I haven’t written a lot about my recent trip to Hawaii—I haven’t fully processed it, to be honest. I took my mom there for her birthday, and while we had a great time, neurological issues caused by lingering chemotherapy toxicity made it difficult for her to move around.
In some cases it was worse than that, like at Kaulahao Beach, where we’d stopped (in vain, it turned out) to try and see some turtles. My mom literally fell out of the car, humiliating her and devastating me. Both of us wanted nothing more than to get out of there; I drove as fast as I could—but within the posted speed limit.
Not that the locals cared, or at least the blonde surfer girls cosplaying as Hawaiians. “Slow down!” One of them shrieked at me as she walked as slowly as she could down the middle of the road, as if the entire island belonged to her, and completely apathetic to what might’ve inspired my fast (but still relatively slow) velocity.
Is Maui worth visiting? In that moment, I certainly didn’t think the answer was yes.
NOTE: This post was published before the devastating Lahaina fires of August 2023. While I stand by everything I’ve written, I also wish a speedy recovery to the people of Maui. If you want to support them, I encourage you to donate and also, to visit when the time is right.
Contents1 Maui is Really Two Islands2 5 Reasons Maui Left Me Cold2.1 Rude locals2.2 Homelessness2.3 Infrastructure2.4 Cost2.5 Beaches3 Is Oahu Better Than Maui?4 Other FAQ About Visiting Maui4.1 Is it worth it to go to Maui?4.2 What is so great about Maui?4.3 How many days should I spend in Maui?5 The Bottom Line
Maui is Really Two Islands
Before I get into some of the other issues that soured me on Maui, I want to talk about something more objectively true: The fact that Maui is effectively two islands. Known as “East Maui” and “West Maui,” the two lobes aren’t separated by water, by the lack of straight-shot roads between them means they might as well be. Unless you plan to stay in Kahului (near the airport, i.e. the center of Maui), you won’t be able to shrug off this peculiar geography.
I don’t recommend it—staying in Kahului, that is. You won’t be near any beach, and while there will be some creature comforts, it isn’t very fun. There aren’t casinos in Hawaii (and therefore, no slots for real money or anything of the sort) and most of the island’s best restaurants are in resort areas anyway. All of which is to say that the sooner you accept this reality—again, that Maui is basically two islands—the more realistic a trip you can plan.
5 Reasons Maui Left Me Cold
I wish the surfer babe we encountered at the beach had been the only rude “local” we met, but the reality is that many Maui residents made us feel unwelcome. From restaurant servers, to police officers, to anti-tourism articles pushed to our phones as we explored, people on the island made it clear that we were part of the “overtourism” problem, even though many of them were clearly recent mainland transplants themselves. It left a terrible taste in my mouth, and honestly made my sad: How can you live somewhere so beautiful, yet act so ugly?
If it was simply a beauty contest, I would definitely consider Maui worth visiting. However, locals’ bad attitudes aren’t the only reason I call this into question. The island also has a crazy amount of homelessness, rivaling only Los Angeles and San Francisco in this department, compared to anywhere else I’ve seen. They’re so thick on certain beaches that tourists can’t utilize bathrooms and changing facilities. While arrogant Mauians probably laugh at this, the irony is that they need tourist dollars if they hope to fix this problem.
Having traveled extensively in Japan, I know what’s possible in terms of building amazing roads and tunnels; I’m also keenly aware of what it costs. To be sure, while I don’t mind the coastal drive around the shore of West Maui in order to head east, I refuse to believe the local government doesn’t have enough money to blast a tunnel through the center of the western “lobe” and directly connect it to Kahului. This is to say nothing of how frankly dangerous the Road to Hana is many places.
When you determine if Maui is worth visiting, you’re ultimately making a calculation. While plenty of high rollers come through, and the cost aspect is irrelevant to them, the reality is that most of Maui’s tourists are normal families with relatively modest budgets. Adding to Maui’s high prices—you’ll be lucky to find any hotel room on the island for under $250 per night—is the fact that much of its construction is old and aesthetically outdated, so the value proposition is poor, irrespective of the raw amount of money you’re paying.
I’ll be honest: Maui’s beaches aren’t great, in my opinion. The eroding beaches of West Maui feature coarse, golden sand that is beautiful, but unpleasant to walk on. In East Maui, even when you aren’t being accosted by surfers, the crazy tides mean that swimming is treacherous (even if the surfing is great). To be honest, the only beach I visited that was remotely memorable was Kaihalulu Beach, a red sand beach at the end of the road to Hana that I almost couldn’t see because there was no parking (another thing I don’t like about Maui).
Is Oahu Better Than Maui?
The night before we flew to Maui, on an awesome catamaran tour I can’t recommend highly enough, I overheard another mainland tourist popping off. “I’m an Oahu bitch,” she’d laughed when the person she met with before boarding the boat asked her if she’d visited or would be visiting any other islands during her time in Hawaii. I liked Honolulu (and Oahu) a lot, but didn’t quite get what she meant at that point.
I certainly do now. While I won’t go so far as to say that Maui is not worth visiting, Oahu definitely strikes a better balance between castaway tropical getaway and practical vacation destination. In Oahu, prices are lower, roads are better and things are generally more available. I also prefer the beaches in Oahu, which for my money is also generally more beautiful than Maui in general.
Other FAQ About Visiting Maui
Is it worth it to go to Maui?
Maui is less than an hour by plane from Oahu, so if you’re already in Hawaii, getting there isn’t expensive or time-consuming. With this being said, you probably do have a limited amount of time in the islands; I would personally suggest spending it somewhere besides Maui.
What is so great about Maui?
Maui is famous, generally speaking, for being an easily accessible alternative to Oahu; in particular, the Road to Hana is a big draw for many tourists. More adventurous tourists also love hiking in the vicinity of Haleakala, Maui’s famous, Martian-looking volcano.
How many days should I spend in Maui?
If you do decide to go to Maui in spite of my naysaying, you need at least 3-4 days to get even close to seeing it all. This means one day enjoying beaches in West Maui, one day driving the road to Hana, one day exploring East Maui’s interior reaches (whether or not you hike near Haleakala) and an extra day at the beginning or end to get your bearings. Ideally, if you want a comprehensive trip, you’ll spend closer to a week in Maui.
The Bottom Line
Is Maui worth visiting? As is the case with most travel topics, this isn’t a “yes” or “no” question. On one hand, Maui is undeniably beautiful, even if the beauty of Oahu is generally more my taste. On the other hand, Maui is far from welcoming—many of the locals hate tourists, to be frank—even though tourism is realistically the only source of revenue that can solve the island’s many social problems. Obviously, I’m open to being proven wrong; if you work for the Maui tourism board and want to fly me out again and change my mind, I’m all ears! For now, however, I’d say that unless you have a longtime goal of visiting Maui, you might want to choose a different island.