Maui, Hawaii | My Family Travels
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This mom chose to spend her vacation with the kid, as they enjoyed surfing, snorkeling, scenic drives, and other family fun in Maui.

We went to Maui in search of endangered green sea turtles and exciting family adventure. I hadn’t been to Hawaii since my honeymoon and was looking forward to exploring the island with my three children. Our plans were to spend the first part of the week in Wailea, on Maui’s southwestern coast and the second in Ka’anapali in West Maui. Our agenda: to explore Maui through snorkeling, surfing, hiking along a volcano and enjoying the warm ocean.

We could have simply enjoyed the gorgeous beaches, I suppose – and that would have been terrific, too – but I wanted my kids to see as much of Maui – “The Magic Isle” – as possible. That wasn’t hard to do, since Maui, although the second largest Hawaiian island, is just 729 square miles.

A pleasant mix of picture-perfect beaches and forests make Hawaii a comfortable family destination. We enjoyed every day of our trip – whether we were busy exploring or simply splashing in the warm surf. Some of our favorite excursions were free. We relied on our rental car as well as public transportation to explore. Driving around Maui is scenic and mostly traffic-free, so even quick errands were a breeze.

Just the 20-minute drive from the airport to Wailea was beautiful. Along the small road we passed homes with colorful gardens and drove by the Pu’unene Sugar Mill, spewing a plume of sweet-smelling smoke that reminded us of kettle corn. (We became well acquainted with the smell, as we passed this area often.)

Scenic Drives

A rental car was a good investment for us. We traversed Maui on one tank of gas. Stocking the car with snacks, our first big outing was a visit to Haleakala or (House of the Sun), a shield volcano (one with gradually sloping sides) that shaped East Maui. We heard that watching the sunrise from there is spectacular, but we chose to drive mid-day to this mammoth volcano, which rises 10, 023 feet above its 33-mile diameter base at sea level. The drive up was steep but scenic. We left grazing cattle behind as we drove by flower and vegetable farms and upward through subalpine shrubland to the Visitor Center, where the temperature was a bit chilly. (There’s a $10 park entrance fee.)

The summit is amazing. Walking along a winding trail along the rim, we looked down into the vast panoramic crater, dotted with sweeping cinder cones that range in color from gray to orange to red. The contrast of jagged cliffs and smooth muted colors is surreal. White puffy clouds rose from below, changing the view by the minute. Just a few plants, birds and insects live in these harsh conditions. My kids were fascinated with the Silversword plant, native to Maui and only found above 6,000 feet elevation. This striking plant lives up to 20 years and ends life by sprouting a stalk of hundreds of purple flowers.

Having seen Haleakala from the rim, exploring the base with its dense tropical foliage, waterfalls and stream canyons was on our itinerary for the next day. Prepared with a picnic, swimsuits and towels, we drove to Pa’ia, an old plantation mill town where Milepost 1 begins for the Hana Highway. Guide book in hand and with my 12-year-old daughter, Christina, as our navigator, we began our journey.

Although the curvy highway to Hana is only about 53 miles one way, there are more than 600 sharp turns and 54 one-way bridges, so roundtrip drive time is at least five-and-one-half hours if you make a few stops to enjoy the scenery. It sounds intimidating (it’s not) and our handy maps didn’t always match the mileposts, but we drove at a leisurely pace to take in the breathtaking beauty. We saw painted bark Eucalyptus trees and numerous waterfalls.

Frequent short bursts of warm rain showers are common – no wonder the surroundings are so lush, colorful and fragrant. Despite the long car ride, my kids loved this outing and still talk about it. We ate our picnic at Wai-‘anapanapa (Glistening Waters) State Park, a stunning black sand beach with sculpted lava rocks and caves. According to legend (and Hawaii has volumes of them), Princess Popoalaea hid here from her cruel husband, but was discovered and killed. Some say that several times a year the waters turn red in her memory. (Most likely it’s from the tiny red shrimp that live there.)

Soon after, we reached the small coastal village of Hana and browsed through the historic Hasegawa General Store, established in 1910. About 20 minutes later, we arrived at Oheo Pools, referred to as the Seven Sacred Pools (although there are more than seven). It’s a majestic sight – cascading pools of water flowing into the ocean. The water was cold and the rocks slippery, but our dip was exhilarating. It turned out to be an all-day outing – but well worth it.

Snorkeling Excursion

Although you don’t have to go snorkeling to see the green sea turtles, we preferred to search for them in their natural habitat – the ocean. Chartered snorkel trips provide a convenient and safe way to snorkel and explore the ocean with children. The all-inclusive price typically includes snorkel gear, instruction and lunch.

We booked the “Molokini & Turtle Arches Snorkel Adventures” tour with the Pacific Whale Foundation Marine Resource Center, located in the Maalaea Harbor. Aboard a 65-foot double-deck catamaran (equipped with bathrooms) we reached our first site, Molokini, a volcanic crater known for fantastic snorkeling and scuba-diving. We jumped into the clear, blue water, underwater cameras attached to our wrists. A vast variety of colorful fish and coral made this a mesmerizing underwater world. My 6-year old daughter, Megan, darted after fish, capturing photos, while my 10-year-old son, Michael, dove under for close-ups.

At our second location – Turtle Arches – we saw huge green sea turtles (the Hawaiian name is Honu) that are over two feet long. Honu, listed as a threatened species but protected in Hawaii, weigh between 200 to 300 pounds and can live up to 80 years. Despite their size, they swim gracefully. Not shy at all, the turtles swam around us, giving us great photo opportunities.

This is a great family excursion – even for beginners – offering enough thrills but within a safety net of supervision and support. Vests, water noodles and instruction are available. (Rates are $79.95/adult; $34.95 ages 7-12; under age 7 free.)

We booked a second excursion with Teralani Catamaran Picnic Snorkel Cruise, which leaves from Ka’anapali Beach. This time we sailed to Honolua Bay, admiring the close-up views of islands Molokai and Lanai along the way. Even before we reached our destination, we saw sea turtles nonchalantly swimming near the boat.

While snorkeling in Honolua Bay’s magnificent reef – abundant with sea life – we saw more turtles, and fish with incredible colors and patterns. Lunch on board was casual and cozy – sandwiches, chips, salad, fruit and drinks. On our return trip, our captain pointed out dolphins swimming beside the boat. Overall, an exhilarating adventure! (Rates are $89/adult, $79/teens, $59/kids.)

Even if you don’t book a chartered snorkel tour, there are plenty of places to snorkel on your own. One of the most popular locations is Black Rock, a large rock formation on Ka’anapali in front of Sheraton Maui. Black Rock is rated third in the Top 10 Beaches in the nation.

Surfing

Mid-week we had relocated to Ka’anapali in West Maui and fulfilled a longtime wish to surf. We boogied over to Goofy Foot Surf School in Lahaina, where owner Tim Sherer guarantees students will stand up and ride their surfboards within two hours – or the lesson is free. Good location and instruction is the key to success, he says.

It worked! My kids and I were able to hang ten almost immediately. It was so exciting – and it’s something we can’t wait to do again. Group lessons start at $55; for info contact 808/244-9283.

Other Family Fun

You don’t have to be a thrill seeker to enjoy Maui. There are plenty of exciting, low-key activities. One of our favorites was a visit to the Maui Ocean Center, named The Hawaiian Aquarium. Located in Ma’alaea Harbor Village, this three-acre marine park – the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere – has attractive exhibits of indigenous fish, sharks, turtles, stingrays and other marine animals. Inside, we walked through an acrylic tunnel that presents a 240-degree view of nearly 2,000 fish, sharks and other underwater creatures in a 750,000-gallon saltwater aquarium.

Outside, we visited Turtle Lagoon; Discovery Pool, where kids can touch sea stars and helmet shells; and Sting Ray Cove. We rented digital audio guides with pre-recorded exhibit information that were fun and informative. ($20/adult; $13/ages 3-12.)

The Piiholo Ranch Zipline is another great attraction for families. The longest zipline in Hawaii offers 5-line and 4-line adventures, Tango Tower, and a Walkalong Adventure which will allow each member of the family to try the zipline eco-adventure. Reaching heights of 600 feet and speeds of up to 40 miles an hour this attraction is for older kids (10+ years old) and adults weighing 75-275 lbs. All tours start by crossing a suspension bridge that is 317-feet long so the adventure seekers in your family will enjoy this brand new tourist spot.

An unexpected delight was the Hawaii Nature Center, in the Iao (iao means facing the dawn) Valley. The interactive nature museum has 30 exhibits that examine Hawaii’s natural history. Another way to explore the lush area is on a guided rainforest walk through this tranquil valley, where waterfalls and steady rain have eroded the sheer walls, feeding the Iao Stream. (Admission is $6/adult; $4/children; 808/244-6500.)

In the heart of Ka’anapali is Lahaina, a charming old whaler’s village, once known as the Royal Capital of Hawaii. The hub of Lahaina is Front Street, where shops, restaurants and art galleries are tightly nestled along the waterfront. A self-guided walk takes visitors to historic sites, which include the Old Courthouse built in 1857 and a block-long Banyan tree planted in 1873. Shopping tip: Hilo Hattie has great finds on everything from luau attire to Kona coffee and souvenirs.

As tourists, we, of course, attended a luau. My kids were thrilled with Marriott Maui‘s beachside Hawaiian & Polynesian Luau. We savored the all-you-can-eat buffet (including Imu roasted pork, steak, potatoes) and the lively show featuring a variety of hula dances and a fire knife show.

If you’re planning to visit Hawaii in Septembr or October, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the islands’ heritage and culture during Aloha Festivals. Themed E Mau Ana Ka Hula I Ke Kanaka (Hula Lives Through Its People), the six-week event is celebrated with elaborate parades, street parties, concerts and family activities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, the Big Island of Hawaii, Kaui, Molokai and Lanai.

But to completely unwind, perhaps there’s nothing better than melting on a sun-drenched beach and floating in Hawaii’s warm ocean water. That Hawaiian sun is a sure-fire muscle relaxer – or scorcher. To sooth my hot skin, I indulged in a hydrating facial – intended just for overheated skin – at the Westin Maui Spa. Aaah.

By the end of the week, my kids were asking if we could move to Maui.

Lodging

Hawaii’s beautiful hotels feature lavish pools, lanais, outstanding restaurants and exciting children’s programs which give new meaning to family time. The children’s programs are more like adventure camps. Activities include lei-making and hula lessons, supervised beach and pool time, as well as excursions to local attractions. We enjoyed exploring the beautiful grounds of the hotels we visited and watching the nightly torch-lighting ceremonies. Of course, everyday we devoted some time to splashing in a hotel pool. I had a difficult time pulling them away from the fantasy adventure pool at the Hyatt Regency Maui.

Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea (808/874-8000): An elegant hotel, recently renovated, with a private beach. Over 85 percent of rooms have ocean view. Most have lanais. Large pool with center fountain and whirlpools; freeform pool connects by slide to a children’s pool. Complimentary Kids for All Seasons children’s program and complimentary valet parking. Rooms: family rates available. From: $440 per night.

Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa on Ka’anapali Beach (888/591-1234, 808/661-1234): A comfortable family resort with an open air lobby; rooms with mountain or ocean views. It’s also popular with honeymooners who have a new wedding chapel and grand ballroom to accommodate their celebration. The 3,000-square foot pool has a 25-foot slide, swinging rope bridge and is surrounded by a sandy shore, lava rocks and misters, grotto bar and waterfalls. The pool also serves as an outdoor movie theater every Sunday through Thursday. Onsite exotic wildlife includes penguins, swans, flamingos and parrots. Camp Hyatt, for ages 3 to 12, offers daily excursions. From: $350 per night.

Sheraton Maui on Ka’anapali Beach (808/661-0031): Nestled against historic Black Rock. Ohana (family) suites with sitting room, large bathroom with two showers, two lanais. Room equipped with microwave oven and mini-refrigerator. Kids Eat Free program. Keiki Aloha children’s program (takes place at sister hotel, Westin Maui), Meandering 142-yard lagoon style pool. Don’t miss the nightly cliff-diving ceremony. From: $470 per night.

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