Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Maui, Hawaii

We waited until the kids were a bit older to visit Hawaii because we didn't want it to be just another beach vacation. We wanted them to be able to participate in the hiking and snorkeling, and learn about the culture. There is just so much hiking and snorkeling and culture! We chose Maui and Oahu as the two islands for our inaugural visit, and started off in Maui, an island that offers a diverse array of authentic experiences, even with all the tourists around.

Where to Stay

Unless your M.O. is to hang out at the beach your whole vacation (which, frankly, is something you could do at a much less expensive location), it's tough to choose a home base in Maui because the island is so vast and it can take hours to get to all the various attractions. I almost picked a resort in Lehaina on the west coast because that's where the most beautiful and family-friendly beaches are ... but after mapping out the drive to other destinations such as Haleakala, the Iao Valley, and the Road to Hana, I finally went with the more centrally located Maui Coast Hotel in Kihei. Kihei is low key and filled with casual eats and cute beaches, but best of all, it's within an hour and a half of everything (as opposed to three hours from Lehaina or Wailea).

The Maui Coast Hotel is fantastic, with beautiful premises, excellent service and comfortable rooms. It's technically a three-star hotel, but it really felt like a four-star. Kamaole Beach is located directly across the street, and it's where we spent an afternoon chasing the gentle waves and catching our first Hawaiian sunset.

The Maui Coast Hotel is also located within two blocks of an ABC convenience store, food trucks, and other awesome places to eat.

Where to Eat

In Kihei, we got almost all of our meals from the Dolphin Plaza, a strip mall located two blocks from our hotel. "Strip mall" doesn't conjure up the most picturesque dining experience  and it's not. But what you can do is take your food directly across the street and eat it at the picnic tables at Kamaole Beach, preferably at sunset. Maui Fish'n Chips (pictured below), Maui Bread Co. and Koiso Sushi Bar are just three of the eateries there with Yelp ratings through the roof (the latter we didn't get to try because it requires reservations a week in advance).

Maui Gelato (also in the Dolphin Plaza) is where we got our first taste of shave ice. By the end of the trip, we'd eaten about half a dozen versions, but this first one was the kids' favorite. Their preferred flavors are Hawaii blue, cotton candy and grape — in other words, the more artificial the better. I liked the mango mochi ice cream at this fun little shop.

In Paia, we loved having breakfast at Paia Bay Coffee & Bar before starting out on the Road to Hana. The adorable cafe is situated in a lush square filled with palm trees, succulents and hipster types. The food is fresh, organic and delicious, and it's where we tried our first acai bowl.

When we returned to Paia after a long day of driving, we grabbed some pizza at The Flatbread Company and wolfed it down.

What to Do: Road to Hana

We almost decided not to do the famed Road to Hana because so many online reports claim that the drive is too long and winding for kids to handle. This may be true, especially if you have smaller children, but ours are now 6 and 8, and they handled the drive just fine. I'd brought a barf bag and chewing gum, just in case, but we didn't need either. I think the key is to make frequent stops along the way, so it doesn't actually feel like a long drive. It also helped that we'd rented a convertible and did most of the trip with the top down, a novelty that was delightful for all of us!

After much research, these were the stops I decided to make, spaced out so that we were never driving for more than 45 minutes at a time. Heading toward Hana: Paia Bay Coffee & Bar, Na'ili'ili-Haele Falls, Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread, Hana Lava Tube and Ka’eleku Cave, Braddah Hutts BBQ. Heading back from Hana: Wai'anapanapa State Park, Halfway to Hana, The Flatbread Company. With all these stops, the round trip took 12 hours (including all meals); we started out from our hotel at 6:30am and returned at 6:30pm.

Na'ili'ili-Haele Falls (mile marker 6.7)

After fueling up on breakfast at Paia Bay Coffee & Bar and fueling up the car at the gas station across the street, our first stop on the Road to Hana was Na'ili'ili-Haele Falls. It turned out to be my kids' favorite stop because the hike to the first waterfall is just pure adventure. First, we parked at the side of the road and pushed our way through some nondescript foliage. There are no signs; just a bunch of hikers popping in and out of the leaves on the side of the road.

The sometimes slippery hike (pro-tip: wear grippy, close-toed trek shoes like Keens) took us through a bamboo forest, an elevated creek that required crossing a short wooden plank, and a river that we had to forge by hopping across boulders.

The first payoff is a spectacular waterfall. There's more to the hike, but we turned around at this point because the trail got considerably rockier from there. The in and out took us about an hour altogether, and the exact path to take can be found here. It's not a hike for beginners, but it wasn't too difficult for an experienced 6-year-old hiker to handle either.

Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread (off mile marker 16)

Next, we grabbed some piping hot banana bread, juicy pineapple slices, and sweet Maui onion flavored potato chips at Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread. We would've gotten shave ice, too, but they'd run out of it. There are picnic tables in the lot for a quick break and leg stretch (but no bathrooms).

Hana Lava Tube (off mile marker 31.1)

Our next stop was the Hana Lava Tube, also known as Ka’eleku Cave. This is a paid attraction, but one that's definitely worth the money, in my opinion. We were handed flashlights (smaller ones for the kids) and pointed toward the entrance of a lava tube carved out millions of years ago. The tour is self-guided, with signs along the way.

At first, the lava tube didn't appear all that different from some of the caves we've visited in the past, but then we came across a hole in the ceiling that looked out to the sky above. After reading the sign, we realized we were looking at the hole at the top of a volcano, but from the inside. That's when it dawned on the kids that we were standing in a volcano. The tube we were walking in was created by flowing lava. It doesn't get any cooler than that!

The price of admission here also includes a chance to conquer the red ti maze outside (ti is a plant native to Hawaii). The kids were given wooden swords to bat away the many spiderwebs that block the paths, which they found super cool. We were halfway through the maze when it started to sprinkle, so we cheated by pushing between some ti plants and hightailing it back to the car.

Braddah Hutts BBQ (in Hana)

The next stop was in the town of Hana itself  we'd made it!  and it was a food truck on the side of the road. Braddah Hutts BBQ doesn't look like much, but man is the food tasty. There are picnic tables set up for patrons. We tried the barbecue chicken plate, the kalua pork plate, and the chicken tacos, and couldn't decide which one we loved more. The flavors were all so amazing. My mouth is watering just writing about it!

Wai'anapanapa State Park (mile marker 32)

After lunch, it was time to back track. We turned around to drive to Wai'anapanapa State Park for the black sand beach. This was the stop I thought we'd enjoy the most, but it started raining soon after we got there, so that put a damper on things. Still, we spent some time walking on the black sand, running from the waves (the ocean here is too rough for swimming), and checking out the cave to the right of the beach that led to an opening right by the water.

Also at Wai'anapanapa is a blowhole that spews water and mist when the ocean crashes against the rocks at just the right angle. We saw some weak spurts, but nothing spectacular. By then the rain was really starting to come down, so we didn't wait around for a more impressive showing.

Halfway to Hana (mile marker 17)

Halfway to Hana is another roadside stand for banana bread, shave ice and other snacks, but by the time we made it there, it was after 4pm and they'd unfortunately closed for the day. So we kept driving on to Paia for dinner at The Flatbread Company.

What to Do: Haleakala National Park

When I first started researching Haleakala National Park, it seemed like the must-do experience was to visit the crater during sunrise. Then I found out that that required leaving the hotel at 3am to make a 1.5-hour drive up a winding road in the dark, where we'd be greeted by freezing temperatures and windy conditions as we waited for the sun to rise. I could hear the whining already  no, thanks!

Then a friend recommended that we simply visit at sunset or during the middle of the day, which is what she did with her family. They'd had an excellent time and still found the views incredibly amazing. I decided that was the way for us to go.

Much of the drive to Haleakala is up a curvy, narrow roadway that seemingly leads straight into the heavens. You are literally driving into the clouds, which is both unnerving and awesome. Sometimes we would see a cloud brushing against the road as we drove through it. The temperature dropped more than 15 degrees as we made our way up to the summit. We had brought three layers of clothing, but even that wasn't really enough when we got to the top.

At the summit, we parked and walked around a bit on the rocky red terrain. It looked the way I imagine Mars to look. I'd planned two short hikes at the summit, the Pa Ka'oao Trail and the Keonhe'ehe'e Trail, but we ended up not spending much time at the top because it was so windy and we were too cold.

Instead, we drove down just a couple of minutes to stop at the Kalahaku Overlook, where a one-minute climb led to unbelievable views. Best of all, it wasn't as windy here, so it was less cold.

Driving down another 10 minutes led to the Leleiwi Overlook, where a quarter-mile trail over rocky terrain gives you an up-close view of the native silversword plants and leads to yet another awesome view. This area brings you to the inside of the crater, where you can literally touch the clouds that get trapped in the slope.

What to Do: Iao Valley State Monument

Compared with the Road to Hana and Haleakala, the Iao Valley is a cinch to access and experience. Driving in, we were all awed by the sight of the lush mountains rising around us. The hike to view the 1,200-foot Iao Needle is only half a mile up a paved trail and stairs.

At the bottom, there's also a loop where you can see many of the plants that grow in Hawaii. If you're feeling adventurous, you can sneak a closer peek at the beautiful stream that runs through the valley by pushing through an unmarked opening along the botanical loop.

What to Do: Snorkeling at Molokini Crater

On our first morning in Maui, we went on a snorkeling cruise with the Pacific Whale Foundation. The cruise lasted from 7am to noon and included a continental breakfast and barbecue lunch, as well as two stops for snorkeling  at the famed Molokini Crater and an area that the locals call Turtle Town.

I wish I could say that we all had a fabulous time during the kids' first snorkeling experience, but it turned out that only my husband had a fabulous time. The kids were too daunted by the choppy waves and snorkel equipment to enjoy themselves, and I ended up sitting with them on the boat most of the trip. My husband, on the other hand, got to see everything from colorful fish to giant eels to dancing sea turtles (that's how he actually described them  dancing in the water).

My advice, if your kids have never snorkeled before, is to start off at a beach location, where they can wade out on their own and the surf is mild. This way, they can get used to using the equipment without also dealing with being dropped into the middle of the cold ocean.

Even though the snorkeling wasn't a hit, the experience provided by the Pacific Whale Foundation was excellent. The captain of our boat stopped several times to point out whales and even stuck an underwater microphone into the ocean at one point so that we could listen to them "singing." It was like we got a bonus whale watching tour.

What's Nearby

The next and final stop on our Hawaiian adventure was Oahu. My husband and I loved the laid-back rusticity of Maui, but I think the kids actually preferred the commercial glitziness of Oahu  I'd describe it as a Disney World version of Hawaii. The island is definitely geared toward tourists, particularly Waikiki, where we spent two days and loaded up on some excellent food. We also drove a little more than an hour to stay at a resort in the more peaceful North Coast for our final two days in paradise. Here is my itinerary for that portion of the trip.

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Oahu with Kids: What to See, Do, and Eat