WAILEA, Hawaii — Growing up in Hawaii, I appreciated the beauty and relaxed lifestyle of the islands. I didn’t know how much I needed the rejuvenating air, the mountain views and the scent of plumeria and pikake blooms until I returned, much older, as a tourist.
I recently spent a week at the Hotel Wailea in Maui, where I sat on a porch soothed by tropical breezes, enjoying my favorite breakfast of fresh pineapple and hibiscus tea and watching whales breach in the distance. Now, these are the moments I steal when I think of my island home.
Maui is a lush destination with green mountains surrounded by the deep blue Pacific Ocean and open areas in the interior where sugarcane and pineapple farms once thrived. The geography is what gave Maui its nickname, the Valley Isle. In the 1950s and 1960s, global competition in the agriculture industry sent much of the local labor force to other, more affordable places. Maui leaders turned to tourism — like the island of Oahu, home of Honolulu, had already done — to make up that income.
At the same time, though, Maui residents wanted to preserve the island’s natural resources, especially its pristine beaches. Residents also knew they had to provide services for tourists, including hotels, roads and activities. The result was the development of several planned vacation communities, namely Kaanapali and Wailea. Both areas have world-class hotels, restaurants, golf courses and other amenities. In a way, they corral tourism to certain areas, leaving much of the island pristine.
Wailea, on the south shore, is my preferred location because it’s closer to the airport in Kahului (a 35-minute drive) and the Haleakalā National Park and its dormant volcano. While I have made the sunrise journey to the peak of the volcano in the past, these days I prefer to explore Upcountry Maui, including Makawao and Kula where the air is cooler and the pace is slower.
Wailea is home to the Four Seasons Hotel, where the first season of HBO’s “The White Lotus” was filmed, and other pricey hotels including a Ritz-Carlton and the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria resort. We booked the Hotel Wailea, Relais & Chateaux, a bit farther from the ocean but higher on a mountain offering especially impressive vistas, including of the Molokini Crater. (Rooms at the five-star hotel average about $1,100 a night with weekend rates upwards of $1,600. That doesn’t include meals, which also can be expensive.)
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The hotel’s adults-only designation made the vacation extra peaceful without screams of “Marco Polo” at the pool and all the other activities we loved when our own kids were small. The open-air lobby and restaurants offered comfortable seating and delicious menus that were always accompanied by luscious local pineapple and papaya, among other tropical fruit.
The lava-rock paths throughout the development were easy to navigate and our oceanfront room was spacious and comfortable. Hotel staff was accommodating (Hair appointment? Check. Dining reservations? Of course) and valets with golf carts picked us up at our door for a scenic ride to the beach or other hotels. We lingered over poolside lunches — fish and pork tacos and more fruit. For me, the small-world discoveries while traveling often lead to a local connection. Our conversation with a bartender quickly revealed he used to mix drinks in Florida, Treasure Island no less.
On a couple of long walks along the Wailea Beach Path we were entertained by large sea turtles bobbing in the ocean, pods of whales splashing in the distance and outrigger canoes gliding over the waves. The path stretches 1.6 miles along the water adjacent to some of the large hotels and public beach access points.
Ah, the whales. I like to visit Maui in the winter because of them. Humpback whales migrate from Alaska between December and February to mate and have babies in the warmer, shallower water between the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Watching mama whales and their 2-week-old calves lurch into the air, sometimes in unison, is spectacular. Seeing them from our room was impressive, but for a closer look book a whale-watching boat tour with PacWhale Eco-Adventures. It is owned by the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation, which says it is “dedicated to protecting the ocean through science and advocacy and inspiring environment stewardship.” (Tours depart from Ma’alaea Harbor near Wailea and Lahaina.)
We also arranged a scuba diving trip in the Molokini Crater, where certified divers can use underwater scooters to view the masses of tropical fish, eels and thriving reefs. My husband and his sister, who made the trip, could hear the symphony of whales underwater as the big mammals called to each other.
Great food is a draw to Hawaii, and Maui offers some lovely restaurants. At Lahaina Grill we devoured the Maui onion and sesame seed crusted ahi tuna and vanilla bean jasmine rice with apple cider butter vinaigrette ($75). At the Hali’imaile General Store, I had my favorite macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi with purple, Molokai whipped sweet potatoes, tropical fruit salsa and mango-lilikoi butter sauce ($48). We sat outside at the Cafe O’Lei at the Mill House to take in the mountain views while we ate yummy lobster risotto with sweet corn and asparagus ($46).
At this former sugar plantation, I also scarfed down way too many hot malasadas for dessert. The Portuguese-inspired, sugar-coated fried dumplings are a treasured treat from my childhood.
The Mill House is a great stop for island-made “what-did-you-bring-me” gifts to take home, including locally roasted coffees. I always return to the mainland with chocolates and fresh pineapples from the Maui Gold Pineapple Company as well.
Coffee, coincidentally, was the only complaint we had about the Hotel Wailea. We didn’t think the coffee served at the hotel was strong enough. But we solved that problem when we left Maui and flew to the coffee capital of Hawaii, the city of Kona on the Big Island. We found plenty of places to get that caffeine jolt there.
But that’s a pretty minor issue. After all, whales.
Getting there: Although there are no direct flights from Tampa or Orlando to Maui, most major airlines fly from several mainland cities into Kahului airport (OGG). Direct flights are available from Atlanta and western cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix. Airlines with flights to Maui include Delta, United, American, Southwest, Hawaiian and Alaska. Prices vary depending on the dates and times. Economy flights can range from about $600 roundtrip to more than $1,500. More flights are available from the mainland to Honolulu, and from there, visitors can take a 40-minute flight to Kahului on Hawaiian or Southwest. If you’re considering a trip to Maui, it might be a good time to use airline points or miles to upgrade to first class. The flight from Atlanta to Maui is around 10 hours.