Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Maui Trip 2019 (With Brief Tangents About Ocean Safety)

Kaanapali Beach, on one of the few days of our trip where the water was somewhat calm. 

We had tons of fun on our recent 10-day family vacation to Maui! The island is absolutely gorgeous, and very different from any other beach resort-type location I'd been to in recent memory. While I don't think I'll be back anytime soon (Hawaii is a long and onerous trek from NYC, and I'd rather see the other islands there next time), I have a decently long list of things in Maui that I'd happily do again on a second trip. This is the first of two posts about my trip, the next one will focus on food.

A week, maybe even five days, might be enough to have a good time and see a lot of the major attractions in Maui, particularly if you're a high-energy traveler or trying to squeeze in another island as part of a longer Hawaii trip, but I also liked having the full 10 days to do everything at a relaxed pace. Early on in our trip planning, we thought briefly about doing two islands in ten days, but between the travel time required for my sister and I to get to Hawaii from the East Coast (no direct flights and at least 15 hours in transit each way, including waiting time at the airport) plus expected jetlag, we ultimately decided against it. Looking back, we could also possibly have cut the trip down to eight or nine days and still have been able to do everything we wanted to, weather permitting, at what would still be a fairly leisurely pace.

The Hotel

We stayed at Kaanapali Beach Hotel which, based on my research when I booked, is generally one of the more affordable large beachfront hotels in Maui, and is pretty much the cheapest large hotel on Kaanapali Beach, south of Black Rock (a.k.a. Black Rock Beach). It's neighbors with the Sheraton, and on the same beach as a Marriott, Hyatt Regency, and one of the multiple Westins in Maui. We paid ~$260/night, including tax, for a non-ocean view room with two queen beds (and $14/day for parking, it's very helpful to rent a car). Most of the other hotels I named would generally be at least $100/night more for the room at this time of year. The hotel is a bit dated both outside and in, pretty much all the others are a fair bit newer and look it, and the pool is quite small, but service is friendly and I think it's a good value for travelers that don't plan to spend too much of their time hanging out at the resort.

One other nice thing about our hotel location: It was very close walking distance to the Whalers Village shopping center where I bought my new Ray-Bay Wayfarers (affiliate link) and where there's an ABC Store that sells just about anything a tourist could need, including plenty of reef-safe sunscreen and a wide selection of souvenirs, like these Hawaii-themed Gudetama plushes.

Although I thought our hotel was an excellent value for its location, if I were to go back to Maui, I'd probably stay somewhere else where the rooms have kitchenettes. Restaurants in Maui are expensive (close to $25/entree at most nicer sit-down restaurants in the tourist-geared areas, and ~$15/entree at fast casual places). While the food was generally tasty everywhere we went, on future trips, I'd probably prefer to save money by doing some basic cooking, particularly for breakfast. (Oh, but I must put in a recommendation for poke, which, even at grocery stores, was much fresher and tastier than anything I could get in NYC. Poke in Hawaii has ruined me for the dish anywhere else in the world!) An eight day-plus day trip might also be enough time to stay in two different locations on Maui, which is also something I'd consider next time.

Ocean Safety

One other factor that's somewhat relevant to choosing where to stay in Maui, and maybe in Hawaii in general: At least with the surf conditions on Kaanapali Beach, I'm not sure I'd be so eager to select a beachfront hotel again, given that this feature tends to come at a premium price. On past beach-y vacations, I've always enjoyed spending most of my time lounging on the beach, with frequent breaks to cool off in the water. Kaanapali Beach wasn't really the place for swimming or wading while I was there, and after reading up a bit on ocean safety elsewhere in Hawaii, that may be the case for quite a few other famous beaches there. 

Ocean conditions at Kaanapali Beach changed dramatically throughout the trip, with maybe two days where the water seemed very calm with only small, relatively gentle waves, followed by several days in a row of much stronger waves coming in at unpredictable intervals (at least to my eyes). It was a shock to see a beach where the water looked calm enough one day for parents to let their small children play in it suddenly become one where some waves that looked almost as tall as I was were crashing down onto the sand, punctuated by less intimidating, but still kind of scary and powerful-looking ones, just a few days later.

And on one of the days were conditions were in between those extremes, but far closer to calm than not (there were young children playing in the waves just a few feet from where I was, and the waves mostly looked barely tall enough to reach my calf or knees), I had a rather scary moment in the water. Even though I'm a reasonably strong swimmer, after taking a decade of regular swim lessons as a child, I was scared. I'd been swimming around just off the beach for a bit with no problems, in what looked to me like fairly calm water with small waves. But when trying to get back to shore (approaching at an angle, never turn your back on the ocean, especially in Maui, there were so many rogue waves just in the relatively little time I spent watching the beach) I got caught in some deceptively strong shorebreak that pushed me down underwater, head and all; spun me around underwater; and bumped my shoulder into the sand, leaving a quarter-sized abrasion with some bleeding. I was in very shallow water at the time, probably just past my knees if I was standing instead of wading. When I got back out, there was sand coating much of my body, including under my swimsuit, and stuck in my hair down to the scalp.

All things considered, it was a minor ocean-related mishap, I climbed out without too much trouble immediately after, and I didn't even get much seawater in my nose or mouth. It happened so fast that I didn't have time to panic. But, in part because I didn't see it coming (and I don't think the kids or other tourists right near me in the water got swamped that way either, it was probably a freak incident), it scared me so much that, for the rest of my trip afterwards, I'd wince slightly every time I saw a tourist in the water at that beach without a boogie board or surfboard.

Admittedly, I may be unusually nervous in the ocean for someone with my swimming abilities. I even get anxious sometimes while snorkeling in completely placid conditions! And I once booked a "discover scuba diving" dive in super-calm water in Thailand with a good, highly-recommended instructor, but I still got too scared to actually dive. So maybe I'm not the most reliable narrator for this, but I really felt like an inexperienced swimmer could have easily gotten into a bad situation on that beach, as has happened before! (That particular beach is No. 3 on the "deadliest" list.) Plus, Black Rock, just north of where I was, is supposed to be a top snorkeling spot, but most days of my trip, it likely wouldn't have been safe to try and get in and out of the water with snorkeling equipment on. I even saw people struggling to do exactly that from the same patch of beach on one of the less calm days, they gave up because the waves were just too strong.

A few more unsolicited tips for first-time snorkelers, which might be terribly obvious, but that I wasn't told before my first time trying the activity and didn't figure out until later: No matter how strong a swimmer you are or how calm the water is, if it's your first time, please use a flotation device! (I had another scary moment in the water years and years ago due to never receiving that advice before my first snorkeling session.) Before swimming too far from the boat or shore, please also take a few moments to make sure you're comfortable with the equipment and how to use it. And, although I've admittedly never tried one myself, I personally think those full-face snorkel masks look unsafe, given what gets me into potential trouble while snorkeling (mostly feeling panic ramp up suddenly due to leaks or breathing issues, which is at least easier to solve quickly with a traditional snorkel mask by lifting your head out of water, spitting out the mouthpiece, and pulling off the mask).

Hah, that turned out to be a long and not particularly fun digression, but I feel like it's important, and I don't think all of this information is particularly obvious or intuitive. For a return to the actual fun details about our trip, please follow the link below!

Tours and Things to Do and See

Even with all those caveats about ocean safety, the sea was still a big part of what we enjoyed about Maui. Although the water wasn't calm enough to swim most days, I still loved walking down the beachfront path, down the entire length of Kaanapali Beach, almost every day. It's certainly a beautiful beach to look at, even when the waves are acting up!

One other thing to keep in mind, though, on the off chance that anyone here ever contemplates a Maui trip and a hotel on Kaanapali Beach: Because of erosion and rising sea levels exacerbated by climate change, many portions of this beach have been lost, and what remains of several stretches is extremely narrow, enough that there isn't much dry sand left to lounge on in front of some hotels. The Sheraton has a good amount of beach, and our hotel was right next door, so if we had wanted to lounge, we had the option of just going north a few feet. The Aston at the Whaler right next door, on the opposite side of the Sheraton, had basically no beach left at all, there was barely enough room to sit, and definitely not enough to lay down. The Westin Maui Resort and Spa Kaanapali, south of the Aston and separated from it by a large shopping center, didn't have too much beach left either. It wasn't until one got further south, to the Kaanapali Alii and beyond, that there were noticeably wider stretches of dry sand remaining. 

Unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold that kept me from getting in the water during our Molokini Crater snorkeling tour with Malolo Molokini (~$79/person). But my sister and mom had a lot of fun and said it was a great experience with a lot of fish. (Other people in our tour group even reported seeing a manta ray!)

I appreciated that the company seemed to take safety seriously. They took the time to explain the proper use of snorkeling equipment and explicitly advised that newcomers to the activity use flotation devices, specifically a float belt plus a pool noodle. At each of the two snorkeling stops (both within the crater, visibility was bad at "Turtle Town", the typical second stop), one of the employees swam out on a surfboard to keep an eye on the snorkelers, and would check in on individuals if they seemed to be having trouble and/or if they were headed in an unsafe direction (there can be dangerous currents). And the employees remaining on the boat also kept an eye on the snorkelers. As someone who may have been somewhat ill-served by a lack of instructions and safety advice, particularly about flotation device use, on her first ever snorkeling excursion years ago, I really do appreciate the safety-oriented features of our tour, even if I didn't end up snorkeling.

As for the other features, the food, served buffet style (Costco muffins and sliced fruit for breakfast and sandwich ingredients for lunch bread, ham, turkey, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion), was not too exciting, but that's hardly the focus, so it's definitely not a big deal!* We got back to the harbor around noon, early enough to grab lunch elsewhere if one was still hungry. 

Not sunrise, but sunset over the Haleakala summit area. (This is from a bit downwards from the actual summit, where the next and bigger parking lot is, which still had a beautiful view.)

Thanks to jetlag, we weren't quite able to get ourselves out of bed to see the famous sunrise over the Haleakala summit (which may have required waking up by 3 AM to get there on time), but we did the next best thing by driving up in the mid-afternoon for a quick hike before seeing the sunset at Haleakala National Park. I didn't catch the price for entering the park, as my sister brought along her annual pass for national park access. She had also booked us the Haleakala sunrise access permit (a $1.50 nominal fee on top of the standard park access fee) more than a month ahead of time, though we didn't end up using it.

A few quick, hopefully helpful, tips about Haleakala: First, it can get very cold and windy at the summit, it's best to bring a sweatshirt or other light jacket for warmth, and to wear long pants. Second, it might rain, and weather conditions can turn on a dime, so dress in layers, and having a waterproof jacket would be best, particularly if one plans to get in some hiking. Third, we found the drive a touch nerve-wracking (we're unaccustomed to windy, twisty, and narrow mountain roads with a lot of switchbacks and hairpin turns), though not enough to be an actual deterrent to going there, it's such an incredibly beautiful place! Driving conditions are slightly complicated by the potential need to drive through fog or clouds with poor visibility (the transition to clear, sunny weather once we broke through the clouds was dramatic), and even more so because we headed back down the mountain after the sun set.

Also, when you see signs warning drivers to watch out for cows (halfway down, a bit outside the borders of the park), they are absolutely not kidding! While heading back after dark (driving slowly, given all the hairpin turns), we saw several cows relaxing next to the road, and there was even one standing right in the middle of our lane! I wondered if I'd need to get out of the car (my sister was driving) to try and usher the cow along (are cows known to freeze up and do the deer-in-the-headlights thing?) but, thankfully, she wandered off after a few seconds.

When doing the Keoneheehee Trail hike we did a small portion of, you get to hike downwards into the crater.

We did a small portion of the Keoneheehee Trail, a.k.a. the Sliding Sands Trail, and highly recommend it. We were wearing running shoes, and found that to be enough. (I wouldn't recommend that people try it with sandals on.) We aren't the most experienced or frequent hikers, though we each do at least moderately strenuously cardio exercise a few times a week. That fitness level is enough, particularly for just a portion of the hike, as the terrain is fairly easily and mostly gently sloping, at least when one is going down! We only went a small part of the way, hiking out for about 15-20 minutes to a pretty lookout and then coming straight back up to catch the sunset.

And here I go again, giving unsolicited, maybe painfully obvious, advice as a total non-expert: Keep in mind that what goes down must come back up, and of course, it's much harder to get back uphill! The steepest portion of the trail may be right at the beginning too, so even if we didn't go far, we felt a bit of strain and needed to pause and rest a few times coming back up, partly because of the high altitude. Be sure to wear something sturdier than flip flops (again, we wore running shoes), bring plenty of water (probably at least a full bottle/person to be safe if you're going much further than we did) and some snacks (just in case!), as well as preferably waterproof jackets and long pants (it could rain or get cold). Lest I sound like too much of an alarmist, note hat two people were rescued with hypothermia from what I believe was the same portion of trail a few nights before we went  (they were incredibly lucky to have been able to call for help; we did not have reliable cell signal at any time up near the summit, including during our hike).

A view of "Black Sand Beach" from a distance, from one of the shorter 15-minute stops on our Road to Hana tour. (That's enough time to walk down to the beach, but not enough to swim.) A few additional photos, including of the famous 'Ohe'o Gulch, are posted at my Instagram!

Another frequently-recommended thing is to drive the Road to Hana, though people also make a lot of noise about how it can be a slightly scary, stressful drive (due to even narrower windy roads than on the road to the Haleakala summit, enough that cars need to make frequent brief stops to let people pass in the other direction). There are also some portions of road that are unpaved if you drive the entire Road to Hana circuit instead of turning around at some point to retrace your steps.

Given our lack of experience with twistier mountain roads, we agreed to book a tour. I decided on Valley Isle Excursions, one of the top-reviewed companies for the Road to Hana (~$159/adult guest, we also tipped $10/person). They take you around in a comfortable van with a USB charging port for each seat (at least on the newer van we were assigned) and provided plenty of cold bottled water and soda during the long day. We were picked up at our hotel at 6:45 AM on the dot, and didn't get back until a bit past 6:00 PM, after moving through the route fairly quickly, with only a few super-quick stops for a minute or two to snap a photo and continue, three or four briefer 10-15 minute stops for a quick walk and stretch or restroom stop (including for a quick continental breakfast with muffins, scones, and fruit) and two 30 minute-ish stops, one for lunch and one for a swim, for those so inclined, at 'Ohe'o Gulch (on the other end of Haleakala National Park from the summit), weather permitting (the National Park Service closes that path at its discretion if it deems conditions unsafe).

Another one of those 15-minute stops, on the Keanae Peninsula, to see some tide pools. Given my renewed respect for the power of the ocean, I'd be remiss if I didn't say to not go too far out onto the wet rocks for a photo, much less a selfie (never turn your back on the ocean!), as the waves could be of unpredictable intensity. 

There aren't as many stops as one might expect, given the length of the tour. The tour company rightfully doesn't drop off guests at places that require trespassing on private property to get to, or that would be unsafe to reach (thats the "Red Sand Beach" they're discussing). Certain waterfalls and other spots are located in places where there isn't any room to park and get out of the car. A lot of the sights, including some cool "rainbow bark" eucalyptus and quite a few varieties of bamboo, are just things to see from the windows of the van while it drives by.

In any case, I thought the Road to Hana tour was well worth it, because we got to see a good handful of really cool, beautiful spots. Our family absolutely would not have enjoyed driving that whole route ourselves, but we may be unusually nervous on those mountain roads. In particular, there's a stretch of extremely bumpy unpaved road at the end, past Ohe'o Gulch, that some say could void a rental car contract in the event of a mishap. If you continue driving, there's also at least one brief stretch of that unpaved road that made me feel like we were right on the edge of a sheer cliff. Scary!

The Old Lahaina Luau owns this dedicated property, right on the shore, which has its own small parking lot that fills up quickly. There's plenty of overflow parking at the large shopping center right across the street, though. 

One of the other things we liked was the Old Lahaina Luau for ~$125/adult guest, which may be one of the most popular luaus on Maui. (Seriously, they do it just about every single night, and while I was looking up the prices again on their website a few days ago while drafting this post, I saw that they already seem to be completely sold out for most nights between now and early July! I booked our seats approximately a month and a half early, but I think Maui is less popular in early May than it is by now. The specific show we attended was also a completely full house by the night we were there.) I'm no expert on luaus, as this is the only one I've ever attended, but other bloggers generally seem to agree that Old Lahaina is one of the best. As you can guess, advanced reservations are necessary to attend this luau (preferably far in advance, as the better seats are assigned first-come, first-served, based on the time of booking)!

One nice-ish feature of the Old Lahaina Luau, based on reading reviews for many of their competitors in Maui, is that all customers are treated equally. There isn't any "priority" seating for an extra, inflated price. Seating is assigned within each category ("traditional" floor cushion seating, or table and chairs seating, both visible in the above photo), from "best" and closest to the stage to the "worst" or furthest from the stage, based on the order in which people booked. Having booked more than a month ahead, we were in a good position, on the side of the table closest to the stage, in the second of three total rows of tables and chairs seating. But because of the way the rows of tables are on slightly elevated tiers and how the whole place is laid out, even the last row should still have a reasonably good view. Service is great and very friendly and attentive. They have an extremely efficient system for checking people in and showing you to your table.

My one slight quibble, if I had to select one, is that the buffet dinner was only okay, we had more flavorful versions of the same Hawaiian-style dishes, including kalua pork, lau lau, and some ahi poke, at many other spots. The desserts were pretty good though, and the event has an open bar. In any case, the main event is the hula performances (by the way, there's no fire dancers at this luau, if that's important to you), and those were all fantastic. The main set of performances started after coffee and desserts were served, once it started getting dark.

I'll save my thoughts on restaurants, and the other more dining-centric things we did, for my next post about our trip, coming up in the next week or two. We ate some really delicious things on our vacation, things I highly recommend! 

*My sister booked this one, and as you can see, I thought it was great! Whenever I'm in charge of booking tours and excursions, often as a solo traveler, I tend to be... lazy, in the sense that I just go with the top-reviewed company, which also tends to be the most expensive. Had I booked our snorkeling tour, I'd probably have gone with Trilogy Excursions, which has great reviews, but also costs ~$140/person, significantly more than we paid. We saw the Trilogy boat out at Molokini that morning, and as far as I can tell from that and their website, the main differences between the two companies are: Trilogy has a nicer boat with a bit more space (in part because they seem to cap tour groups at a slightly smaller number); they serve nicer food; they provide wetsuit tops instead of offering wetsuits for an extra rental fee; and they offer two free alcoholic drinks on the return sail for adult guests. My strategy has never failed me yet, in that every company I've ever booked has provided me with a great experience in which I felt safe and well taken-care of (my first snorkeling tour years ago was not booked by me), but well, it can cost.

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