You hear that Maui is amazing and want to check it out. Then you see it’s a pretty big island with LOTS of very different places to stay. Where should you book? Which area will be right for you? Below I compare the top four popular areas to stay in Maui, based on personal experience: LAHAINA, KA’ANAPALI, KIHEI and WAILEA.
Each of these areas to stay in Maui offer a distinct experience to tourists. And because Maui’s popular activities are in pockets all over the island, access is better from some areas than others. Where you’ll most enjoy staying really depends on what you want to get out of your vacation.
For my first time to Maui, I had such a hard time deciding which area to stay in that I hopped around to three different places within two weeks. Yup, that’s how decisive I am. But I wanted to experience everything. And now my sister keeps returning to the fourth area with her family. So, lucky you! Now I can give you my insider’s tips.
- My #1 TIP for Planning Your Trip to Maui
- MAP: Popular Areas to Stay in Maui
- TABLE COMPARISON: Popular Areas to Stay in Maui
- DEEPER DIVE: Travel Experiences by Popular Areas in Maui
- ACTIVITIES: Considerations for Which Area to Stay in Maui
My #1 TIP for Planning Your Trip to Maui
As you’ll see in this post, each area of Maui is so very different. Where you choose to stay may very well make or break your vacation. So, consider carefully the experience you’re looking for.
When planning a trip to Maui, first ask yourself: When I’m back at home, what will make me say, “Now THAT was a fantastic trip”? Use this to guide everything in your planning and decision-making.
For example, do you simply want a fantastic beach resort vacation, with maybe one or two guided tours? Do you want to explore as much of the island as you can on your own terms? Meet the locals? Surf the big waves?
Whatever this looks like to you, write it at the top of your trip planning journal. If you’re not sure, this post might help you figure it out.
Check out my simple but thorough 3-step trip planning process, which uses the experience you’re looking for as its compass:
MAP: Popular Areas to Stay in Maui
Let’s start with a map as we compare the most popular areas to stay in Maui.
Ka’anapali and Lahaina are in Maui’s northwest; Kihei and Wailea are in the south. Maui’s airport is in the north. For simplicity, all distances below are calculated from the airport.
KEY DISTANCES: Maui’s airport to popular areas to stay:
- Northwest: Airport to Lahaina is 30 minutes, and to Ka’anapali is 40 minutes.
- South: Airport to Kihei is 10 minutes, and to Wailea is 20 minutes.
KEY DISTANCES: Maui’s airport to popular attractions:
- Airport to Hana: 2 hours. But, no matter which area you start from, give yourself a full 10-12 hour day to do this slooow (max speed 20mph) windy drive.
- Airport to Haleakala volcano summit: 1 hour 20 minutes.
- Airport to Iao Valley: 25 minutes. But all four areas have a direct route.
To use the map below: Use the buttons at the top to access map details, to share it (i.e. with yourself to modify it for your own trip) or view a larger version.
TABLE COMPARISON: Popular Areas to Stay in Maui
The four most popular areas to stay in Maui have distinct pros and cons. Lahaina, Ka’anapali, Kihei or Wailea might be perfect for your trip. Or perfectly wrong.
Here’s a quick comparison of these popular areas to stay in Maui.
|Atmosphere||Bustling ocean-front town||Classic beach resort||Low-key and friendly||Quiet and classy|
|Beaches||Best for views only||Broad, beautiful, busy; a bit windy||Calm and beautiful||Broad, beautiful, busy|
|Hotels||Budget and mid-range||Mid-range and high-end||Budget, mostly condos||Mostly high-end|
|Nearby||Famous luau, tours, beaches||Variety of land and sea tours, golf||Closest to volcano, road to Hana, Iao Valley||Secluded beaches in deep south, golf|
|Best For||Charming Hawaiian vibe||Variety of beach activities||Central for exploring||Luxury and romance|
DEEPER DIVE: Travel Experiences by Popular Areas in Maui
The four most popular places to stay in Maui each come with their unique advantages and disadvantages. Lahaina. Ka’anapali. Kihei. Wailea. Which of these areas to stay in Maui is perfect for YOU?
Let’s take a deeper look!
1. Lahaina: A charming old whaling town
Lahaina is a charming old whaling town. It’s perfect for tourists who like to wander and experience a more authentic Hawaiian vibe (at least compared to the three other areas). You’ll find eclectic artisan shops, lots of good spots to eat, and delicious treats next to the waterfront, like shave ice and tropical-flavored ice cream. Front Street is particularly fun, with an active nightlife and a relaxing stop under the enormous Banyan tree in the town square.
Lahaina is a departure point for water activities like snorkeling and glass-bottom boats, and has the popular Old Lahaina Luau. You’ll find decent accommodations here, too, including very comfortable condos, inns and hostels.
The biggest disadvantage of staying in Lahaina is having to drive to get to one of Maui’s most beautiful beaches. That said, the family-friendly Puunoa Beach (also known as Baby Beach) is a 20-minute walk from the Banyan tree. And the waterfront has a narrow beach for strolling and catching a beautiful sunset.
Lahaina is 30 minutes from the airport, and even farther from the Road to Hana and Haleakalā volcano. But, it’s close to great snorkeling beaches, ziplining, hiking and golfing.
This is where we stayed in Lahaina:
Outrigger Aina Nalu in Lahaina (660 Wainee St, Lahaina): These very comfortable, nicely furnished condo apartments are in two-story buildings (no elevators). Rooms are accessed from lush garden pathways that give it a tropical feel and help with privacy.
The gardens and two pools (one salt water) are well maintained, with lots of lounges and a large BBQ area for groups. Do note, however, that neither pool has a shallow end for young children. It’s about three blocks from the ocean and Lahaina’s town center.
2. Ka’anapali: Maui’s original beach resort
Ten minutes north of Lahaina is Ka’anapali.
Ka’anapali is Maui’s original beach resort area, with beautiful sandy beaches and great snorkeling and cliff jumping around Black Rock. Hotels include Hyatt, Marriott, and Westin, but you can also find excellent (and cheaper) condo-style places right on the beach. There’s an outdoor mall with shopping and restaurants along the beach; a three-mile promenade that follows the beach through the resorts; and a nightly luau at The Sheraton.
Being in a resort area, you have lots of guided tour options with resort pickup, including land and sea tours. The West Maui Mountains behind Ka’anapali offer a lovely backdrop to all of your beach adventures plus hiking and ziplining. West Maui is the best place for whale-watching and a great spot for sailing.
My least favorite part about Ka’anapali is that it was the windiest of all four areas. It’s also among the busiest, especially south of Black Rock. But you can find more sheltered and secluded beaches, such as the Napili area farther north.
Ka’anapali is 40 minutes from the airport (plus Hana and Haleakalā).
This is where we stayed in Ka’anapali:
Hanua Kai in Ka’anapali (130 Kai Malina Parkway, Lahaina): This resort and spa is a great choice for a variety of guests, with studios, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom suites. It’s right on the lovely Ka’anapali North Beach and has large lanais, pools for all ages, and a great ocean-front restaurant (Duke’s Beach House). You can even pick the decor style you prefer!
Hanua Kai is on the north side of Black Rock, which has a more spacious, quieter vibe than the more expensive resorts to the south. The beach is great for swimming and snorkeling but can get a bit windy.
Tip: When picking your place to stay in Ka’anapali, it’s generally recommended to stay right on the beach. Beware of older rundown hotels behind the resorts.
3. Kihei: Central spot with calm beaches
Just 10 minutes south of the airport, Kihei is definitely the most central area for exploring Maui. Plus, Kihei has my favorite beaches: Kamaole Beach Parks have wonderful soft sand and occasional rocky areas for snorkeling. Kihei is the calmest and quietest of all four areas … perfect for swimming, snorkeling and watching the sunset.
You’ll find mostly budget, family-friendly condos in Kihei, along with decent places to eat and cute shops.
The disadvantage? Kihei itself really isn’t very pretty. It’s mostly strip-mall developments and the condos are hit or miss.
This is where we stayed in Kihei:
Kamaole Sands in Kihei (2695 S Kihei Rd, Kihei): This is a decent condominium resort right across the road from the wonderful Kamaole Beach Park III, which we often had to ourselves. It’s a nice beachside stroll to the shops north of the condo. The grounds are nicely kept, it has public BBQs, and it’s very family-friendly.
The challenge with this place is that each unit is furnished by different owners. So, you need to read individual unit reviews to know how comfortable the beds will be, how many seats you’ll have around the table, etc. Also, our wifi was hit and miss. Others in the hot tub said how they come year after year . . . but to the same unit they know is good.
4. Wailea: Upscale, idyllic beach resort
Now Wailea is the idyllic beach resort area that you probably think of when you think of Maui. Wide sandy beaches, luxury resorts and lush greenery behind you. Here you’ll find high-end shopping, restaurants, golf and resorts, like the Fairmont and Four Seasons. But, you can also find some cheaper condos and bed & breakfast options, too.
And while the resort beaches are busy, you can find quieter beautiful beaches farther south of Wailea. Including areas good for kayaking and hiking.
The biggest disadvantages to staying in Wailea are the super-busy beaches and not much to do besides the super-busy beaches.
But, Wailea is a pretty reasonable 20 minutes from the airport (plus everywhere else). Note that there’s no direct access to the Haleakalā volcano nor a back route to Hana from Wailea; you have to go back towards the airport.
This is where we stayed in Wailea:
Hotel Wailea (555 Kaukahi St, Wailea): This is an ultra romantic adults-only, suite-only luxury spa and resort. It has beautifully manicured, Zen-inspired gardens and indoor hot tub area. Plus, a pool, restaurant and fitness area. They even offer complimentary yoga and bootcamp classes.
Hotel Wailea is on a hill overlooking the ocean and enclosed in lush greenery. They offer shuttles, picnic baskets and beach valets at Wailea Beach, only five minutes down the road. I LOVED this place.
OTHER Areas to Stay in Maui
- Napili and Kapalua (Maui’s most northwesterly corner): Beautiful hidden gem beaches with sea turtles and whale-watching, world-class golfing, and super-upscale resorts like The Ritz-Carleton and Montage. The negative is being even more secluded from the rest of Maui.
- North shore (from Kapalua all the way to Hana): This long stretch of dramatic coastal scenery is probably my favorite and so worth exploring. It’s off the beaten track with charming (but few) places to stay, more interaction with locals, and lots of waterfalls. Paia has cute shops and art galleries, and the beaches are known for kite and wind surfing.
- Makena (Maui’s most southerly area, south of Wailea): While this is certainly a sleepy part of Maui with very few places to stay, it has some pretty fantastic beaches and is a great place for kayaking.
ACTIVITIES: Considerations for Which Area to Stay in Maui
What I love about Maui is that there’s SO much variety of things to see and do.
Dramatic cliffs, hidden waterfalls and super-soft sand. Beaches to satisfy every craving: beach bums, snorkelers, critter hunters, whale watchers and hardcore surfers. Hiking through lush rainforest one day and to the top of a volcano the next. World-class golfing. Ziplining. Plantations. Fresh seafood, crepes and pineapples …
No matter which area you stay in Maui, you can do all the main Maui attractions. But some areas will give you longer and harder days than others.
Here are my favorite things to do in Maui, plus a few more I wish we did.
1. Road to Hana: Winding coastal drive with dramatic scenery
The Road to Hana is a stunning coastal drive along the northeast part of Maui. It weaves you in towards a waterfall and out towards the ocean; in towards a waterfall and out towards the ocean. This is an absolutely stunning drive, but very tiring for the driver. Ideally, swap out for the drive back.
From Kihei, it took us about 8 hours to drive to Hana and back, with a number of quick stops and two longer relaxing stops at beaches. We packed a picnic lunch and snacks, so our time was our own.
Here are a few “must see” stops on the Road to Hana:
- Waterfalls! We just stopped randomly as we spotted fun ones from the road. But two popular ones right on the road are Twin Falls (before the windy road starts) and the trio Upper Waikani Falls (5 minutes past the halfway point).
- Huelo Lookout Hut: It’s kinda a rite of passage to stop here for fresh crepes (Nutella and big chunks of coconut … yum!). You’ll see the hut just as the road starts to wind.
- Honokalani Beach at Waiʻānapanapa State Park: This stunning black beach has dramatic crashing waves, little caves to explore and crazy people cliff-jumping into the rough waves below.
- Hamoa Beach: Known for its clear water and bigger waves, this is a great spot for surfing or boogie boarding. A few miles past Hana, turn onto Haneoo Road and follow it to road-side parking for Hamoa Beach.
Tip: Ideally while you’re up in this area you should stop at Mama’s Fish House, which is famous for being absolutely delicious. It was fully booked when we were heading this way so we never made it. Book well in advance!
2. Haleakalā volcano: Winding climb 4 feet per second!
This drive isn’t as intense as the road to Hana, but the climb up to Haleakalā volcano has a lot of twists and turns and provides breathtaking views of Maui. We climbed in and out of clouds and rainbows. Our GPS showed us climbing 4 feet every second … a very quick climb up to 10,023 feet!
The actual volcano is very cool. And when you reach the summit, be sure to walk slowly! We could see Hawaii and the three smaller islands west of Maui. But be warned: many tourists are disappointed by clouds that often move in to obscure the view.
From Kihei, it’s about a 1.5-hour drive to the top of Haleakalā volcano. We brought snacks and stopped for a late lunch on our way down. Note that there isn’t much to eat after Pukalani, which is an hour from the top.
3. Molokini Crater snorkeling: Visibility and colors are spectacular
If you book a snorkeling trip out to Molokini, you’ll probably get a turtle, dolphin and whale-watching tour, too!
Snorkeling at Molokini is spectacular and super-clear. We also stopped at Turtle Town where lava made a very dramatic wall. You have to swim to get to it, so be prepared and ideally swim with someone. We saw turtles, dolphins and whales on our ride back to the docks.
Do be warned: Most of these trips leave early (i.e. between 6 and 7:30 a.m.) from the docks at Maalaea Harbor. And Kihei is the closest at 15 minutes. But, it’s SO worth it! Many tours offer breakfast and COFFEE.
Who to book your snorkeling tour with:
We booked our Molokini snorkeling tour with Boss Frog’s Molokini and Turtle Town snorkel. They include a simple continental breakfast and deli lunch. It’s one of the cheapest ($80/person) and earliest (6:15 a.m.) options, which gets you out a little bit before the crowd.
If you’re staying in LAHAINA or KA’ANAPALI, there’s also terrific snorkeling right at Kapalua Bay, Honolua Bay and Black Rock, of course. Local guides can also take you out to great nearby spots that won’t have the crowds.
4. A luau: Traditional Hawaiian feast and entertainment
Many resort luaus get terrific reviews, including the Grand Wailea and the Sheraton in Ka’anapali. But I wanted something more traditional and less “resorty.” So, I picked the Old Lahaina Luau and it was fantastic.
Old Lahaina Luau is one of Maui’s oldest luaus. It gets fantastic reviews and has a beautiful view overlooking the ocean. You can choose to sit at a long table or on a traditional Hawaiian mat, and there are both traditional and “normal” food options. The entertainment starts at sunset and the wind can really pick up; so, be sure to pack a sweater.
We went to the Old Lahaina Luau while staying in Kihei, which meant a half-hour drive back in the dark (and it gets really dark in Maui).
Other activities to try in Maui
Here are other activities you might enjoy in Maui:
- Iao Valley (just west of the airport): This looks like a mostly leisurely walk through luscious rainforest, over cute bridges towards a rewarding waterfall.
- Slaughterhouse Beach (far northwest corner): Despite the name, this is a beautiful beach and fantastic snorkeling spot with lots of turtle and whale sightings. The best time to spot whales in Maui is November through January, but they’ve been known to show up in September and up to May.
- Ziplining (west side, central and volcano lines): There are a number of ziplining companies in Maui with very strong reviews. Two are near Iao Valley: Flyin Hawaiian Zipline (7 fairly intense lines) and Maui Zipline (appropriate for children). Two are located in the northwest: Skyline Eco-Adventures by Ka’anapali (8 and 11 run options), and Kapalua Ziplines north of Ka’anapali (Maui’s largest all-dual 5-7 line runs). Skyline Eco-Adventures also has a Haleakala Volcano run you can combine with biking or waterfalls.
- Golfing (far northwest and Wailea): We’re not golfers, but apparently Maui has amazing golf! This page on GoHawaii.com looks like a helpful site for you golfers.
For a helpful breakdown of the best beaches on Maui’s west side, check out LahainaTown.com.
Return to the MAP to see where these activities are in Maui.
So there you have it! I hope this has been helpful in comparing popular areas to stay in Maui.
Which place sounds great for you? Let me know in the comments below. Then SUBSCRIBE to my monthly emails for your free fillable PDF trip planning template!
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