Occasionally you get those “aha” travel moments — epiphanic flashes when you see or experience something so enchanting that a thought occurs to you: “Yep, that alone just made the entire trip worth it.” On Maui, the tourist-heavy and second-largest Hawaiian island, I was lucky enough to experience one of those.
Before I got to that moment, though, there were logistics to work out. When I was reporting in Las Vegas, I told a Hawaiian couple staying at my hotel that I was heading to Maui. “Maui is expensive,” the husband responded. Most lodging on Maui is concentrated in the resort-heavy southern and western parts of the island; a significant amount of searching yielded precious few options for less than $100 a night. One of the more reasonable hostels, Hakuna Matata, was still charging $119 a night for a private room. Most of the inexpensive Airbnbs that were available were actually just hostel rooms in disguise. It looked as if either my pocketbook or my back would suffer.
Then I emailed my friend Rachel. “Don’t you have some connection to Maui?” I wrote to her. Her reply: “I was born and raised there so, yes, a big connection :).”We spoke briefly on the phone, during which she offered that I could stay with her parents. I gratefully accepted. “There is one thing you have to understand, though,” she added. “We didn’t grow up with a lot of money.”
It was important that I understand that, she continued, and that most Maui residents live simply, in contrast to the huge, moneyed tourist resorts. That sounded fine to me; as I’ve learned, staying with locals can yield invaluable insight, especially in tourist havens like Maui, where the number of annual visitors (more than 2.4 million in 2014) exceeds the population (about 160,000) by 15-fold.
When I met Rachel’s very kind parents, Eleanor and Gary, they asked me what I felt like doing. I told them I was hungry, per usual. They took me for a pulled kalua pork sandwich ($13.95) at Kula Bistro before exploring their neighborhood a bit: Kula, Makawao and Pukalani, on the slope of Haleakala volcano, are known as “upcountry” by residents. Their house, in Pukalani, was well-appointed and spacious. After removing my shoes (Hawaii, like many Asian countries, is a shoes-off culture), I settled in my friend’s old bedroom before consulting her emailed list of places she loved in Maui. I zeroed in on the food.
I ate fantastically well during my stay on Maui; my favorite spots were the grocery stores and markets that also sold prepared food. Of those, the standout was the Pukalani Superette, a family-owned grocery store in the cute town of Makawao, known historically for its paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys.
In addition to their dry goods, they prepare batches of chow fun (chewy rice noodles) with ground pork and traditional Hawaiian dishes like beef lau lau, chunks of tender meat steamed in taro or ti leaves. I picked up a huge portion of beef lau lau for $9 and a container of the delicious chow fun for $4.90. Pukalani Superette also offers at least 10 kinds (chicken, Spam, hot dog and longanisa sausage, among others) of musubi, the popular snack food composed of a block of meat on rice and wrapped in seaweed.
There are excellent sit-down places, as well: Eleanor recommended Poi by the Pound, a simple restaurant in a slightly industrial area of Kahului, the heart of the island and the main retail center for Maui residents. One evening I enjoyed a hearty meal of kalua pork, rice, and macaroni salad ($11.40); the pork was light, tender and smoky.
They also, of course, sell poi — taro stem that’s been cooked and pummeled into a viscous fluid. The poi I sampled (a side is $3.45) had been slightly fermented, giving it a yogurt-like tang. It’s potent, and definitely an acquired taste.
But Sam Sato’s was perhaps my favorite meal experience — a fantastically unpretentious Japanese hole-in-the-wall in Wailuku that took me completely by surprise. When I arrived at the address, I was sure I was at the wrong place. The environs said “office park” more than “cozy neighborhood restaurant,” but the food was otherworldly.
Their popular “dry noodles” ($6.25 for a small bowl) were the standout. The slightly wavy wheat-flour noodles are lightly coated in oil and have a satisfying bite; they’re mixed with bean sprouts and green onion, and served with tender, reddish char siu (barbecued pork). If the noodles are too dry, a small bowl of hot, savory broth comes on the side, which can be drizzled on. A barbecue beef stick ($1.95) is a perfect accompaniment: tender, well-seasoned beef with a hint of sweetness, grilled on a small wooden skewer. (Sam Sato’s closes at 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday and is closed Sundays, so keep an eye on the time and be prepared to wait awhile.)
I don’t want to give the impression that all I did was eat. Natural grandeur is, of course, why many come to Maui, and I was going to experience my fair share. My first moment of true appreciation for Maui’s beauty came several miles into my drive along Route 360, a.k.a. the Hana Highway.
Hana, the primary town on the eastern coast, is about 25 miles from the Kahului airport as the crow flies. Not too bad. Well, the Hana Highway — roughly 50 miles of twists, turns and one-lane bridges — can easily turn that into a three- or four-hour trip. It snakes through the jungle, passing a few small towns, waterfalls and bamboo forests. Just don’t be in a hurry: You are at the mercy of the slowest car on the highway and will move as quickly (or slowly) as it does. Relax, drive defensively, and go with the flow.
Near mile marker 6.5, after passing Bud the Birdman, a 36-year Maui resident who works for tips on the side of the highway with his collection of colorful birds, there’s the Nailiilihaele Stream (don’t try to pronounce it; you’ll just pull a muscle). I had read online about a lush bamboo forest nearby, as well as some waterfalls. A little farther down the highway, I pulled over near a gate scrawled with graffiti, behind which some large conifers loomed. There was a wall of bamboo to the south; I walked straight in through a small opening and was immediately surrounded by young bamboo stalks.
Green-tinged sunlight filtered in; it was cool and serene. I moved toward the sound of running water, hiking down a steep, rocky path that came to a stream. A shabby wooden board served as a bridge across. Not having any idea where to go, I decided to follow the water upstream. It was a tricky hike, and I almost lost my footing a number of times. Whenever I was at risk of falling, I grabbed a handful of the amazingly strong bamboo stalks for leverage. As I walked, the babbling of rushing water gradually grew louder and louder, from polite conversation to outright screaming.
I was at the waterfall. Water came crashing down from 20 to 25 feet above, feeding the pool that was at my feet (now bare, having removed my shoes). I took off the rest of my clothes, too, as there was no one around, and jumped in. The waterfall came down with tremendous force, so I moved a few feet away and lounged in the cool, limpid basin.
This was the aha moment: languidly floating in a pool being fed by a waterfall, blessedly alone, surrounded by a forest of emerald-green bamboo. It was magical and serene, and made the trip entirely worth it.
There are other, less strenuous ways to enjoy Maui’s natural magnificence. There is a lovely, relaxing hike along Thompson Road, an offshoot of the Kula Highway on the southern part of the island. When I did the walk, I made a quick stop at Grandma’s Coffee House for a cup of hot coffee ($1.50) before heading up Thompson Road. Bear right at the fork; otherwise you’ll end up at the Kula Hospital. The 1.5-mile walk, which just happens to neighbor Oprah Winfrey’s property, almost evokes the English countryside: a bucolic, rolling landscape lined with rock walls and wooden fence posts connected with barbed wire.