Maui is an exceptional place, a land of intriguing contrasts all conveniently packed into 727 square miles. No passport is needed and there are no language barriers, but the musical lilt of the islanders' speech and the magical place names hint at an ancient tongue very different from American English. At sea level, you'll find some of the best beaches in the world. But go a few miles inland and you're on the top of a volcano, at 10,000 feet, with your head literally in the clouds. The west coast has sunny shorelines; the east coast, verdant rain forest. Native cuisine is a unique and tasty mix of Pacific Rim influences, yet a cheeseburger is never far from reach. If you cannot make up your mind between luxe and rustic, rugged or refined, Maui is the perfect honeymoon destination, because you can have it all—often within mere miles.
In keeping with this spirit of contrast, my husband, Garrett, and I split our time between a six-day splurge at a luxury resort in Napili and four days at a rustic bungalow near Hamoa Bay, on the less-developed east coast.
We arrived at Kahului Airport in the evening after a long flight from New York City and picked up our Mustang convertible for the trip to Napili Kai Beach Resort (rates start at $210, 808-669-6271, napilikai.com). Just steps off the plane we noticed the quality of the air in Maui. It feels and smells different; it's so lush and almost tangible. We put the top down, and the velvety darkness made the island seem even more mysterious. When we got to Napili Kai, we found the sidewalks rolled up, so we went to bed before midnight—well before midnight.
We were rewarded the next morning by a bizarre sensation, a beatific feeling of being well-rested—and at an unheard-of 7 a.m. Outside, we could finally see our surroundings: a living postcard of a golden, sandy beach and swaying palm trees. The ocean water was teal blue and so clear and temperate it could have been a pool. We wasted no time nurturing our inner tourists, swathing our bodies in Coppertone and sticking our noses in books. We spoke little except to order another daiquiri—served with a hunk of fresh pineapple and a cymbidium-orchid blossom—and sigh contentedly. We discovered we were within walking distance of the restaurant Sensei, where the creative take on sushi brought us back several times.
After a few days of blissful slothdom, we decided we should actually explore some of the island we had come so far to see. The resort had an activities desk, which smacked suspiciously of summer camp, but we were game. The offerings were nearly endless: many incarnations of the de rigueur luau, surfing lessons, scuba diving. Bicycling down the volcano or flying over it in a helicopter. Horseback riding and sailing through a eucalyptus forest on cables connecting treetop platforms. Parasailing over the ocean or regular sailing to Molokini's coral reef. And golf. Maui boasts several championship links, so Garrett booked a round at the elite Plantation Course. We also decided to take a surfing lesson and try the cable zip-lines, even though we both have height issues. And, last but not least, we had to attend a luau.
The most popular choice, and arguably the best on the island, the Old Lahaina Luau, was booked months in advance, so we opted for the Feast at Lele on the beach in the old whaling town of Lahaina, seven miles south of Napili. Four Polynesian cultures were represented in food and music, and the dancers were as intoxicating as the steady stream of mai tais. In fact, I liked them so much (the dancers, that is), I wanted to go back the next night, but Garrett felt that "luau" could be duly checked off the to-do list.
The following morning we reported to the Royal Hawaiian Surf Academy for our lesson, also in Lahaina. The waves were unusually choppy that day, making it not only extra difficult to stand up on the ten-foot boards, but also to keep them from bonking other students on the head or floating away. I got up on one of my first attempts, and Garrett on one of his last. He was so pleased with himself that he rode that wave all the way into the stone retaining wall, garnering a bloody knee. Recalling I'd read somewhere that sharks can smell blood in the water from miles away, I was ready to go back to land.
Next on our list was a trip to the slopes of Haleakala (Hawaiian for "House of the Rising Sun"), Maui's volcano. There, in a sweet-smelling eucalyptus forest, we jumped off 300-foot platforms, suspended only by harnesses attached to pulleys that slid on steel cables. Our small group yipped and screeched like a bunch of deranged flying squirrels, enjoying ourselves immensely and even forgetting our fear of heights.
We picnicked at Hosmer's Grove near the summit, where the wind was blowing hard and roiling clouds blocked most of the crater from view. (The crater is technically more of an erosional valley, but that just doesn't have the same ring.) It's a mesmerizing lunar landscape of dark reds, greens, and browns. The extremely rare silversword plant grows only on Haleakala's upper slopes and blooms just once in its lifetime of 50-odd years. We hiked along the crater's crumbly lava stones—appropriately called the Sliding Sands Trail—for a couple of hours. It's a day-and-a-half hike all the way around the treeless crater for sturdy souls (and soles). In the visitor center, ranger Paki Williamson shared the saga of the Tahitians who settled the area 1,300 years ago.
Garrett finally got his round of golf on a championship course, and I spent the afternoon at nearby Slaughterhouse Beach, where I was rewarded with the sight of porpoises at play. Then it was time to set off for the more rustic lodgings we'd chosen at the other end of the island. We hit the road to Hana, a narrow, twisty track that hugs the rocky northern coast. Many consider the road to Hana an activity in itself. It's no more than 40 miles long, yet it has so many S-bends and one-lane bridges that it takes hours to travel. A soft rain was falling, so we put the top up, popped a CD of traditional Hawaiian music into the stereo, and wove our way past cascading waterfalls and fragrant forests.
The Hamoa Bay Bungalow (rate starts at $195, 808-248-7884, hamoabay.com), which I'd discovered on the Internet, is designed to be a very private experience. You pay your bill in advance and follow e-mailed directions, like in a treasure hunt. A key is left out for you, and you need never see another human unless you seek out the gardener to cut down a bunch of fresh bananas or papayas—all growing on the property.
The clean, comfortable Balinese-themed bungalow is actually a cottage on stilts with an open first floor and screened-in quarters above that make you feel like a little bird perched in the tropical-tree canopy. The fresh coffee beans, whirlpool tub, and cable TV remind you that you are not. The grounds are a true botanic garden, sporting lush ferns, banana trees, and giant Dr. Seussian flowers in vivid colors. My favorite feature was the outdoor shower, where the sun shining through the water created tiny dancing rainbows and the ginger-scented breeze could blow you dry. And all this only a 15-minute stroll from Hamoa Bay Beach, the best on the whole east coast. One caveat: There's only a general store in town and very little fresh food. We were glad we had done some shopping in Lahaina beforehand. We enjoyed our candlelight dinners, talking, sipping wine, and watching geckos traipse over the picture window. It was a little slice of domestic perfection, yet still utterly exotic—not a bad way to start married life.