Haleakala National Park is home to the world’s largest dormant volcano and endemic plants, such as the silversword. // © 2012
One look at the list of Maui’s highest-rated visitor attractions confirms it: The island’s captivating environment draws people like a magnet. Travelers from around the globe cannot get enough of its natural attributes, from the largest dormant volcano on the planet to some of the world’s biggest marine mammals. At the same time, mankind has stepped in to enhance many of these great Maui attractions with tours, hikes and exhibits.
Following is a look at some of the island's highest-rated lures, based on data from the Maui Visitors Bureau.
The world’s largest dormant volcano rises 10,023 feet and encompasses Haleakala National Park, home of wildlife and plants — such as the mesmerizing silversword plant —found nowhere else on earth. It also boasts more endangered species than any other national park. Recreation abounds here, from horseback tours and hiking to star-gazing and backpacking. Rangers offer nature walks and guided hikes at the volcano’s summit as well as along the park’s Kaupo shoreline.
From Kahului, the Hana Highway winds along 52 miles of eastern coastline past old plantation towns, long stretches of beaches and towering forests. It challenges drivers with its 600 hairpin curves and 56 one-lane bridges, while waterfalls and mango, guava and banana trees enhance the journey. Along the way there are parks for picnicking and stands selling island-style snacks. At the end of the road awaits the rural town of Hana, where horses graze on picture-perfect rolling meadows.
With its steady onshore breezes, Hookipa Beach draws windsurfers from around the world whose multicolored sails streak across the waves. Visitors can either watch them from a convenient hillside lookout or try the sport themselves by taking a lesson or renting equipment from vendors in the area. Nearby Paia, once a plantation town, charms travelers with cute boutiques, antique stores, art galleries and reasonably-priced restaurants, not to mention windsurfing shops.
Iao Valley State Park
Majestic peaks stand sentinel over this peaceful 4,000-acre, 10-mile-long oasis in central Maui, home to a 1,200-foot-high rocky pinnacle called Iao Needle. A paved pedestrian path leading from the parking lot makes for easy explorations and a lookout offers great views of the valley. The Hawaii Nature Center, home of interactive exhibits, is also located here. Iao Valley was the site of the 1790 Battle of Kepaniwai, where King Kamehameha I conquered Maui's army in his quest to unite the islands.
Hugging a picturesque harbor presided over by pretty palms and wooden storefronts, this historic preservation district once served as the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. By the mid-1800s, it was both a center of whaling and a home for New England missionaries. Today, its bustling streets are lined with dozens of art galleries and a range of restaurants. Pleasure boats take visitors out of the harbor for daytime and evening cruises, snorkel and dive sails and whale watching expeditions.
Maui Ocean Center
The largest tropical reef aquarium in the western hemisphere, this state-of-the-art attraction in Maalaea appeals to travelers who are eager to witness the wonders of the aquatic deep without getting wet. Visitors can stand in the middle of a 750,000-gallon saltwater tank thanks to a 54-foot-long acrylic tunnel with a wrap-around view. Other exhibits include a turtle lagoon, a manta ray display, a hammerhead shark tank, a marine mammal discovery center and a hands-on tidal pool.
Head three miles off Maui’s southwestern shores and you’ll find Molokini, the exposed rim of a submerged, extinct volcano and a mecca for snorkelers and scuba divers. Molokini’s clear, protected waters are teeming with 250 species of colorful and curious tropical fish as well as a kaleidoscope of coral. Dozens of tour operators take clients from Maalaea and Lahaina to this state marine life conservation district, which is best experienced during the calm morning hours.
From November through May, Maui welcomes mighty humpback whales who mate and give birth in the region’s warm waters. Various firms offer whale watching excursions aboard power and sail boats, and Maui’s south and west shorelines provide the best options for spotting the endangered species from land. Among the coastal sites offering good vantage points are the hotels of Wailea, Kaanapali and Kapalua; Papawai Point on the road to Lahaina; and the waterfront in Lahaina.