maui supplies fresh produce for the onsite restaurant. —Photo by Nicki Miller

Should You Visit Maui?

In the wake of the fires, the answer is a resounding yes. But the issue of overtourism and balance will persist long after Lahaina rebuilds. When asking Maui folk about tourism and over-tourism, the recurring theme was respect. No one we spoke with harbored any resentment that people wanted to visit paradise (second-home owners were not always viewed as charitably), but it was important to them that tourists remember that your vacation spot is someone’s home, and now the scene of a terrible tragedy. 

A few people on Maui also recommended the fall as an ideal time to visit because of fewer visitors and generally ideal weather. Candice Parcher, the assistant GM at Lumeria Maui, says October through Thanksgiving is traditionally the sweet spot with the best availability and pricing. Given the need for tourists now, this could be the ideal time to start planning a getaway that will benefit yourself and the island.

Maui offers unique culture, unique biology, and unique challenges. To be respectful is to learn about the culture, respect the biology, and add as little as possible to the challenges that Maui faces.

Thanks to Hawai’i Tourism Authority, Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, Kipuka Olowalu, Krank Cycles, Lumeria Maui, and Maui Ocean Center and for their support for our trip.

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Nicki and Jim Miller
Nicki and Jim Miller
Jim and Nicki Miller are editors of Bluedot San Diego and Bluedot Santa Barbara. Jim has been a writer and environmental economist for over 25 years, in the private sector, academia, and public service. Nicki has been creating content and editing for more than 20 years, working at The Washington Post, Martha's Vineyard Magazine, Women's Running Magazine, and San Diego Humane Society. Since they love San Diego's opportunities to be on the water and in the mountains, you may see them cycling along the Silver Strand or hitting the trails in Cuyamaca.
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