Aloha and welcome to Hawaii! There are 137 islands in the Hawaiian archipelago but most mainlanders are only familiar with the four largest and most densely populated: Kauai, Maui, Oahu, and Hawaii (The Big Island).
While all four islands have plenty to offer travelers, after living on Oahu (too many tourists) for three years and visiting the Big Island (a land of extremes) I’ve found the best places to visit in Hawaii are Maui and Kauai.
A recent two week trip confirmed this belief, with these two stunning islands offering plenty of beauty, wonderful secrets, and delicious food all set in a tropical paradise. While you can, and should, visit Hawaii and enjoy it however you like, below are the tips I’d give to any friend who would be going to the best of the Hawaiian Islands: Kauai and Maui. Mahalo!
Your own (mostly) private beach
South of the town of Wailea, between Po’olenalena Beach and Makena Landing Park is a tiny sliver of a beach that will make you feel like you have Maui all to yourself. Accessible off of Makena Alanui Road is a tiny parking lot that only holds about six cars tucked behind a hedge. A path from the lot leads to a small beach you’ll have to yourself as it’s hard to find and most people aren’t aware of it. Here’s the exact location on Google Maps.
Where to stay on the island
Lahaina, on the west side of the island, is the town you’ll likely hear the most about as it’s Maui’s most prominent tourist town. Yet Kihei, on the island’s southwest shore, is smaller and more centrally located, which is important as you’ll be doing a lot of driving on Maui (more on that later). Kihei also offers plenty of beaches, fantastic sunset views, and more affordable lodging than the more touristy Lahaina.
Maui’s hidden gem
The Maui Swap Meet first started in 1981 and is an island institution. Held every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot of the University of Hawaii Maui College, the 50 cent per person entry fee gets you access to more than 200 vendors selling fresh fruit, art, jewelry, souvenirs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s a fantastic place to shop as it’s easy to find plenty of bargains.
Sunset not sunrise
Haleakala National Park features a stunning dormant volcano that provides a sharp contrast to Maui’s beaches. It also offers plenty of good hiking trails. One of the most popular things to experience at Haleakala are sunrises at the top of the crater. While lovely, I’d opt for the equally beautiful sunsets instead. Sunrises require you to get up early (3 a.m. or earlier), reservations get snapped up quickly, and the views vary in quality depending on cloud cover. Sunsets don’t have these issues.
Tips for The Road to Hana
This 65-mile road trip from Kahului on the north central side of the island to Hana on the southwest side is loaded with waterfalls, beaches, and stunning scenery. If you follow the traditional route, download the Shaka Maui app. It offers a Classic Road to Hana tour with 142 narration points while using your phone’s GPS. It’s informative, useful, and only $10. However, I’d do the tour in reverse, driving all the way through to Hana and working your way backwards. This way you’ll deal with fewer crowds.
If you want to feel like Indiana Jones, kayak two miles west from the mouth of the Wailua River. On a sandbar drop off your kayak and follow a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it path for one mile. You’ll wade across a stream, low crawl through brush, and traverse through the rainforest to Secret Falls, more formally called Uluwehi Falls. Your epic journey will be rewarded with a beautiful waterfall you can swim right into.
Two of the best places to eat
It’s easy to find delicious food (or good “grinds” as the locals say) in Kauai, particularly tacos, but two locales standout. Located just outside the entrance to Waimea Canyon State Park, Coconut Corner offers delicious food at great prices and a welcoming staff. The pineapple fried rice is excellent. Oasis on the Beach in Kapaa is more high end, but has beautiful beach views and a fantastic menu. They even have their own fishermen who work only for the restaurant to get the best local fish.
Plane not helicopter
Having seen the island both via helicopter and small plane I’d choose the plane every time when deciding how to see Kauai by air. Although helicopters can get you closer to the island’s beautiful scenery, planes offer a much smoother ride and a broader perspective, giving you a truer sense of what it’s like to live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The perfect beach for beginner snorkelers
There are plenty of great places to snorkel in Kauai but the best I’ve experienced is at Lydgate Beach. At this beach with two protected lagoons and a posted lifeguard, you are guaranteed to see a wide variety of fish in calm waters and a small setting. You’ll feel like you’re swimming in a fish tank.
The best beach on the island
Despite being a tourist, I prefer to avoid them. This is why Anini Beach on the north side of Kauai is one of my favorite places to spend the day. With incredibly shallow water that’s great for snorkeling and a long beach more populated by locals than tourists, but that is rarely crowded, Anini Beach makes for a great getaway.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not pining for Hawaii, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.