Hawaii on Sale: Maui's Top 10 Attractions

Vacation deals abound in Hawaii, which continues to suffer from a decline in tourism in the wake of the powerful Japanese earthquake and tsunami. If you're planning a trip to Maui, here are 10 attractions our travel columnists say you shouldn't miss.

Photography by the authors.

Hawaii suffered tens of millions of dollars in damage in the wake of Japan’s devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, and the Aloha State’s economy continues to suffer as its tourism revenue declines because Japanese visitors are putting off vacation plans. As a result, tourism officials are planning on spending millions to attract travelers from other major markets to offset the anticipated decline in Japanese vacationers.

That means vacation deals abound for some of the state’s most desired destinations, particularly Maui.

Maui -- called “Everyone’s Favorite Island” by a number of magazines -- is the easiest way to get both the Hawaiian experience of attractive scenery, gorgeous weather and friendly people, and an uncomplicated vacation experience in itself. The latter is possible because Maui itself offers so much to see and do. It’s a small island, so it’s possible to get to know it and its attractions easily (although we seem to find new attractions each time we return).

If you’re planning on visiting Maui, these are the island’s must-see Top 10 attractions:

1. The Old Lahaina Luau.

Old Lahaina Luau is the one attraction you absolutely must do. There’s no better way to make you feel that you are in Hawaii. It has comfortable outdoor seating, attentive hosts, piping hot, fresh, local food, generous drinks, and the entertaining native dance and music of the islands.

Hint: You’ll find the best seating if you reserve at least five days in advance. Don’t forget your camera.

2. Ulalena Show.

A $9.5 million theater was built in Lahaina just for this show. Its “story of Hawaii’s people” has been running for 12 years, a huge success with both visitors and locals. Many residents have seen the performance numerous times. The show’s collaboration with Cirque de Soleil’s original developers is apparent. Ulalena has an almost Las Vegas-style feel to it but, well done, it maintains the spirit of Hawaii.

Hint: Tickets are pricey ($129.50 per adult for the dinner package; $79.50 pp for the VIP package; $69.50 pp for premium ticket; and $59.50 pp for seats ways in the back). So save your money and skip the dinner package, which is simply dinner in a local upscale restaurant along with show tickets. There are less expensive places to dine before you go to the theater.

3. Slack Key Show.

Every Wednesday, four-time Grammy-winning musician George Kahumoku, Jr., invites a guest to help produce the Slack Key Show. (On a recent occasion, Richard Ho’opi’i did the honors.) Essentially, slack key is a Hawaiian tradition of detuning the strings to produce unique sounds. Don’t leave early once it appears the older musicians might turn the stage over to the younger players. All remain to produce dynamic sound.

Hint: If you stay at the well-recommended Napili Kai Beach Resort up in the North West of the island, the hotel’s only 50 paces from its Sea House restaurant to the Pavilion theater next door.

4. Lahaina Restoration Walk.

Lahaina, known by historians as “the first capital of the Kingdom of Maui,” is the classic, long-loved destination on Maui. Though it’s a bit crowded and touristy, Lahaina is rich in local history. Theo Morrison, executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, says the island’s initial contacts with the Chinese, and later the whaling and missionary eras, have been well preserved in the myriad buildings on the walk. The Foundation has a free booklet-map you can pick up to help you understand the history of this busy little corner of Maui.

Hint: Don’t miss the Wo Hing Museum, which has a movie made by Thomas Edison in 1898 that shows the Chinese immigrants arriving in Hawaii. Also, be sure to check out the waves splashing over the Hauola Stone down by the Lahaina Lighthouse.

5. Atlantis Submarine.

If you want to do more than glance down into the sea, dive into it with an Atlantis submarine voyage. The high-tech submarine takes travelers down more than 100 feet to a Carthaginian replica of a 19th century supply vessel. How much you’ll see depends on many factors, but typically a scuba diver shows up to the feed the fish and lure them closer to the viewing portholes. Between the months of December and May, you may also enjoy whale watching.

Hint: Don’t fret over claustrophobia — the interior is brightly lit and air conditioned, and spacious enough to fit 48 passengers comfortably.

6. Maui Ocean Center.

The Maui Ocean Center open since 1998, is the largest tropical aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. It has been named the “Top-Rated Attraction in Hawaii” by Zagat Survey’s U.S. Family Travel Guide. The center provides easy, fee parking and has several restaurants and shops around it in the Ma’alaea Harbor Village.

Hint: You could easily spend most of a day here. Move it along at the beginning or you might never reach the end. By reservation, experienced certified scuba divers are permitted to dive in the Open Ocean Exhibit, “coming face to face with reef sharks, stingrays and hundreds of tropical fish.”

7. The Upcountry.

Lavender, cowboys, and wine: You get it all by renting a car and exploring Maui. Plus you get to talk to small town café owners, glass blowers, art gallery owners, antiques dealers, junk merchants, paniolo Hawaiian cowboys, wine growers, and island farmers who are doing their bit to make the land productive. Prominent amongst island farmers was the late Ali’i Chang, who died one week after we interviewed this wise, interesting and beloved local figure, pictured here in the fields of his Ali’i Lavender Farm. In the photo below him is the country store 10 miles further south in Ulapalakua.

Hint: Talk to the people you meet. The Upcountry doesn’t get hordes of tourists, and the people are friendly and pleased to talk to visitors.

8. Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum.

Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin were both born in Lahaina, where their parents were missionaries. The two men were childhood friends, and in 1869 they bought 12 acres of land in the Makawao region for $110 and started growing sugar cane, later building the business into an empire that today has $2.5 billion in assets. The museum is a low-key, fascinating showcase of how the partners prevailed, their farm equipment a huge contrast between their plantation and the style of the first Polynesians immigrants. The tractor pictured was built in Cleveland; the painting by Herb Kawainui Kane showing the Polynesian voyage is photographed courtesy of the Alexander Baldwin Sugar Museum.

Hint: Genealogy buffs will want to the peruse the museum’s camp registry, a listing of all of the names of people who lived and worked in the sugar plantation camps.

9. Whalers Village Museum.

This is another museum that can easily be missed, perhaps because it is free. Travelers can find an abundance of free guide books, maps and brochures, but the publications are produced by commercial businesses; if an attraction chooses not to pay to support the publication, it doesn’t typically appear in the guides (a common story for most any tourist destination). So if you happen to be shopping in Whaler’s Village in Ka’anapali, the first ocean beach resort area in the U.S., make a point of locating this Smithsonian-quality tribute to whaling. Some of the cases suggest the inspiration for scrimshaw art came from women’s magazines, such as Harper’s Weekly or Godey’s Ladies’ Book, whose illustrations were traced by sailors as gifts for loved ones when they returned home.

Hint: The museum has exhibits toward the back that show the medical aspects of a hard life at sea.

10. Historic Baldwin Home Museum.

The home office of the Rev. Dr. Dwight D. Baldwin and his family might interest healthcare professional visiting Lahaini. Built of coral, volcanic rock and local timber, the oldest standing house on Maui is the home of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. It is also conveniently located, so you may pick up a map for your self-guided architectural tour of the town. Dr. Baldwin graduated from Yale University in 1821 and studied for a Master of Science degree at Harvard University, then decided to become a missionary in 1826. He came with his wife to Hawaii in 1830. Although Dr. Baldwin didn’t have a medical degree, he was soon deeply involved in the series of epidemics that struck the islands: including whooping cough, measles, influenza, smallpox and dysentery. (Two of his seven children died of dysentery.) Bladwin was finally given an honorary medical degree by Dartmouth University in 1859.

Hint: The locals are well-informed about this man and his descendants, who have done much for the island. Don’t be afraid to ask.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.