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Don’t get me wrong. I love pampering. Acres of marble in a hotel bathroom and 600-thread-count linens make me feel like a queen. A five-diamond rating? Sign me up, budget be damned.
Now that my accountant has keeled over, I hasten to add: There are places in the world where the richness of experience has little to do with how much you pay. Maui is such a place, and though it isn’t cheap to reach, once you arrive you don’t have to spend a fortune for a luxury vacation.
On Maui, you’re pampered merely by being there. Every hotel comes with the same near-idyllic weather, caressing waves, ravishing sunsets, lilting music and stars that spread across a gauzy night sky in a glittery canopy. The panoply of multi-hued creatures dancing beneath the waves are as vivid for guests of budget hotels as for those in opulent suites.
“Affordable luxury” has a disingenuous ring to it, but on Maui, it’s possible. All you need is a rental car and a willing spirit of exploration.
Maui’s singular iconic feature is Mount Haleakala, rising more than 10,000 feet into the heavens and forming some 75% of the island’s total landmass. The cloud-shrouded crater dominates nearly every panorama, but the money shot is the view down into the massive crater where floating fingers of mist ceaselessly reshape the desolate rock-strewn canvas. At the summit there’s a visitor center. You can hike the trails (talk to rangers first) or perhaps be among the lucky few to catch the Haleakala silversword in bloom. Among Hawaii’s most endangered endemic plants, the silversword blossoms once in half a century. The price for spotting such rare treasure? A National Park fee of just $10 per car.
The fertile soil on Haleakala’s lush, green flanks has long supported cultivation. In the 1800s, sugar cane was grown and cattle ranged across Maui’s verdant Upcountry grasslands. In 1974, a vineyard was established where sugar cane once thrived. More than three decades later Tedeschi Vineyards is still thriving on a portion of Ulupalakua Ranch, a 20,000-acre working operation where paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) ride herd on cattle as they have for generations. The vineyard produces sweet pineapple wines in addition to traditional white and red vintages made from grapes. Complimentary tours and tastings in the historic King’s Cottage are offered three times daily, most days. Try the Ulupalakua Red, a merlot/syrah blend.
Before or after the tour, head across the road to Ulupalakua Ranch Store & Grill for a tasty, well-priced lunch. Menu items include burgers made from the ranch’s own beef, as well as salads and veggie wraps. While your food is grilled to order, peruse the store’s collection of quality goods—better than what you’ll see in most resort-area shops. The grill is open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the store until 5 p.m.
Coffee lovers should drop into another Upcountry favorite, Grandma’s Coffee House, where the rich, heady aroma of beans grown organically on the slopes of Haleakala wafts out of a 100-year-old roaster. Grandma’s serves breakfast, lunch and Maui’s best coffee. Pick up a pound to take home. Coffees in tourist shops and at the airport don’t hold a candle.
To happen upon sea turtles while snorkeling off Maui’s shores is always a gift. Why these gracefully cumbersome creatures evoke such happiness for us humans is uncertain, but they do. Snorkel trips are big business in Hawaii and many tour operators do an excellent job, including Trilogy, which operates out of Lahaina on Maui’s west shore.
To get to Molokini Crater, the island’s best-known snorkel and dive site, you’ll have to pony up for a tour. But if you’re willing to take a short walk down a shady path from your car to the ocean, you can snorkel free at Honolu’a Bay, a marine life conservation district and one of Maui’s top snorkel sites. Coral flourishes in a mélange of shapes and colors, mostly along the right side of the cove. Overhangs and small caves provide refuge for shy sea turtles and the occasional octopus. Hundreds of fish, in an artist’s palette of colors from muted to shocking neon, sweep in and out. The waves are calmest in summer but snorkeling can be fine year-round. Other good snorkeling sites are Ahihi Kina’u Reserve, south of Makena, with excellent coral and fish, and Le Perouse further south where you might find yourself swimming with spinner dolphins.
Of all Maui’s gifts, however, the most valuable is the native culture that has resurged, thanks to islanders who saw its decline as a tragedy for Hawaiians and tourists alike. To visit Maui without experiencing true Hawaiian culture would be a beggarly detour around the island’s heart and soul.
Almost every hotel on Maui offers some form of cultural enrichment, most notably the ubiquitous pig roasts and hula performances. But one hotel stands out for its dedication to preserving and fostering authentic Hawaiian culture, and it is not a high-end luxury resort but a moderately priced haven along energetic Ka’anapali Beach.
Ka’anapali Beach Hotel (KBH) calls itself “Hawaii’s most Hawaiian hotel,” a moniker with which few can disagree. The management and staff have spent more than 20 years supporting and initiating cultural programs on the hotel grounds and in the larger community. Traditional arts, healing, tool-making, cooking, chanting and, yes, hula, have been taught and practiced here. Part of the thinking was that as employees gained a deeper understanding of their own culture, they would be better able to share it with guests and thus create a more richly textured vacation experience.
Both staff and guests benefit from the stellar Po’okela (excellence) program. Guests aren’t cocooned away from Hawaiian life; they’re immersed in it, if they choose. They can learn how Hawaiians use native plants, eat from a traditional menu, try their hand at creating kii pohaku (sand images), hear legends and stories as they’ve been told since ancient times, and thread delicate leis.
The staff’s sense of cultural pride and their joy in sharing it is palpable. No amount of luxury can create a richer experience than that.
KBH is undoubtedly also the singing-est hotel you’re likely to check into. Melodic harmonies float across the leafy grounds, most often when employees gather to sing to departing guests on their way back home. The ceremony lasts a brief moment, but it lingers in the mind and heart as the best gifts do.
KBH rooms don’t come with 600-thread-count linens or gilded furnishings, and the pool isn’t an extravaganza of waterfalls and slides. With the hotel’s cheerful island ambiance, the best amenity here is not quantifiable by ratings; it’s something more intangible. It’s a feeling of becoming ohana—family. It’s a feeling of incalculable value for dollars spent.
Guests who take part in the hotel’s complimentary program of Hawaiian walks, talks and workshops will feel privileged to step for a time into an exotic culture far from everyday reality—and without ever leaving American soil. That’s a luxury for which there is no price tag. On Maui, it’s free for the asking.
Christine Loomis is a freelance writer and former Coloradan now living in California.
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