The island of MAUI, the second largest in the Hawaiian chain, is Oahu’s principal rival, attracting roughly a third of all visitors to the state. Some say that things have gone too far, with formerly remote, unspoiled beaches, around Kaanapali (north of Lahaina) and Kihei for example, now swamped by sprawling resorts. On the other hand, the crowds come to Maui for the good reason that it’s still beautiful. This is the best equipped of all the islands for activity holidays – whale-watching, windsurfing, diving, sailing, snorkelling and cycling. Temperatures along the coast can be searing, but it’s always possible to escape to somewhere cooler. Upcountry Maui, on the slopes of the mighty Haleakala volcano, is a delight, while the waterfalls and ravines along the tortuous road out east to Hana outclass anything on Oahu.
The only real town along the green but sunny shoreline of West Maui, LAHAINA is one of Hawaii’s prettiest communities. Back in the nineteenth century it was capital of the entire Kingdom of Hawaii, but it has barely grown since then, and still resembles a peaceful tropical village. Its main oceanfront street is lined with timber-frame buildings; coconut palms sway to either side of the mighty central banyan tree; surfers swirl into the thin fringe of beach to the south; and the mountains of West Maui dominate the skyline.
Maui’s best-known snorkelling and diving spot is the tiny crescent of Molokini, poking above the sea – all that’s left of a once-great volcano. There’s no beach or landfall, but you do see a lot of fish, including deep-water species. Countless cruises leave early each morning (to avoid the heat) from Maalea Harbor on the south shore of the central isthmus. Recommended boats include Four Winds II (fourwindsmaui.com) and the smaller Paragon II (sailmaui.com).
Whaling ships first arrived in Hawaii in 1820, the same year as the missionaries – and had an equally dramatic impact. Whales were never actually hunted here, but Hawaii swiftly became the centre of the industry and was such a paradise that up to fifty percent of each crew deserted here, to be replaced by native Hawaiians. Decline came with the Civil War – when many ships were deliberately sunk to blockade Confederate ports – and an 1871 disaster, when 31 vessels lingered in the Arctic too long, became frozen in, and had to be abandoned. Ironically, the waters off western Maui now rate among the world’s best areas for whale-watching and between roughly December and April, humpback whales are often visible from the shore, although whale-watching trips can take you much closer. Operators include the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation (pacificwhale.org).
See our comprehensive first-timers-guide to the Hawaiian islands for overviews of all six freely visited islands, and more on what to see and do in Maui.