If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re planning a vacation to Maui—yippee for you! If you’re not planning a trip to Maui, you should be! Seriously though, get on it!
Anyways, if you’re even remotely considering a trip to Maui and wondering where to stay, this post is for you. If you’ve never been before, you might be overwhelmed…which part of the island should you stay on? Are some beaches better than others? Are those fancy resorts really worth the money? Will a condo save you big bucks? I’m going to let you in on everything you need to know!
Side note: After you read up on the lay of the is(land) and know which part you want to stay on, check out these posts for recommendations:
Lay of the Land, Maui Style
Maui is kind of a big island (we’re talking 10-12 hours of solid driving to go all the way around, which is just a point of reference because NOBODY drives around the entire island in a day) so don’t underestimate its size when you’re planning your trip. It’s divided into four main regions (West Maui, South Maui, East Maui, and the North Shore/Upcountry area) but only has two resort areas. You’ll fly into Kahului (the most sizable city/town) and this is where Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco are located but you likely won’t spend much time in Kahului once you pick up your rental car and groceries.
West Maui: West Maui was originally developed in the 1960s and remains the most popular place to stay and play on Maui. The old whaling village of Lahaina anchors this area and the Ka’anapali resort area is home to the majority of dining and accommodation options on this side of the island. It’s about a 30-40 minute drive from the airport (in Kahului) to the Ka’anapali/Lahaina area in West Maui.
South Maui: South Maui consists of Kihei (a decent sized beach town with plenty of condo options), Wailea (a more upscale, privately planned resort community), and Makena (the sleepy end of the road region in South Maui). The beaches in South Maui tend to get the most sunshine and are generally less crowded than the ones in West Maui. The resorts in Wailea (the Four Seasons, Grand Wailea, Marriot, etc) are only about a 15-20 minute drive from the airport.
East Maui: East Maui is the most remote side of the island (reached by the Road of Hana) and is usually reached as a day trip as accommodations are limited. While most visitors stay in West or South Maui, East Maui isn’t to be missed and the Road to Hana will likely be a highlight of your trip.
North Shore/Upcountry: The North Shore and Upcountry are the most authentic areas of Maui. This is where the locals live and while you likely won’t stay in this part of the island, you should plan plenty of time to explore this part of the island. Paia, Makawao, and a drive upcountry through Kula to Ulupalakua shouldn’t be missed.
Now that you’ve got the lay of the land, you’ll need to decide which part of the island will suit you best. First off, I’ll lay out some pros and cons of the West side vs. the South side before mentioning some more “off-the-beaten-path” options on the North Shore and in Hana.
Pros: Why You Might Like West Maui
Most people stay in West Maui, if for no other reason than it’s where the majority of the resorts and condos are. West Maui is home to Maui’s original resort areas (when tourism development began in the 1960s) and it’s still where most of the tourists flock today. West Maui is usually sunny and dry, making it perfect beach weather. Also, there’s a wide range of accommodation options so whether you’re looking to splurge on a beachfront resort or save on a condo, you can find it in West Maui.
There’s also a lot development, so if you’re the type that likes to be in the middle of the action, West Maui is where it’s going on. Lahaina (an old whaling village turned tourist hot spot) is where many choose to spend their evenings. Front Street is packed with shops and restaurants (many offering ocean views) and has a nice vibe that makes it a “hang out” spot for people in the evenings. The docks in Lahaina are also where a lot of the water excursions leave from (whale watching, glass bottomed boats, submarines, and ferries to Lanai and Molokai) so if you’re planning to do much of that, it’s nice to be staying nearby.
Maui’s famous Ka’anapali Beach is also in West Maui (just north of Lahaina) and although it comes nowhere near it in terms of crowds, I would call it the Waikiki of Maui. Fronting it are the Sheraton, Westin, Marriot, and Hyatt to name a few. There’s also an outdoor mall with plenty of shopping and dining right on the beach. The three-mile beachfront promenade makes it easy to get around and it seems like there’s always something to do. Catamarans pull right up to the beach to take passengers out on snorkeling excursions and there’s great snorkeling at the far north end at Black Rock. The Sheraton also hosts a nightly luau.
If you’re looking for something quieter, Napili Bay and Kapalua Bay to the north might float your boat. Napili Bay (a great beach) is surrounded by older condos and small inns or resorts that although they’re showing their age are still pretty charming (and you can’t beat the location)! For more of a luxury resort feel, try Kapalua (the name of a beach, but also a resort area). It’s centered around golfing, but the Montage and the Ritz Carlton are some of the swankiest places around and although you’re not far from Lahaina and Ka’anapali, you’ll feel a world away. There are also a bunch of fancy-schmancy condos in Kapalua.
West Maui is actually one of the prettiest parts of Maui, with the West Maui Mountains rising up in the background offering some amazing hiking trails, it has some of the best beaches on the island (if you don’t mind the crowds) and you’re close to the famous Honolua Bay and all that’s going on in Lahaina and Ka’anapali.
Cons: A Few Reasons You May Not Like It
Alas, even though West Maui is pretty great, it’s not perfect. I hinted before at the crowds, but to me, that’s really the worst part about the West side. The beautiful beaches are the most crowded on the island, and while I love me some people watching, most of the time I like to be away from the crowds. Also, while there’s a lot to do on the West side, which means it’s pretty built up. Which can be good and bad. Unfortunately, the bad can be tacky tourist shops and plenty of strip malls. There are more places to eat, but many of them seem to lack quality. All of that aside, a major consideration for me is how far the West side is from everything else. Doing Haleakala? It’s a hike. Road to Hana? Same thing. Anything on the north shore or upcountry? You’ll have to drive a ways. The good news…Maui is beautiful, so you may not mind the drive.
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Pros: Why You Might Like South Maui
Well hello, South Maui! While not as popular or well known as the West side, the South shores of Maui are pretty darn great. This side of the island stays even drier and sunnier than the West side (hence why they’ve starting building it up more). The beaches in South Maui are way less crowded and quite a bit more accessible than those on the West side (more parking and better marked). Most of the beaches in Kihei you can see from the road! I think South Maui has it all. Kihei is a sizable beach town with plenty of places to eat and things to do (this is the hub of Maui surf lessons) and it’s not very expensive. Most of your accommodation options in Kihei will be condos (some not super new) and while most aren’t right on the beach, the steep price break can be worth a quick walk across the street to get to the beach.
If you can swing it, Wailea is THE place to stay. Wailea is a resort community just south of Kihei that includes several mega beachfront resorts, some nice condo complexes, good restaurants, and an upscale outdoor mall. The whole area is super lush and manicured and looks like the Hawaii of your dreams. When I’ve driven people down to Wailea after seeing other parts of the island, they’ve said “now THIS is what I thought Maui would look like.” To me, the epitome of luxury is staying at the Four Seasons in Wailea.
The real gem of South Maui is Makena. South of Wailea, the road opens up and the landscape becomes less manicures and returns to its natural state. The beaches are beautiful down in Makena and while there’s the Makena Beach Resort and a couple of B&Bs/small inns, it’s most mega mansions of the rich and famous. But the scenery is uncorrupted and it’s a real change of pace. There are some amazing beaches in Makena (Maluaka, Big Beach and Secret Beach I’m looking at you!) and it’s one of my favorite places in Maui.
Cons: A Few Reasons You May Not Like It
Just like the West side, the South side isn’t perfect. Kihei can feel a bit “spring breakish” to me. There are plenty of tacky shops, less than desirable eateries, and the beaches can definitely get crowded (especially Kam I, II, and III). Wailea is picturesque but expensive (unless you’re in a condo off the beach) and there’s honestly not a lot going on. Everything is more upscale but there’s less of it. Makena is beautiful but very sleepy, and there’s really only one place to stay. There are a few companies that offer snorkeling excursions out of Kihei (one out of Makena) but otherwise you’ll have to drive up to Ma’alaea Harbor. And although Haleakala looks super close (you can practically reach out and touch it) there’s no road that connects with the elusive backside of the Road to Hana (it look so close on a map!!) so you still have to drive up through Kahului to get to the North Shore, Upcountry, and Road to Hana.
If you’re really looking for adventure…
East Maui is mostly referred to as Hana, as in the destination at the end of the Road to Hana. While this is arguably the most beautiful part of Maui, not many people stay here. This could be because it’s super remote (you have to drive the Road to Hana just to get there). As you might expect, there aren’t many places to stay around Hana. There also isn’t much to do. You know, apart from hiking to hidden waterfalls and what not. While I know the majority of you aren’t going to be interested in staying out near Hana, I mention it for two reasons.
The first reason you might want to stay near Hana is if you’re looking for a super authentic Hawaiian experience. If staying in a resort area that caters to tourists isn’t your thing, then you should definitely check out East Maui. This is the place for those who think Hawaii is too touristy, developed, and crowded.
Another reason you might want to stay in Hana is if you’re on the adventurous side. Most people visiting Maui will drive the Road to Hana and spend the day climbing in and out of their jeep to check out whatever roadside attractions they come across before whizzing through Hana town and doing a 180 to make it back to Ka’anapali for dinner. If that doesn’t sound like fun, or you really want to see and experience the jungles of East Maui (hey, who isn’t into waterfalls, bamboo forests, rainbow eucalyptus trees, and black and red sand beaches??) then consider spending the night somewhere near Hana so you’re able to break the trip up over two days.
North Shore & Upcountry
If you’re looking to get away from the crowds and experience a more local Hawaii, but Hana seems a little too remote, then you should definitely consider the north shore or upcountry. This is my FAVORITE part of Maui. The north shore has a funky hippy vibe with real community. Paia is a great town (it has a little inn) and the neighborhoods around have some pretty cool beach rentals. The beaches are beautiful on the north shore (really some of the prettiest on Maui) but they can get pretty windy. Actually, Maui’s north shore is famous for kite and wind surfing.
The north shore and upcountry (including Paia, Makawao, and Haiku) have quite a few “retreat” type places to stay so if you’re looking for a yoga retreat on Maui or something like that, this is the area it will be in. Here’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking to rent a house on this part of the island: the farther up the mountain you go the better the views are but the farther you are from the beach!
My 2 Cents about Maui
Everybody has different opinions and different things work for different people, but here’s what I think (and this is what I tell my friends who are thinking about a trip to Maui):
Avoid Kihei unless budget is just the most important thing to you.
If you can swing it, stay on the beach in Wailea. Four Seasons is the dream. Kids will love the Grand Wailea. The Andaz is pretty swanky too.
Don’t stay in Ka’anapali unless you’re right on the beach (there’s super limited parking and you’ll end up having to pay to go to the beach). Also, don’t confuse “North Ka’anapali Beach” with “Ka’anapali Beach.” While North Ka’anapali is nice, it seems really narrow in places and it doesn’t have the same atmosphere as Ka’anapali Beach (and they’re not connected. You can traipse through the Sheraton, but you kind of have to know where you’re going).
If you stay on Ka’anapali Beach, I would pick the Westin or the Sheraton.
Manage your expectations if you’re staying in an older condo on the West Side (especially around Napili Bay). They’re a little older and shabbier than many expect.
Overall, my pick is the South side, but that’s just because it jives more with my personality. I would pick most places in Wailea (even off beach condos) over places on the West side unless I’m directly on Ka’anapali Beach (I love the Westin) or in Kapalua (it has a similar vibe to Wailea).
P.S. Now that you know the lay of the is(land), don’t forget to read about 25 awesome Maui Airbnbs , 12 Maui budget hotels, 16 Maui beach resorts, 6 best family friendly resorts on Maui, and 5 best Maui honeymoon resorts.
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