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Mike Yardley: Magic encounters in Maui

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 6 Apr 2024, 1:56pm
Sunrise over Haleakalā. Photo / Supplied
Sunrise over Haleakalā. Photo / Supplied

Mike Yardley: Magic encounters in Maui

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 6 Apr 2024, 1:56pm

Despite being ravaged by devastating wildfires last August, the Valley Isle of Maui continues to shine with unparalleled scenery and golden hospitality. Maui would love to see you. From hidden beaches in every shade to the dramatic peaks of West Maui and Haleakalā, Maui’s elemental brilliance is seductive. Also known as the East Maui Volcano, Haleakalā is a colossal, active shield volcano that constitutes more than 75% of Maui’s landform.  

If you’re up for some edgy volcanic sightseeing in Maui, definitely take a jaunt to Haleakalā National Park, which last spewed molten lava a couple of hundred years ago. Its crater is 12km long and 4km wide. From Wailea or Kāʻanapali, it will take you two to three hours to drive to the summit, where I truly felt on top of the world. (If you’re planning on taking in the storied sunrise spectacle which requires a reservation in advance, you will need to awake by 3am!) You’re ten thousand feet high and the sprawling lava-rock moonscape is compelling, as it’s gilded by the sunrise, while the cloud line stretches out below you.  

The volcanic terrain of Haleakalā. Photo / Supplied

The commonality of Polynesian folklore is intriguing, because the Hawaiian version of the legend of Maui catching the sun is of course also steeped in Māori mythology. Haleakalā means House of Sun, and Hawaiians believe it was from this mountain that Maui lassoed the sun to slow its movement. No matter what time of day you commune with Haleakalā, take some time to savour the rolling farmland and impressive estates of Kula, on the “Upcountry” slopes of the mountain. The local produce from those fertile soils is magnificent, lustily showcased each Saturday at the Upcountry Farmers Market, including the sweetest of strawberries. ( head down Thompson Ranch Road, and you’ll see Oprah’s farmhouse.) 

The neighbouring Upcountry town of Makawao is as sweet as a peach, steeped in Hawaiian cowboy (paniolo) heritage, while also swarming with a thriving arts scene, brimming glass-blowers, painters and wood sculptors. For a snack, follow the locals to get a famous cream puff from T. Komoda Bakery Store, which was established in 1916 by a Japanese plantation worker. Lines can be long in the morning when everything is fresh, but it’s worth the wait! 

On Maui’s North Shore, Mama’s Fish House is a dining institution that requires bookings at least three months in advance. Located in Pāʻia, this legendary restaurant is fine dining, island-style. It’s classy and refined, decked out in glossy hardwood finishes, and wrapped in sweeping ocean views. Wait staff are immaculately clad in Hawaiian-print muumuus and aloha shirts glide, balancing beautiful cocktails and exquisite-looking seafood. Service is flawless. Family owned and operated for 50 years, Mama's does the best and freshest seafood menu on the island—so fresh that the menu changes daily and it even tells you which fisherman caught what you're about to eat, and where. You can’t go wrong with the diver-caught Maui Octopus and the macadamia nut-encrusted Mahi-Mahi. Book well ahead so you don’t miss the boat! 

Mama's Fish House. Photo / Supplied

In West Maui, another cherished solar spectacle features a cliff-dive. As the sun begins to set, the time-honoured tradition of Maui's Chief Kahekili's leap of spiritual strength begins. Legend tells us that the last Chief of Maui proved his spiritual strength by leaping off the sacred Pu'u Keka'a, Black Rock, into the waters below. For over sixty years, this free nightly ritual has taken place by the Sheraton Maui, on the Kāʻanapali Beach shoreline. The blowing of the conch announces the young diver's arrival, who slowly makes his way to the top of the 30-foot-high cliff, lighting torches along the way, before taking his plunge into the waters below. 

Nearby, another salivating natural landmark is the ʻIao Valley State Park. Reservations are now required in advance to visit the park, given its popularity. A paved 1km-long walk serves up a delicious viewpoint of the ʻIao Needle, a striking emerald-hued, vegetation-covered lava remnant that rises from the valley floor to a higher height than the Eiffel Tower, at 1200 feet. You can learn about the plants brought by the Hawaiians who settled in ʻIao Valley by taking a short walk through a botanical garden. This lush rainforest valley is rich in cultural and spiritual values and was the battle site where the forces of Kamehameha I conquered the Maui army in 1790. It’s a must-do. 

ʻIao Valley State Park. Photo / Supplied

By road, I passed by the back of old Lahaina, which was incinerated last August in those catastrophic wildfires, claiming over 100 lives. Casting an eye over the historic waterfront town’s skeletal remains was a harrowing sight from the highway. And a long road lies ahead before Lahaina town is reconstructed. Debris removal continues around-the-clock, as does the debate over whether to rebuild Lahaina as it once looked. If you’re wondering about that beloved 150-year-old Lahaina Banyan, most of the tree is showing regrowth with fresh green leaves. While I was in Maui, arborists trimmed off some of the scorched branches, turning it into mulch and planting it at the tree’s base.  

Heading south, a huge highlight of my latest visit was relishing the marvels of the marine world at Maui Ocean Center. This impressive facility is a sparkling showcase of Hawai’i’s underwater world and a great way to show younger kids what lies beneath the ocean. This aquarium has a prime location on Ma‘alaea Bay, plus some seriously jaw-dropping exhibits such as Open Ocean, an underwater tunnel where sharks, sting rays, and various fish swim overhead. The diver conducting the feeding session even managed to talk to the audience, while underwater. In addition to the stunning Open Ocean, there's also a turtle lagoon, and a massive aquarium exhibition of a living coral reef, teeming with fish life – one of the world’s largest displays of Pacific coral.  

Best of all, the Sphere, which opened just before Covid. The 3D Sphere experience is staged in a dome-shaped theatre with a circular screen, rising up the wall and spanning the curved ceiling. I felt like I had been thrust into the depths of the ocean. It vividly brings to life the wondrous world of the Humpback whales who winter over from Alaska in Hawai’i. The twenty minute screening, based on extraordinary footage captured just off the coast from Maui Ocean Center, brings you eye-to-eye with Maui’s Humpback whales in their realm beneath the waves. You’ll glean insights on the social bonds and hear the songs of these spiritual creatures. The screening also includes real footage of one of the greatest mysteries of all.  

The Humpback Whale 3D Experience. Photo / Maui Ocean Center

Why do these whales seemingly drift as a couple in complete stillness, from time to time, as if they have gone into deep-freeze meditation? They have been documented drifting in this Zen-like state for days, carried along by the ocean currents. The cinematography is exceptional, but nothing beats the sensation of an enormous Humpback soaring across the screen, inches from your head. Top off your marvellous marine encounters, by taking a sunset dinner and whale watching cruise with Pacwhale Eco-Adventures, which directly funds nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation’s Research, Education and Conservation programmes. 

My vacation base was the Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, in South Maui. Fresh from a $500 million renovation, spanning luxurious accommodations, new hospitality venues and the freshly-minted 50,000-square foot Kilolani Spa, the state-of-the-art wellness retreat has proven to be insatiably popular since opening this year. It has drawn inspiration from the Hawaiian moon calendar to help you seek balance within. The resort is an epic wonderland of indulgence, strung across the most sublime botanical gardens and meticulously landscaped grounds, complete with tumbling waterfalls.  

Situated on 40 acres of lush, tropical gardens, you can even take a tour with the head landscaper, Jim Heid, which is perennially popular. Unsurprisingly, many guests who stay in the 800 rooms, have a fully self-contained holiday here, without leaving the property. Clearly geared at remaining on-trend, you’ll notice all manner of interesting collaborations. For example, the resort has partnered with Erewhon, the much-loved LA-based organic grocer who have cemented a red-hot following powered by the celebrity set. The resort has a farm in Kula and over 90% of the food and beverage products are sustainably grown in Hawai’i.  

The tropical grounds of the Grand Wailea. Photo / Mike Yardley

The Grand Wailea also has an apiary on its roof, a herb garden, a tropical fruit garden, and even grows its own cacao. All of this produce is incorporated in the dining venues. The range of dining destinations is head-swirling but you’ll definitely want to book a table at the Italian restaurant, Olivine. Grand Wailea has he partnered with Antinori, one of the oldest Italian wineries in the world, and it serves many of its labels here. The house-made pasta is divine, which incorporates local produce and seafood. It’s that pairing of natural Maui bounty with the art of coastal Italian cuisine, that Olivine absolutely nails.  I plumped for the most wonderful spaghetti dish with prawns, followed by a most unusual dessert of olive oil cake with Kula strawberry gelato. A remarkably agreeable combo!  

Guests also have access to beach yoga and outdoor fitness classes, culturally immersive activities such as hula and ʻukulele lessons daily, admission to scuba clinics and snorkel lessons, use of beach cruiser bikes, complimentary beach umbrellas and chairs for use on Wailea Beach and more; all based on availability. Grand Wailea’s dazzling arsenal of water experiences cater for every whim. You could easily while away the entire day at the famous Wailea Canyon Activity Pool, featuring four jungle pools, five intertwining slides, a whitewater rapids slide, a Tarzan pool with rope swing, a sand “baby” beach, six waterfalls, grottos, three Jacuzzis, and a swim-up bar.  

Waterslides at the Grand Wailea. Photo / Supplied

Less frenetic, blissed-out options are also on-site at the Hibiscus Pool Deck. Before catching the plane home, I took an early morning walk along that achingly gorgeous coastal path fringing Wailea Beach. I had to pinch myself. Trade winds fanned me with a gentle sea breeze as towering ocean breakers crashed down on the sugar-coloured shoreline of Wailea Beach, while outrigger canoe paddlers geared up for some thigh-burning racing. What a blessed part of the world. And what a resort. www.grandwailea.com 

I flew on Hawaiian Airlines to Maui via Honolulu from Auckland. In addition to the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian Airlines connects to 15 US mainland cities. Treat yourself to Extra Comfort, which is very reasonably priced. Hawaiian Airlines’ Extra Comfort seats on the Airbus A330 offer considerably more legroom, priority services and enhanced amenities to make your long-haul travel experience decidedly more comfortable. The spirit of Aloha is readily apparent from the moment you step aboard. www.hawaiianairlines.com 

Explore the world with the trusted name in travel insurance, Cover-More Travel Insurance, which has you covered with added safeguards, over and above the typical travel cover, for the likes of medical treatment. In addition to single-trip cover, multi-trip annual cover is another great option, wherever you want to go. Check out the full range of protections and tailor the level of cover to your requirements. Cover-More’s 24 hour global assistance centre is just a phone call away. https://www.covermore.co.nz 

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings. 

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