When my wife suggested Hawai'i for our honeymoon last fall, I didn't truly get excited about it until we landed. I've been lucky enough to have been all around the Caribbean and to Cancun, Mexico, so I figured if I'd seen those places, I already knew what I was in for by going to Hawai'i.
I was so wrong. We spent 11 days exploring the island of Maui (and one day on the Big Island) touring the multitude of landscapes and microclimates on our own, free from the time constraints of guided tours. I'm typically not one to vacation in the same spot twice with all there is to see in the world, but we will definitely be going back.
Hiking, swimming, and snorkeling was our M.O. for those 11 days. and I was lucky to get plenty of great shots along the way. Below are my personal Top 7 places to explore and photograph in Maui, keeping in mind the diversity the island has to offer in adventures, ecosystems, and culture.
#7 Garden of Eden Arboretum
Located on the world famous Road to Hana in the community of Haiku, the Garden of Eden Arboretum is home to over 30 acres of botanical gardens and over 2 miles of walking trails surrounded by hundreds of tropical species of plants. You'll probably run across a wandering muster of peacocks who aren't afraid to say hello while there as well!
The small entrance fee is worth the price to gain access to photo opportunities ranging from gigantic landscapes of sea and waterfalls to macro shots of tropical flora including fields of bamboo and every color of flower you can think of. In just under an hour you can roam around the entire garden. Definitely worth a trip, especially on your eastward leg of the Road to Hana.
Tip: We would have completely missed this opportunity if we were driving the Hana Highway without help. Luckily we were using the GyPSy 'Road to Hana' app narrated by the calming voice of an anonymous Hawaiian wise man we affectionately named 'Padre Bonnie.' (We have no idea why we named him this). The app uses no data- there's no cell reception out there- and the app is self-paced, using your phone's GPS capabilities.
#6 Mākena State Park- Big Beach
Located due east of the famous Molokini Crater, and on the southwest side of Maui, is Mākena State Park- home to a big beach. The Big Beach. The park overlooks the small island of Kaho'olawe to Maui's southwest and boasts an over half-mile long stretch of insanely wide sandy beach. Despite it being one of the most popular beach-going destinations on the island, there is plenty of room for you to stake your claim for the day without being suffocated by other people. Swimmer's beware- this beach is full of warning signs about the beaches famous shore-break. Luckily, we had ideal conditions when we were there, so we had the chance to wade in the water for awhile, letting the massive swells bob us up and down while we people watched.
While Big Beach is the place to plant your roots for the day, take a walk towards the northern end of the beach and venture up the rocky cliffs. At the top of the cliffs you'll find panoramic views that are difficult to beat, and enough wild aloe vera to self-medicate your sunburn for the rest of your trip (kidding, try not to touch the aloe). On back side of the cliff, you'll find a much smaller beach- aptly named Small Beach, geographically isolated from the rest of the park. Here, you'll think you're in a somewhat different world. Let's just say the beach-goers on this side of the cliff are a little more "free thinking." And by that, I mean naked. Yes, Small Beach is the place to go to let it all hang out, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a cloud of "aromatics" hovering in the air.
Conversely, take a walk all the way to the southern end of the beach and you'll be able to wade through the sharp-edged lava rock shoreline with your tripod. From this single area, you'll have fantastic shots of both the beach itself, Kaho'olawe in the background, and waves crashing and receding on the rocks.
Tip: Big Beach has 3 main entrances. The first two (as you enter Mākena State Park from the north side) are the more 'touristy' entrances. Those areas of the beaches also have lifeguard stands. But for the better experience, I suggest going to the 3rd entrance. It's an easier entrance to miss, and you'll take a brief walk though the wooded area, but it's definitely the route to go. Fewer people and the tree-covered sandy beach makes it your best bet.
#5 Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area
Off the beaten path is Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area, located about 5,500-6,500 vertical feet up the southwestern slope of Haleakalā. Once you wind your way up the mountain, you have access to a number of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and even camping in the right places. The most notable difference though is the microclimate that exists once you reach the fog belt. At some magical area around 5,700ft-6,200ft up the mountain, you literally drive through the swirling fog/clouds, and it's immediately as if you're in the Pacific Northwest. Conifers, redwoods, and rapidly-dropped temperatures make this an ideal place for an all-day hike around the miles of trails. The best part: once you're on a trail, you'll be hard pressed to see anyone else. My wife and I were on the trails- about 13.5 miles over 5.5 hours- and we only saw the elusive "other people" at the very beginning of the trail head. While some of the trails are smaller and suitable for hiker's of most fitness levels, I'd suggest only undertaking the longer trails, like 'boundary trail' if you're adequately prepared. It's tough, so bring lots of water and trail snacks. And good hiking shoes!
From a photographer's standpoint, the opportunities are ones that you may not first think of when you're planning your trip to Hawai'i. There are a few great spots on the trails that give you a view all the way down to ocean level, with the temperate forests in the foreground and the tropical island life in the background. Moving away from landscapes and wide-angles, there's a giant field of wild Hydrangeas and an old, abandoned ranger cabin (worth sneaking into). All-in-all, Polipoli is a great escape from the tropical life if you're needing a day to recover from the sun.
Takeaway Tip: When you land in Kahului and rent a car, do not get a convertible. It was the worst choice in vehicle for Maui, unless you have zero interest in anything other than beach life. For us, our drive up to the Polipoli trailhead only went so far...we had to hoof the last 2 miles to the trail head because the terrain was 4-wheel drive only at a certain point. Convertibles are terrible- even for the beaches. Opt for the SUV or Jeep instead.
Moving back towards the winding roads of the Hana Highway, there's a small village located on the Ke'anae Peninsula. Take the roads near mile marker 16 down to the peninsula and you'll be rewarded with the feels of true, native, Hawai'i. This centuries-old village is nestled on some of the roughest, rockiest shoreline Maui has to offer, creating fantastic photo opportunities. In 1946, the peninsula fell victim to a devastating tsunami, which wiped out all buildings other than the old stone Ke'anae Congregational Church built in 1856.
Near the end of the road you'll find the church and cemetery. You can go inside, sign the visitors book, and wander the grounds, and you'll likely not have a ton of company or see many other tourists. The people on the peninsula are friendly but few. Take your time walking the full length of the shoreline. While there's no swimming due to the sharp lava rocks and rough seas, there area plenty of great views and you'll be humbled by the raw power of the ocean waters around you. Estimated time to see the peninsula: 30-45 minutes.
Takeaway Tip: About halfway down the road, there's a roadside outdoor food stand with the best pulled pork sandwich on the island. Simple, but delicious, it's a must have.
#3 Wai'anapanapa State Park & The Black Sand Beach
This stop on Maui is one of the more visited places, and you will definitely see plenty of other sightseers, but is still one that you can't just simply drive by. With the allure of an ancient horrific murder story, you'll find yourself exploring caves, natural stone arches, blowholes, and the black sand beach.
The Wai'anapanapa Caves were once the scene of a bloody murder, when the cruel King Kakae chased his fleeing wife, Princess Popoalaea, saw her maid's reflection in the calm cave waters while she was hiding, and brutally beat her to death. While the caves were technically closed at the time we were there, I do know that the adventurous can be rewarded by swimming deeper into the caves and into a hidden chamber.
After a brief hike, you'll find the black sand beach being pounded by the rough surf of Maui's north shores. You'll also be able to crawl into an old lava tube, giving you a bit of an adrenaline rush once you realize that one rogue wave could swallow you up and drag you out to sea. You can continue up the cliff line, get great views, including the chance to stand on the edge of a natural blowhole. Then, turn around and watch the waves roll into the crescent shaped beach, surrounded by more cliffs and a natural stone arch.
Takeaway Tip: If you're traveling the Road to Hana in one day, set a goal for yourself to get to this park by 4:00pm. We got there a little later, and knew we still wanted to see the 7 Sacred Pools, so we didn't get to hang out there as much as we wanted.
#2 The 7 Sacred Pools
It was appropriate that we traveled the Road to Hana on the final full day of our trip. Our last stop of the day was symbolic of the pot at the end of the rainbow. Finally, just before sunset, we arrived at the base of Haleakalā National Park. Known as 'O'he'o Gulch, the Pools of 'O'he'o, and most commonly as the 7 Sacred Pools, this place was nothing short of astounding. From the pools' western ridge, you have 360 degrees of amazing views as you watch the Palikea Stream empty into the Pacific.
Our visit at sunset meant two things:
1) We did not have time to enjoy everything the area had to offer. We barely got to make the first leg of the hike up the stream before having to turn around. If possible, I would want to dedicate at least 2-3 hours to the area, as the best parts of the park are those that only hikers will get to see.
2) We got a glimpse of one of the best sunsets I've seen, as the sun began to dip below the horizon just behind the falls, casting a warm glow over the entire scene.
So, as mentioned before, plan your day accordingly on the Road to Hana. When we do it again, I would imagine I would want to leave the the Pā'ia area no later than 8:00am to ensure we didn't feel rushed and can see everything before sunset. If we had the time to explore it all, I have no doubt it would have make #1 on this list.
Takeaway Tip: If you plan on visiting any parts of Haleakalā National Park, consider the 3-day pass, or the annual pass (good at all of the country's national parks). We got hit with national park fees three times between the summit, the 7 Sacred Pools, and Kīlauea.
#1 Haleakalā National Park Summit
#1 on this list is the summit drive to the top of Maui's eastern volcano, Haleakalā. It earned that spot for a number of reasons, but most notably, for the fact that [almost] every type of photography you could ask for is possible. Here's what I mean:
Landscapes? From the winding road leading up the mountain, to the views from the summit, there's no shortage of sweeping views of the island. But on a clear day, views aren't limited to just the island! From Haleakalā's summit at 10,023ft, you may even be able to see the rising peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island.
Sunrise and Sunset? Oh yea. In fact, sunrises are so popular on the mountain that as of February 2017, you have to make reservations in advance just to wake up around 4:00am to get up to the summit in time. We spent the latter half of our day at the summit and enjoyed the sunset. While it was still crowded, we did manage to stake claim to our own little part of the mountain to watch the sun's rays cover the tops of the clouds as it descended into the night.
Wildlife? Not a ton. But what you will likely be able to see is Hawai'i's state bird, the Nēnē, or Hawaiian Goose. They're all over the top of the mountain, and they are exclusive to Hawai'i. They're clearly well taken care of by tourists' leftovers, but if you can avoid it, don't feed them. The more the nēnē gets used to human as a source of food, the more they get accidentally run over. And for a species that was once down to only 30 wild birds left in the wild...yea, just don't feed them.
Macro? Yes. The terrain itself is almost otherworldly once you step inside the massive crater (which you can hike miles into by the way). At those altitudes, vegetation is very sparse, so you're treated to an almost Martian-like surface of rocks ranging in hues from bright reds to dark browns. There's also some high altitude flora that are great for photographing.
Astrophotography? Some of the best in the world. In fact, the clear air and isolation from ambient light is what led the US Air Force and University of Hawai'i to each have observation facilities at the summit. When my wife and I went, we were the only souls left on the mountain. We waited until about an hour after sunset, and were greeted by views of the Milky Way with our bare eyes- and the results from behind the lens were even better. From our vantage point that night, we saw the lights of Kahului but without any ambient light pollution.
Takeaway Tip: Take warm clothes! While it was 85 degrees (F) at the base, it was in the upper 30's-low 40's after the sun set that night at the summit. Also, pack a snack, or better yet a full lunch or dinner. While there are bathrooms and a small visitor's center at the summit, there isn't any food.
The Next Time We Go
I was completely wrong about Hawai'i and what to expect. In our 11 days there, the sites we saw only scratch the surface on what the islands have to offer. This post only covers a portion of the places to go and explore on Maui, let alone all of the other islands. Ka'anapali Beach, Molokini Crater, Lahaina Town, the Piilani Highway, Pā'ia...the list just goes on.
Final Tip: Before your trip to Maui, do your homework. Have a somewhat flexible idea of which days you want to make "adventure days" and which you want to make "beach days." And then stagger those days. Bring your camera, sunscreen, and a best friend, and you'll have the time of your life.