HAWAII: Maui vs Kauai
Maui vs Kauai is kind of like comparing ice cream vs cake — they’re both delicious and it’s really a matter of personal preference. Some people swear by Maui, others wouldn’t go anywhere but Kauai. Your spirit will make the decision for you. Mine definitely did.
Before this trip, I’d already been to Maui once and Kauai twice. But, this time, my visits to each island happened on a single trip without the distraction of children and my mind in a particularly sponge-like state.
So, here’s my take—maybe you’ll relate, maybe you won’t. Either way, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing wander to whichever island you choose.
DAY 1—The Westin Maui Resort & Spa
I was thrilled to find out my husband’s employer’s annual “Corporate Recognition Conference” would be held in Ka’anapali, Maui this year. It made going to this mandatory corporate function a tad easier and was the perfect segway to my third solo spiritual recharge on the North Shore of Kauai.
I had conflicting feelings about the business portion of the trip. While I was extremely grateful to be treated to four days and nights at a 4-star resort on the island of Maui, I have tenuous feelings about Ka’anapali and stuffy corporate events.
On the other hand, I have a deep spiritual connection with the North Shore of Kauai. The Hawaiian culture is still strong here and there is a refreshing lack of high-rise anything.
In Ka’anapali, the soul of Hawaii is struggling to breathe beneath a sterile corporate blanket. It all started with the arrival of the missionaries in the 1800s, who came to convert the “savages”—and systematically eradicate their culture.
From our oceanfront room at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, I can see Pu’u Keka’a (“Black Rock”), a sacred place to the ancient Hawaiians where the spirits of the dead leapt from this world into the next. They are no longer leaping—but, someone from the Sheraton Maui Resort does every night. While I appreciate the effort, it rings hollow for me. I’m pretty certain the missionaries would have approved of the Maui’s first planned unit development that was built in the 1960s.
I learned in Sydney, Australia never to miss the opportunity to chat with a local. So the minute our Westin porter loaded our bags onto the cart, I started asking questions.
He was the first local to take part in my poll—“Is it really worth it to get up at 2:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise at Haleakala Crater?”
After his resounding “Yes!,” he also told me not to miss out on the best cream puff on the island at a local spot called Komoda Bakery in Makawao. So, no sleeping in for me! This is going to happen.
As soon as he unloaded our bags, I started exploring our “room.” It’s not often that one can take a five minute walking tour of a hotel room—it had one bedroom, a living room, dining room, two bathrooms (one of which was bigger than my bedroom at home), and five (1-2-3-4-FIVE) balconies with sweeping views of the ocean and pool. For my husband, this was a perk of being a corporate executive—for me, it felt sterile and so very UN-Hawaiian. But, I focused on gratitude.
Tonight was our first formal corporate event—and the start of my Four Day Lava Flow Diet. On my solo trips to Kauai, I leave my bra and closed toed shoes behind so going to a conservative business function was messing with my head. A constant flow of “lava” eased my distress a bit. (In case you haven’t had the divine pleasure of tasting a Lava Flow, you really must. A blend of coconut, pineapple, strawberries and white rum, it’s the adult version of a milk shake—and equally as fattening).
Another downfall to staying in Ka’anapali is being culinarily trapped—especially for breakfast. Unless you want to take out a loan to pay for the Westin’s buffet breakfast or stoop to McDonald’s Express, you’re pretty much stuck with the tropical version of Denny’s. However, unlike Deny’s, Cane & Taro has a killer view.
After breakfast and some lounging by the adult pool, we headed into town. Lahaina hasn’t changed much since my last visit in the early 1990’s. The hands down best things in town is the colossal banyan tree in the town square.
The sacred tree was planted in April 1873, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Christian missionary work in Lahaina. When planted, the tree was only eight feet high. Then, the Hawaiian spirit took over and it is now more than 60 feet high with 16 secondary trunks in addition to the massive central trunk. The canopy extends over 200 feet and shades about two-thirds of an acre. When in Lahaina, one must site here for a bit.
Dinner was tapas-style at I’o…roasted beets, seared ahi and melt-in-your-mouth grilled calamari. You can tell when a real chef is invested in a restaurant and that’s definitely the case with I’o.
We would have just four hours of slumber before our Haleakala sunrise adventure would begin.
DAY 3—Haleakala & Makawao
Haleakala is the larger of two dormant volcanoes on Maui, towering 12,000 feet above the ocean, but some 30,000 feet from the bottom of the ocean floor. It last erupted in 1790, and scientists are not certain if it ever will again. It was at the summit that we would watch the sun rise above the clouds.
The alarm buzzed at 2:30 a.m. We were out the door at 3:00 a.m. sharp with blankets and protein drinks in hand. As tired as I was, I volunteered to drive…I did not want this sunrise to be tainted by car sickness!
Just after entering the park, when the road developed hairpin curves, I began to droop a bit—but, I will say, that a lack of guardrails serves as an extremely potent and natural stimulant.
When we pulled into our parking space, we set our alarms and slept 45 of the 60 minutes before sunrise-time. It seemed like only minutes later that the alarms jolted us awake.
The sky was turning a deep orange—it was time to go!
We climbed the stairs wrapped in our hotel blankets, squeezed onto the crowded rock wall, and began to simultaneously shiver and marvel. It was totally surreal—we really were above the clouds, which looked like cotton batting lit from underneath by a bright orange light.
Just as the sun began peeking above the batting, the ranger came and told everyone who had parked in a red zone to move their cars immediately. Thankfully, due to our early arrival, that was NOT us. After all that effort to get here, the unfortunates missed a flood of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows. Everyone watched in silent awe—and, then it was daytime.
I, too, would answer the question of whether it was worth the effort to watch the sun rise at Haleakala with a resounding “Yes!”. It’s worthy of every bucket list.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped at a couple of lookouts and gazed at lava cones, laughed at the fearless baby chukar partridges wobbling up to us in the parking lot, and marveled at the sweeping views of the island beneath us.
At this point, our blood sugar was screaming for some solid protein so we drove in the direction of Kula Lodge. Although our wallet was overly dented there, the views and photogenic tropical garden made it worth it.
Makawao is a tiny mountain town with a western feel—a completely different vibe than the oceanside communities. You can tell it’s where the locals live.
Komoda Bakery was no secret—it was jammed with locals and tourists snatching up doughnuts and cream puffs. Our snatch consisted of a guava malasada and an apple-filled doughnut for immediate consumption and a half dozen cream puffs to share with our friendly porter.
When we got back to the hotel, we crashed—by the pool, in our room, wherever we could find a spot to lay our heads. When I woke up enough to complete a thought, I delivered the cream puffs and thoroughly seeing grown men beam like little kids. I was given loads of gratitude and nicknamed “Cream Puff.”
DAY 4—Kihei & Lahaina
Today we drove 30 minutes to the town of Kihei to a little place that came with a big recommendation.
Coconut’s Fish Cafe was a simple little diner inside a strip mall on the main road. You gotta love a place with a slogan like “We make everything but the ketchup!”. The ono fish sandwiches were delicious thanks to their secret sauce. The only thing that was missing was the “Aloha Spirit,” but I was still riding the waves of my fellow cream puff lovers.
Dessert was at Ululani’s Shave Ice in Lahaina, which happened to be the #1 spot on the island according to Yelp. I don’t mean the #1 restaurant—I mean #1 out of every business on the entire island of Mauai. Really??? I had a hard time believing this as I had yet to be impressed by shave ice. It was so overwhelmingly sweet and every flavor had the same general taste. Ululani’s would seal the fate of Hawaiian shave ice in my book.
I was surprised that Ululani’s was just a dinky walk-up counter tucked inside a small non-descript commercial building. While I was standing in line, I read the article posted on the wall—all of their syrups are made from scratch without corn syrup and with real fruit pulp.
I started to get a little excited and very hopeful. When I finally got close enough to read the menu, I was overwhelmed. How to choose???
- The Haleakala (coconut with cream & fresh shredded coconut)
- Sunset Beach (passion orange, guava & mango)
- Their new combo with the Hawaiian name that completely escapes me!
I had one minute to make my final decision—this was definitely the most stressful minute of my trip!
When I got to the counter, I asked the guy at the counter if he knew they were #1 on Yelp. He asked me if I knew they were the #1 place in the ENTIRE U.S. on TripAdvisor—out of more than 293,000 establishments. Holy crap…I was standing at an alter!!! I told him about my shave ice conundrum and he just knowingly smiled.
Life Lesson #1—It doesn’t matter what you do or where you do it, just master it.
I made my decision just in time…the new combo for only $4.00
Life Lesson #2—Divine food does not have to be expensive.
Everyone behind the counter stopped what they were doing to watch me take my first bite. I started to sweat…what was I going to do with my face if I didn’t like it? They waited…I spooned…and my face confirmed that Ululani’s deserve every single bit of national recognition they get!!! It was like no other shave ice I had tasted before—honestly, like nothing I had ever tasted before.
I was thrilled to know that I did love me some Hawaiian shave ice—and I was sad that getting it required a trip to Lahaina, Maui.
It wasn’t long after returning to Ka’anapali that we left Ka’anapali—this time to gorge some more at Lahaina Grill.
Do not come here unless you plan on dropping a minimum of $150 per couple…this place is the most expensive restaurant I’ve been to in a long time. Although it was good, I got FAR more pleasure from my $4.00 purchase at Ululani’s.
DAY 5—Packing Up
I am mortified to say that my butt never touched sand during my four days in Maui. My life was not my own here—but, it will be very, very soon. As I packed, I buried my bras at the bottom of my suitcase in preparation for the North Shore of Kauai.
While it is entirely possible to have an authentic Hawaiian experience on Maui, Kauai is my spiritual home. I had a wise local tell me that it’s common for people to bond with one particular island and, once on the island, to a specific part of the island.
That’s definitely what happened to me—I couldn’t wait to get to the end of the highway in Kauai.
NORTH SHORE, KAUAI
Structure completely disappears and days and experiences run together for me on the North Shore of Kauai. This is my place—my therapist, sanctuary and spiritual haven. I am madly in love with the lush forests, the postcard worthy beaches, the quaint towns and the free spirits who live here.
In the North Shore, being an anomaly is welcomed, even honored, which is why I can’t stay away for long. After two months of absence, I start to long for it….by four months, I am desperate for a refill.
This is my third solo trip here in the last eight months. For personal reasons, I need this time here. The first two visits, I stayed close by temporary home—savoring the glorious amount of quiet time where my thoughts could flow without interruption and I could read until I didn’t feel like reading anymore. On this trip, I was ready to wander around the island a bit and discover more about its nature and people.
Almost immediately after stepping off the plane, I started hearing about George Clooney. Apparently, Mr. Clooney had been here just a few weeks earlier filming The Descendants. Being totally apathetic about all things Hollywood, I barely blinked an eye, but it was nice to hear recurring reports that he had been friendly to all he met.
I literally let my breath out when I cross the bridge into Hanalei. By the time I reach Ha’ena at the end of the road, my soul is calm.
On this visit, I was staying in a small studio I found on VRBO that was tucked back in the trees off the main road (Kuhio Highway). The location was perfect—there were pristine beaches in one direction, lush green pastures and mountains on another, and quiet rain forest at varying distances on three sides of me.
Inside was a tiny kitchen, one toilet, a kitchen sink that doubled as a bathroom sink and a ladder up to the loft where there was a king size bed, a wicker loveseat, and a small plasma TV. Hmmm…I was expecting a shower as well since there hadn’t been one downstairs.
Don’t panic, Janet…you must have just missed it downstairs. Back downstairs, I became officially concerned. Then, I found the welcome letter. Ha! It was outside—the shower was OUTSIDE.
I stepped out the front door and peeked around the corner—and, there it was. A simple shower with a view of three cows munching on grass in the adjacent pasture.
Well, you couldn’t get a louder proclamation on the dichotomy of Ka’anapali and North Shore Kauai. Earlier today I was at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa where I had a bathroom the size of my bedroom back home and later this afternoon I’ll be showering next to livestock! I’ll give you one guess which one was my hands down favorite—at least before I determined if there was hot water. Best wait to find out when my body temp was so high, I’d welcome a cold shower.
To Dine or Not to Dine?
On my previous two trips, I ate almost all my meals alone in my room,—to save money and because I relished the solitude. On this trip, I knew better. The exorbitant price of groceries in Hanalei, coupled with the fact that the island seemed to suppress my appetite, made eating out the more economical option.
For my first dinner, I drove back into Hanalei and grabbed the last seat at the bar at Bar Acuda. It didn’t take long before I was deep in meaningful conversation with the solo woman next to me. (Did I mention I fit in here???).
When I come to Kauai, I try not to acclimate to the three-hour time change so I go to bed early and wake up with the roosters. The local coffee house, Java Kai (now closed), caters to people like me—and serves a decent cup of tea along with a light and healthy breakfast that lasts me until lunch.
The Aloha spirit is very real—and definitely one of the best things about Hawaii. There’s a ton of it at Tutu’s Soup Hale. The owner recommended I give their Kava tea a try…described as a peppery herbal concoction that will sedate you without disrupting mental clarity. I gulped it down (mostly to minimize tasting it) and rushed to the beach before it took effect. Within minutes of plopping hitting my towel, it kicked in. My mental clarity was no where to be found for at least an hour—which was fine by me!
One of my favorite places in Hanalei is Tahiti Nui—oh, how I love thee. Let me count the ways…
- Darcell, the hostess. I do believe we were friends in a past life. When she found out I was alone, she steered me toward the best seat in the house—on the back side of the bar next to Uncle Art. This simple kindness gifted me with more special memories.
- Uncle Art, everybody’s uncle. This wonderful man with the warmest of hearts gave me the gift of stimulating conversation and sage wisdom.
- Christian, the owner. His love for Tahiti Nui, his Auntie Louise (the former owner and the woman who raised him), and those around him can be plainly seen in his soulful eyes. This place has a real Aloha vibe.
- The musicians. So much talent and a continuous source of contemporary Hawaiian, Jawaiian (Hawaiian+reggae), classic rock, and blues.
- The happy buzzed locals and tourists who were readily available to keep this solo traveler company.
Apparently, I had just missed George Clooney.
Steelgrass Chocolate Farm Tour
My first organized field trip was a chocolate tour at Steelgrass Farms. I was a little worried about the whole tourist thing, which is definitely not my gig (especially in Kauai), but I was willing to take the risk since dark chocolate was involved.
This tour was not solely focused on cacao, but included an introduction to the abundant native flora and fauna scattered throughout the farm. I enjoyed the tales of overbearing plants and the tastes of exotic fruits I’d never heard of before. Ever tried egg fruit? You’re not missing much in terms of flavor, but it’s definitely an interesting experience. This odd fruit has the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk and tastes a little like pumpkin—meh. You are missing out if you never have the opportunity to taste a “Dragon’s Eye”—a mouth tingling relative of the lychee. Oh, and sugar cane soaked with fresh lime juice—now THAT is heavenly!
The cacao pods grown here are not used or sold for making chocolate—only for their seeds. The owners are hoping to perpetuate enough cacao growth on the island to allow for local chocolate production. How these slimy seeds that taste nothing like chocolate ever came to be the glory that we know as chocolate is mind boggling.
At the end of the tour, you’ll learn all about chocolate and get plenty of justification for eating it. Who knew that cacao nibs are better for you than kale? I felt zero guilt as I tasted 10 different kinds of dark chocolate. I’ve already added cacao nibs to my grocery list.
Best Hiking in Kauai
On this trip I read, napped and soaked up several beaches, including Ke’e, Tunnels, Anini and Hanalei Beach. There was no question as to my favorite—when I walked onto the sand at Tunnels Beach, I lost a little piece of my heart. The next time you look at a bottle of Windex, you’ll get an idea of what the water looks like at this stunner of a beach.
On my previous trips, I heeded the warnings not to hike alone so I never got a chance to hit the trails. I was determined to hike on this trip—without tourists—just me, a guide, and some killer views. About a month before I arrived, I Googled and found Eric, the owner of Hike Kauai With Me.
Eric was EXACTLY what I was looking for. I booked two half-day hikes to wherever he wanted to take me.
On my third day in Kauai, my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. leaving me just enough time to get ready, eat a quick breakfast, and drive 1-1/2 hours (in the dark) to meet Eric in Hanapepe.
We drove up to the Kalalau Valley lookout together, parked, and geared up. I felt like a rebel as we hopped the fence and left the rest of the tourists leaning against the handrail. As we hiked along a mildly challenging trail, thanks in part to slippery tree roots and razor ferns, I was so thankful I had taken Eric’s advice and worn long pants!
At the end of the trail we sat and soaked up the view of the valley and beach below. If we hadn’t of been there so early, the fog and other hikers would have disrupted our time here so it’s definitely worth getting started before you’re ready to get out of bed.
As we hiked back, the fog began to creep up the canyon walls creating some surreal views. I huffed just enough on the three-mile round trip hike…and, best of all, I did not have to wait for any couch potatoes to catch up.
Four days later, I set off on my second hike—this one a mile up to the top of Kahili Mountain. Kauai showed it’s true spirit and gave us a downpour, gusty winds and a white-out—then crystal clear skies—all within an hour.
Back at our cars, Eric found us one of nature’s candy store—a grove of lychee trees. We gorged.
Eric’s passion for hiking—and lychees—is contagious. He gave me incredible memories that I will no doubt revisit in my rocking chair when I look back over my life. By the end, he felt like an old friend (which is why I didn’t think to pay him before I started to drive off!). The icing on the cake of these experiences—I was the first solo woman to ever hike with him and the one who drove the farthest to meet him!
Goodbye for Now
Each time I come to Kauai, it gives me precisely what my soul needs. On my first solo trip, it was solitude and enlightenment. On the second, the perfect balance of rest and stimulation. On this third, it gave me wonderful to explore amazing places and connect with wonderful people.
In the battle of Maui vs Kauai, there’s no question who wins my heart—Kauai is the first place I’ve found where my (wild) spirit feels at home.