Maui plays second fiddle to its neighbor islands in more ways than one. It is second in size to Hawaii Island and also runner-up to Oahu in a slew of tourism categories, including total visitors and spending.
But Hawaii-bound travelers, especially families, should not overlook the Valley Isle. Maui, with a range of events, activities and accommodations, can please any family, from adventure-seeking broods with adrenaline-junkie teenagers and new families with small children and a desperate need for rest and relaxation to the culinary-crazed clan whose kids make their own pasta and never miss an episode of "MasterChef Junior."
Maui might live in the shadow of Oahu in terms of notoriety, infrastructure and tourism numbers, but it has its own enticing blend of characteristics. Maui has less hustle and bustle than Oahu, is easier to navigate by car than Hawaii Island and features more events spaces and infrastructure than Kauai, while still maintaining plenty of outdoor adventure opportunities.
"Maui is very conducive for families traveling with kids who don't want to spend an entire day in the car. It's way less of a time investment than the Big Island [Hawaii] when you think of the proximity of all of the accommodations and activities on Maui," said Leanne Pletcher, director of marketing and public relations for the Maui Visitors Bureau and former Hawaii Island resident. "You can go snorkeling or on a whale-watching cruise and then be in the upcountry and visit Surfing Goat Dairy Farm all in one day or even a half-day, really."
While 60% of travelers to Hawaii go to Oahu, Maui follows with 30% of visitors to the state, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. In 2016, the most recent year with complete data available, the number of families visiting the Islands with children age 17 and younger rose roughly 4%, to 2.3 million, and the vast majority, 70%, are repeat visitors. Similar to overall visitor statistics, 61% of families were on Oahu and 29% stayed on Maui, while less than 20% of the families that visited the Aloha State in 2016 traveled to Hawaii Island and Kauai.
"Maui just has an amazing diversity of opportunities," Pletcher said. "There are all these different activities and different types of hotel experiences. We have the cute towns, farms, beaches and hikes here. It's the best of both worlds."
Maui's Kahului Airport also welcomes more flights from outside the state than any other airport other than Honolulu. Travelers from the U.S. have numerous options for direct flights from the mainland to Maui. In 2016, six out of 10 visitors to the island stayed exclusively on Maui, while the remainder traveled to neighbor islands.
"We have a high number of flights come into Maui, and it's relatively easy to get to the island from the mainland," Pletcher said, adding that there is also a good selection of flights between Maui and its neighbor islands.
"Personally, my favorite time of year is October," Pletcher said. "Things are a little calmer and the weather a little cooler. It's starting to feel like the holidays, but it's not too crazy yet."
Outside of Oahu, Maui has the most robust events infrastructure of any of the islands. The Maui Arts and Cultural Center in Kahului hosts comedians, concerts of all genres, art presentations, educational courses and various exhibits.
The Lahaina Civic Center is home to the Maui Invitational, an early-season NCAA men's basketball tournament each November, in addition to concerts, festivals and other events.
Maui is also a choice spot for the winter whale-watching season, with numerous opportunities to see the marine mammals. The island also hosts the Exterra World Championship, a top-flight, off-road triathlon, and the PGA's Sentry Tournament of Champions.
The Honua Kai Resort and Spa on North Kaanapali Beach recently renovated its pools and is starting construction on a new phase this year.
Something for every family
For a family looking for memorable thrills who have children old enough for advanced activities, head to the foothills of Haleakala in upcountry Maui. There they can soar above the valley in a tandem paragliding flight (minimum age is 12), take on a series of ziplines and explore the extensive trails of the Kula Forest Reserve. Back at sea level, windsurfing lessons, snorkeling and diving are all available.
"Some of the views you get are amazing, where you see the rainforest and ocean at the same time," Pletcher said.
In the western Maui mountains, Kahoma Ranch offers ATV tours, and more heart-pumping activities are available around the north shore.
"If you have some real adventure seekers, the ziplines in Kapalua can be more challenging," she said. "When I first moved here, what sold me on this island were the west Maui mountains. They are so beautiful and spectacular."
Molokini, a crescent-shaped, partially submerged volcanic crater off the coast of Maui, is a bird sanctuary and well-known place for dives that offers good visibility and an abundance of sea life. Snorkel tours also frequent Makena Beach south of Wailea, where sea turtles are known to congregate.
One of the iconic adventure activities on Maui is the sunrise hike to the summit of Haleakala. The hike has become so popular that the park started a sunrise reservation system in 2017 and has limited the number of commercial permits for sunrise tours to four companies.
Haleakala is the highest point on the island and has ties to native Hawaiian legend. It is from the summit of Haleakala, meaning "house of the sun" in Hawaiian, that the Polynesian demigod Maui lassoed the sun and forced it to slow its journey across the sky.
The winding road from Kahului to Hana features breathtaking oceanic vistas and roadside waterfalls with swimming holes. Photo Credit: Tommy Lundberg/Hawaii Tourism Authority
The road to Hana, a narrow strip of asphalt that snakes along the eastern shore over 60 miles and more than 600 turns, is not for the faint of heart but boasts breathtaking ocean vistas and several roadside waterfalls with swimming holes that make for the most invigorating pit stops imaginable.
Once in Hana, families can explore black-sand beaches and a system of underground lava tubes and take part in an array of water activities.
If a family needs a dose of celebrity chef-crafted meals on their vacation, Maui has that, too.
"We are not lacking for places to eat," Pletcher said. "Maui has everything you can think of, from poi by the pound, great barbecue places, markets full of all of the snacks you can imagine and of course some well-known restaurants and chefs."
"Top Chef" alum Sheldon Simeon runs the popular lunch spot Tin Roof in Kahului. Mama's Fish House, a long-standing top dining option on the island in Paia, is a semifinalist in the 2018 James Beard awards for outstanding restaurant. Peter Merriman, considered one of the founders of modern Hawaiian cuisine and a member of the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, runs Merriman's in Kapalua and two Monkeypod Kitchens, in Wailea and Kaanapali.
Maui Tropical Plantation, once a sprawling estate where sugar was cultivated, is now host to a tram farm tour, a coffee roaster, a gift shop and an ice cream shop. Its affiliate farm-to-table restaurant helmed by executive chef Jeff Scheer, the Mill House, features a menu dedicated to Maui produce and products.
The Maui County Ag Festival is held at Maui Tropical Plantation each April. The food-focused event features a farmers market, petting zoo, an array of food booths, kids games and activities, a Maui chefs collaborative dinner and a grand tasting event.
Families can also go straight to the source to see where many of the ingredients they are consuming are coming from. There is a range of upcountry farm tours, and some operators, such as Maui Craft Tours and Maui Country Farm Tours, will take a group to several farms, distilleries and other producers in a single day. Highlights include Ocean Vodka Organic Farm and Distiller, Alii Kula Lavender Farm, Maui Wine, O'o Farm and Surfing Goat Dairy.
For families who get plenty of excitement at home and are ready to unwind, Maui offers numerous chances to slow down the pace, bask in the sun on sandy beaches and indulge in amenity-laden hotels.
Piiholo Ranch offers serene horseback rides with a picnic lunch in the forests and ranchland of upcountry Maui. If someone wants to up the excitement, the ranch offers a package that includes a helicopter tour followed by a horseback ride.
The Maui Ocean Center features daily presentations, an outdoor tide pool, a 750,000-gallon Open Ocean Exhibit and a large collection of live Pacific corals. Photo Credit: Daeja Fallas/Hawaii Tourism Authority
The Maui Ocean Center will entertain the budding marine biologist in the family with 20 daily presentations, outdoor tide pools, a 750,000-gallon open-ocean exhibit and one of the world's largest collections of live Pacific corals. During peak whale-watching season (January to March), the Pacific Whale Foundation sets up free viewing stations along the coast where the public can ask questions of naturalists and use binoculars to spot humpback whales. There are also numerous boat tours available to get a closer look.
The Maui Film Festival, held in June in Wailea, holds screenings under the stars and includes nightly festivities, film premieres, tribute series, hula performances and live music.
For accommodations, Pletcher thought foodie families should look to Kihei, where there's easy access to the upcountry and many of the top dining spots as well as numerous eateries that are more casual but still highly regarded and suitable for families.
"If a family is looking for rest and relaxation, I'd stay on the south side, maybe in Wailea or Kihei," Pletcher said. "There, they can take advantage of the beaches. There are some calmer beaches there and kids can play in the sand or go out in rafts."
Upgrades and renovations
The Wailea Beach Resort has upgraded its pools, adding four waterslides.
Several properties around the island have recently completed upgrades or are in the midst of improvements.
The Wailea Beach Resort capped off a $100 million renovation at the end of 2016 that included major work on the property's pools, including an adventure pool with four waterslides. They also feature a 60-seat movie theater and kids program.
The Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, completed a $4 million renovation of its pools in December that includes a Tarzan swing and the installation of a three-story lava tube slide. The resort also upgraded its lazy river, lighting, lounge seating and umbrellas.
The Four Seasons Maui, also in Wailea, has unveiled a refresh of its accommodations, including new lanai furniture and 65-inch HD TVs. The 15-acre property also updated its art installations and refreshed the landscaping, adding secluded "sanctuaries" for couples and groups. The hotel also offers curated experiences, including nature and underwater photography excursions and a private evening at the resort's serenity pool.
On the west side, the Kaanapali Beach Hotel recently revamped its cultural offerings. The hotel established a permanent home for its cultural team and is now offering several new activities, including the art of making kaula (cordage), bamboo nose flute lessons, bamboo printing and throw-net fishing.
The Honua Kai Resort and Spa on North Kaanapali Beach is preparing to break ground on the third phase of the property, which will add three pools and 72 three-bedroom units, bringing the total units to 700. The property completed upgrades to its pools, including new cabanas, landscaping and lighting, in December.
Also on Kaanapali Beach, the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa is in the process of renovating all of its rooms, including revamped bathrooms and decor. The $25 million project is expected to conclude this summer, and the resort has plans to transform its Black Rock Kitchen into an as-of-yet unnamed concept.
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on Maui’s northern shore recently unveiled upgrades to its poolside furnishings, landscaping and guestrooms.
Finally, on Maui's north shore, the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, nestled in the 22,000-acre Kapalua Resort, is in the final stages of a three-year project investing at least $55 million into renovations of the residences, restaurants, guestrooms and pool areas.
Guestrooms now feature high-speed internet, 55-inch LCD TVs and multiple outlets for a family's worth of devices. The poolside cabana suites feature televisions, butler service and private refrigerators.
In 2017, the resort also cut the ribbon on Kai Cafe, a grab-and-go eatery serving Honolulu Coffee along with a menu of sandwiches, salads and other prepared items. Later this year, the Terrace breakfast restaurant will see additions including a new buffet, and an open-air seating area will be built for the Banyan Tree restaurant.