Are you planning a trip to Maui? Yippee if you are! You’re probably thinking about swaying palm trees, golden sandy beaches, and exotic marine life and while the land of the hula certainly has all of that, it has much, much more. The vast majority of space on Maui isn’t the shoreline where so many visitors flock each year, but rather the “upcountry.”
Stretching to include the cowboy country of Makawao, the farmland of Kula, the eucalyptus forests of Ulupalakua, and the slopes of Haleakala, exploring upcountry Maui (including the lavender farm Maui) will give you a different perspective of life on the honeymooner’s isle. This is were the people live and if you spend a day or two here you’ll understand why.
I was lucky enough to call the Maui upcountry home for a little over a year, and to me it’s the real Maui. In many places upcountry, if you couldn’t look out and see the ocean, you’d swear you were in the high meadows of Colorado or the Texas hill country.
Ranching and farming are a way of life and everything moves just a little bit slower. Communities are small and tight knit so everybody knows everybody but the aloha spirit runs deep so everyone feels welcomed. The sweeping ocean vistas, rugged green hills, purple jacaranda trees, and mom and pop shops and restaurants are the real magic of Maui. The fact that all of this is just a 30-minute drive from some of the world’s best beaches? Just a bonus.
Most visitors see a brief glimpse of upcountry as they’re racing down the mountain after sunrise at Haleakala to get back to the beach but this just isn’t enough! Here is my guide to the very best of what the Maui upcountry has to offer:
The Drive Upcountry
If you’re coming from the resort areas of Wailea and Ka’anapali, you’ll have to pass through Kahului on your way Upcountry. For a bit of adventure and a look at a more rugged Maui, skip the Haleakala Highway and take the back roads instead. Drive past the sugar mill, along bumpy dirt roads lined with monkeypod trees, and wind up the mountain past small farms and sprawling estates which offer some of the best views of the giant cacti that inhabit much of the upcountry before connecting with the Haleakala Highway in Kula.
Kula isn’t so much of a town as it is a region. There are a few attractions here as well as some off the beaten path restaurants.
Surfing Goat Dairy Farm: In lower Kula there are two major upcountry attractions located on Omaopia road: The Surfing Goat Dairy Farm and the Ocean Vodka Distillery. Surfing Goat Dairy gets a lot of coverage but unless you’re planning to go for one of their “grand farm chore tour” (which isn’t cheap) there isn’t much to see. It’s essentially a gravel parking lot with a small souvenir shop. They do make their own cheese and truffles. If you’re in the area and you’re a chocolate lover, consider stopping by and picking up some of these unique treats but don’t plan to spend a ton of time.
Ocean Vodka Distillery: Right next door is the Ocean Vodka Distillery, which offers hourly tours (for a small fee) of the distillery. They also have a gift shop that sells chocolates from the Surfing Goat that are made with Ocean Vodka. If you’re into touring breweries or distilleries this is an interesting stop, but if you’re not there’s plenty of other sites to keep you busy upcountry.
Kula Country Farms: In upper Kula (the area where my suggested back roads drive upcountry meets the main highway), you’ll find Kula Country Farms. The big draw here is a pumpkin patch in the fall and a u-pick strawberry patch in the spring. This place gets super crowded in the fall on weekends as locals make the pilgrimage from all over the island to pick a pumpkin, go through the corn maze, and play a round of mini golf at the makeshift course. There’s also a little play area for kids and a farm stand that sells fresh produce and local goods. This place has great views of the ocean and West Maui Mountains, but unless you’re super drawn to this type of attraction, keep on going. (It’s closed on Mondays!)
Ali’i Lavender Farm: This place is not to be missed! It’s a pretty drive up to the lavender farm and on your way you’ll pass O’o Farms, which offers a farm to table tour and meal (reservations required). The lavender farm does cost a small admission but it’s well worth it. You can easily spend a couple of hours strolling through all of the different gardens. The grounds are exquisite and offer some of the very best views of Maui. They also have a cute gift shop and café that sells a lot of lavender themed items. Keep in mind that there are two lavender farms upcountry but the Ali’i wins hands down. The other does get quite a bit of traffic because it’s free and on the road up to Haleakala.
If you get hungry after your farm tours, here are a couple of good restaurants:
Kula Bistro: This local spot is located in what passes as Kula “town.” They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner but the real gem here is their dessert case. Stop in and take something to go if you’re not hungry because it’s a shame to miss this spot. If you’re there for dinner, it’s BYOB and the old fashioned general store across the street, Morihara, has beer and wine.
La Providence: A French bakery that serves a limited menu including crepes and quiche is also nearby. Their patio is very pleasant when the weather is nice (they only have outdoor seating) and you must, must, must try their éclairs (you can get them to go from the bakery inside).
Haleakala: Kula is the closest community to Haleakala, but it’s best seen at sunrise or sunset (or by spending a full day hiking up there) and is quite a world in its own so I’ll save details about that for another post (but here’s a Haleakala adventure you need to read about).
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Once you’ve seen all you want in Kula, keep going up the mountain on the main highway to the tiny hamlet of Keokea.
Grandma’s Coffee House: Grandma’s is one of the best (local) breakfast places on the island. Everything on their menu is fantastic but their Belgian waffles are my favorite. They’re open through the afternoon and it’s a great place to stop in for baked goods, desserts, and a cold drink. There’s a funky little art gallery next door and two gas stations/general stores as well (The Ching store and the Fung store).
Thompson Road: For a nice little drive, go up Thompson’s road for a few miles. It’s rumored that this is where Oprah lives (confirmed when secret service patrols Keokea when Michelle Obama is visiting) but this drive will make you feel like you’re more likely in Ireland than Maui.
A trip Upcountry isn’t complete without going out to Ulupalakua (down the road from Grandma’s towards Hana). The drive from Keokea to Ulupalakua has great views of Wailea and Makena down below and is a real highlight of the upcountry area. Once in Ulupalakua (don’t blink or you’ll miss it!) there are two things to see:
Maui’s Winery: Not to be missed! This place is a real example of Hawaiian hospitality. Located on a beautiful tree filled estate, the winery’s property is filled with historic buildings and beautifully landscaped grounds. They usually offer a couple of complimentary tours each day (no need for reservations, just show up) but the highlight here is the tasting room. Maui’s Winery is famous for their pineapple wines but they have a growing collection of estate wines (look for the vineyard on the right side of the road on the way to the winery) that are gaining popularity.
Ulupalakua Ranch Store: When you’re done with your tasting (which is complimentary by the way) head over to the Ulupalakua Ranch store for some souvenir shopping (they have plenty of “I survived the road to Hana” shirts here since this is technically the end of the road if you do the full loop) and a burger. Starting at 11 AM, you can order a freshly made burger (made with Maui cattle or elk) grilled up outside on the porch.
Road to Hana (Backside): If you keep going past Ulupalakua you’ll eventually come to Hana but it’s a long desolate road in between so this is the end of the road as far as the upcountry is concerned. If you’re attempting the Road to Hana, you should totally go the whole way around (from Hana to Ulupalakua) for wide sweeping views and a largely “unexplored” part of the island.
Here’s something interesting (totally frustrating!!) about the road situation: even though Makena and Wailea are so close (you’re literally just a few miles above them), there is no public road to get down to the shore so the only way back is the way you came.
Makawao is paniolo (cowboy) country and the town looks straight out of the Wild West. You can easily spend an entire afternoon in here. Park the car and explore the shops, boutiques, and art galleries that have revived Makawao from its days as a cattle town.
Shopping: Some of my favorite boutiques are Driftwood, Pink by Nature, Homme by Nature, and the Mercantile.
Restaurants: Stop by Casanova’s deli to grab a drink or a pasta plate lunch (it’s seriously a great deal…you get pasta, salad, and bread for like $7). If you’re in town for dinner, try Makawao Steak House. The Rodeo General Store is also a good place to pick up snacks and the like.
Komodo’s Bakery: Makawao’s most famous attraction is Komodo’s Bakery, famous for their stick donuts. People line up early in the morning to snag donuts and pastries from this Maui institution. Many people make this their breakfast stop after catching the sunrise at Haleakala.
Depending on where you’re coming from, try the drive over Kekaulike and down Olinda road into town. This drive has it all, from rolling hills to eucalyptus forests to deep gorges. See the details in my Google Maps (you can sign up for them above!).
From Makawao you can head down to Haliimaile. This used to be a big time pineapple plantation and while its heyday has long past, there’s still a little bit going on.
Maui Pineapple Tours: You can tour the small plantation that produces the Maui Gold pineapples. While the tour through the fields and facilities is kind of pricey, it’s more authentic than the Dole Plantation on Oahu (and you can also combine it with lunch at the Haliimaile General Store).
Haliimaile General Store: This is easily one of my favorite restaurants on Maui and it easily ranks on any top 10 restaurant list (order the crab pizza to start!) If you’re interested in having dinner at the Haliimaile General Store (and you totally should be!) it’s easily doable on any evening so it doesn’t have to be included on a day spent upcountry. Plan to drive to Haliimaile just for dinner from the resort areas (an easy 25-30 minute drive from Wailea).
Whew!! So basically you could spend your entire vacation upcountry and not run out of stuff to see and do. But I know that’s not going to happen so if you’re just looking for the highlights, don’t miss these:
Ali’i Lavender Farm
Grandma’s Coffee House
Haliimaile General Store
Visit Makawao Town (Shopping and Komodo’s Bakery)
So on your next trip to Maui, by all means enjoy your plush beach resort, snorkel at Molokini, go to the luau, and shop and dine on Front Street, but promise to carve out at least a day to experience the Maui upcountry. You won’t regret it!
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