While sticking oceanside is standard vacationing procedure for most Maui tourists, adventuring the waters is not necessarily part of the sunbathe-umbrella-drink-repeat equation. That said, our favorite aquatic activities don’t require any prior certification, just some basic swimming chops and enough daring to venture beyond the beach. You’ll be well rewarded: In winter, humpback whale sightings are commonplace, and in the summer, the swells are gentle, especially on the southwest (Wailea-Makena) and west (Ka’anapali/Lahaina) shores. If it’s big-wave surfing you’re after, the north shore’s Pe’ahi surf break (a.k.a. Jaws), located on Maui’s famous Hana Highway, is good for roadside spectating. Unless, of course, you’re Kelly Slater, and shredding 50-foot swells is just, well, a day at the beach.
For the rest of us, here are the best ways to have fun on the water.
Kayak & Snorkel
Maui Kayak Adventures launches two-man boats from Makena Landing, located a few minutes down the road from the ritzy resort enclave of Wailea. After your guide gives you a quick tutorial on ocean karma (wear reef-safe sunscreen, don’t litter the beaches, hands off the wildlife), you’ll paddle about 20 minutes through calm, early-morning (read: 7am) waters until you’re in the shadows of an ancient volcanic cinder cone; then you’ll gear up with flippers and a snorkeling mask to explore the colorful sea life. Keep an eye out for turtles rising to the surface of the water to warm their bodies, and even witness a “turtle cleaning station” in action, where the federally-protected creatures line up for fish to nibble algae off their shells.
Stand-Up Paddle Board
On a perfect morning, a guided SUP excursion with Maui Stand Up Paddle Boarding is a leisurely paddle along the shoreline in Makena. Once again, an early start is required to avoid the winds that build as the day progresses. Since balance is key, we think this activity is best suited for those with board-sports experience, especially when you make your way out to the scuba spots just offshore (as the crow, er, nēnē goose, flies), for at least 15 minutes under your own paddle power. Just remember: Keep your knees slightly bent, work the oar through the water with straight arms, and assume a kneeling position if you’re tired. Once you head back into the placid waters within the cove, challenge your balance further by attempting a few sun salutations: Downward dog, plank, and upward dog are perfectly floatable yoga poses.
Ukumehame Beach near Lahaina is a favorite for locals who want to get in an easy morning of surfing on gentle, rolling waves before work. Your guide from Maui Surf Lessons will do a short land tutorial covering, among other basics, the pop up (best executed in relaxed mode—don’t overthink it) and the wipeout (fall off your board in a starfish or belly-flop position to avoid gnashing your feet on the reef below). Before you know it, you’ll be riding waves in, on your feet, with the video footage to prove it—a GoPro is attached to the nose of your board.
The Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea makes a great home base while you’re in southwest Maui. Crisp white linens, cool baths in deep soaking tubs, and breezy ocean-facing lanais at the all-suite hotel go a long way to soothe sunburned skin and weary muscles. The signature restaurant, Ko, executes plantation-inspired cuisine with style—don’t miss the perfectly crisp, impossibly savory Filipino lumpia or the grilled monchong fish with a silky, lip-smacking miso-butter sauce.
The Hyatt Regency Maui in Ka’anapali recently renovated its oceanview suites, but with all the opportunities to be outside—from slurping Ululani shave ice in the beachfront cabanas to feeding the warm-climate African blackfooted penguins—you probably won’t need the room for much more than sleep. The hotel’s pan-Asian restaurant, Japengo, is revered for its world-class sushi.
Be sure to request your traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi in a thatched oceanside hale at the Four Seasons Maui spa—you’ll hear the waves as your massage therapist uses strokes inspired by movement of the ocean. A dramatic Maui sunset makes a beautiful backdrop for a hearty dinner at Duo, where the classic steakhouse experience gets an island makeover (think lilikoi beurre blanc rather than sauce au poivre).