When asked for my list of must dos on Maui, I can provide you with endless things to do, see, and places to eat. Maui is my favorite Hawaiian Island and easily the island I know best (I used to live there). But the list you really want is my “short” list. Not necessarily the list I throw out to every reader or traveler who asks for tips. This is my “if I only get one day on Maui, how would I spend it list.”
And at the top of that list has always been dinner at Mama’s Fish House. It’s easily the most recommendable special occasion restaurant on the island. Ask 100 people who’ve been to Maui where’s the one place you should go for dinner and 95 of them will say Mama’s. It’s not a “hidden gem” or an out of the way place that nobody knows about. But it’s the best.
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From time to time, in my private Facebook group, the question gets asked “if it’s worth it.” Is it really worth the hype? Everybody is telling me to go, but is it actually a tourist trap? Or is there somewhere else that’s better for the money?
The majority of people always assure the question asker that yes, it is indeed worth it. It was the highlight of their trip, etc. But to my surprise, there’s always a handful of responders who say “yeah it was really nice, but not worth the money.” Or “We didn’t get the hype at all.”So I figured since it’s easily the most popular special occasion spot on Maui, and it generates so much debate, it deserves its own blog post.
So on my last trip to Maui, I headed to Mama’s (oh the life of a travel blogger!) for the express purpose of doing a full review for you peeps. Full disclosure-although I’m reviewing my latest experience at Mama’s, I’ve been there over a half dozen times so I’ll be pulling form past experiences as well.
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Mama’s Fish House is located on Maui’s north shore just past Paia so if you’re staying in the resort areas on Maui’s west or south sides, it’s going to be a bit of a drive.
Since it’s such a hot spot, you NEED a reservation. During busy times of the year (i.e. Christmas), it’s not uncommon for them to be completely booked up. So reserve early! To be on the safe side, I grabbed a reservation about three months in advance so I could get the exact time I wanted.
You’ll want to check the time of sunset during your trip, I recommend making your reservation about thirty minutes before so it’s still light when you arrive.
The restaurant has complimentary valet right out front which really sets the tone. You check in at the podium out front and then make your way down to the property. It’s right on the beach so you’ll get to witness those impressive north shore waves up close.
You’ve also got to get your picture taken. There’s a famous curved palm tree right out by the water. That’s the good spot.
We made our way to the restaurant to check in again (they know people get sidetracked taking pictures on the beach and don’t rush you) and were seated pretty quickly. If you thought the outside of the restaurant was spectacular, wait until you see the inside.
The only way to describe it is as a luxurious beach shack. I call this place “Gilligan’s Island meets fine dining.” The inside of the restaurant is layered and welcoming while still being impressive. Like maybe you’re eating in someone’s home or family restaurant. It feels very Hawaiian too. But not snobby. It’s not modern, trendy, or uppity at all.
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Request a table with a window view if you’re dining early, but after dark (which is as early as 5:30 or 6 sometimes during the year), it doesn’t really matter where you sit. Since the restaurant is located on the north shore, you’re not going to see the sunset and some people complain about that. “Why pay all that money when you don’t even get a sunset view.” Trust me, you won’t miss it at Mama’s. There’s plenty else to impress you.
We were seated in the middle of the restaurant. We could see the ocean through the windows across the restaurant (well, shutters, I guess I should say since it’s open air), but after 20 minutes or so it was dark anyways.
Our server was INCREDIBLE. Of the six or so times I’ve eaten here, three of the servers have been knock your socks off good (like we were still talking about how impressed we were days later) and three were exactly what you’d expect to get at a restaurant like this. If there’s less than stellar service ever at Mama’s, I’ve yet to experience it.
My two friends that I was traveling with are gluten free (allergy, not by choice), and I made note of it on our reservation, but before we could even remind our server, he informed us that he had been briefed by the kitchen earlier about every item on the menu. I must say, hearing him break down the menu was truly impressive. It’s something that they do at Mama’s for every table, but hearing about it from a gluten free perspective made it that much more impressive. These servers truly know every ingredient in every dish and how everything is prepared.
One of my favorite parts is that the menu is printed fresh everyday so they can list not only which fish they’re using in each dish, but where on the island it was caught and the name of the fisherman. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else.
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My Usual Order
I must confess, I get the exact same thing EVERY time I’m at Mama’s. I mean, when I’m paying this much for a meal and I find something outstanding, I just don’t like to mix it up.
Mama’s has an impressive cocktail menu, but they also have a full bar (a good one too) so they can make you whatever you want. Our server had been a bartender here for a long time so we got a pretty extensive overview of their best offerings. My friends were impressed and ordered accordingly. I already knew what I wanted. Sorry. When there’s guava fizz on the menu, I can’t pass it up.
They start everyone out with a little cup of bisque (I believe it was asparagus bisque this night) along with bread. Honestly, bring me a loaf of bread and nine more of these tiny cups of soup and I’m good.
But then came my appetizer. You cannot go wrong with the crispy shrimp wontons. I mean really. Since my friends were gluten free, I ate all four. Yeah.
And then came the main event. I always get Mama’s special, which is lobster and crab stuffed mac nut crusted mahi mahi. Yes, you should be excited. It’s not cheap ($62), but it’s truly a dish that I always look forward to eating and has never disappointed.
I must say that after eating almost an entire loaf of bread, bisque, and four shrimp wontons, I was feeling less than hungry, but I packed that mahi away. I didn’t actually lick the plate, because, you know, manners, but there wasn’t much left. I say this because unlike many “fancy” places with high prices, the portions aren’t tiny here. I don’t think I would say you could share an entrée, but if you each get an entrée, DEFINITELY share appetizers.
I actually didn’t get dessert this time (remember the aforementioned loaf of bread), but of course everything is good. Their signature dessert is the Pearl and it’s literally a chocolate pearl in an edible shell and it’s really good, but I think it’s more for photos/novelty than taste. I love the coconut cake and the Kuau pie.
What to wear to Mama’s Fish House?
So, how should you dress? Women always ask me this. Yes, it’s the fanciest/nicest place on Maui, but you don’t have to “dress up” if you don’t want to. They probably have a dress code that’s something like “resort casual” which means don’t come in your swim suit.
Basically, for me, shorts and a nice shirt (tee shirt or aloha shirt) is totally fine. For women, pretty much anything goes. I’ve worn a sundress, niceish shorts and a tee shirt, jeans, an aloha shirt, a skirt and top, etc. and always felt very comfortable. Some people will be dressed up –most people are celebrating a special occasion after all, but dressing more casual also doesn’t feel inappropriate. It’s Hawaii.
Mama’s is also surprisingly kid friendly. I’ve been with a child several times, and they’re always accommodating with the menu, even bringing out a little mocktail with the adult drinks. This last time I was at Mama’s there were several tables with small children and you could tell the server was taking que from the parents about how to pace the meal. I bring this up not to try to convince you to bring your kids (because it’s expensive!), but to assure you that if you do, nobody will bat an eye.
So the big question…is it worth it?
First up, what kind of numbers are we talking about? My meal (with cocktail, appetizer, entrée and tip), was about $120. I didn’t share the appetizer with anyone (easily sharable between 2-4) and my entrée was $62-not the cheapest or most expensive option.
So my meal at Mama’s was about the same as a ticket to the Old Lahaina Luau (the best luau on the island).
Here’s what I will say…I didn’t economize my meal at all. I got absolutely everything I wanted and I was completely full when I left. To me, there’s nothing worse than leaving an expensive meal hungry.
I also never feel let down after a meal at Mama’s. Whenever I’m headed there, I’m always a little worried that maybe I’ve overhyped it in my mind and it won’t be as good as I remember. But it always is.
On this latest trip to Mama’s, after we had paid, my friend said, “I didn’t expect the food to be this good.” I asked her if she’d read something that said it was overhyped and she said no, but when she got there and saw the setting and the inside of the restaurant she just figured the food wouldn’t be that good because it didn’t have to be.
And that’s what’s special about Mama’s. It hits the holy grail trifecta of restaurant goals –atmosphere, food, and service. They nail all three. I’ve been to many other fine dining spots in Hawaii that get two right, but 3/3 is tough.
The last thing I’ll address about value are a few comments I’ve seen about price comparisons. I’ve seen something along the lines of this from a few people: “Mama’s wasn’t bad but it’s too expensive. I can go down the street to a local place and get a heaping plate of food for $15. It’s a rip off.”
I don’t even know what to say to that. First of all, I don’t think you can compare such radically different types of food. But the biggest thing I want people to understand is…you know how you value your money and are comfortable spending it. Some people just aren’t comfortable spending money on an expensive dinner no matter how good it is. It will never be “worth it” to them and that’s ok.
Not everyone enjoys the same things and if you’re the kind of person who just can’t stomach spending $$$ on dinner when there’s a good option for $, then by all means skip Mama’s and put that money towards something you will enjoy.
But if you’re looking for an out of this world special dining experience, you can’t go wrong with Mama’s Fish House.
Special thanks to Cameron White for taking most of the beautiful photos featured in this post.
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Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Maui: My Favorite Hotels on Maui | Wailea vs Ka’anapali | All of the Wailea Resorts Ranked | Maui Travel Tips | Things You Can ONLY Do on Maui | My Favorite Road to Hana Itinerary | Road to Hana Tips | Should You Drive the Backside of the Road to Hana? | 4 Day Maui Itinerary | Is Mama’s Fish House Worth It? | Tips for Sunrise at Haleakala National Park | Things to Do Upcountry | Best Beaches in Wailea & Kihei | Best Restaurants in Wailea | Maui vs Kauai | Four Seasons Maui Review | Andaz Maui Review | Fairmont Kea Lani Review | Wailea Beach Resort Review | Four Seasons vs Andaz Maui | Andaz Maui vs Wailea Beach Resort
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